Government Encroachment and Money Management: America’s Principals Under Pressure

The workload is seemingly endless. The pressure only ever seems to increase. Business models have replaced the pure joy that the vocation used to reward people with. The life of the school principal in modern U.S. teaching has changed drastically over a generation. Not so much that it would be unrecognizable, but enough to start sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of teachers looking for the next rung on their promotion ladder.

“The number one problem that I encounter on a daily basis is the management of the building,” said Penny Stires, principal of Boltz Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Making sure that I have a sub there, if someone is absent, making sure that I have a plan to get that covered. Lunch duty, if teachers are absent you have to make sure that you have it covered.”

Once the kids and teachers are covered, the daily routine begins to heat up in the office.

“Just the flow of the office, making sure parents are tended to in a timely fashion. One of my main responsibilities is answering calls to parents, dealing with their concerns about something that happened in the classroom, or some other problem with their kid that they want to get addressed right away,” said Stiers.

These things manage to fill up 50-55 hours a week of Stires’ time, an average amount according to many principals, but the specter of progress is never far away. And with progress comes extra work. The Colorado Department of Education is always on hand to heap on some extra initiatives for Stires to deal with.

“There are way too many initiatives. There are too many to realistically, and effectively address, way too many. That leaves me attempting to balance the needs and wants of the state, the needs and wants of the district, and the things that I know to be true within the building,” said Stires.

Stires also wondered how the introduction of Colorado SB10-191 was going to affect her workload. The Great Teachers and Leaders Bill as it is also known, has, according to the Colorado Government website, been introduced to deal with an unwanted side effect from teacher tenure. In some cases, teachers gained tenure and then let their standards slip. The website promotes the bill as a way to, “Emphasize that a system to evaluate the effectiveness of licensed personnel is crucial to improving the quality of education in Colorado.”

Stires just saw it as more work, “Every teacher in your building, all over the state, will have to be evaluated every year. That is huge. I like the accountability part of it, but like I said, this is huge.”

Then of course there is the financial aspect to the business of education. The Colorado Department of Education recently announced the per child budget for all of its districts for 2012-13. With some help from the School Finance Act, further swingeing cuts aren’t expected across the board, but the funding will most likely stagnate at 2011-12 levels. 2012 was the lowest dollar amount for state funding of education since 2006. For Stires, the reality was that she was going to receive $1.66 less per student than last year’s under-funded amount.

Stires understood well the financial component to her job, but she had one thing many principals at present don’t. Somebody who understands money better than her to look over the books.

“We have a book keeper and I told her that ‘no class that I took in my undergrad or grad school for education prepared me for managing a $3 million budget.’ We are extremely fortunate here at Poudre School District to have a book keeper and an office manager, who are both trained in the systems that we use for budgeting.”

Even with this sort of professional help, the workload was still enormous.

“We have to get that budget stuff done, this is why we end up working 55 hours a week. If you compromise and do the budget stuff during the day, you’re not going to be an instructional leader. That’s why all the financial stuff waits until after the daily educational duties have been performed. I spend so much time writing grants, something I’d never done before. It’s all about the money and enrollment,” said Stires.

At the other end of the spectrum, the job of preparing graduates to become some of the nations principals falls to people like Donna Cooner at Colorado State University’s STEPP program. Cooner spearheads an instructional team that does its best to ready the participants for  a workload more befitting a politician than an educator.

Cooner reeled of a list of problems that the new principal will run into; the external pressure for student achievement scores, the political environment that education is viewed in, the challenge of the students and the building, and ultimately the stress of how much of your own personal time it will take to run the school.

Cooner, like Stires, also saw the looming cloud of EduBusiness on the horizon.

“Buildings have become more autonomous with their budgets. They are becoming like little businesses where they have to recruit students to their campus in order to get the per student dollar allocation from the state or local government.”

“They have to advertise, they have to figure out what their angle is, they have to figure out what their pitch is going to be for the public. They have to be savvy in things such as PR, and they have to figure out how they are going to be different from the identical school down the block.”

Schools that don’t get with the program quick enough soon find themselves dipping in enrollment, beginning a helter skelter ride to the unfunny house of budget shortfall.

“Principals are expected to know their school-based budgets, and to be able to recruit and publicize in order to bring in new students. It’s a different ball of wax to what it was in the past, you’re expected to do everything,” laughed Cooner.

Cooner also agreed that the endless push for new government initiatives was having a detrimental effect on the day-to-day running of schools.

“It is a concern. When there is grant moneys that come in, it is often tied to purchases that are made for a new program, a new curriculum, new books, and then in five years some new thing comes down and all of it is done away with again. Then consultants come in and that costs money. It’s difficult. The resource issue is huge, it’s back to the budget. But, there’s no training. There’s not even a budget course required in their administrative training.”

“There’s nothing about how to maintain resources over time, long-term planning, strategic planning for budgets. It’s just not something that people are getting trained in,” said Cooner.

Cooner admitted that the program at CSU still doesn’t cater to this financial aspect of administrative training. But, she was upbeat about the exposure STEPP graduates were getting that allowed them to see how much of a money manager they were going to have to be.

“The best way we do it is through their internships. They shadow principals and the see the levels of stress involved before they go into it. They spend all of their internship hours shadowing, and I think that’s the best way for them to get a feel for the job. There isn’t a course in finance that’s required right now, but with new standards from the state there may be in the future,” said Cooner.

Whatever the future holds for Colorado education, one thing appears to be sure. As money for education funding dwindles, it will fall more and more onto the shoulders of already overworked school administrative staff to get creative with budgets. At what cost to the quality of education provided remains to be seen.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

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