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.
(Next page: Solving how to tie spending to student outcomes)
Issue: Poor Tracking
Even though we realized we had a problem with both the access to real-time financial data and the financial acumen of our district administrators, we didn’t yet have a solution. The most pressing issue was that district administrators were not tracking their dollars well, or weren’t doing it in conjunction with the latest budget figures at their fingertips. Because the financial data they had was often weeks old, when they spent money, they would often go over budget.
Think about your own household budget. Can you imagine spending money without knowing if you had money in the account or access to a system that allowed for tracking up-to-date transactions?
Last year, our district realized we were missing a lot by not looking in real-time at how funding impacts student outcomes, so we resolved to do something.
A Peer-Recommended Solution
I attended a seminar on the subject and asked other districts what they did. A lot of them were in the same boat as us, but we also heard a lot about advances in software that can organize financial data in a coherent way, making it not only searchable but actionable. For a district such as ours, still trying to get our financial data into Excel spreadsheets, this was a revelation.
As we set out to search for a solution, we identified that we wanted to have:
- Real-time access to financial data;
- A way to analyze our spending by location; and
- A way to connect spending to student outcomes.
Since 2015, we have been working with a company called Allovue to implement a solution called Balance | Manage to solve the issues of access and analysis. We also engaged with Allovue to help train our administrators to think more strategically about their budgets.
I won’t lie: it’s an involved process, and will continue well into the next year, but our hope is that our principals will begin to plan, allocate, and spend strategically. Now, every dollar they spend will be tied to back to staff, programs, technology, and other uses that directly impact student outcomes.
My financial staff are always searching for different financial data to answer questions from program leaders, school administrators, the Board of Education, and the Superintendent. I love that I can search for financial information and find it fast.
We are finally moving away from the days of outdated financial data and 500-page reports. Data holds so much promise for us, our principals, and, most of all, our students. I believe we owe it to our students to not just have data sit in a spreadsheet, but to have the access, skills, and dedication to make data work for them.
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