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Zero-Based Budgeting Approach for Warren Schools

District officials take a different route on creating annual spending plan.

For the first time, Warren Township schools' annual budget is being compiled using zero-based budgeting, a switch from traditional school budgeting methods that start at last year's spending and make adjustments from there.

And while some believe starting with all accounts at zero to build the budgets will yield a big difference, Warren Schoosl Business Adminstrator Patricia Leonhardt said that's not necessarily the case.

"You're starting at the ground up, instead of starting at a baseline," she said. "It requires a renewed emphasis on ensuring requested funds are fully substantiated."

But Leonhardt said the districts 10 budget managers, which includes the school principals, and supervisors of buildings and grounds department, special services, technology, curriculum and her business office, did compile budgets for the 2013-14 school year which were at or below previous year's budgets.

While the numbers aren't finished, she said everyone involved seemed to "buy-in" to the process.

"I was very, very pleased with the process," she said.

Zero-based budgeting may be new to Warren, but Leonhardt said she has prepared budgets at other districts using the method—although it's not common. 

The budget also includes a substantial amount that is not truly starting at zero: contractual commitments for salaries create some limits to the base, for example.

Before the public sees the budget, a final figure will need to be obtained: state aid. School officials won't speculate what the figures will be—it's hard to anticipate what the state budget will look like especially after Superstorm Sandy—but Leohardt notes Warren is in the rare position of being better prepared than most districts.

"It's aways going to be difficult to deal with reductions in state aid," she said. "But the Warren school district has contingencies ready in case of cuts."

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