Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

The Boring Foundation of Leadership

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Working as a new, young assistant principal, I found the department chairs up in arms about their “abatements.” “Where are our abatements?!?!” they would bellow regularly in springtime faculty meetings as budgets were running out. “What the heck is an abatement?” I wondered. Over time, I found out that our decentralized inventory system required department chairs to keep track of books, lab equipment, athletics uniforms, etc. As they collected the various items necessary for education at the end of the school year, there were students who inevitably had lost their book, balance, or jersey; thus, they had to pay the school bookkeeper, creating an abatement or credit to the departmental budget. Where did the money go between the student payment in spring and departmental budgets the following fall? No one seemed to know.

I learned later that the school was running deficits every year of tens of thousands of dollars on an annual books and supplies budget of about $160,000 (some years the English Department alone had $10,000 in lost books). Why was this allowed to continue? It all comes back to the abatements. The budget office for the district looked at the school’s allocation and how much was spent. Should there be a deficit, no matter. They simply looked at the school’s total bottom line. If it added to less than zero, then the cash receipts from the year made up the difference. (Departmental carryover money also filled the deficit, creating anger on another front.) This solved an accounting problem, but it was the source of department chairs’ frustration because they needed their abatements to replace unreturned books and other items. The budgets they received from the principal were never adequate to cover the previous year’s losses.

The abatement problem created an infection of irresponsibility. Without seeing the money back in their budgets, department chairs had little motivation to try to collect it in the first place. Furthermore, why bother to maintain a positive balance in your budget if carryovers simply disappeared and no one seemed to care about the school running a deficit?

Few things are duller to many prospective and practicing education leaders than budget planning and budget control. But when problems such as those I’ve described fester, they hamper leadership in three critical ways: 1) important teacher leaders—such as department chairs—are constantly annoyed and feel as though they cannot be effective in their jobs; 2) trust within the school is eroded when no one really understands why apparently irrational things happen; and 3) money as an important catalyst for change is never available. In these situations, tackling the tedious opens up possibilities for creative leadership.

When I moved into the prinicpalship of this same school a few years later I was determined to transform the department chairs group from a squabbling, discontented collection of respected teachers into a well-functioning collaborative team that could help me to guide the school toward continuous improvement. I started with the budget by inviting the chairs to build it with me—something they had never done before. We also made a compact that had the following critical components:

Principal Responsibilities Department Chair Responsibilities
Provide accurate monthly budget statements Screen budget requests from department members and avoid deficits
Prevent departments from over-spending by comparing records and requisitions Submit requisitions for all purchases, rather than going outside the system with telephone orders or personal payments
Centralize inventory control with a new barcode system, relieving department chairs of the inventory burden Work with faculty to make sure the centralized system is used for all students
Preserve carryovers within district guidelines and return all abatements to departments Avoid deficit spending

Within the first few months of the new school year, trust between department chairs and me regarding the budget was rock solid. Nearly all of them cooperated in the new budget system and were elated when abatements and carryovers showed up in their monthly statements. I was fortunate in three important ways. First, my secretary had bookkeeping education and experience. She designed the monthly spreadsheets in a manner that department chairs could easily understand. She never gave me a requisition to sign unless there were sufficient funds to pay for it. Second, my assistant principals were diligent and persistent in putting the book, equipment, and uniform inventory system together. Third, we had dedicated staff and parent volunteers who bar-coded more than 15,000 volumes and built the database for a computerized inventory and billing system—something brand new to schools in those days.

With budget management under control, I was able to have individual and collective conversations about how our resource allocation, limited though our budget was, could better support academic needs. With much greater certainty about how much he would have to spend, the Social Studies Department chair willingly gave up a few thousand dollars to be used elsewhere. With no more excuses about not knowing what she really had in her budget or where the abatements were going, the athletic director was forced to live within her (rather substantial) means. We funded desperately needed science equipment and supplies, greatly improved copier service, replaced 15 year-old math texts, and never ran a deficit.

Management was at the core of Ellwood P. Cubberley’s early 20th century conception of the professional principal and superintendent and remained for many decades the central focus of what we call education leadership today (Murphy, 1992; Tyack, 1974). As schools and society have become more complex with increased demands for higher graduation rates, more diversified programs, special education, and second language instruction—among countless changes and reforms—obsession with managerial tasks and efficient outcomes has persisted (Cuban, 1988). Although the 21st century has brought a new imperative that principals lead instruction (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2008; Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004), good management is still highly valued (Grissom & Loeb, 2011). My discussion of the need to resolve a persistent budget deficit emphasizes the importance of sound management.

But good management alone is not sufficient for defining effective leadership for one must ask the kind of question that continually engages me: Management for what? What are we trying to accomplish by managing well? The answer for me lies in improving the quality of instruction for all students. When a school runs well—financially, socially, and structurally—then it becomes possible for the principal to lead teacher learning that fuels student and school improvement.

The next two posts will address the issue of teacher learning as a means to improving educational outcomes for all students by asking the following question: What is the principal’s role in fostering teacher learning and collaboration? The management challenges that underlie this kind of leadership will be explored in these and additional future posts.



Cuban, L. (1988). The managerial imperative and the practice of leadership in schools. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Grissom, J., & Loeb, S. (2011). Triangulating principal effectiveness: How perspectives of parents, teachers, and assistant principals identify the central importance of managerial skills. American Educational Research Journal, 20(10), 1–33.

Leithwood, K., & Jantzi, D. (2008). Linking leadership to student learning: The contributions of leadership efficacy. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44, 496–528.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. New York, NY: Wallace Foundation.

Murphy, J. (1992). The landscape of leadership preparation: Reframing the education of school administrators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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