Participatory Budgeting
A Texas superintendent’s take on using crowdsourcing to generate goodwill and ownership in a school community
BY QUINTIN D. SHEPHERD/School Administrator, October 2022

Quintin Shepherd (right), superintendent in Victoria, Texas, where the district adopted a participatory budgeting process that con-siders priorities of various stakeholders in decision making. PHOTO COURTESY OF QUINTIN SHEPHERD
Take out a piece of paper or open a blank document on your computer. Enter a dollar amount at the top of the page that is equal to 2 percent of your school district’s yearly budget. Imagine this as a pile of cash sitting under your desk. Your charge is to spend it, and as in the 1985 screwball comedy “Brewster’s Millions,” the money must all be spent.

However, instead of the one-month time frame given to Monty Brewster, you have one year. Like the film, there are rules and stipulations. The money must be spent on something likely to improve student learning or close achievement gaps among student subgroups.

Now go back to your document, write “administrator” and list one to three items you as a school or district leader would purchase to improve student learning or close existing gaps. This is a one-time influx of money and the last little bit of “gas in the tank” that will help you make up from the unfinished learning of COVID-19. We know outcomes matter, and this is a big decision.

Gathering Feedback

Collectively, around the country we have had two years to figure out how to spend the ESSER money to improve student learning and close the gaps. We have tried lots of stuff, we have received input along the way, and we have a hunch about what’s working.

Next, move down the page and write “teacher” and one to three things that a teacher might spend this money on to improve student achievement. They have full autonomy to spend how they see fit. Really try to think like a teacher and keep in mind the things we have been spending ESSER dollars on — such as teacher stipends, summer school stipends, tutoring fees and personal technology. Take a few minutes and write down the preferred teacher purchases.

Lastly, imagine yourself standing in front of middle or high school students and telling them they hold a big bag of cash (in the amount you listed above) and informing them these funds are intended to improve student learning or to close achievement gaps. They can spend this money on anything they would like if it is intended to accomplish the goal. What things do you imagine they might suggest? Write down “student” and then list one to three things.

Divergent Priorities

If you are like most, you will uncover a disconnect. It might be a substantial disconnect or perhaps a minor disconnect, but it is likely students would spend these funds differently than teachers and teachers would identify different priorities compared to administrators.

This exercise has a purpose. What I have just described is going to happen to nearly all of us in the next 12-18 months. We all received ESSER funding and created plans and budgets to spend those funds. We came up with a process for making the decision on how to spend those funds and are conducting that process now. Rest assured, there will be some funds left remaining once all projects are complete. Even with the 18-month extension, unspent funds will remain. This is just how it works with budgets. We rarely, if ever, hit the mark and either overspend or most likely underspend.

The remaining funds will vary in amount depending on the spending projects. If you wait and do nothing, you will have a short time to make expenditure decisions and may find yourself backed into a corner and rushed. It will be your “Brewster’s Millions” moment, co-medically entertaining but not effective. If you start planning now, you will have more spending options, leaving the balance at zero by the deadline.

In the Victoria Independent School District, we believe the people most impacted by the decisions should have the greatest voice in those decisions. We are planning to use what we are calling “participatory budgeting” for these funds as a mechanism to (1) establish equitable funding structures around student learning, (2) establish new quality assurance frameworks, (3) foster communitywide owner-ship of learning, (4) support courageous leadership and policymaking, and (5) cultivate public will and understanding for transformation.

These are the tenets we believe allow for strong supportive systemic structures that will lead to effective learning experiences. These tenets build rapport with our community. These are big goals and a radically different approach, and isn’t that what is needed now?

A Democratic Process

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members (defined as you see fit) decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money. This is related to the participatory policymaking process promoted by the advocacy group Democracy Beyond Elections, which has made significant contributions to our thinking as it relates to spending in K-12 education. The five steps of participatory budgeting are (1) design the process, (2) brainstorm ideas, (3) develop proposals, (4) vote and (5) fund winning projects.

Designing the process involves a steering committee that represents the wider community. It is responsible for creating the engagement plan for the remaining steps. The second step, brainstorming, is an opportunity for the community to share ideas. This can be done in person or through crowdsourcing tools that are easily accessible.

Developing proposals in step three asks “budget delegates” to develop the ideas into feasible proposals for consideration. Budget delegates are people who can usher proposals from an idea into a plan. If a proposal came forward to put a smartboard in every classroom, the budget delegates would put pen to paper to figure out what the total cost would be from purchasing to implementation.

Because so many ideas will emerge, the work of the budget delegates is paramount. The ideas must be reviewed and developed by the steering committee. The full community votes on the proposals in step four. The voting can range from simple ways, such as using a traditional ballot box, to more complicated ways involving crowdsourcing tools. In Victoria, we worked with our local elections commission to give our students the full experience of participating in an election. By going through the process of voting, the community decides what is most important.

Finally, in step five, the school district funds the winning projects and begins implementation. It is straightforward, but planning is key.

A Teaching Opportunity

Participatory budgeting for use of remaining ESSER funds could be something easily undertaken with teachers. A school district already may have teacher leadership groups with which district administrators would work. This group could be tasked with designing the process, then soliciting ideas from the membership.

The small group could mete out and further develop the proposals before engaging the full body in the voting process.

With students, more guidance will be needed. With it comes a wonderful teaching opportunity. Involving students could involve established groups such as student council, clubs and honorary societies. These groups could be tasked with designing the process and developing proposals. They could help manage the brainstorming of ideas and voting with the full student body, with guidance from administration.

A Powerful Message

Your “Brewster’s Million”s decision is upon you. As Marguerite Roza wrote in her July 2021 Forbes article, “Will the American Rescue Plan’s ‘Meaningful Consultation’ Requirement Usher in Community Participation in School Budgets?”: “One question is whether [it is possible] … to change the process by which thousands of districts decide how to spend billions in school funds. Old habits die hard. And, let’s be honest, there are a lot of vested interests when it comes to school spending.”

We live in a complex world where there’s usually no one right answer. When I find myself up against a challenging and unknowable problem, I often turn to crowdsourcing for ideas. Participatory budgeting is the crowdsourced opportunity to involve as many people as possible to make the optimal decision. In so doing, we create a sense of ownership for the ideas ultimately selected and our chances for success greatly improve. The message from administration is that our situation is difficult, and we value your insight. It is a powerful message for the community to hear as it is both compassionate and transformational.

Our country was founded on the principles of democracy. The cornerstones of our democracy include freedom of assembly, association and speech, inclusiveness and equality, citizenship and voting rights. We teach these ideals in class, but how often do we demonstrate them in our actions? Perhaps the best way to teach our students how to preserve and protect this great democracy is for leaders to live these principles in our actions. Participatory budgeting is a mechanism by which we can do this. The impact might be life changing.

QUINTIN SHEPHERD is superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas. Twitter: @QShepherd