Central office for hire

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The budgeting system used by Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, is the model for similar per-pupil funding efforts in the United States.

First to launch such budgeting reforms, Edmonton has gone further than any district in turning budgetary power over to its 203 local schools. Ten years ago, the multi-ethnic urban district gradually shifted funds for many central office departments into schools’ budgets and gave principals the option of buying back those services. Central office departments that didn’t offer products or services that customers wanted faced cutbacks.

“Why would we keep something centrally and pay for it when there really isn’t a demand for it?” says Jamie Pallett, the district’s budget service director.

It began in the 1970s, when then-Superintendent Mike Strembitsky, a hog farmer and former Edmonton teacher, put forth and later implemented the idea that schools could operate more efficiently if they could control their own budgets.

After Strembitsky’s retirement, two successors Emery Dosdall and Angus McBeath took decentralization one step further. They gradually shifted funds that had supported some central office departments, such as curriculum, professional development and building maintenance, into school budgets.

“We went through hell the first couple of years,” recalls Neil Usher, a program coordinator at a district environmental center which initially lost staff. The center had formerly hosted students for free instruction in outdoor activities such as canoeing and camping. Now forced to spend their own money, schools opted out, Usher says.

So the environmental center revamped its program and began to offer on-site training in the district’s new elementary science curriculum. Business climbed, and today at least seven or eight other school districts in Alberta pay to use Edmonton’s environmental center, too, according to Usher.

Usher says the system has two big advantages: Other districts help support a service that benefits Edmonton, and the service can expand to meet the demand. “If you have a limited budget, you can only hire so many people,” he explains. “Now you can hire as many as you need.”

Edmonton’s curriculum department underwent an even more successful expansion. Using venture capital, the department developed new materials for history, math, technology and 10 foreign languages. It also created eight bilingual programs: Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese, Ukranian and American Sign Language, among others.

Today, those language materials and related services are sold throughout the province and exported to clients in the United States and Australia, generating about $750,000 a year.

Some of Edmonton’s central departments, such as budget and general counsel, are still funded by the district. But Edmonton principals control 92 percent of their schools’ budget, according to a recent survey of principals by William Ouchi, professor of management at the University of California at Los Angeles. In contrast, principals in Chicago control only 19 percent of those funds, he found.

The district’s budgeting system “truly allows us to make decisions based on our needs,” says Principal Carol Symons of S. Bruce Smith Jr. High. “I cannot imagine a principal ever wanting to give that up.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org