Home Leading Giving Students a Say in School Spending? A District Leader’s Bold Idea Pays Off

Giving Students a Say in School Spending? A District Leader’s Bold Idea Pays Off


When Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval asked students for ideas on how to spend $4,000 the district had set aside for their school building, their proposal—a canopy to protect them from the scorching Phoenix sun—left some of her colleagues baffled.

The district had built a similar structure for students just the year before.

But the students pointed to the out-of-the-way corner where the canopy had been erected and then to the outdoor seating area where they spent most of their time—and where they wanted the new covering. It was sweltering.

“Had we asked students where they need shade, we wouldn’t have wasted money to put [it] in an area where nobody goes,” said Tercero-Sandoval, the manager of family and community engagement in the 28,000-student Phoenix Union High School district.

The lesson: If you want to know what students want, ask them. If the goal is to improve their schooling experience, empower them to make decisions about what matters to them.

That philosophy is at the core of Tercero-Sandoval’s work in Phoenix Union, where her portfolio includes caring for the district’s constantly fluctuating population of students experiencing homelessness or in foster care; planning civic-engagement initiatives that encourage early involvement in the democratic process; overseeing community liaisons who provide wraparound services to students in need; and training staff on leading sessions for students to discuss drug abuse and other challenges.

Giving students a voice

As the old adage goes, money is power, and Tercero-Sandoval, 53, has carved out a space for students to wield some of that power by giving them a say in how a portion of their school budgets is spent.

Her novel approach is through participatory budgeting—a concept borrowed from municipal governments that allows residents to vote on how to spend public funds. Introduced at two of the district’s school campuses a decade ago, school participatory budgeting has now expanded to all the district’s schools, making Phoenix Union the nation’s only K-12 system where students essentially control a piece of their schools’ and district budgets.

Students have racked up big wins: new filtered-water stations, more comfortable seats, an outdoor garden, a relaxation room for stressed students, a wider array of device-charging stations, more attractive school signs, and a spirit T-shirt for every student so that those who can’t afford one won’t feel left out.

Students are not just making decisions about small sums of money. They are currently wrestling with how to spend $500,000 of the district’s public-safety budget.

Two years ago, following widespread national protests over the police killing of George Floyd, the Phoenix Union district canceled its $1.2 million school resource officers’ contract with the local police department. The district then gave students, teachers, and parents the authority to decide what to do with the money. Teachers got half a million dollars, while parents will decide how to spend $200,000.

The task Tercero-Sandoval has set for herself is formidable and requires a significant shift in traditional thinking.

“It’s one thing to organize school participatory budgeting in a school community where people know each other, versus organizing one that involves 20 schools,” said Daniel Schugurensky, a professor at Arizona State University and one of the nation’s leading experts on the practice.

Winning over the skeptics

Inserting participatory budgeting into a school district takes some convincing.

Instead of decisions coming from the top down, students submit ideas for how to spend a certain amount of money, and then each school’s entire student body votes on the proposals they’d like to see implemented on their campus.

The process is a good civics lessons for students. To mimic the experience of real-world voting, Tercero-Sandoval recruited the city’s elections office to supply real voting machines and ballots for students to use.

She is often the first person to arrive on voting days, getting there at 5 a.m., before unloading boxes, organizing polling stations, and briefing the staff on their tasks for the day.

“I don’t know how she does all the things she does with school participatory budgeting in addition to all her other responsibilities,” Schugurensky said. “On some occasions, I’ve seen her organizing these activities by herself.”

The most critical step comes after the vote: The school or district has to actually follow through with the approved proposals. It’s at this stage that students’ faith in the process is buoyed—or dashed.

“You’re deciding to change the way that decisions are made around budget allocations, which inherently shifts power dynamics within any setting,” said Madison Rock, the project manager for Civic Health at the nonprofit Center for the Future of Arizona. “That’s hard work, and it’s sometimes really uncomfortable.”

Politicians and others who are thinking about using participatory budgeting often worry about giving constituents too much power and whether those decisions might be in their best interest, said Celina Su, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and an expert on participatory budgeting. The contemporary version emerged in the late-1980s in Brazil, and a handful of U.S. cities and local governments started testing the waters in the early 2000s, she said.

The same doubts emerge in school systems. But participatory budgeting can spark a civic awakening in students, helping them to see the direct effect of their advocacy on their surroundings and invigorating their enthusiasm for democracy, Su said.

“It’s really different from learning that there are three branches of government,” she said. “It really forces you to get a real sense of a lot of the complications in getting policy made. Both the bureaucrats I’ve talked to, who are sometimes a little bit dismissive of citizen input, and the constituents’ perspectives end up changing a lot.”

A colleague once approached Tercero-Sandoval in the hallway and told her the idea of giving a portion of the district’s tight budget to students was “so irresponsible.” She pushes back on those concerns by pointing out that the school system’s primary constituents are students, not just parents or staff.

She also had to win over students, who were skeptical that school administrators would listen to them. She assured them they could trust her and asked for their patience.

The misgivings started to disappear when the proposals started to become a reality.

“Kids are amazing,” Tercero-Sandoval said. “Every time I say they can’t amaze me anymore, because I know how amazing they are, they do.”

Ensuring every voice is represented

Tercero-Sandoval is motivated by a deep and principled compassion for students’ internal lives—treating them as equal partners, not subjects or subordinates.

“If she has a seat at the table, she’s looking around to see who doesn’t have a seat at that table [who] should,” Rock said. “She’s never seemed like a person who’s afraid to stop a meeting or say, ‘We need to regroup here because we can’t be making these decisions without these folks.’”

It’s a lesson she learned at a young age from her grandmother. As an 8th grader, Tercero-Sandoval overheard her classmate Colleen telling the teacher that she wouldn’t be able to participate in the class’ “graduation” because she couldn’t afford an outfit that matched the ceremony’s dress code.

Tercero-Sandoval told her grandmother Erlinda Huerta, who insisted on inviting Colleen on a shopping trip and buying her a dress, shoes, and a purse. Colleen attended the graduation ceremony. Tercero-Sandoval didn’t tell anyone at the time who made that possible.

“That’s what was modeled to me,” she said. “I will always be doing that.”

Kids are amazing. Every time I say they can’t amaze me anymore, because I know how amazing they are, they do.

Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval

Tercero-Sandoval generally got good grades in school, had a quiet disposition, and caused far fewer headaches for authority figures than her siblings, who struggled with drug abuse and behavior challenges.

“I was the kid that nobody ever thought needed help and support,” she said.

But the truth is, “if it would not have been for school, I might not be here today,” she said.

She hid the stories about her family’s struggles with drugs from the public for decades, hoping no one would ever find out. Now, she shares them with students in therapy groups and with adults who question her empathetic take on leadership.

“That concept of ‘it takes a village’—so many kids don’t have that village,” she said.

Cyndi Tercero, family and community engagement manager for the Phoenix Union High School Districts, directs staff members during a distribution event for students and families in need at Carl Hayden High School in west Phoenix, Ariz., on Jan. 13, 2023.

Fellow students often teased her when she was a kid. But some adults modeled support and compassion in ways she’ll never forget.

Her 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Rose, combed her unkempt curly hair before school started, to fend off snickering from peers. And she visited Tercero-Sandoval’s parents’ house for dinner, probing them about their daughter’s homework setup and buying her books the family lacked.

“As an educator, now, I understand those were ways to help my parents understand kids need a place,” said Tercero-Sandoval, the first in her family to graduate from college.

She has channeled the care she received from educators growing up back into the county’s youth. She spent more than 15 years as the district’s dropout-prevention coordinator, helping slash the dropout rate from 22 percent to below 3 percent between the late ‘90s and the early 2010s. The four-year and five-year graduation rates also rose during her tenure. In 2016, the Obama administration named her a School Support Champion of Change, one of a dozen support workers from districts across the country who created conditions for students to thrive.

Expanding student voice

When the district scrapped its SRO contract, the superintendent, Chad Gestson, called Tercero-Sandoval while she was at Lowe’s Home Improvement with her husband to suggest that they seize the opportunity to further expand participatory budgeting districtwide.

School safety is a thornier topic than any Tercero-Sandoval and the students have addressed before. That’s led her to adjust her normal process of collecting ideas and then putting them to a vote.

She’s slowed down, hosting focus groups and striving for a broad but common definition of safety that encompasses more than “having bars and metal detectors.”

It’s not yet clear how each group will divvy up their share of the funds. Students are expected to vote this spring; the winning $500,000 project or projects will be implemented districtwide.

But the ongoing dialogue has been productive so far.

During one of the public forums, a parent said her biggest concern about her son’s safety was whether she could muster the funds to pay for athletics. She was afraid he would be bullied for being too poor to buy the right clothes and equipment.

Cyndi Tercero, family and community engagement manager for the Phoenix Union High School Districts, carries supplies to a vehicle during a distribution event for students and families in need at Carl Hayden High School in west Phoenix, Ariz., on Jan. 13, 2023.

While the district provides all those things equally to all students who participate in sports, some administrators started to ponder abolishing charging a nominal sports fee in those student activities. The fee may help ease budget pressures, but it could also exacerbate inequalities on campus.

“That story validated to me why we shouldn’t” charge fees, Tercero-Sandoval said.

Without participatory budgeting, she said, “that conversation would never have happened.”

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