Leadership on a Budget


As an educator, we’ve all used our own money to buy supplies for our classrooms, prizes for points earned, or workshops and classes to train us to be better at our job. It’s part of what we do as committed teachers and administrators.

But what happens when there’s a new program you want to try or a big field trip that really fits into your curriculum, and the costs to get into the museum, art gallery, or to purchase the program are above and beyond what you can do?

Leadership is often thought about as the ability to find the right program, teachers, or to organize operations in the best way. This is all true, and most of us as educators have experience doing these things, whether it is in our classroom, at the school or in the district setting.

However, when there is a budget involved — and there’s always a budget involved — our plans sometimes go awry.

The best program can’t be purchased — it’s not in the budget.

The best teacher goes elsewhere — our salary schedule is too low.

The operation falls apart — we can’t hire the billing clerk we really need to keep the books straight.

And, as much as I appreciate board members, and I do, they sometimes don’t understand why we need a particular program, teacher, or operational expense, and so they say “no” to the budget change requests we make. I propose we add another way of looking at leadership.

Leadership is facilitating everyone’s understanding of why we need to do what we’re planning to do, as well as the ability to get things done with — or without — a budget line item.

I call it “Leadership on a Shoestring Budget,” and it’s a powerful mindset and perspective whether you have a great deal of funds and especially when you don’t. How does leadership on a shoestring budget work? It’s a balancing act. Let me share a story with you.

As a special education teacher, my students needed different things in our classroom than the regular classrooms needed — and sometimes it wasn’t possible to get the supplies or programs we requested. At the time, I didn’t always understand why I couldn’t do what I thought was SO important to do, so I’d just go buy what I needed on my own and find a way to make our objectives happen even on the smallest budget.

As an administrator, I became more aware of what a huge balancing act leadership is on a district level.

Teachers want to be paid well, and there’s no question we’d all like to see that happen. However, when pay goes up, if the budget stays the same something else may get sacrificed: an aide is cut, programs can’t be purchased, and we’re back to the balancing act of “what we have is what we have.”

This is where leadership on a shoestring budget really comes into play. Decisions at this stage are critical, and building trust and support among different groups is one of the most important things you or I can do as a teacher, leader or administrator.

Here’s an example I experienced not long ago, and after sharing my experience I’ll break it down and give tips on how to do it at your school.

I was talking recently with a superintendent of 47,000 students with 96 different cultures. I asked him how he managed so many different students and parents from so many different backgrounds. He said, “We don’t have a dominant culture so we treat everyone the same way.” This district values everyone and treats everyone with respect no matter what background or color. That’s great!

One of the superintendent’s biggest problems in student success, though, was not the differences in culture. It was movement.

One apartment complex would offer a special deal —”one month free rent,” and families would move each time their lease was up. Their kids — our students — wouldn’t just suffer the change in moving to a new neighborhood, they would have to change schools each time they moved, too. “When low income students stay in the same school for four years, their scores are the same as other kids. Their background or economic status doesn’t matter,” he explained.

What did he do to solve this? This superintendent perfectly demonstrated a “leadership on a shoestring budget” mindset. He listened and talked with families, and he had many of his staff doing the same trying to figure out a solution. And there it was! He might not be able to get families to stop moving, but he could offer them ways to keep their kids in the same school. He dropped some attendance boundaries, and made going to their “home” school the school they’d been in, not necessarily the school around the corner.

As parents became more aware of the issue through his staff’s communication and relationship building, families became less likely to move because they learned their children would do better staying at one school and even better staying in one place. Sure, they might lose the “free rent” offer one year, but their kids would do better and parents understood that.

His strategy didn’t cost a lot budget-wise and it didn’t take a budget fix, although it did take discussions with parents, transportation, busing and other departments. Working with people, having them buy into the importance of what the plan is, and then getting creative can be enough to make what you want happen. Sometimes working on a shoestring budget is just the ticket for people coming up with the most creative solutions.

As a superintendent myself, I used two tactics heavily as part of my Leadership on a Shoestring Budget style.

One, I did everything possible to include people in the decisions I made. Yes, the final answer ended with me, but along the way I focused on getting buy-in.

Why are we going in a particular direction? Why is this decision being made over that one? I wanted people to feel knowledgeable about our district’s decisions and feel included in the process. That meant a lot of two-way communication with everyone — parents, teachers, support staff, administrators and board members. It means meetings, lunches with folks, early morning coffee and more meetings. It sounds time consuming and, no question, it is, but the results are worth it when everyone is onboard.

Two, I got to be an excellent listener. Sometimes I would hear things I didn’t want to hear, but sometimes that was necessary to improve and get better. More often than not, I heard brilliant ideas and perspectives I hadn’t considered. Knotty problems now had a solution — or two!

Although communication and listening take time and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, these two tactics can frequently bring about solutions that don’t need a budget fix at all. Keep your leadership on a shoestring budget mindset close by, look at the situation differently and, by Jove, you’ll get it.

Dr. Joni Samples is currently the Chief Academic Officer at Family Friendly Schools and trains school teams in finding creative solutions to problems at their school — by building strong relationships and two-way communication. She spent 12 years as a County Superintendent in Glenn County California and started her career teaching in Orange County. Connect with her at FamilyFriendlySchools.com.

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