Balancing budgets

Our view : Principals may need more help managing finances

May 22, 2008

Baltimore's school principals are gaining a lot more authority over their school budgets, and some are finding it difficult to manage. These inevitable transition difficulties should not deter the system from its laudable goal of becoming more focused on students and their needs. But there also must be help for worthy schools that find themselves in a bind.

Currently, principals control only about $90 of the $13,000 that the system spends per pupil. Under a plan for the next school year, principals are responsible for about $5,600. The idea is to allow individual schools to make personnel and program choices that are most appropriate for their students. Unfortunately, as many principals are discovering, the additional money under their control isn't always enough to cover expenses.

Schools CEO Andres Alonso says that only 21 schools are facing an overall budget cut of about 15 percent. He suggests that those schools were receiving more than their fair share and that their losses will be evened out by a boost in funding for some schools that had been shortchanged. But that doesn't absolve the system of the responsibility to help schools during this transition. Mr. Alonso is keeping his promise to make teams of experts available to help principals navigate the new world of budgets - and it's good that usually at least one team member is from outside the school system and can bring a fresh perspective.

But the transition is hardly seamless. Some principals are allowing misplaced loyalty or cronyism to persuade them to cut programs before cutting excess administrators. If they can't act responsibly, they should be weeded out. Yet some other principals of smaller schools - a desired model for learning - are finding themselves squeezed and having to make tough choices. Many are rightly consulting one another to settle on priorities and come up with creative solutions, such as sharing specialists among schools. As the budgets go through the review process, Mr. Alonso and school officials should provide as much support and training as necessary to help principals achieve the right balance.

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