Districts’ Latest Finance Challenges Tackled by School Business Officials

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Grapevine, Texas

More than 1,000 school business officials gathered here over the weekend to learn how they can stretch their districts’ dollars to provide more educational opportunities for students.

Topics at the Association of School Business Officials International meeting ranged from the global—strategic finance planning to match funding with goals for student achievement—to the granular: how the “print to digital” transition has generated large bills as teachers print out reams of materials for their classes.

This year, conference attendees spent more time networking with one another, said John Musso, the executive director of ASBO International, which brought together business officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, and Australia. They also learned about legislative issues, regulatory changes, and techniques to help them run the financial aspect of their districts.

For instance, some attendees learned about the Alliance for Excellence in School Budgeting in a session on strategic financial planning to support instructional strategies for student success. The alliance is a cohort of 35 districts in 21 states that is implementing the research-based Government Finance Officers Association’s “best practices of school budgeting.” These practices focus on five areas: planning and preparation with key educational stakeholders; setting instructional priorities; paying for those priorities; implementing the plan; and ensuring sustainability.

The Wylie, Texas, district is a member of the alliance. Based on its work to date, Wylie reports seeing academic progress. The Dallas Morning News highlighted these outcomes, calling Wylie “an outlier” on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (or STAAR) scoresOne example of how the district allocates finances to support educational goals is in the $15.56 million it budgeted for 2015-16 on the performance objective of “ensuring academic achievement for every student through tight family partnerships, curriculum, and programs.” Of that amount, $2.1 million is devoted to a “quality, comprehensive curriculum,” $10.7 million to “quality ancillary services,” $2.3 million to technology integration, and $460,000 to professional development. 

Claire Hertz, chief financial officer of the Beaverton, Ore. district, is one of the practitioners who helped create the best practices for the Government Finance Officers Association. Her district will publish full results of its efforts to align spending with educational attainment in April 2016. “I’ve been doing this work since the ’80s,” she said. “I feel we’ve finally figured out how to directly tie our work with student achievement.”

Lake County scools in Florida, which were part of a demonstration project called Smarter School Spending for Student Success, also described their work in this area.

Hidden Cost of Adopting ‘Free’ Resources

Unintended outcomes of educational trends often have an unexpected impact on school budgeting, school business officials said.

Take, for example, the “free” resources that often aren’t, according to Kevin Baird, the chairman of the nonprofit Global Center for College & Career Readiness.

Schools that have adopted free digital resources like the common-core curriculum provided by EngageNY—which has been downloaded 20 million times by educators in the U.S. and abroad—sometimes find there is a considerable cost. “Their printing budgets have gone crazy,” Baird said. (In fact, New York state has acknowledged the printing costs associated with using EngageNY: Districts that print out the English language arts/literacy and math curriculum materials from EngageNY can apply for state textbook aid to cover the costs of reproducing them.) Audience members echoed similar experiences with teachers using digital-only educational resources.

Presenters and attendees shared ideas about how to manage these spiraling costs, as did companies like Office Depot and Ricoh Americas Corp., which were among the more than 100 exhibitors at the event. In one session, business officials learned how the Shawnee Mission, Kan., schools created a document-management plan that helped them eliminate about 4,000 printers, outsource print-shop management, and save $750,000 in 2014-15.

E-Rate Opportunities

Another area of rapid change for districts is the Federal Communications Commission’s modernization of the E-rate program in 2014. Increasing the program’s cap to $3.9 billion means that schools will have opportunities to boost students’ digital learning by giving more access to broadband and Wi-Fi, said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.

“The FCC explicitly wants to encourage you to purchase through consortia wherever it makes sense,” Krueger told the business officials. “Bigger districts may not need to do this, but rural and smaller districts do,” he said.

Schools and libraries will have to apply electronically to the Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the E-rate, because paper applications will no longer be accepted. Filing online will allow the organization to share information about prices that different districts are charged for their telecommunications service. “You’ll be able to say, ‘Is the school district next to me getting the same deal” from the same provider, Krueger explained.

Krueger advised that districts take the time to carefully plan their applications, based on district needs. And, he warned, “compliance matters more than ever.” With the influx of more funding has come the promise that auditors will be waiting to ensure the money is used as intended.

[Update: This blog post was updated to include a quote from Claire Hertz, chief financial officer from Beaverton, Ore.]

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