Although just one person in a district -- whether it’s a Budget Director, CFO, Business Officer, or another title -- typically has the ultimate authority or oversight over the district’s annual budget, the process to build that budget requires input and action from sometimes hundreds of participants -- including principals, department budget managers, executive cabinet members, financial services staff, community, and the Board of Education. With so many critical voices, it truly does take a village to adopt a budget, and that process is rarely quick or easy.
Let’s look at each step of an efficient budget adoption process, and see who needs to be involved at each step along the way.
Because the process typically starts with a roll-forward of the current budget, the first step in building an annual budget is to determine a district’s overall revenue and expense estimates. Budget staff work closely with budget owners (such as schools, departments, and programs) to ensure an accurate expense forecast for the remainder of the year and to identify any known cost changes (like negotiated salary/benefit increases, purchased service contract changes, etc.).
Identify and Prioritize Budget Changes
Whether a district is having to make reductions or is in a position to add new funding, collaboration is needed to determine which strategies to adjust. Budget adjustments are typically first recommended by budget owners as a proposal. Then district leadership, along with input from the community and board, must decide which new strategies are believed to have the greatest impact on student achievement — or, conversely, which areas of budget reduction would be least impactful.
Prioritization conversations are often difficult regardless of the financial situation in a district. Operational budget changes (like the cost of a new transportation route or a new security system at the central office) are often prioritized alongside strategies that seem to have a more direct connection to kids (new curriculum, additional teachers, or classroom technology). The expertise of the practitioners should be leveraged to fully understand the likely impact of changes to the budget and ultimately the strategic plan of the district.
While the format and level of engagement can vary district to district, communities and Board members also play a vital role in this phase. As the overall budget plan is developed, input from a variety of external stakeholders is gathered to ensure overall support of the plan.
Site Level Budget Development
Once the overall strategy is developed, and fund-by-fund allocations are determined, principals and department and program managers are called back into action to divvy up their budgets into line-item detail. This typically happens over the course of several weeks using Excel spreadsheets to assign dollars and headcount to a large, complicated account string. Here, collaboration takes place in the form of emails back and forth from budget manager to stakeholders and additional communication with finance staff to ensure the spreadsheets are completed accurately, on time, by the various rules of district funding sources.
Data Validation and Budget Adoption
After the process of completing spreadsheets concludes, it’s all hands on deck for district finance offices to reconcile account codes, load budget information into the financial system, and ensure the master budget is accurately reported. This process can sometimes take weeks.
After the budget is accurately reflected in the financial system, standard reporting packages are produced to propose the budget to the Board of Education. If all goes as planned, the budget is adopted. If not, it’s back to the village to make adjustments as necessary.
The steps above may vary from district to district, but whatever path your process follows, a multitude of integral stakeholders will be involved in your budget adoption process. The ability to collaborate and communicate throughout that timeline is of vital importance to the efficient development of a strategic budget.
Currently, few tools exist to allow for multiple inputs and participants into the budget creation process. Instead, these inputs are gathered via lengthy email chains and Excel spreadsheets that are often fraught with errors, misinterpretations, and confusion, all of which makes an already complicated process even more challenging. Balance | Budget solves this problem with a user-friendly online interface that allows for varying levels of input from multiple users into a district’s budget development process.
About the Author
Kate Kotaska is a Senior District Partner for Allovue, Inc. Before joining Allovue, Kate spent the majority of her career in Denver Public Schools shaping the district’s resource allocation model and building a backbone of financial support known as the Financial Partner Network. As DPS’ Executive Director of Budget and Finance, Kate was responsible for streamlining the district’s budget process to maximize stakeholder engagement and transparency. Kate earned her undergraduate degree from Pace University in Pleasantville, NY.