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Crouch: Zero-based budgeting will strategize Sunnyside budget cuts

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Crouch: Zero-based budgeting will strategize Sunnyside budget cuts

Sunnyside Unified School District had a maintenance and operations budget override rejected by the public for the third time in a row this year. At this time, it does not matter why the voters rejected the override or by what margin, the reality is the district's budget needs to be cut.

The question is how to cut it strategically rather than just slashing it. As pointed out by the district CFO, over the last 4 years there has been a loss of 12 percent for M&O. This in a state that already spends less than a third per student of the value Vermont places on education.

There are many who say that Sunnyside is top-heavy, that it has too much administration, especially at the district level. The current top-down strategy of budget cuts by the superintendent and his cabinet will only reinforce that viewpoint. We need to make radical changes in the public perception so that the public views Sunnyside as a teaching organization.

I do not advocate the use of zero-based budgeting (ZBB) on a continual basis in public schools as the value would probably be outweighed by the cost, but in the situation where major budget cuts have to take place, it is one of the more strategic and logical methods of assigning funding priority.

To quote our neighbor to the north, Gilbert Public Schools, "Zero-based budgeting is a methodology that highlights accountability and justification at virtually every level of resource allocation. Our implementation of this methodology is commonly referred to as priority-based budgeting where the allocations closely mirrors the priority of services offered by the district. In this method the community can clearly see not only what services have priority but more importantly what levels of service take priority over other levels of service across the district. Another hallmark of this methodology is the higher level of communication and involvement with community and staff members at every level of planning."

The administration at Sunnyside claims they want transparency. This is definitely a way to achieve it, show the public what is being funded and why.

In business, and I believe it is true in education as well, many of the best ideas come from the ones who actually do the work. We should be using the collaborative intelligence of the teachers, custodians, bus drivers, counselors, librarians, administrators and other staff to get an optimized plan. We have a mechanism to make this happen, it is IBB (interest-based bargaining). If IBB were given free rein and responsibility to build the teaching organization from the ground up, then use the funding available to only fund those activities that are required for teaching or mandated by law, you will achieve a much leaner organization. The downside to it is it is not easy to hide sacred cows.

A ZBB approach would eliminate outdated/wasteful efforts and expenditures. It would concentrate resources where they are most effective for accomplishing the teaching objectives of the district.

The superintendent lectured me during the SUSD12 board meeting that ZBB budgeting would only work on small, rural school districts, and that practices that work in businesses do not work in schools. A quick internet search revealed some of "small, rural schools" that use ZBB are:

  • Ann Arbor Public Schools, Michigan: Budget $185M, budget cut $10M, 16,507 students, 125 sq. miles, 36 schools
  • Howard County Public Schools, Maryland: Budget $725M, Reductions to support mandatory increases $12.2M, 50,969 students, 75 schools
  • Gilbert Public Schools, Arizona: Budget $170M, Loss of 10 percent override 2013, 62 sq. miles, 39,000 students, 41 schools

Buck Crouch is a member of the Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board. He has an MBA from the University of Arizona, is a business professor at NAU, a Sunnyside alumnus and a native of the community. He is a business owner and an expert on operations, supply chain and logistics management.

Sunnyside Budget reductions because of the loss of 2013 override

FY2009 FY2013 Reduction %
M&O 96,754,362 85,122,372 (11,631,990) -12%
Capital 4,983,314 2,239,612 (2,743,702) -55%
Total 101,737,676 87,361,984 (14,375,692) -14%

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