Zero-based budget proposal receives mixed reviews

School board Chairman Mike Lee and School board member Unruhe listen during the board’s discussion last week about zero-based budgeting.
School board Chairman Mike Lee and School board member Unruhe listen during the board’s discussion last week about zero-based budgeting.

After months of work looking at all aspects of the Durham Public Schools’ budget, the recommendations are in from the district’s new Zero-Based Budget Committee.

The recommendations spell out a specific zero-based budgeting process and how metrics should be used in developinh annual budgets and promote training employees on the new budgeting process.

Some members of the Durham Board of Education believe the recommendations should remain simply a tool to help guide district leaders instead of mandates that district leaders are required to follow.

They expressed concern about tying the hands of the new superintendent who will replace Bert L’Homme, possibly as early as November, with too many budget restraints.

“I want us to be as flexible as possible with the new superintendent,” School board Chairman Mike Lee said in an interview Monday. “What I don’t want to do is to make these hard and fast rules.”

Lee’s comments echoed those he made at a school board work session last week when the Zero-Based Budget Committee (ZBBC) shared its recommendations with the board.

Last August, the ZBBC replaced the district’s Budget Advisory Committee, which had traditionally advised DPS on budget matters.

What’s zero-based budgeting

Zero-based budgeting is pretty much what the names suggests.

School districts, county governments, municipalities and other organizations that use it, start with a budget that makes few if any assumptions.

Every function within an organization is analyzed for its need and costs and all expenses must be justified.

Supporters of zero-based budgeting say advantages include a more efficient allocation of resources, the discovery of more cost effective ways to improve operations, improved staff motivation, increased communication and coordination within the organization, identification of and elimination of wasteful obsolete operations and the requirement that programs identify their purpose and their relationship to strategic goals.

Zero-based budgeting is also seen as a way to bring more transparency to the budget process.

In the recent past, citizens and Durham County officials have criticized DPS for presenting a budget that some contend was less than transparent.

Critics have also said DPS, one of the better funded districts in the state, has simply not produced the academic results one might expect of a school district that is so well-funded.

Opinions vary

School board Vice Chairwoman Natalie Beyer said last week during the board’s work session that she is struggling to understand what role the ZBBC will have in forming budgets.

Beyer said she sees the budget primarily as the superintendent’s responsibility with community groups such as the ZBBC serving only in an advisory role.

“I’m not sure how these recommendations overlay with that, but I don’t think the county invites citizens in to shape their entire budget,” Beyer said. “I think the county manager drives those decisions with their finance staff and citizens give input and the board gives guiding principles.”

Emily Chavez, a member of the ZBBC, said she thought there would be mixed reviews from the board about the recommendations but didn’t anticipate concern about how they would impact a new superintendent.

“I was surprised it was seen as something that would be inhibiting to the new superintendent,” Chavez said.

She said she hopes the board will give the ZBBC the green light to keep working on zero-based budgeting so the group can show justification for it.

School board member Matt Sears was supportive of the ZBBC’s recommendations and said he wants to explore elements the board can begin to implement as soon as possible.

“We have a full list of policies to inform every superintendent and everyone in the district about how we do business,” Sears said. “So, whether this becomes policy or is just practice, I value the work and hope we make a significant percentage a part of our practice in partnership with the new superintendent.”

School board member Steve Unruhe, who led the committee, said he understands why his colleagues are cautious, but thinks the board will eventually agree to put the basic principles of zero-based budgeting in place.

Unruhe said he believes a new superintendent would welcome inheriting a process that is transparent, clearly spells out goals and expectations and matches resources to district priorities.

“My hope is that we can go ahead and move forward on the core of the recommendations while leaving the details to the new superintendent,” Unruhe said.

The recommendations

The ZBBC’s recommendations call for the DPS budget process to begin several months sooner than it currently does.

Under the proposed timeline, for example, school official would set budget priorities for the next school year in September, just a few weeks after the new school year begins.

DPS would begin to hold community input sessions on the budget as early as October instead of after the Christmas break as it currently does.

Broadly, the recommendations urge developing budgets using a structure that includes:

▪ Program goals and key program activities aligned with the strategic plan.

▪ Metrics for assessing program goals.

▪ Values that drive work.

▪ Restrictions and flexibility in spending.

▪ Identification of decisions made in other area which affect the level of funding in other areas.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645