Let’s be honest, the idea of budgeting and forecasting is not something that most educators get excited about. In fact, it is often the case that school and operations leaders see the process as foreign or overwhelming, and believe that it is best delegated to the bean counters with their large computer monitors and savvy excel modeling skills. The reason this top-down approach is problematic is that being able to put together a fancy budget model has little to do with understanding and meeting the needs of the students and staff in our Minnesota charter schools. A school’s budget is a road map, and if strategically prepared and followed it can be an incredible tool to help put valuable resources to work where they most belong – improving student achievement and ensuring alignment to a school’s mission and long-term goals.
Below are a handful of suggestions that I hope will inspire your organization to improve these critical practices:
Keep Budget Conversations Mission Driven
Too often our language around budgeting and financial matters is focused on making the numbers work. While there’s a need for policies and strategies that help ensure the financial sustainability for our schools, budgets and forecasts that make sense on paper don’t always translate into what’s in the best interest of our kids. As we pull our key school leaders into the budgeting process – our principals, directors of operations and department leads who are directly serving kids and putting the budget to work each day – we should keep in mind the following:
- Get your educators smart on the process and work towards transferring ownership of your budgets and forecasts. The process becomes incredibly powerful when school leaders have a strong understanding of all areas of their budget, the impact of decisions on their program, and the tradeoffs that are present with each allocation of resources.
- Understand that your role in this process may be a thankless job. You may have to hold the line on certain requests or deliver bad news on state revenues. You may find that other critical program and operations issues faced by the school are being prioritized over the budget process. Remember, your role is as a servant leader, and keeping school leaders engaged in budgeting will require both flexibility and consistent messaging on how important the process is to meeting the needs of their children and staff, and ultimately fulfilling your organization’s mission. Over time, as they become more experienced and see the positive impact to their school, there will be a tipping point where they go all-in on the process.
Keep Track of Needs & Dig in to Issues Early
By the time your budget season begins it is often too late to gather the information needed to explore changes to larger programs or areas of concern. Take your student information system as an example. Upgrading the platform may improve many pieces of your school’s operations, and have a profound effect on how smoothly your school runs; however, vetting the options, flushing out costs, and choosing the system that best fits the needs of your organization can take up to 6 months. A more common area of pain in Minnesota is a school’s transportation program, and a full analysis of this program may require benchmarking across other schools, vetting of different vendors, and gathering feedback from a range of stakeholder across your school community – all difficult to do if left until spring.
In general, it is important for your school to have a process for gathering budget feedback from your board and team members throughout the year and not just at a point in time during the budget season. Have them clearly articulate their needs, why it is important for kids, and ask them to prioritize the request into one of 3 areas:
- High (essential – mission critical for the school, program, and/or organization)
- Medium (conditional – enhances and/or supports school, program, and/or organization needs, but could be traded-off)
- Low (optional – nice-to-have if resources permit)
FORECAST, FORECAST, FORECAST!
This might be news to you, but the budget-to-actual comparison generated for you each month is not difficult to produce and also is not an adequate forecast for your school. This isn’t a problem for organizations that have revenues and expenses that flow evenly throughout the fiscal year, but our charter schools do not fit that mold. Most accounting firms in Minnesota are not currently incorporating a detailed forecasting process into their monthly financial reports, and if that’s the case for your school you should request that they begin working with your team on a plan for how to incorporate this practice next fall. Here’s why:
- Adding this best practice allows your school to more accurately monitor financial position throughout the fiscal year and make decisions that can impact students and staff in the current school year.
- Your school’s leaders and board members will have confidence that your team has a strong understanding of how your revenues and spending will play out, avoiding having to work through stressful, unexpected variances in the back half of the year. Remember, as painful as it is to have a negative variance, an unexpected positive budget variance (surplus) can be just as harmful to your school – it means that available taxpayer dollars did not reach and benefit your kids as they were intended.
Keep in mind that incorporating best practices like these take extra time in the short term, but have long-term benefits that largely outweigh the effort. This is a multi-year transition, not an overnight solution. But moving in this direction will lead to a more accurate financial position and increase engagement and financial understanding across your organization