Dollars and Change: How Money Affects Planning K-12 Initiatives

Finance decisions should always be tied to effectiveness and leaders should always debate the costs and benefits of adding, shifting, or cutting initiatives based on what they know about membership, affinity, and depth. In this blog, Superintendent Larry Spring shares his strategy for implementing change and resource allocation with his leadership team.

The Rider, Elephant, and the Path

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt presented a behavioral psychology mental model called the Rider and the Elephant in his book: The Happiness Hypothesis. According to the model, the rider represents planning and rational thought, while the elephant represents the emotional system driven by feelings and instinct. This metaphor was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in their 2nd book, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard. They use this mental model and an evidence-based narrative to argue that all changes follow a pattern.

Below is a video explaining the core elements of this model:



  • Give direction to the rider.
  • Motivate the elephant.
  • Shape the path.

Planning the Path with Change Value Units (CVUs)

In my last post, I discussed how “too much change” can cripple an organization and tax the staff, ultimately crushing any progress toward a new goal or initiative. I have found in my district and my work with leadership teams that, when planning for the Rider, Elephant, and Path there are three variables to consider when making a change in an organization.

These main variables are:

1. (M)embership: the number of organization members the change affects.

2. (A)ffinity: The organization members’ affinity, or distaste, for the change.

3. (D)epth: The depth, or the magnitude, of change the effort represents.

I have developed a measure called Change Value Units (CVUs) that combine these three variables and assist leaders as they examine how much change is involved in the initiative. These factors are multiplied to determine the CVU for each initiative. The higher the CVU, the more organizational stress is associated with that initiative.

Calculating the Financial Impact of Systemic Change

When I meet with my leadership team, we calculate the CVU with the constant reminder that every move we make when budgeting and allocating resources comes at a cost. It isn’t just: “Do we have enough money?” Our discussions in partner with CVUs now center on the opportunity cost for each allocation. “If we remove the allocation for staff for a reading program and shift the distribution to a smaller number of clustered coaches, how will this change be received? Will the change have the desired instructional benefits? If the change is made, at what cost to the organization will this have on staff morale, acceptance, and the effect on the organization?

Next, we review the level of effort and CVUs that apply for the initiative at each of the five stages of implementation: Planning, Ramp-Up, Implementation, Customization, and Normalization. The major dates of implementation are planned before allocating resources to the initiative. If our team calculates a reasonable level of CVUs, then we know the budget will work.

Core questions we ask include: 

  1. How many people will this initiative affect?
  2. Do we have support for this from the affected staff?
  3. How dramatic is the change?
  4. Should we prioritize this initiative?

This work compels leadership to think deeply about what the initiative is and the overall impact for the organization.

Costs and Benefits of Using CVUs to Plan for Expenditures

Every resource allocation decision in a school district has a cost to the organization. For every budgeting decision, your leadership team should consider the timeline, resources needed and calculate the CVUs to help evaluate the impact of the change on the organization.

Below are some of the costs and benefits of using CVUs as a way to plan major initiatives in your school district.


  • The affinity for change
  • Weighing the priority of the effort v. the scarcity of resources or support
  • The process can limit innovation


  • Less frustration from staff from the revolving changes year to year
  • Focused change and stability
  • Systemic and tactical planning and strategic leadership

Finance decisions should always be tied to effectiveness and leaders should always debate the costs and benefits of adding, shifting or cutting initiatives based on what they know about membership, affinity, and depth. Every budget move can be informed by the goal of improving performance. Have you considered the rider, elephant, and path in planning, prioritization, and resource allocation for your latest district initiative?


About the Author

In March 2016, after seven years, Dr. Terry Grier retired as Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District and assumed the role of Executive Director of Pure Edge, Inc. During his time in Houston, the district received two $12 million federal magnet grants and a $30 million Race to the Top Grant. Scholarship dollars offered to seniors increased from $52 to $313 million. In November 2012, Houston citizens approved a $1.9 billion construction bond (largest in history of Texas) by a 69 percent approval rate. HISD’s PowerUp Digital Conversion program is widely considered to be the most successful in America. In 2013, under Dr. Grier’s leadership, HISD became the first district in America to win the prestigious Broad Award a second time (initial award in 2002).