Engaging the community in budget development

This is an image of dhd-logo-smGresham-Barlow School District developed a budget prioritization activity to help provide meaningful feedback to district staff regarding budget allocations. They created an activity that engages their community and provides real data to help them make decisions that work.

Download all sample files (711k This file is a Winzip archive. Click here to download.)


Activity Preparation

Two important elements:

  • Clearly define outcomes - The participants must select options which reach the target reduction number.
  • Define how the feedback will be used - The participants’ input is advisory - it is not a vote. It will be used in the decision-making process and all opinions will be considered.

When defining the budget challenge:

  • Set a specific dollar amount as a target for reductions. The number must be a real, defendable number.
  • Create a credible story so the target number is trusted.
  • Explain the amount using understandable language.
    Sample slideshow to explain target number (212k This file is in Microsoft Powerpoint format. Click here to download. )

Setting budget priorities: Identify Clear Goals


Develop a list of reduction options

Before the community and staff meetings, the leadership team should develop a “long list” of possible budget reductions. The list should address the areas people like to bring up in budget meetings, even if they may not make the final list. Your “long list” will provide documentation of your process and provide your administrators the information to explain why items are or are not on the final list.

Creating your long list:

  1. Determine an item for possible reduction. Do not include items you know you will not cut.
  2. Write a paragraph explaining each item.
  3. Document how the dollar amount associated with each item was calculated.
  4. Use a scale of low, medium and high impact to evaluate each item in the following areas:
  • District priorities - What is the impact of cutting this item on the district’s priorities, particularly as it relates to effective teaching?
  • Potential savings - How much money will cutting this item save the district in a year? An item that save only $5,000 a year would be given a low ranking while something that saves $100,000 would be given a high ranking.
  • Long-term impacts - What are the long-term impacts of cutting this item? For example, history shows that once extra-curricular activities are cut, they don’t get added back into the budget so they would be given a high ranking. Cutting days from the calendar, however, is a short-term solution so it would get a low ranking.

Sample long list (75k This file is in Microsoft Word format. Click here to download.)

Creating your final list:

Using the item evaluations, the leadership team reduces the “long list” to a smaller number of items. Some items may have several options. For example, you might include an option to eliminate high school sports and an option to reduce the number of sports.

Setting budget priorities: The Long List 



Once your target and your options are determined, it’s time to plan your meetings. You’ll want to schedule meetings for 1.5 hours with enough space to host 100 people at round tables.

The Who

  • Administrator meeting (before community meetings).
  • Union representatives to explain the meetings.
  • Existing liaison committees.
  • Budget committee members.
  • Six community meetings (March).
  • Five staff meetings (March).

The How

  • Staff announcements by email - Sample text (45k This file is in Microsoft Word format. Click here to download.)
  • Parent announcements - Sample text (48k This file is in Microsoft Word format. Click here to download.):
    • Seven to nine announcements.
    • Start 4-6 weeks in advance.
    • Email list
    • School newsletters - research shows school newsletters looked at more often than district publications
    • Website announcements - all school websites and the district website
  • Community announcements - Sample text (875k This file is in Microsoft Word format. Click here to download.):
    • Media news release
    • District website
    • Key communicator network - A group of opinion leaders in your community who agree to work with the district to communicate accurate information about the district and correct misinformation. Set up your own key communicator netowrk.

The What

  • Figure out “what’s in it for me” for each audience.
  • Create bullet points of items being considered for reduction.
  • Avoid education jargon
  • Show why they should come.

Setting budget priorities: Communications


Activity Instructions

At the meeting, you need to explain the following to participants:

  • Your target number - Keep your presentation simple and straightforward. In order to be successful, people have to trust that the target number is real.
  • Review the options - Spend about 2 minutes for each option to explain the history, how the item was reviewed and the long-term impacts.
  • Explain the cards - Each option might have multiple selections each represented by a card.
  • Review rules of engagement - Provide vocabulary to facilitate sharing and how to share minority opinions.
  • Explain the scorecard - each group returns a scorecard with their selections.

Setting budget priorities: Activity Instructions 


Setting budget priorities: Activity 


Lessons Learned

Budget additions - People won’t add anything to a budget when cuts are being considered so don’t include additions as activity options.

Cut days - Some people just want to cut days. Make sure you limit the number of days available on the cards represents a number that is realistic.

Surrender - Some people were unable to make the cuts necessary to get to your target number. Thank them for their participation and let them surrender

Staff participation - Provide staff an opportunity to participate in an activity as staff members, but don’t allow staff to participate in the community meetings. They can observe, but community members should have a chance to experience the activity without staff influences.

Setting budget priorities: Lessons learned 


Samples from other districts

Beaverton adapted Gresham's exercise.  See the results presented to their Board.