Saying that it’s not easy for school districts in the realm of K-12 financing is an understatement. Funding models across each state have their own nuances, and you must continuously stay on top of changes in tax structures and grant programs before attempting to create a realistic budget proposal.
But thankfully there are a number of ways to make the budgeting process flow smoother and, when practice becomes habit, much of that routine can lighten the loads of administrators who wear too many hats. In what follows, we examine the five biggest education finance considerations: communication, technology, networking, shopping, and contracting.
Communication Across All Levels
Not only is communication important between business managers and district superintendents, but soliciting the opinions of building principals and other stakeholders is equally helpful. There’s no one in a better position to monitor potential structural or systems costs than the folks who spend their work week on the premises. For example, requiring monthly, or more frequent, reports on the state of the physical assets can prevent unexpected and significant cost outlays. Maintenance staff often have their finger on the pulse of a burgeoning problem so creating an efficient reporting hierarchy is a prudent step.
Technology that Works for You
The reason for the slow migration of innovative trends in schools is obvious. Hardware and software cost money, and so does the dedicated IT staff needed to maintain those assets. These outlays far outpace traditional expenditures on pencils, protractors, and paper. Yet, the school budgetary crunches seen nationwide shouldn’t preclude business managers from using the latest tools available to forecast budgets and track spending. If you’re performing accounting practices the old-fashioned way, investigate software packages that will save time and resources—and ultimately dollars. The considerable return on investment from automation simply can’t be forsaken. A great place to begin may be small business accounting applications, which help public and private entities with equal effectiveness.
Networking with Your Peers
Networking is effective and free (unless it’s your turn to buy the coffee). Every state has structured associations that business managers can join to discuss pertinent school finance issues. Where those organizations don’t exist, or attending is simply a challenge, pick up the phone and reach out to a counterpart at a neighboring district. It never hurts to see what peer districts are doing to spend wisely and cut costs. Furthermore, aligning with surrounding districts, in respect to salaries and benefit structures, can offer legitimacy to your own proposals. For example, it’s difficult to suggest your employees make significant contributions to healthcare premiums when a neighboring district require minimal cost-sharing.
Smart Shopping for Health Benefits
As long as claims are paid and employees receive quality care, CFOs tend to stick with the status quo when it comes to insurance carriers and other administrative partners. Yet, you shouldn’t get lulled into thinking that there aren’t better options in the marketplace. The relative size of districts gives them adequate means to negotiate fees and premiums on their own or join a coalition that can leverage bargaining power even further. Shopping insurances and brokers at least every three years will keep current carriers honest and perhaps even uncover newfound ways to cut benefits expenditures.
Contracting Out Staffing
In school districts, intense budgetary scrutiny forces administrators and business officials to think outside the box. Traditionally, schools would internally handle all recruiting, hiring, training, and administering payroll for substitute teachers. Needless to say, with teacher salaries commanding about 80% of budgets, this undertaking, albeit one piece of the puzzle, costs districts substantial time and money.
Unique staffing agencies specializing in education have come to the fore lately, and these entities understand the numerous problems facing schools today. By removing all the expense of payroll and hours of administration, companies that specialize in absence management can effortlessly help address ever tightening budgets.
The Bottom Line on Education Finance
Ultimately, the best practice in education finance is to take advantage of the structures that support you, and if those structures don’t exist yet—create them. Make sure your internal communication systems support employees from the ground up so you’re aware of problems early on. Network with neighboring districts as much as possible, as this will help you stay up-to-date with policies and technology. Shop around where you can, and contract where you can’t.
If you could offer one bit of advice to the students who surround you it would probably be, “never stop learning.” That adage should also apply to your own daily endeavors when navigating the choppy waters of education financing.
Ed Keating is a school business manager who blogs about concrete solutions to the many financial and administrative issues facing school districts today. In his spare time, Ed enjoys fishing, backpacking, and camping with his wife and two daughters, Molly and Anne.