I began a recent presentation on establishing sustainable financial plans by asking the participants to reconcile two thoughts—the first from the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). With the idea that “The annual operating budget is a reflection of the Board’s commitment to mission, vision, core values and strategic plan of the school.”
While the participants agreed that this is true in principle, it didn’t take long for the sentiment to arise that the truth of this is often clouded by the pragmatic. Administrators, boards and finance committees feel stuck in the large pre-scripted numbers—tuition rates, family numbers, staffing costs. Most of our schools have such fine-tuned budgets that there appears to be little room for maneuvering. And so, the question of how the budget is a reflection of the core values of the school seems to be a cruel one.
Our budgeting process often brings two sets of values into play. I call the one group “macro” values. We are concerned as trustees and stewards of our Christian schools to be stewardly with the resources God has entrusted to us. We desire to honour the long held belief that Christian day school education is a community responsibility and therefore our membership and fundraising endeavors attempt to go beyond the tuition paying parents. We believe in the importance of family and therefore establish tuition structures and bursary programs that honour that belief. We believe in the professionalism of our staffs and therefore seek equitable salaries which reflect that belief while bearing in mind the community’s ability to pay.
Equally important but what I refer to as “micro” values are those that are more annual in nature and often where the tensions will escalate in the budget planning phase. Do we invest more funds in professional development or teacher prep time? Do we increase resource program time or introduce a specialty program like robotics? Does another investment in technology come at the cost of administrative time?
You can fill those choices in better than I can. You know also that sometimes the pragmatic or right political choice is integral to coming to a resolution on the final numbers.
So let me ask some key questions which may help to define just how deeply your budgets reflect the core values of your institution…
- Is tuition set at the lowest possible rate simply to appease the parent community or is it a reflection of the value of education in your school?
- Does the budget include a fund for needy families? (i.e. tuition assistance or bursaries) and is the school publicly promoting this fund or are we quietly (secretly) hoping no one accesses it?
- Is the professional development portion of the budget supportive of the strategic initiatives of the administration reflecting a desire to be the best possible learning institute?
- Have staff salaries been set in a way that follows the policies and procedures of the school and honours their professional status?
- When there has been a down-turn in income, have we carefully analyzed and made the proper adjustments. Is it possible that this is a time to look at new ways of structuring the school?
- Is it possible that in times of growth we have added programs that may need to be reconsidered “in the light of our core values” and a declining enrollment has just forced us to reconsider things that should have been reconsidered a long time ago?
- Are we prepared to protect our schools from enrollment or fundraising downturns by building in contingency funds and reducing debt to ensure future generations access to Christian schooling?
Again I know that there are many other important questions that may be relevant at this time. Add to the list, I would love to hear them.
As you near the final stages I encourage you to dare to ask a couple of these questions as you look into the budget for the next school year. As I have watched and heard you struggle through these moments, I know that these questions have been foremost in your mind. May your planning be blessed and may it indeed be true that even in this way you can say confidently that your school’s budget is a reflection of its heart.