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  • Writer's pictureBell Wilkins

Perspectives: The Upside of a Per-Pupil State of Mind

When a principal or department chair makes budget decisions, they often rely on absolute numbers to ensure a target bottom-line. But is this truly the most equitable and efficient way to budget in schools? To best serve students, it’s important that K12 finance management look beyond budget balancing and towards the ultimate goal—positively impacting students. With this mindset, allocating resources on a per-pupil basis becomes arguably the most equitable and efficient K12 school budgeting method for school leaders in any context.

Why? Let’s explore by looking at Anytown Senior High, a fictional school with very real financial decisions to make.

Due to unexpected repairs the school needs after an earthquake, Principal Skinner, a fairly new principal, has to find $15,000 somewhere in the budget to cut. While going over the student activity line-items, they notice two clubs in particular that seem like prime candidates for the chopping block.

Underwater Basket Weaving Club requires expensive wicker materials and pool-cleaning fees after it meets. Moreover, Principal Skinner has to pay custodians extra-duty to lock up, since the club can only meet after swim practice ends. With an $18,000 annual price tag, axing the group could cover the entire cost of post-earthquake maintenance (and leave enough extra for adding pop-tarts to the vending machine in the teachers’ lounge—a constant request).

A few rows down on Principal Skinner’s clunky excel spreadsheet, the Boy-Band Appreciation Club is also a prime candidate for sunsetting. Its $16,000 annual budget covers the cost of voice lessons, costumes, and choreography for the gender-inclusive group, which covers boy bands from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons all the way up to Hansen and BTS. Principal Skinner, however, loves a good One Direction song during a workout and is hesitant to cut such a talent-heavy program. Additionally, based on costs, cutting Underwater Basket Weaving would be more impactful since it’s already a more expensive club to operate.

Or is it?

What Principal Skinner may not see on their spreadsheet is the club sizes, which could completely reframe the impact of their decisions. Boy-Band Appreciation Club has a core group 8-strong. It’s a tight-knit circle that certainly knows how to rock-and-roll like the earthquake that damaged the school, but the high cost and relatively low participation also means that the club comes out to $2,000 per student. The students in Boy-Band Appreciation Club also have other commitments and friend groups—many have openly stated the club is simply a nice way to hang out together and make art on-campus after hours.

Underwater Basket Weaving, however, had a surge in popularity after a Tik-Tok featuring student participants went viral. The club boasts over 300 members on its roster, most of whom come every week, making the cost-per-student just $60. Moreover, the students adore Underwater Basket Weaving Club; when a meeting was canceled after the earthquake, the school guidance counselor said she hadn’t seen so many students cry in her office since the drama club performed The Notebook.

Thus, making financial decisions based on cost alone may seem wise at first, but what would Principal Skinner’s impact on students be without this context? At best, Boy-Band club continues, and the Underwater Basket Weavers find other activities; at worst, there’s a revolt against the administration for their shocking refusal to recognize the value of aquatic arts and crafts.

Anytown Senior High may be fictional, but the underlying concept is one that real principals have to keep in mind daily as they try to maximize student opportunities and outcomes with every penny in their budgets. School and district administrators frequently have to weigh tradeoffs between different academic and extra-curricular programs (“Should we hire a Mandarin teacher or offer orchestra?”) or between different interventions (“Should we implement a personalized math learning curriculum or buy a new classroom set of Chromebooks?”). Often, these choices are based solely on total cost of a program rather than considering the cost at a per-pupil level. Evaluating options at a per-pupil level allows for much easier “apples to apples” comparisons that can support the optimal choice.

Our user-friendly K12 finance software at Edstruments can allow for more nuanced decisions in exactly such scenarios. Intuitive visuals would allow Principal Skinner more bandwidth to explore the ripple effect of potential decisions, and even potentially find ways to keep both clubs alive with our tools that promote best practices in K12 finance.

What would you do in Principal Skinner’s shoes? Leave a comment below!



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