Seven school systems are in the early stages of an experiment that could radically change the way public school dollars are spent in Louisiana.

The new system, called student-based budgeting, would give school principals, not districts, much of the authority on how to spend most state, federal and local education dollars.

Backers contend that giving those closest to students control over the dollars would:

•   Improve student achievement.

•   Allow local officials to tailor spending to individual needs.

•   Let parents and others see exactly how school dollars are being used.

“There is no silver bullet to solve all financial problems,” said Philip Martin, superintendent of the Terrebonne Parish school system, which is one of the seven systems taking part.

“But if there are any strategies and techniques that lead to a more effective use of the funds we have, of course, any superintendent would want to do that,” he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced plans for the pilot project in February.

“Too often today the decision-making power over what is best for a child happens far away from the classroom,” Jindal said.

Putting principals and other local educators largely in charge of the budget, he said, “will place those decisions in the hands of those who know students’ needs the best.”

School systems taking part are Terrebonne, Assumption, Iberville, St. John the Baptist, Lafourche, Jefferson and Sabine — 10 percent of the districts statewide.

State officials recently held a two-day meeting with district leaders to make plans for the changes.

“There is a lot of planning going on right now,” said Beth Scioneaux, deputy superintendent for the state Department of Education.

The department will also work with superintendents to train principals and other school district leaders so they are prepared to handle their new budget authority.

How the changes will work in each district is supposed to be spelled out in the spring.

The aim is for some form of student-based budgeting to be tested in all seven systems when school starts in August of 2013.

If the trial is successful, other districts will be invited to do the same, Scioneaux said.

Chas Roemer, a member of the state’s top school board, said if the pilot project is successful, it should be quickly implemented in other districts.

“It will be a big step toward actually empowering the people that are in the school building with the tools they need to run their school,” said Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge.

“One of the problems we have now is we try to manage education from on top of the mountain,” he said.

State aid to public schools has been frozen for the past three years amid declining state revenue, which may make a major change in financing more appealing to school districts.

Martin said the freeze is especially burdensome at a time when school retirement and health care costs are rising sharply.

“We could have handled the freeze if we did not have these dramatic, almost catastrophic retirement and benefit costs,” he said.

Bob Lewis, business manager for the Sabine Parish School District in northwest Louisiana, said his system joined the pilot project to have a voice in any new system that wins favor.

“Because once this is shoved down everyone’s throats, the wiggle room won’t be there,” Lewis said.

Under current rules, the state allocates $3.3 billion to 70 school districts.

That money is then distributed on the basis of staffing levels, programs and other factors.

However, student-based budgeting is controversial because it is still in the experimental stages nationwide.

One official told Louisiana educators last year that only 14 city school districts and the state of Hawaii used student-based budgeting, and that 17 states were considering various forms of it.

A state panel studying the issue has heard experts talk about how it has worked in Baltimore, Houston, Oakland, Denver and San Francisco.

But some superintendents question the relevance of any success stories in those cities to Louisiana, and whether it makes sense for principals to become budget brokers.

School leaders in Iberville, Lafourche and St. John the Baptist districts did not return calls for comment or could not be reached.

Earl Martinez, superintendent of the Assumption Parish school system, was out of the office last week.