A Florida school board has agreed to try a management-style computer program, similar to those used by large corporations, to track its spending and improve accountability. If the software proves successful, it could serve as a model for school systems across the country, according to its creator, Mark Hunter.

Hunter, a retired businessman and school volunteer, is developing the computer program—called Long Range Financial Planning Model (LRFP)—at no cost to help his local school district operate more like a business.

Hunter found the need for a management system after reviewing the Hillsborough County School Board’s strategic plan. He said he saw a vision statement, a mission statement, core values, and priorities—but no numbers.

Hunter said he asked the school board members, “If I were to ask you, point for point, what the [Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test] costs, could you tell me?” The answer was no, he said—they had no idea.

He said a school district, with its various schools and departments, is set up like a business and, therefore, should track its finances and create strategies like one.

Drawing upon his background in corporate banking and expertise in developing management systems, Hunter is designing an elaborate computer system that will assist the school board in creating a long-range financial plan.

“They have budget people, finance people, accounting people—but they don’t have strategic planners,” Hunter said of the district’s personnel. The software will “help them internally to make more effective decisions with limited funds.”

Earl Lennard, superintendent of the Hillsborough County School District, said Hunter brings “a businessman’s perspective” and “a fresh approach” to the district. “He has looked at ways we can align our priorities with our resources,” he said.

LRFP is a blend of customized statistical and spreadsheet software with dozens of formulas and financial equations. The software is Windows-based and uses Excel and statistical software called SAS, from the Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute.

“It’s as sophisticated as any bank across the country would use,” Hunter said. He described LRFP as an elaborate, massive computer system that is capable of forecasting enrollment, resource allocation, expenditures, productivity ratios, return on investment, and outlook projections for test scores.

“It projects the school system’s expenditures and revenue for three to five years,” Hunter said. LRFP considers outside influences, such as inflation rates and oil prices, as well as internal issues, including test scores, teachers’ salaries, retirement, and new school construction.

“General Motors would turn over and sink if they only budgeted for one year, and yet that’s what schools do,” Hunter said.

Hunter said the data are to be updated quarterly, using input from local principals and administrators. The system probably will require a dedicated staff member and computer to operate the software and add data, he said, because it is so comprehensive.

The system will make the district’s financial data interactive, Hunter said. It will be able to answer questions, such as “How much time is devoted to reading?” and “What does reading cost per student to teach?”

“If you asked me how much money we spend on reading in high school, I couldn’t tell you,” said Carolyn Bricklemeyer, chairman of Hillsborough County School Board. “I need to be aware of where the money is being spent, so I can make better decisions.”

Bricklemeyer is excited about a system that promises to make the board more aware of its spending and help it develop strategies to meet the district’s priorities.

“We’ve got to look long-term,” Bricklemeyer said. With 5,000 new students each year and a school population of about 150,000, the district must have a plan to provide appropriate facilities and policies. “We want to be certain we’re using every single dollar as appropriately as possible.”

Currently, the school board gets its financial information from an accounting system that Bricklemeyer describes as complicated. Using LRFP, administrators easily will be able to see where they are improving and where they are going, she said.

“It will hold us accountable for how we spend our money,” Bricklemeyer said. “It will build in an evaluation that looks at how we spend our money [to see] if it was effective.”

“If you are running a business or a bank, which is my background, you’ll do all of this,” Hunter said. “I hope we lead the country with this.”

School District of Hillsborough County
http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/

SAS Institute
http://www.sas.com