How Financially Savvy Are Your School Administrators?

By Jess Gartner

One of the first things district leaders look at when onboarding new teachers is content expertise. As a social studies teacher, I was required to demonstrate baseline knowledge of history, economics, sociology and politics.

As many educators can attest, knowledge isn’t everything. You also need instructional skills. Can you write an effective lesson plan? Manage a class? Create and deliver meaningful assessments? These skills and strategies help teachers respond in an adaptive way to sudden changes.

When I made the transition from the classroom to the world of education finance, I realized that school budget managers required a specialized set of knowledge, skills and behaviors for financial management, as well as access to reliable financial data.

In the same way novice teachers struggle with juggling the demands of the classroom, budget managers find themselves similarly overwhelmed with the responsibilities of resource allocation. Many districts provide comprehensive support and professional development for teachers, but haven’t yet applied that same framework to administrators and budget managers.

With the right training and tools, principals and other budget managers can excel at financial management and strategy, which helps students receive the resources they need.

Building A Strong Foundation

I believe that financial training and support is important to developing the financial acumen of administrators. To understand training needs and assess readiness, it’s smart to start with a survey to gather details about where budget managers are today in terms of financial knowledge, skills and behaviors.

Based on this information, districts can scaffold training and development opportunities for budget managers at every level of the district, including principals, department leaders and grant managers. A plan for training and mentoring budget managers can also point out opportunities to leverage the existing financial experts in the district, as well as supporting new and emerging education leaders. This is also a great opportunity to identify financial leaders within the district who have fresh ideas and imagination for how resources can be used to serve their school communities.

Districts often realize that they may not reach all their goals in six months or even a year, but those that take the appropriate steps to build foundational skills end up creating sustainable capacity for budget management that lasts a very long time.

Working With Financial Data

Administrators must be able to quickly and easily see where dollars are going and how they connect to district or school-level goals. When data is user-friendly and insights are only a few keystrokes away, then districts can encourage the use of dynamic data to make resource decisions year-round. At the district level, educators should be able to compare spending decisions across schools. These comparisons give administrators insights into which resources are working best to achieve goals.

Complex financial data structures often make it difficult for educators to make the connection between spending and academic programs and outcomes. New data systems are capable of creating a crosswalk between financial codes and academic goals. Imagine being able to search through budgetary data by a specific program, like after-school literacy tutoring, instead of querying dozens of account codes. When it comes to school financial strategy, educators should focus their time on analyzing the cost-effectiveness of resources, not mining and translating data.

Begin With The End In Mind

I’m a big believer in planning and goal-setting, which is rooted in my background as a teacher. I create personal goals for the end of the year and backwards-plan what I need to achieve each quarter, month, week and day. Budgeting is similar: setting annual budgetary goals is essential, but the best budget managers monitor spending throughout the year in order to maximize every dollar.

Beginning-of-year planning helps budget managers identify what resources they will need throughout the school year in order to meet academic goals: perhaps new technology, curriculum or support staff. Every resource should be considered strategically in the context of school and district goals.

Administrators are often pressured to evaluate the academic return on investment from their spending. Determining cost-effectiveness should be the goal, not the starting point. Just as we would never expect a student to walk into the first day of school and begin working in the upper tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy without first covering the basics, there are foundational knowledge and skills that administrators need to develop before evaluating resource effectiveness. The financial vocabulary, chart of accounts and compliance guidelines for budgets vary by districts, so it’s critical to get all budget managers on the same page with budget basics before moving on to more advanced financial analysis skills.

Training administrators on financial management basics and providing easy access to financial data are the first steps for creating financially savvy administrators. With the right support structures and financial data analysis tools in place, administrators can gradually learn to budget effectively and ensure that every resource is driving student achievement.

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Jess Gartner is a former social studies teacher and founder and CEO of Allovue. Follow her on Twitter: @jessgartner

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