Let's start by talking about all the reasons you might dislike this one:
- You hate using the term "CFO" for the school business office, as it smacks of "making education run more like a business" and plenty of the baggage that comes along with that line. That's fair, 'though I also think that it tends to reflect our own personal experiences with those roles. There are "School Business Managers" that don't get how schools aren't businesses and CFOs who do, so...if it helps, ignore the title.
- It's sponsored by the Broad Institute. Yes, always look at funders, but read the report, anyway. I would hope we all read with a critical eye, in any case?
- ERS has a lot (a LOT!) of Bain alums among their employees. Much like Broad, that speaks to this "we're going to come in and tell you all how to do education better (you poor benighted folks)" coming from heavily corporate industry. Thus again, read with a critical eye.
Traditionally, school district and corporate leaders regarded chief financial officers, or CFOs, as chief accountants. They were tasked with ensuring financial compliance, settling the books, creating reports, and cutting costs. The CFO was risk averse and internally focused; she was there to backstop the ambitious plans of others.
Those accountability functions are no less important now than they were in the past — but today’s CFO is part of a district leadership team that is on the hook for so much more. A higher bar for student learning and great student needs require new ways of organizing resources, even as unsustainable cost structures and flat or decreasing revenue make it more challenging to invest in improvement.The first part is certainly true, and I would argue it still is in many places. I'd dispute the idea we're necessarily seeing district leadership "on the hook for so much more," so much as we may be aware of that responsibility. Likewise, the organizing of resources to this end isn't new, so much as it is as much true as it ever was; always beware of thinking you've discovered a problem, when perhaps it is only new to you.
The three "mindsets" the report offers are:
Yes, for sure! And also: consider what kind of resources of time this takes, to have the space to consider and dig for systemic problems, and then work on patterns and fixing them.
- Look Forward: As chief problem-solver in the district, it’s important for the CFO to not just solve problems that are “smacking you in the face,” but also dig below the surface to root causes. This may happen through thoughtful inquiry into isolated issues raised by a colleague, or by stepping back to uncover patterns over time that may be indicative of a more systemic challenge
I had considered earlier this week when the "state your unpopular opinion" was circulating online contributing that my "unpopular opinion on school finance" is that central offices are frequently understaffed. This is particularly true (again, in my view) of school business offices. Consider, then, that the reports and budgeting and accounting all need to still take place; if you also think that this visionary and problem solving perspective should be happening, we need to staff for it.
Note that this requires that everyone trusts the business manager to do this, to do it well, and then...for the business manager to do this well.
- Reach Outward: The CFO should foster trust among colleagues and the public by being transparent about the district’s financial picture, actively educating others about the “why” behind the numbers and maintaining a public persona as a competent financial manager
This is your most important policy document being your budget. This does mean, though, that budgets should be starting with goals, with the budget created to support them, not doing what has always been done or adding things that seem neat, and then backtracking to make the budgeting fit the strategic or goal-setting narrative. As is noted elsewhere in the report, this puts those in this position at the table earlier than might be true in some places.
- Focus on “How Well”: It is important to frame financial decisions within an overarching narrative about district strategy that the community can digest and connect with.
This is also, of course, a core function of the school committee. If your budget starts with how much rather than where you're trying to go, it's backwards.
The report then lists five core functions:
1. Long-Term Financial Planning: assessing the forecast, defining root causes, aligning timeliness (amazing how often the budget operates in its own sphere), engaging other stakeholders, boosting public visibility (note how these two make it everyone's budget), and pursuing additional revenue
2. Strategic Planning: tuning into academics (note the de-isolation of the business office here), linking goals and measures, setting explicit resource-use goals
3. Annual District Budgeting: planning around the priorities (I would say FROM the priorities), integrating all funds (yes, you have to pass the grants for a reason!)), facilitating community decision making, proactively balancing the budget, periodically checking in (quarterly reports, yes, but your reports on goals should have allocation updates, too), monitoring impact metrics (which just means you're doing more than "we spent this much and we have this much left")
4. Annual School Budgeting: strengthening school support (we don't require budget training of principals; we should), clarifying flexibilities (what level of discretion does the school actually have on spending?), integrate decision-making inputs, coordinate timelines
5. Collective Bargaining: understanding student and teacher impact (what does the district need the contract to do?), expanding analytics, supporting stakeholder communication
This again all argues that this position--in fact, the entire office--is much more about the district direction than about spreadsheets and end of year reports. I'm not sure we can emphasize this enough as we work on the upcoming funding.
And? We may well not have enough people to do it.