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Missed opportunities on the Budget Advisory Committee

Before getting too far into what could be improved based on my experience serving on the Denver Public Schools Budget Advisory Committee, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge that it was an honor to be able to take part in this process.

While I could have done a better job during the process of communicating how to improve this experience, as we were navigating through our meetings, it was difficult to do this sort of reflection and analysis while in the thick of our fast-paced commitment.

Although I wish the circumstances that brought us together had never happened, it was a great learning experience and I was excited to hear everyone’s perspective on the topic at hand. In the end it appears that we came to a reasonable consensus that was presented to the Board of Education and most of our ideas and voices were heard. Still, however, we failed to fully reduce the deficit.

However, I observed some rough patches in the process that resulted in disagreements, which ultimately seemed to reflect debates extending beyond the charge of this committee.

The following are the issues that were apparent to me during the very short period I got to participate in the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC). In order to maintain an objective point of view I will try to minimize the issues that seemed to have resulted from circumstances beyond the control of the committee, or the district. For example, the estimates of the size of the budget deficit changed more than once during the course of our work.

  • Communication needs to improve both within and outside the organization.
    • There were other committees working simultaneously, but that wasn’t communicated clearly until late in our process. If the work of other committees was already making way for efficiencies or cost effectiveness, the BAC didn’t know this, because we weren’t all up to speed about what those initiatives entailed. For example, there was mention that there was a group working on redefining what the School Performance Framework does, but that information didn’t make it through to the BAC. We didn’t know whether that committee’s work meant that the whole budget item would or could be adjusted by us, and by how much.
    • I heard almost nothing about what different stakeholders thought within the district about where cuts could or should be focused, other than from the district employees who served on the committee. I had to go out and try to gather that information on my own to truly hear what teachers, support staff, and other parents within the district were thinking. It would have been great to hear ideas coming from within DPS and find common ground by gathering a broader pool of thoughts. The employees who work day-to-day within the system know best where the inefficiencies and problems lie, so why not give them the opportunity to try to submit their own solutions? There exists a possibility that they would be able to save more by working together if it meant not taking a pay cut or having to reduce wages.
    • In a similar manner, there were multiple ideas and voices heard from the community but there didn’t seem to be an effort to gather a sample beyond those who submitted their ideas via the website. It would have been better if the district had found a way to gather that data and find where the community saw bright spots and concerns.
  • There needed to be more background and information provided to committee members for discussion topics and budget items.
    • Some of the budget items had vague titles that didn’t describe what those funds were for, or what they fund in the grand scheme of things. A lot of time during discussion periods was spent learning what those items entailed, because we had varying levels of understanding.
    • It would also have been helpful to receive background information on why budget items were a particular dollar amount, and over what period of time those savings would be realized. That could have led to better opportunities to discuss where efficiencies might be gained over time.
    • On a similar note, a cost-benefit analysis would also have driven more meaningful discussion about where unintended consequences of decisions could lead. There were a few times that we briefly discussed this, but we never dove deeper into the matter. For example, the reduction of third-party contracts was a widely popular idea. However, there are times when it is more efficient to outsource certain services. It can be more cost effective to have another company hire, train, and retain an employee under its umbrella. At times it can cost the district more to do all of the above than to contract for services.
  • Data should be provided on the front end: Figures weren’t provided until more than halfway through the process.
    • Early in our deliberations, some proposed budget cuts didn’t include a monetary impact. Especially in the early days, there simply was a lack of useful data. We also didn’t receive information on the cuts’ impact on people – employees, children, families — until we prompted the district for this information.
    • The lack of data made way for more subjective conversations that at times derailed the bigger goal of the committee. It would have been great to have focused more of the objective at hand, which was to balance the budget as much as possible with as little impact to students. The truth of the matter is that subjective decisions tend to cause a domino effect that ultimately end up affecting students and parents in one way or another. That’s just how organizations work. In other words, you can’t expect that removing a gear from the machine won’t affect how it produces as a whole without understanding the operations of the parts that come before and after that gear.
    • What about historical information on data and decisions that were made when the Great Recession hit? Having this data and understanding the consequences of decisions back then could have made way for opportunities to dive deeper into what the root cause of the issues were beyond the budget, and to learn from similar experiences in the recent past.
  • Everyone had an agenda that they want to push, but what about the students?
    • It’s understandable that we all represented different parts of the community and that we all wanted to reach a consensus where our direct peers didn’t come out on the short end of the stick. However, it wasn’t the time or place to point out broader societal issues. We know that there are income disparities and a shrinking middle class, so was it really necessary to fight that battle within the committee?
    • If we had truly focused on what students need and want, it would have been clear that they need more than an education. They need more mental health support, social-emotional services, health support, and people who provide those supports beyond their teachers. However, these are additional budget concerns and we couldn’t get past agreeing how to reduce the deficit.
    • If we truly wanted to talk about equity we would have been concerned about getting through the deficit and discussing how to provide more support for lower-income schools, which happen to be located in the very neighborhoods where COVID-19 has hit our communities the hardest.

Although in the end we reached a certain level of consensus, I believe that we could have made a bigger impact. Had we been provided more data and attempted to gather more ideas across different groups, we would have been able to focus on successfully reducing the while still adding important items to the budget.