Most Canadian schools function within a centrally
organized administrative system; that is, school boards establish policy and
set budgets that are then administered by an executive branch operating out of
a central office. Under this system, schools receive an allocation of staff
(teaching, support and custodial), certain items of equipment and, perhaps,
some building maintenance or renovation projects. The only usual exception is a
fixed‑dollar allocation for the acquisition of instructional materials. Apart
from that, the mix of resources dispensed to the school is determined in
accordance with a centrally developed budget plan.
In recent years, an alternative
decentralized system of organization has emerged in various forms and under
various names. Terms such as school‑based budgeting, site‑based
management, school‑based management and decentralized decision
making have all been used to describe systems under which schools are
expected to plan their own operations and develop their own budgets within the
limits of a total dollar allocation approved by the school board.
These allocations may reflect a number of
factors, but are based mainly on per‑pupil amounts related to a forecast of the
number and type of students who will be enrolled at the school over the budget
period—usually a school year. School budgets must stay within the amount
allocated, must observe the constraints of legislation, collective agreements
and district policy and may have to cover some or all of the following
expenditure categories: (a) supplies and materials
needed to operate the school and its programs; (b) capital and other equipment that the
school wishes to acquire; (c) salaries, allowances,
benefits and professional development costs for the school’s certificated,
support and custodial staff (charges to the school for staff are usually based
on the jurisdiction’s average costs rather than the actual salaries of
individual staff members); (d) staff replacement costs as
required for short‑term sick leaves and other purposes; (e) utility service costs; and (f) building and equipment maintenance costs.
Once drafted, school budgets are examined
and approved by senior administrators and then become part of the school
district’s proposed budget. Ultimately, the school board is asked to approve a
budget that is a compendium of the separate budgets for each school and for
various centralized functions (eg, curriculum, consulting, personnel and other
school support services, plus debt service and transportation expenditures for
the entire district).
The basic purpose of school‑based budgeting is to
involve the individuals who are responsible for implementing decisions in
actually making those decisions, in the belief that decisions are best made by
those who are “closest to the action” and therefore most directly affected by
the consequences of the decisions. When the process is working well, more
decisions flow up through the system than down from the top. School custodians
are involved in solving custodial problems; teachers are involved in solving
classroom problems; principals are involved in solving schoolwide problems; and
superintendents are involved in making district‑wide decisions. School‑based
budgeting is also based on the belief that efforts at educational improvement
will be more long lasting and effective if carried out by people who feel a
sense of ownership and responsibility for the process.
Initially, at least, systems of school‑based
budgeting have tended to develop in larger jurisdictions where difficulties of
maintaining good communications and problems of bureaucracy are most apparent.
However, smaller districts have also adopted decentralized budgeting in the
belief that it is a more effective way to operate.
The movement from centralized to decentralized forms
of decision making requires several changes in organizational structure.
The first of these relates to transfer of
authority. If schools are to be given decision‑making authority that is
meaningful, that decision‑making authority must be relinquished by those at the
upper levels of the organizational hierarchy. It becomes even more important,
for instance, that boards of trustees restrict themselves to policy matters and
avoid becoming embroiled in operational concerns. The most significant change,
however, must occur at the executive level. A process of deregulation is
required; that is, the executive branch must give up some of its managerial
prerogatives and must relinquish its power to make school‑level decisions by
regulation or fiat.
Having dismantled the mechanisms for
centralized decision making, the central office has to replace these with
mechanisms designed to advise and assist those who will now make the decisions.
It must also create the structures required to monitor decisions made at the
school level and to ensure that they are consistent with district policy and
other constraints. In larger jurisdictions, the logistical problems associated
with this monitoring function often require dividing the district into a number
of smaller and more manageable administrative units.
Other requirements include the following:
1. Ongoing District Support—Fundamental change
in the way in which school districts make decisions must be accompanied by
solid support from the school board and the superintendent.
2. Staff Development—Where school‑based
management has been successful, substantial investments have been made in
additional staff development. Inservice often focuses on developing planning
and decision‑making skills, working toward consensus, brainstorming, creative
problem solving, group dynamics and team building. Principals have received
additional training in leadership skills.
3. New Budgeting Practices—School‑based
budgeting means that, once an overall district budget is established, individual
schools have greater latitude in determining how best to deploy the resources.
The emphasis shifts from spending by formula to spending to achieve specific
objectives. In turn, schools are more accountable for outcomes.
4. Time—School‑based management is designed to
involve the entire school community in establishing school objectives,
developing programs to meet those objectives, implementing the programs and
monitoring program success. Accordingly, it is obvious that a significant
amount of additional time must be committed to the process.
5. Access to Information—Decisions will be only
as good as the information on which they are based. An important role of
central office administrators is to ensure that schools receive timely and
accurate information for their decision making.
6. Communication—School‑based budgeting is an
inclusionary process. Principals, teachers, parents and community members
become involved in making significant decisions about schools. Systematic
communication among everyone involved must be a high priority.
Proponents of decentralization have identified a
number of benefits over centralized control.
The most frequently cited benefit relates
to the requirement that schools and their communities become directly involved
in the planning process. This is seen as valuable in helping schools to develop
a clearer sense of purpose, to become more self-directing, and to become more
responsive and committed to meeting the specific needs of students and the
community. Such primary benefits, it is argued, will produce spinoff gains in
terms of enhanced job satisfaction and collegiality among teachers.
Another frequently recognized benefit is
the short circuiting of the red tape and bureaucracy so often associated with
heavily centralized forms of organization. Schools can more easily acquire the
supplies and equipment that they believe are necessary to the programs they
have decided to offer. Further, having planned those programs and set
priorities, schools will expend the available resources more effectively.
Finally, supporters contend that
decentralization produces a more logical and responsive form of organization.
Once it is clear that the authority and responsibility for operational
decisions rests at the school level, the resources of central office are then
seen as existing to serve the needs of schools.
Advantages that have been identified for
school‑based budgeting include variations of the following:
1. It formally recognizes the expertise and competence
of those who work in individual schools to make decisions to improve learning.
2. It gives teachers, other staff members and the
community increased input into decisions.
3. It can improve morale of teachers because staff
members see they can have an immediate impact on their environment.
4. It shifts the emphasis in staff development by
involving teachers more directly in determining what they need.
5. It can bring both financial and instructional
resources in line with the instructional goals developed in individual schools.
6. It can result in provision of better services and
programs for students.
7. It tends to encourage the emergence and development
of new leaders at all levels.
8. It has the potential of improving the quality of
communication, especially informal communication.
9. It can contribute to teacher empowerment by taking
full advantage of the expertise of all staff and providing teachers with more
autonomy and freedom to act.
However, achievement of these advantages
depends in large measure on the degree to which authority for making decisions
is, in fact, decentralized. Problems arise, not so much from the concept, as
from the way in which it is implemented and the constraints imposed.
Possible Problems and Dangers
Because of the variety of decentralization schemes
that have been tried, it is rather more difficult to articulate the
difficulties that can be encountered. Critics, however, have identified a
number of possible problems and dangers.
Major difficulties can arise from the
changed role of the school board in the budgeting process. In centralized
systems, the process of budget development compels school boards to examine
educational needs before deciding on what level of taxation is appropriate. In
many decentralized systems, that process is reversed: school boards determine
resources before they know enough about school needs; that is, budgeting in the
schools cannot even begin until after trustees have approved the amounts to be
allocated, which, of course, must be based on an assumed level of taxation.
The first danger, then, is that the school
board, for lack of information, will make a wrong assumption about the
appropriate level of taxation. If that happens, those responsible for
developing school budgets are placed in the position of having to demonstrate
how inadequate allocations can be made to “work.” In that way, decentralization
can be used to transfer and to cover up responsibility for bad decisions made
at upper levels of organization.
A second, and related, criticism of many
decentralization schemes is that they require that planning at the district
level and planning at the school level occur simultaneously. Critics contend
that such a requirement ignores the true nature of planning as an ongoing,
linear and sequential process. Overall planning at the district level should
precede detailed planning at the school level. The initial stages of planning
are rather general in nature because they must be based on predictions whose
accuracy is directly proportional to the size of the population one is trying
to predict. Decisions related to how the school will be organized for
instructional purposes have to await specific information on enrolment, much of
which does not become available until close to school opening. This may help to
explain why school‑based budgeting may not have generated the expected degree
of staff or community interest and involvement in the planning process.
Another frequently criticized aspect of
decentralization is the problem of devising allocation formulae that are truly
equitable. The cost of educating children is a function of how they can be
grouped for instructional purposes. Accordingly, the cost of educating a group
of 21 regular Grade 4 students in one school may be marginally less than the
cost of educating a class of 28 in another, but the first school will receive
only 75 per cent of the funding given to the second.
Such problems can become magnified in smaller schools, in multiprogram schools
and when dealing with small numbers of students with special needs—wherever
economies of scale cannot be realized. Even sophisticated formulae that allow
for program size, transiency factors and the like do not eliminate such
inequities. Inequities of allocations can be compounded by the differences that
can develop without centralized monitoring between schools in different socio‑economic
The linking of revenue to enrolment and
the advantages that accrue when economies of scale can be realized have caused
school‑based budgeting to become identified with another educational
phenomenon—the “marketing” of schools. Schools that share attendance areas
begin to compete for students, each trying to grow to the optimum size for
economic viability. Critics note that, to the extent that some schools succeed
and others fail, inequities are exacerbated. Such competition may have other adverse
effects. A school’s preoccupation with projecting a positive image for itself
can lead to the glossing over of problems that require care and attention. The
resources devoted to promoting the school have to be diverted from their
original purpose—the education of children.
In some jurisdictions, the
decentralization movement has gone well beyond budgeting to encompass functions
such as staffing at the school level. In the interests of allowing schools to
assemble staff members who are compatible with one another and with the
objectives of the school, each principal has assumed the role of staffing
officer. Teachers declared surplus to one school must find placement elsewhere.
In large districts, this has led to protracted and disruptive staffing procedures
that have had a negative effect on staff morale.
Obstacles to the success of school‑based
budgeting frequently include the following:
• Absence of any one or more of the “requirements”
identified earlier in this paper.
• Expectations that are too high. School‑based
budgeting is not a panacea for solving all of a school’s or district’s
• Inappropriate “downsizing.” Decision makers may
consider downsizing of the administrative and support staff, and they may
receive pressure from elsewhere to do so. While the role of some personnel
might change, care should be taken not to jeopardize the effectiveness of the
• Difficulty in striking a workable balance of minimum
standards through collective agreements, board policy, legislation and
provincial mandates while ensuring flexibility for meaningful decisions at the
• Inaccurate beliefs about equity, both in funding and
in program. In some instances, a concern for educational equity has led to
standardization of procedures and programs. However, since the students they
serve are not uniform, school programs should vary in accordance with diverse
student needs. When equity is synonymous with uniformity, the needs of some
students are not met.
• Skepticism. Many of those involved may be skeptical
that the advantages of school‑based budgeting will outweigh the disadvantages.
It may be viewed as the latest passing fad and, because it means changed
procedures and puts different demands on teachers’ time, some may be fearful or
resentful. They may also worry about the security of their positions. In short,
change of this magnitude creates stress.
There have been other problems associated
with the various decentralization schemes which have been tried. These include
• the tendency, particularly in times of restraint, to
cut back on ancillary services such as teacher‑librarians and school
counsellors and on funding for professional development;
• the amount of staff time, and particularly
administrator time, that is diverted from education to budget matters;
• the conflict that can be created by the competition
for funds within schools and the possible adverse effects on collegial
relationships, particularly between principal and staff;
• the amount of flexibility, which is a function of
school size, and the fact that small schools derive little benefit;
• the problems raised when schools are made
responsible for matters outside of their control (eg, short‑term staff
absenteeism and equipment breakdown) and the hardships that this can create,
again particularly in smaller schools;
• the fact that implementation of school‑based
budgeting and the type of involvement allowed are dependent on the leadership
style of the principal;
• the difficulty of maintaining standards of plant
maintenance and program offering and of ensuring equality of educational
opportunity for children; and
• the absence, in some cases, of centralized
professional development funds for which teachers may apply on an equal basis
to support individual professional growth opportunities.
The basic premises that underlie school‑based
budgeting and decision making are consistent with Association policy, which
calls for the involvement of practising teachers in decision making related to
the development, implementation, operation and evaluation of educational
However, few of the present school‑based
budgeting formats have been successful in providing a consistent and meaningful
role for teachers in decision making. In many cases, it has become an overwhelming
Finally, current experiments with
decentralization do not deal with the problem of schools being compelled to
budget on the basis of inadequate resources. Without some guarantee that
adequate resources are made available, involvement in budgeting can require
teachers to become accomplices to decisions made at other levels, which have
undesirable educational consequences.