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Start With the Why

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It’s never been easy to be a school board member, but these days the job has gotten exponentially more difficult due to a worsening school funding environment that is impacting districts across the state.

By some accounts, a majority of Texas districts will be dealing with a deficit budget and related potential fallout — including staff and program cuts — in the 2024-25 school year. What’s also clear is that these deficits are impacting both the largest and smallest districts in all parts of Texas, from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle.

No community wants to hear that dozens, if not hundreds, of school district jobs may need to be eliminated to make up for the funding shortfall. People are always a district’s most valuable asset, making up 80-85% of the overall budget. So not even Houdini could magically escape a significant budget deficit without making tough staffing decisions.

Maintaining Trust

In recent weeks, TASB HR Services has been offering a lot of strategies for district administrators to analyze and navigate staffing challenges in light of a budget deficit. Yet for school board trustees, the difficulties extend far beyond just making sense of the data. The other imperative is figuring out how to have those difficult conversations with community members, parents, and staff about budget issues in a way that doesn’t undermine confidence in district leadership.

Prior to joining TASB, I spent time as a communications chief for two large districts in the Houston area. One of the toughest jobs I had during that time was communicating the proposed closure of several beloved magnet programs. We had auditoriums packed with parents, students, and teachers who were understandably upset and had a lot of questions and concerns.

Before working in public education, my career also included many years in corporate communications in the banking sector. I learned a lot about preparing and communicating quarterly reports that sometimes fell short of expectations. And like any corporate workplace, there were cycles of layoffs and re-orgs that all had to be implemented without scaring off investors, customers, and key staff.

The bottom line: Whether you’re accountable to voters or shareholders, there are ways to manage disappointing news and difficult circumstances while protecting against the erosion of trust.

Explaining the Cause

First, you need to explain the external factors contributing to the situation. For districts facing deficit budgets, that means describing how double-digit inflation has resulted in exponential growth in the district’s cost of operations. It also should include discussions on how teacher recruitment/retention issues — which necessitated salary raises last budget cycle — are now creating significant roadblocks to a balanced 2024-25 budget unless cuts are made. You should also detail how the relentless focus on voucher legislation during the 88th regular legislative session affected lawmakers’ ability to reach an agreement on how best to increase school funding. Talk about how disappointed you were with this outcome, especially since the state had an unprecedented surplus budget and there was widespread understanding that most Texans viewed school funding as a top priority for lawmakers. Some community members don’t know or understand these facts.

Next up, and this point is important, your district’s leadership team must pivot to actionable strategies to address the current situation. This type of hard pivot to talking about what’s in your control, and the decisions and steps needed to navigate these looming budget challenges, will help build confidence and support in the actions needed to manage.

A mentor from my days in banking taught me that a 20:80 approach usually works best when you are managing challenging financial news. That is, spend about 20% of your time explaining the external pressures and factors affecting your current situation, then spend the majority of your time discussing actionable strategies to navigate and manage the reality of the challenges you are facing.

This might include the work that your board is doing to communicate with lawmakers about the real-life impacts of the budget deficit, whether it’s cutting jobs, reducing bus transportation, or closing schools. It might also include staffing analyses and how you are working to minimize impact while making thoughtful, fair decisions about reductions in force if needed. In some cases, you might include conversations about additional revenue streams such as a Voter-Approval Tax Rate Election. Many school communities may be more open to bringing such a proposal to the ballot box if it provides an alternative to drastic staffing and program cuts.

Listening to Concerns

Finally, there is nothing more important during this upcoming budget season than providing ways for parents, staff, students, and community members to be heard. Special workshops and town hall forums offer good ways to explain the external factors impacting your district budget, detail your plan to manage these challenges, and gather feedback. It’s important that decision-making processes are open and transparent and provide multiple opportunities for your community to weigh in.

The next few months will be tough, whether your district adopts a budget by a June 30 or August 31 deadline. With so much uncertainty ahead for Texas public schools, one thing is for sure: difficult conversations are never easy but avoiding them makes them only more challenging. We owe it to our communities and our lawmakers to be as vocal as possible about the real-life impacts of these budget deficits.

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Tiffany Dunne-Oldfield
Tiffany Dunne-Oldfield
Deputy Executive Director

Tiffany Dunne-Oldfield was named deputy executive director in 2022 after joining TASB as its associate executive director (AED) for Communications, Marketing, and Events. She previously worked as the chief innovation and communications officer for Spring ISD, located north of Houston, where she oversaw several key departments including communications, family and community engagement, research and accountability, counseling, and school improvement. 

Prior to serving Spring ISD, Dunne-Oldfield served as the chief communications officer for Houston ISD. Before moving into the education sector, she was the executive vice-president of Communications and Corporate Responsibility for BBVA Compass. 

Dunne-Oldfield earned a bachelor’s degree in history from The University of Texas at San Antonio and a master’s degree in educational human resource development from Texas A&M University.