Last spring, Linda Pierzchalski, principal of Bogan High, found herself short of custom file folders the school needed for an upcoming 8th-grade open house. In the past, Pierzchalski would have filled out a requisition order and sent it to the region office for approval. It may have taken two weeks for her to get the folders. Instead, though, Pierzchalski dealt directly with the printer and had her folders in a few days, and in time for the open house.

While that may seem unremarkable, only 62 of the system’s some 600 principals have such authority. Under a pilot program, the 62 principals can spend School Board funds directly—either by writing a check or using a CPS credit card—on equipment and supplies from board- approved vendors. They also can reimburse staff for minor expenses, such as supplies, without submitting paperwork to the region office.

With their local school council’s blessing, these principals also can transfer state Chapter 1 and federal Title I money online from one line item to another—for example, increasing spending on books while decreasing spending on a consultant’s time. In contrast, schools that aren’t in the program must go through a multi-step approval process to move their school’s discretionary money around.

“I love it,” Pierzchalski says of her spending flexibility. “It’s the greatest thing the School Board’s done.”

Called school-based budgeting, the program began four years ago in 43 schools. Nineteen schools were added a year later, but then the expansion stalled. Flavia Hernandez, education liaison to the Budget Office, explains that many schools lacked the required computer wiring and the board’s computer system ran into troubles of its own.

Now, though, the board is gearing up to go citywide in April and eventually to phase in more financial flexibility. Down the line, schools will be able to directly control their operating expenses, from monthly rent to the electric bill, according to Deputy Budget Director Karen Bertucci. Also, a school will be able to quickly fill staff positions. For instance, if Bogan suddenly experienced a mid-year influx of students, Pierzchalski could add a teaching position one day, and hire someone to start working two days later. A computerized school-based budgeting system would eliminate the current paperwork process, which is cumbersome and can take up to two weeks to complete, says Pierzchalski.

“The final goal would be for principals to do everything,” she says.

The board’s staffing formulas for classroom teachers and certain other personnel would continue to apply, Bertucci notes.

The pilot program grew out of a series of principal focus groups conducted by the board. A major principal complaint, says Hernandez, was that they have to spend too much time shuffling papers.

All schools were invited to participate in the pilot. Selection was based on local school council approval and previous financial management, says Christina Warden, program co-director of Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. Cross City is a Chicago-based non-profit that has worked to implement school-based budgeting programs in several urban school districts, including Chicago’s.

Los Angeles, says Warden, gives principals control of all local spending within certain guidelines, such as union pay scales and staffing formulas. The budget for each school provides a certain amount of money per pupil that is based on the school’s average daily attendance. Large schools can reap savings by carefully monitoring expenses such as electricity and telephones, says retired Budget Director Marty Varon. Smaller schools “will always be in the red,” he says. Any overdraft is picked up by the school district’s general fund, according to Varon.

Overall, nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles Unified schools have finished the school year with a surplus, Varon reports.

Isabel Mesa Collins, principal of Chicago’s Drummond School, has gotten a taste of flexibility through the pilot CPS program and she would like to see CPS give its principals total control, too.

Virginia Vaske, principal of Murray Language Academy, initially took a pass on the pilot program and is not enthusiastic about a more extensive one. “It’s a time issue,” she explains. “At a small school, I’m going to be the one doing it, and I think there’s a tremendous time barrier. I’m not sure saving a few dollars is a big enough carrot.”

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