When I first came on board as the CFO in Pueblo, Colorado, I asked my finance manager to compile a complete financial report of all of our budgets. As a new CFO, I thought I was taking a smart, proactive approach and could hit the ground running. Instead, my jaw hit the ground when she brought me back a 500-page report in a PDF format! I couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t there a better way?
Excel is a great program, but for finance staff managing millions of dollars of district spending over the course of many years, it has its limitations. Since our district financial system was so tied up in spreadsheets buried in the back end, it could easily take a day (or up to a few weeks) to pull a request for financial data. Often, when the report was pulled, it was too old or the data set was incorrect. We juggled managing the district-wide long-term forecast and the day-to-day budget management because, without accurate and up-to-date information, the efforts become fruitless.
Understanding Finance Systems
This process was even worse at the school level. Not many district administrators have a background in finance. I brought a unique level of financial knowledge and an accounting degree to my work in the district when I started as a teacher/coach. As I moved up to assistant principal/athletic director, principal, and eventually CFO, I saw many of our school administrative staff and program managers struggle with understanding how financial systems work. How do the financial codes connect back to individual programs and funding sources? Why is it important to correctly code transactions?
Initially, No Connection to Outcomes
In our district, we have 19 standard schools and two charter schools. The workload for school administrators is heavy and concentrated on staff supervision and instructional leadership.
Could school administrators and program directors connect spending to student outcomes? No. If they wanted to assess student outcomes, they’d look at the programs and their curriculum at the schools. When it came to spending, each school or program would spend the money allocated in their budget from year to year, but little was done to plan holistically across the district.