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Academic Support a Financial Challenge for School Business Officers

By Michele Molnar — November 03, 2015 3 min read

Stretching limited dollars to expand educational opportunities may require some creative thinking and sharing of lessons learned. There was plenty of both when more than 1,000 school business officials from districts across the country and four other nations met here late last month.

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.

High on the agenda for this year’s attendees was networking with colleagues around legislative issues, regulatory changes, and effective techniques for running school district financial operations, 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. Supporting student success was a thread throughout much of the event. In one popular session, for instance, the Alliance for Excellence in School Budgeting outlined approaches to strategic financial planning to support instructional strategies for improving student outcomes.

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.

In that session, the Wylie, Texas, district reported seeing academic progress based on its work with the alliance. The Dallas Morning News recently highlighted those gains, calling Wylie “an outlier” on the state assessments. The district aligns its performance objectives to allocations. For instance, in 2015-16, $15.56 million was budgeted for the goal 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.

Hidden Cost of ‘Free’ Resources

Claire Hertz, chief financial officer for Beaverton, Ore., schools, is one of the practitioners who helped create the best practices for the Government Finance Officers Association. “I’ve been doing this work since the ‘80s,” she said. “I feel we’ve finally figured out how to directly tie our work to student achievement.”

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

Educational trends often have unintended consequences for school budgeting, several 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 for doing so.

“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.) Attendees echoed similar experiences with teachers in their districts using digital-only educational resources, but wanting printouts for younger readers or to make homework packets.

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.

E-Rate Opportunities

Another area of rapid change for districts was fueled by 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Academic Support a Priority for School Business Officers

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