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Book Review

Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools: How to Survive and Thrive in Tight Times

In Chapter 1, Levenson warns readers that the historically accepted approach to establishing school budgets no longer works and is therefore unacceptable. He writes: “Nearly every budget planning meeting I have attended has assumed that the school day will begin and end as it always has, that kids will all go to school about 180 days, and that each classroom will have a teacher in the front and about 25 students at desks. This arrangement costs about $12,000–$13,000 per student each year. Unfortunately, the cost to maintain this structure grows 5–6% each year. Many districts won’t be able to afford this anymore.”

Armed with real-world examples and out-of-the-box ideas, Levenson challenges conventional thinking about school budgeting and offers practical, actionable advice for school superintendents, central office leaders, building principals, and school board members.

Virtually every school district in the nation is experiencing an extended period of financial constraints. Shrinking tax revenue, decreasing federal funds, rising health care and pension costs, and growing high-need student populations will continue to test superintendents and school boards as they seek to prepare students for a globally competitive environment.

Levenson understands that long-standing practices impede districts’ ability to see new ways to create effective budgets. He writes: “Many a good idea has been held hostage to the desire to protect the current staff. Online learning is seldom embraced for fear of cutting teaching positions, and therefore, many online learning programs are staffed with full-time teachers thus raising, not lowering, the cost of the class.

“When more cost-effective special education service-delivery models have been adopted by school districts, many roll them out only as fast as staff turnover. In other words, as teachers leave, the new plan is implemented for the new hires, thus protecting existing staff.

“If the focus stays firmly on students, and the odd [new ways of looking at things] become commonplace, then this era of economic scarcity needn’t be a step backward for America’s children. I worry, however, that districts will simply do less of the same, rather than more of something different. I hope this book will provide district leaders and others big ideas and small details to ensure that tight finances don’t hurt our children’s future.”