Dallas Public Schools Change the Script on Budget Meetings

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This budget meeting isn't like a regular budget meetings. It's a cool budget meeting. Photo: Bethany Erickson
This budget meeting isn’t like a regular budget meeting. It’s a cool budget meeting.                              Photo: Bethany Erickson

I’m going to make a confession: I’ve been to more school finance and budget meetings in my career than I can count. And they’re boring. I mean, stronger-than-Ambien, potentially effective as a torture device boring. And I am one of those weird people that like budgets and reading budgets. If I was going to color code a budget meeting, however, in my calendar, it would be greige – that weird midway between gray and beige that isn’t exactly soothing but isn’t offensive either.

Have I given you enough hyperbole yet?

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t exactly expecting what I got when I went to Cigarroa Elementary to attend one of Dallas Independent School District’s public budget meetings designed to explain where the district’s money is allocated, and how hard it is to make those choices. I was expecting a Power Point and awkward silences, like normal.

Instead, I find myself writing about the phenomenal meeting the finance folks at Dallas ISD ran. It was quite possibly the most fun public meeting I’ve been to that didn’t include booze. “How,” you may ask, “did they do this?”

Well, I’m glad you did. It all centered around three games that forced people to get out of their seats and work together and talk about their strategy. The first was a game called “Show Me The Money,” which forced players to take $100 in fake one dollar bills and allocate them for items in the budget based on how they think the district allocates them. Each $1 equaled 1 percent of the budget.

How did we fare? Well, we were very close on some items, and wildly off on others. I’ll share what our answers were (along with the correct answers) in a minute, but I wanted to give Candy’s Dirt readers a chance to try, too. So click here to try your hand at guessing where the money goes (don’t look it up – go with your gut!), and then click here and here to see how our group did (the correct answers are in the colored boxes).

The second and third games were more about hypotheticals. I should reiterate – the budget is not facing a $50 million shortfall, nor does it suddenly have a massive surplus to spend. Both games were designed to show people how hard it is to decide what has to be cut to make up a shortfall, and how (surprisingly) hard it is to decide where to allocate surplus funds, too.

It's a lot harder to pick what to cut. A lot - even if it's hypothetically.
It’s a lot harder to pick what to cut. A lot – even if it’s hypothetically.

The second game gave us a stack of programs, and the tasks of deciding what would be cut, what would stay, and what would be cut first, and what would come back first. It was hard. Some things were easy decisions (sorry hypothetical district catering budget, RIP), while others were much harder (like cutting upgrades to software and electronics for a year or increasing class sizes by one student). We emerged with a little better appreciation of what it takes to tighten a belt in the district.

And the last game allowed us to spend a surplus. Again we were handed 100 fake $1 bills, and the bills once again represented 1 percent of the surplus each. It was actually fairly hard to decide what programs needed more money, and one of the suggestions most agreed on was that maybe information on how fully funded each program already is would be helpful when deciding who needs more money.

Overall, the meeting was so much better than the boring slide shows of years past, and was also a great opportunity to ask a lot of informal questions of the district staff in a format not frequently afforded to people. There are two more meetings on March 29 – so if you have time, it’s definitely worth checking out.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson lives in a 1961 Fox and Jacobs home with her husband, a second-grader, and Conrad Bain the dog. If she won the lottery, she'd by an E. Faye Jones home. She's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Professional Journalists. She doesn't like lima beans or the word moist.

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