Creatively Preparing the Music Department Budget

One of a music director’s most difficult tasks is preparing the music department budget. In addition to tapping your inner accountant, you also have to predict the future in order to anticipate both the growth and long-term needs of your music program. Two keys for success are to always keep long-range planning in mind and to constantly strive to promote cooperation within your district.

Budgeting First Steps

I suggest starting by taking inventory of your music, instruments and uniform apparel. Then look at your present and future class or ensemble numbers. Referencing past enrollment numbers will help you chart your ebb and flow by years. This will give you an idea of what the future may hold. If you are new to the school you may have to request assistance from the guidance office for the numbers.

Next, develop your wish/need list. Keep these separate as you will have to defend your needs with administration later.

Finally, based on the information you have compiled, prepare a 3-5 year budget plan, categorizing music/textbooks/technology, instruments, uniforms, repairs and group travel. Be sure to include professional development as well, if your school pays this. Be clear in your prioritization between needs and wants.

My budgets were typically built with growth in mind. With that as a given, here’s a rough breakdown of what I saw as our basic needs, in a scenario where professional development was not part of the budget:

  • New music 20-30%
  • Repairs and upkeep 0-15%
  • New equipment/uniforms 40-60%
  • Travel 10%

Once you have an idea of what you’d like to request, you’ll want to consider the framework in which your request will be received.

Three Budget Types

Having worked in four different school districts as well as at the college level, I have experienced three types of budgets. I’ve named these “The Red Line,” “Weʼll See What We Can Do,” and “The Dollar Amount” budgets, and offer details below. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing which most closely resembles your district’s approach will assist you in being able to prioritize and justify your needs.

The Red Line Budget

With this type of budget you submit your needs along with ordering information, providing dollar amounts for each line item, even including shipping costs. If this describes your district’s approach, it’s crucial that you make your prioritization clear! The administration will often review your request and draw a line, cutting everything below the line.

Some administrations will also prioritize what they feel they can afford and cut specific items. This can be an advantage, but my experiences are it is mostly a disadvantage.

My advice? Always ask for more than you expect you’ll get! I believe there’s a psychological advantage in providing some things to cut!

The “Weʼll See What We Can Do” Budget

With this type of budget, you submit your needs and then are told; “We’ll see what we can do,” with no confirmation that anything on your budget will be funded. This type of budget is the most dangerous, as you are at the mercy of the administration, and may end up with no budget to speak of. Once, in a situation like this, I received a $90 repair kit while another high school in the district received new marching drums. Ouch!

The type of budget is common in small schools. If your budget works this way, I recommend meeting with your administration and requesting that they change the strategy or find ways for you to provide more input. Otherwise, the best you can do is to clearly justify every budget item (and again be very clear in your prioritization).

The Dollar Amount Budget

With this budget style you are given a dollar amount which you can not exceed. This was my preferred style as it offered me the most control. It allowed me to meet my program needs and follow the budget I developed. It also allowed me to look ahead and plan for future needs.

Speaking of future needs, should some needs popup that you did not anticipate, don’t be shy. Bring them to the attention of your administration. If any money is available at the end of the year, you’ll want them to keep you in mind!

General Budgeting Tips

Below are some additional items to take into consideration when working with your music department budget and general purchases.

Who Pays for What?

  • Check with administration about transportation, festival fees, etc., to see if they are covered by general funds or department funds.
  • Check to see if music or textbooks are part of your yearly budget or covered by school funds.
  • Ideally your budget will cover most of your program’s expenses. You’ll want to avoid having to fundraise or use booster money for your everyday needs. Never volunteer this money, if you do you will likely regret it later!
  • Remember to include upgrades for software (including SmartMusic, Finale, etc.) if it is not covered by textbook funds in the school.

Purchase Orders

  • If possible, ask for a blanket purchase order amount to your preferred music or instrument vendor. This is like a savings account, where you purchase music at various intervals taking the spent amount from the blanket PO. It helps avoid delays with purchase orders and can can save the day when emergencies pop up, including festival scores, repairs, etc.
  • Always make sure you have a purchase order before you buy! In some cases directors have had to pay for items out their own pockets after ordering them without first receiving approval.


  • Think through your entire year, not just one quarter or semester at a time.
  • Before submitting your annual budget, show your administration your long range plans and goals. This will assist in supporting both your immediate AND long range needs.
  • Know the deadline when you have to spend the amount you were given. This can be especially helpful in filling needs for the following school year. If you have money remaining, request the “blanket” purchase order mentioned above to cover forgotten or summer needs.

Requesting Bids

  • When submitting the budget, be sure to acquire the number of necessary bids needed (especially big ticket items). Include all information, make, model, size, shipping and discount if applicable. This shows the administration you are trying to find the best price for your needs and that you are committed to spending the money wisely.


  • When purchasing uniforms or robes, try to have the school pay the full amount. There may be times when you have to negotiate this point. Ask the administration if the sport teams have to purchase their uniforms. Point out the average lifespan of uniforms, the materials used, and the consumable items that need to be replaced.
  • Look ahead to uniform needs for growth if your program appears to be headed in that direction.


  • Look at the number of programs you have for each ensemble and figure 2-4 new music selections per program. If you have a healthy library, 1 or 2 may be sufficient. It is always good to have new or modern works for the library.
  • You also will need to consider solo and ensemble festival needs. I tried to have at least one copy of each in the library. I would ask students to purchase their own solo copy of the work.


  • Check with your preferred vendor about a purchase/lease program for large items such as pianos, tubas, percussion equipment, etc. You might be better off including a 3 year purchase plan rather than outright purchases. This way you can get more over a longer period. Ask the vendor to assist selling this point to administration and board. Note: This is where your 3-5 year plan comes in handy!

Sample Budget Worksheet

To help you in your preparations, I’ve created a sample budget request worksheet.

With planning and open communications between you and your administration, budget needs are accessible and will result in success of your program. Donʼt be hesitant to express your needs, even in your first year!

A veteran of 27 years of successful teaching in public schools, Joseph Pappas currently serves as adjunct professor at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, MO., and Southeast Missouri University, Cape Girardeau, MO. A winner of multiple Teacher of the Year awards, in 2016 Mr. Pappas received the Outstanding Music Educator Award for Missouri from the National Federation of High Schools and was elected to the St. Louis Music Education Hall of Fame. A prolific composer of more than 200 compositions, he devotes most of his time to composing and working as an educational consultant and publishing editor for his own company, JPM Music Publications, which he started in 1992.

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