Survey Finds Few Rules For Finance Officers

By Jeff Archer — December 10, 2003 3 min read

Less than a third of all states have certification or licensure rules specifically for the district administrators who are chiefly responsible for their school system’s finances, according to a survey of state policies.

That lack of state standards for district business officials poses a major problem as school systems are increasingly challenged by tightening budgets and shifting federal rules, argues the Association of School Business Officials International, which carried out the policy review.

The Association of School Business Officials International posts a “matrix” listing state certification rules for school business officials. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“These are the people who are in charge of allocating resources in these hard economic times and with the implementation of No Child Left Behind,” said Anne W. Miller, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based group. “It’s critical that you have someone in that role who not only knows the numbers side, but also the education side.”

The group’s snapshot of state policies, which was announced last week, follows a year in which financial mismanagement has exacerbated the fiscal plights of several large districts. (“Budget Errors Leave Schools Feeling Pinch,” Jan. 8, 2003.) Charges of poor budget planning or accounting errors have been leveled at district leaders in Baltimore, Seattle, and Oakland, Calif., among others.

Observers note that many districts’ chief financial officers—who might be called a CFO, a deputy superintendent, or some other title—hold state licenses in educational administration. But the school business association found only 13 states that require those administrators to have had training or experience specific to their roles as their systems’ budget officials.

See Also...

See the accompanying map, “State Certification.”

In most cases, those requirements include having taken a prescribed number of finance and accounting courses, as well as continuing professional development once on the job.

William D. Duncombe, a school finance expert at Syracuse University, agrees that states should take greater responsibility for the quality of district budget officers. In some instances, he said, district leaders simply assign the job to an administrator who is good at working with numbers.

“Somebody has given them a cookbook as to how to do their jobs, and they follow that without really understanding why they’re doing it,” said Mr. Duncombe, who teaches at the New York university’s school of public affairs. “We would never consider, if we ran a business, putting someone in charge of finances who never had any background in finance.”

Stronger Gounding

The survey also found 15 states in which specialized certification is voluntary for financial officers, who often pursue it through training offered by state affiliates of the school business group. Meanwhile, at least 19 states lack any special process for credentialing such administrators, the survey says. Officials with the group say they hope more states will consider raising the bar for those in the field.

Two years ago, the association for the first time completed a set of professional standards that outlines what business officials should know in such areas as human resources, facilities management, and information technology. The organization argues that a finance officer needs a strong grounding in both education and financial management to be successful.

Patty Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, said it’s unclear if more state policymakers will see value in establishing certification rules for district budget officials. Leaders of some school systems might resent being told whom they can and cannot hire for the job, she noted.

“I can’t imagine any [state schools’] chief saying to me that it would be a bad idea for the state to say, ‘We want quality people in these roles,’” she said. “The question is how far do you go into actually establishing new state codes and guidelines.”