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Making the Most of Your Budget

money1I learned the power of budgeting when I was in junior high school. I had a coffee can in my sock drawer to collect the money I made babysitting and mowing the neighbor’s lawn. I would sometimes accumulate more than a hundred dollars―all in small bills, of course―and I usually had a list of specific things in mind to buy once I saved enough. I was even known to make change for my dad when he had a fifty-dollar bill or give an IOU to my sister when she needed a loan.
I had some great models on how to budget well, even before I had much money to manage. My mom would take us to shop for back-to-school clothes and would keep a running list of everything we purchased. Once we reached our limit, the shopping trip was over. It certainly caused me to reflect on whether or not I needed a real Polo® shirt or if a knock-off would be good enough.
My dad passed along the gift of budgeting to his grandkids when he set up a souvenir budget on a trip to Disney World®. Every time one of the girls asked to buy a trinket or toy, he would ask if they’d like to use their souvenir money. You’d be surprised the number of times they would reconsider when it came to spending “their” money. I think it made my daughter and her cousins appreciate their keepsakes just a little bit more.
The budget you manage as a science leader may be as small as the amount of money I kept in my coffee can or significantly larger to cover significant district expenses. No matter the size, there are things you can do to get the most out of the money for your science program. Even if you have no budget at all, you can use suggestions, recommendations, and even questions to help steer budgeting decisions. This time, before the school year closes, is a perfect opportunity to make plans before there’s a long list of requests piling up in August.

Spend on the Nonnegotiables First

It sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how quickly “nice to have” items can overtake your budget. Choose a time when you can stop, reflect, dream, and plan to think about the items that are “must haves” for your science program. Those are the first items to purchase once budgets are open in September or October. Making plans now also gives you an opportunity to research different vendors and check availability and best prices.

Align Spending with Program Goals

Many science budgets include numerous programs such as elementary, middle, and high school as well as special programs like advanced courses or high school electives. Because it may not be possible to purchase all of the big-ticket items that each program would love to have, consider choosing an area of focus for each budget year. For example, advanced chemistry could get a new analytical balance this year and middle school science could purchase some new microscopes the following year. If you rotate the areas of focus, it allows each program to prioritize what they need and makes saying “no” easier since there is a defined schedule for purchasing. So instead of just saying “no,” you could instead say, “Let’s save this request for the first thing next school year.”

Set up a System

Some teachers are quick to ask for everything they want while others either don’t know how to ask or don’t know what they need. Having a clear system for requesting items and making sure it is known by everyone is a great way to be sure that every teacher has the opportunity to submit a request. If we aren’t careful, a budget can be depleted by fulfilling the wishes of those who ask first, forcing us to say no to critical requests that happen later. Having a common system is the answer.

Keep a Running List

Money is always tight in education, but you’d be surprised by the number of times there is a last-minute announcement that a particular budget has extra funds that must be spent that same day. I had more than one instance in which I was able to get sets of science instructional materials and equipment just because I kept a running wish list and was able to quickly submit information to generate a purchase order. This is also a great list to have handy if someone in the community asks what they can do for the district. Many people don’t want to just donate money, but would rather be able to say they purchased 10 microscopes or butterfly larvae for every elementary school.
Just as I always wanted a few more dollars in my coffee can, you’ll probably always wish you had a little more money for your science program. The next best thing is to get the most out of the budget that you do have. So keep planning, budgeting, and dreaming of what you want and need for quality science instruction. Also, it never hurts to ask for a little more, especially when you have a prioritized list. At least lawn mowing and babysitting are not in our job descriptions.
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