In today’s education climate, many budget owners see the need to invest in a financial management and budgeting tool that can not only save them from the tedium of legacy systems, but meet changing regulations. Here are seven considerations compiled by education finance experts to guide you through the selection process and help you choose the right partner.
Conduct an internal audit.
Before you can begin evaluating potential vendors, evaluate your budgeting process as it stands today. Any new software should solve the challenges you’re experiencing with your current process.
- What are your pain points that hinder productivity, data integrity, or security?
- Do you have trouble building and sharing reports in a timely manner?
- Does your current process consume a large amount of time and resources from staff better suited for other district priorities?
Then, seriously consider each department and district employee that will be affected by the new budgeting tool and identify all the ways the new tool should be able to address their present challenges.
- Does your CFO and Superintendent need to be able to view and approve all budgets?
- Should your finance directors be able to oversee the budgeting process with summarized data on FTE count, total allocated and planned dollars?
- Would you like principals to be able to use it to monitor spending?
- Will central office be able to view current spending and forecast accurately for the next fiscal year?
Lastly, budget with your strategic plan in mind. List out the priorities and goals your district needs to accomplish within the next school year, 5 years from now, and even 10 years into the future and make sure the new budgeting tool can help align your budget with those goals.
- If your district plans to align your budget with your strategic plan, will this tool enable you to pinpoint the financial drivers of your strategic goals and help you evaluate the effectiveness of your plan?
- Are you hoping to be able to allocate funding based on student need?
- Do you desire to empower budget owners to take ownership of their resources and make strategic budgeting decisions?
With a clear vision of where you are today, and a list of goals for where you want to be tomorrow, you can embark on a targeted search for vendors to support your near-term and long-term goals.
The team behind the product.
A product is only as good as the team behind it, so evaluate not only their capabilities, but their reputation. Ideally, you should aim to find companies that are K-12 specific, as these will be able to offer a solution that is built to address the complexities associated with your specific district, and will be knowledgeable about changes in mandates, laws, and policies. Working with K-12 finance experts and not just a typical account executive gives you unparalleled support to be given on-going strategic consulting on key issues for your district. Professional development provided by industry experts allows your team to grow and thrive.
Compatibility and implementation.
Once you’ve begun interviewing potential vendors, you may find yourself asking this question often: Can you work with my existing accounting and finance system?
An ideal financial management and budgeting vendor should have experience integrating their software with a variety of accounting and finance systems. Compatibility of your existing system with the proposed tool is critical as it improves your staff’s adoption rates, helping the district realize increased efficiency and a greater return on investment.
Additionally, ask the vendor explicit questions about their implementation plan.
- Is it a costly custom solution?
- How much time from your team is required to get it up and running?
Be careful not to assume that your IT department will be able to own and handle any maintenance associated with the new tool. Many IT departments are wary of software vendors who launch a product and then leave the rest for them to figure out, so it’s best if the implementation plan leverages the vendor’s own resources. Understand when your team needs to be involved, and how much time your team needs to spend for configuration. This may mean making sure that IT is heavily involved in the initial conversations with the vendor, including setting up and configuring the tool.
Lastly, ask about the implementation timeline to make sure it aligns with the timing expectations of your district. If you need a solution in place and ready to go within 45 days, 90 days, or before next year’s budget season, make that clear to potential vendors and see if their implementation plan can accommodate your timeline.
Support and training.
Procuring a new budgeting and financial management tool can be expensive, so the ideal vendor should support and train your staff throughout the life of your partnership. Look for vendors to provide ongoing, multi-level training and support for your finance managers and school-level administrators as part of your standard license fee. Inquire as to whether the company offers additional forms of support including on-site training, professional development, and strategic consulting.
Count the cost.
Investing in a budgeting software is generally a long-term commitment between your district and the vendor, so you need to be aware of the cost for each year you use the product, as well as any other subsequent charges. Find out if all the functionalities your district will need are included in the quoted cost. Additionally, make sure to discuss any changes that you predict for your district and gauge how that may affect the cost in the future.
- Are you expecting an increase in enrollment within the next few years? What about a sudden decrease (e.g. the opening of a new charter school)?
- Are there plans to change or upgrade other internal systems that may interface with and affect the budgeting tool in the future?
- How expensive will it be to add additional users?
Thoroughly consider any licensing fees, implementation costs, customizations and maintenance over time with all vendors to make sure there are no hidden costs.
Collaboration is key.
A successful budgeting tool should engender a collaborative environment, allowing members of your district to develop staffing and spending plans aligned to district goals. Such an environment should propel your district from using archaic spreadsheets and utilize a user-friendly infrastructure that creates collaborative budgeting.
Ask potential vendors if their proposed tool will allow for real-time access to budget updates across departments or cost centers. This ability will eliminate the instances of having duplicate copies, inaccurate data or broken formulas, all common with spreadsheet budgeting techniques. Additionally, inquire if the proposed tool allows for bulk-adjustments made to salaries, benefits, or allocations to be applied across the board to all applicable budgets. This will ensure that budget owners within your district are viewing and working from the latest version of your budget at all times.
The impending ESSA regulations will require a new level of reporting for district finances. Inquire as to whether the proposed budgeting tool can support your district in that effort.
- Can it generate reports that analyze actual spending by location, student characteristics, academic performance, and other factors to better understand whether resource allocation processes are supporting fiscal equity?
- Will it create public profiles for each school in your district to better understand spending patterns at the school-level and in comparison to district averages?
- Does it allow you to have productive conversations with members of your community, explaining how school expenditures compare to the district average and peer schools?
Get ahead of the reporting curve by investing in a budgeting tool that will allow you to create your budget by location and fund from the beginning.