Frederick Douglass High School Principal Rudolph Saunders’s hands were tied when money for a popular college preparation course was slashed from the Prince George’s County school budget a few years ago. The course had to go, which Saunders and parents believed was a detriment to students.
Under a policy that is gaining popularity nationally and allows principals to decide how to spend the money allocated to their schools, Saunders has been able to bring the program back, using his authority to choose how best to meet his students’ needs.
“This gives us some choice about what we offer,” Saunders said of student-based budgeting, which essentially removes financial decision-making from the school system’s central office and places it on each principal’s desk.
Prince George’s is one of about a dozen school districts across the country — mostly large, urban districts including Boston, Baltimore and New York City — that have not only altered how schools are funded but also have changed who decides how the money is spent. Prince George’s is the only school system in the Washington region using such a student-based approach.
Instead of providing each school with the same amount of money based on the number of students and staff, the school system uses a formula that also considers the type of students attending each school. A school with a large number of students from poor families receives more funding to meet the needs of those students.
“It’s more equitable,” said Ellen Foley, senior counsel at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “The downside is that we are trying to cut up an education pie that is not equitable. You don’t have enough to go around.”
In Prince George’s, the school system pays for certain “locked” positions and programs in the schools, said A. Duane Arbogast, the district’s chief academic officer, who designed the program with Matthew Stanski, the district’s former chief financial officer. But with student-based budgeting, a principal has the flexibility to give up a counselor and add a math teacher, for example.
Principals made changes, but, Arbogast said, “there wasn’t great variability because you didn’t have money in the bucket to be really creative.”
Arbogast said funding is divided into three areas. There is money that a school needs to operate (nurses, principals, custodians); programs that the district promotes (visual and performing arts, Montessori and science and technology); and student-based budgeting, which is the money a principal can decide how to spend.
In the past, principals had control over about 2 percent of their school’s budget. As the county has phased in student-based budgeting during the past couple of years, principals have gained control of 50 percent of their budgets, a huge swing.
This year at Frederick Douglass in Upper Marlboro, 11th and 12th graders, many of whose parents have not attended college, can take an elective course known as “College Summit” where they can learn how to select a college, how to apply and what to expect once they get there.
And at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in District Heights, which has a growing number of students in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, Principal Judie Strawbridge made her part-time ESOL teacher full time.
“Every day we are getting more [ESOL] students,” Strawbridge said. “Because I have the autonomy . . . I was able to purchase the other part they needed.”
But everyone is not always happy with the changes principals make.
When Greenbelt Elementary School Principal Monica Gaines reduced the hours of the school’s full-time counselor this year, some parents complained, voicing their concerns at a recent Board of Education meeting.
One parent asked the board to prevent principals from cutting counselors from their staff. Children are “losing a student advocate . . . who ensures that the entire well-being of the students is being addressed,” the parent said.
Donna Behe, who has worked as a counselor in Prince George’s schools for 16 years, was told before school started that her time would be cut at Greenbelt. Instead of five days, she alternates between working two days a week and three days a week.
“Because budgets are so low and pressures for academic performance are so high, they are forced to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Behe said. “It’s not that they want to get rid of counselors. But you can’t ignore the whole child. Children are not going to perform academically when there are other factors that aren’t being met.”
Gaines said last year the school had one full-time slot and one part-time slot for ESOL teachers. This year, there are two full-time slots.
Gaines said children have not lost services as a result of the decision to reduce Behe’s hours. Some of the duties the counselor provided, such as lunch duty and running the student store, are being handled by other employees.
“It would be nice to have a full-time counselor, ESOL teachers and small classrooms,” Gaines said. “We had to make a cut somewhere.”