Jordan Ely has been the Chief Finance and Operations Officer with Ashland Public Schools for three years and has been a power user of Balance for the past year. Our Director of Talent and Operations, Crystal Coache sat down with him to discuss some of the challenges facing Ashland and similar smaller school districts, his thoughts on ESSA implementation, and his favorite Balance feature!
What continues to excite you about your work in education finance?
I work well under pressure backed up against a deadline, and that defines this type of work almost exclusively: the community wants information by a certain time, the budget must be done by a certain time, the board needs a report. I love the pressure.
Combine the fast pace and pressure with the feeling that I am serving a greater purpose working in education, and you get a happy me. Education is the best tool in a capitalist economy to break down barriers. I like capitalism, but it only works when you understand the mechanisms within it. For America to thrive, education and equal access is necessary or you’ll have big problems, not unlike some of the problems we have today.
When you first arrived in Ashland, what challenges was the district facing and what were your priorities?
Education entities in general face the same macro challenges persistently. The biggest challenge education entities have is expenditure growth outpacing revenue growth. Healthcare costs are going up. Pension costs are going up. People are working longer than they used to, so you have experienced employees and expensive payrolls.
Also, what schools are asked to do now is different than what they were asked to do even 20 years ago. We are now charged with providing mental health, basic medical services, law enforcement presence, and more. We are also more data driven, which is a good thing. However, data collection and standardized tests all cost money. You sort of end up in this perfect storm of increased expectations on school districts leading to increased costs. Revenue simply isn’t keeping up.
In Oregon, we presently have more financial support than ever, and some lawmakers are wondering why it’s not good enough. Ashland is a bubble of awesomeness, but our community is filling gaps left by state funding levels, and most districts do not have that luxury. I’ve learned that many politicians often don’t have the information they need to understand the magnitude of the problem. So, one of the reasons we are using Allovue’s software Balance is to help clearly show what’s happening.
Balance helps the decision makers in the district figure out how to best use resources. So, I use Balance to help our instructional leaders understand our financial paradigm and empower them to make decisions.
Everyone is busy working on ESSA. What challenges and opportunities has ESSA created for Ashland?
ESSA doesn’t worry me in theory. I agree with and appreciate the heart behind it, especially components that make us report at the site level. We would be working on that whether ESSA was a thing or not. It’s needed, especially for marginalized and underrepresented populations.
That said, I think we’re going to see some logistical issues with trying to implement it across the country. I understand the common issue that the most experienced teachers are at the posh schools, and the new ones are in the hardest schools. I like that it has forced districts to take stock of why they have inequities in the way ESSA defines it. ESSA focuses on the students and is attempting to drive out inequity, even if it makes adults uncomfortable.
However, we don’t believe it benefits students to move teachers around to ensure that every school’s ledger looks the same. And, in a unionized environment, this is not always a possibility. So we will have to be careful. Still, the legislation is causing us to consider the choices we are making, and how we will prove our underserved kids get the best of what we have and not just what is leftover.
Do you have any advice for similar sized districts preparing for ESSA?
The one universal statement I can make is that smaller districts should partner with larger districts on in-house legal counsel and have good relationships with them in general. Lean on them heavily. But—and this is important—do not try to emulate them. It’s a completely different paradigm.
In Ashland, we brag about our leanness. But in the beginning, I would look at big districts like Beaverton, Hillsboro and Portland and think “we aren’t keeping up! We need to get more central office folks.” But after talking to teachers, they don’t mind doing admininstrative tasks if it means they get to have a smaller student:teacher ratio and more education assistants. So, don’t benchmark yourself against other school districts that don’t make sense to use as a benchmark. We have some of the highest graduation rates and highest rates of students reporting that they feel safe, why would we benchmark against a district that doesn’t have those results?
Ultimately, our values should be our north star. I heard this Joe Biden quote during our Allovue kickoff, and it has been my motto ever since, “Don’t tell me your values; show me your budget, and I’ll tell you your values.” Values should be the true guide.
You’ve been with us a little while now and you’re a power user for sure. What is your favorite feature in Balance?
I adore, in general, being able to share filters. Our principals have responded very well to that. Some of them don’t get into the tool enough to remember what to do, so we continue to build their product knowledge. But it’s so easy for me to go in, figure out what everyone is wondering, set and save the filters, then share it for principals to monitor. This makes everyone happy and allows instructional leaders to focus their attention on the students they serve.
We’re so thankful to be able to partner with Jordan and school districts like Ashland who are eager to advance the equitable opportunities available for their students. To learn more about how Allovue supports districts like Ashland, reach out to Micaela using the button below.