Ronnie O'Connor, outgoing president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, told delegates at their annual conference that they were about to enter "fairly turbulent financial waters".
This was the result of costly equal pay decisions, a very tight grant settlement for local government, the policy drive for efficient government and the transforming of public services.
Councils were beginning to develop a wide range of approaches for delivering services, Mr O'Connor said. Major structural changes in some local councils and health boards were creating care and health partnership boards, supported by pooled budgets.
Other councils, including his own in Glasgow, were creating different models, including wholly-owned council companies such as trusts to run building services or cultural and leisure services.
Instead of getting caught up in the "froth" of a debate around the particulars of structural change, ADES should concentrate its attention on developing key principles against which reforms should be measured, Mr O'Connor said. These should take account of the impact on pupils, teaching and learning, attainment and achievement.
"It might come as a surprise to some quick-fix trade unions andor the endless flow of so-called management development gurus who seem to dwell in a twilight zone between the public and private sector and who subject us endlessly to brain rape, that an education service is not solely concerned with the management of schools.
"In fact, the vast majority of our membership run a vast range of services covering pre-fives, childcare, psychological support, culture and leisure, libraries, youth work, families and social work," he said.
Mr O'Connor described the essential functions of educational management as those of leader, banker, broker, monitor, challenger, and supporter. They would not be affected by the size or shape of any authority and had to be retained if a world class education system was to be developed in Scotland.
Colin Mair, chief executive of the Improvement Service, warned that apart from the clampdown on spending, councils faced additional pressures such as funding care for the elderly and the growing costs of supporting disabled children who were surviving into adulthood because of medical advances.
He called on education and children's services directors to get better at "working the market" when it came to negotiating contracts with the private sector. He cited residential schools which charged local authorities well above inflation for sending pupils to them, thus creating further pressures on council budgets.
"If there are monopolies among the providers, then monopolies among the procurers might make economic sense," Mr Mair said.