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Jeff Meadors: Schools should consider blend of budgeting tactics

Jeff Meadors

Jeff Meadors

There is much sound and even more fury over public school budgets, and it signifies something.

In austere times, government entities sometimes rewind nearly 45 years to Peter Pyhrr of 1970s Texas Instruments fame.

Pyhrr, godfather of zero-base budgeting, developed ZBB to respond to scarce times at Texas Instruments. Later, the Carter administration worked with Pyhrr to employ ZBB in Georgia and later at the federal level. ZBB was discontinued during the Reagan administration.

While the process forces the justification of all base budgets by activity, more efficiently allocates resources in line with a strategic plan, and forces the consideration of alternative delivery methods at lower funding levels, it is often misunderstood, ill-applied and most public school districts face tremendous challenges with its implementation.

Wholesale adoption of ZBB rarely makes sense for school districts. In its original form, ZBB does not mean starting a budget at zero in order to justify each expenditure and its alignment with a strategic plan. Such modern application is a misnomer and would wreak havoc on systems and, ultimately, classrooms.

According to a March report by Ron Shelby of Georgia State's Fiscal Research Center, ZBB is grounded in front-line analysis, where boots-on-the-ground management calculates all activity-related costs and seeks more efficient ways to accomplish goals. But decision units must be well-schooled in cost analysis and possess knowledge of alternative delivery methods, funding levels and know how to rank decision packages (formed when decision units turn individual expenditures into costs).

A blend of current incremental budgeting with a mix of ZBB may best apply to public schools considering the practice.

Users of ZBB face tremendous challenges in the implementation phase. Certainly today's technology, nearly 45 years post-ZBB, would remedy some of the paperwork challenges of the 1970s, but employee buy-in is imperative, time and resources must be allocated, conflicts may occur where cost analysis meets politics, and public exposure to line-item budgetary decisions invites criticism.

I learned this first-hand when reaching out to Rockwood County Public School District in Saint Louis County, Mo., to learn more about professional development they implemented on ZBB. Rockwood earned a Meritorious Budget Award for its fiscal year 2012 budget from the Association of School Business Officials International.

The district used ZBB in schools and departments but not without adversity. Subsequently, the system found ZBB to be most effective at department levels only.

Shelby argues that ZBB leads to greater understanding of the tradeoff between services and costs, identifies duplicate service efforts, and redirects funding to more highly valued projects. One of the most likely benefits may be forcing systems to allocate resources in alignment with a strategic plan: teaching and learning.

Whether systems use a traditional incremental approach, ZBB, or a blend of both, the message is clear: When exercising custody of other people's children and money, all children must learn and all pennies must matter.

It may be that the strongest ally of healthy budgeting is found when applying a simple two-letter word to requests for more spending: No.

Jeff Meadors represents District 1 on the Newton County Board of Education and may be reached at pjeffreymeadors@gmail.com.

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