An individual board member has expressed an interest in spending time working in the district office on the development of the budget with the business official and superintendent, looking for areas to cut and providing direction on individual programs and line items. Is this within the role of the board member?
The role of the board and budget committee, and individual board members, is a question being asked frequently right now. Our tight finances and the need to make actual cuts has made everyone more nervous, and wanting to have a say in the actual line item decisions.
The role of the board – as a whole, not individual board members – is to set budget program priorities. This may include a list of programs to consider for cuts, and programs which are prioritized to be kept or improved. The board never discusses positions or people, those are defined by the labor contracts.
Once the board has set the priorities, the superintendent and business official use those priorities to develop the detailed budget. Individual board members have no authority or role in this process. While you could offer to let someone volunteer to help, it is generally accepted good practice that this work is left up to those licensed administrators with a background in budgeting for schools and a knowledge of all of the legal requirements. If a board member is going to look into the budget in more detail before it is made public the board should vote to delegate that task to the individual, and everyone should be aware of the potential downside of doing this. Ultimately, once the budget is adopted and we are in the actual spending year, the superintendent has the authority on spending at all levels below the appropriation level (usually the function level), and all other line item entries are advisory only. A board member who has been involved in setting line items may feel they should have input throughout the year when changes are made and $$ shifted between line items. At this point, if they want to be that involved, they should apply for and be hired for the superintendent position. The public has elected the board to govern, the superintendent is hired to run the operations of the district. Line item decisions are operational decisions.
Once the superintendent and business official have completed the budget process, with whatever input they wish to gather from staff, community, board members, it is presented at the first official budget committee meeting. That is when the budget document becomes public.
The budget committee is tasked with reviewing the budget to determine whether the spending outlined is reasonable to support the programs outlined in the board’s priorities. The budget committee does not add or delete programs, reprioritize items, decide on compensation or staffing levels. Discussions are limited to programs and whether they are appropriately funded.
The budget committee votes to adopt the budget and then it goes on to the board for a hearing and approval.
One of the most misunderstood concepts is that the budget is not binding on spending at the line item level. It is binding at the appropriation, usually the function, level, which is actually quite a high level. The budget committee and board are best served by focusing on the function level, and using the line items below that to test the reasonableness of the function level of spending.
Once adopted the superintendent can shift funds between line items within a function (if that is the appropriation level used) subject to policy and as needed without going back to the board for approval.
The board should focus on prioritization of programs and spending, and monitoring that spending at the function level throughout the year. It is not a board member’s role to get involved in the detailed line item level of budgeting or spending.