How to Produce an Epic Financial StoryPosted on Apr 5, 2018 9:00:00 AM
As the finance administrator of the district, having a good story and visuals is perhaps even more important than other roles, as you are constantly responsible for developing strategies. Even the best, most thought out, strategies are only as good as your ability to align the organization and stakeholders behind them. If there’s no buy-in, there’s no implementation.
So, “How can I turn budget numbers into a good story?” you may ask. That’s a good question. The following is your guide to producing an epic financial story.
Connect the Dots
Have you ever been part of a board session where hours were devoted to the discussion of field trips, classroom purchases, curriculum changes, etc., only to have your budget proposal approved in minutes? There was a time when this was viewed as a positive; not anymore. This sad reality exists because a.) many board members don’t understand school finance and b.) the school budget is viewed as a standalone entity. Business officials need to change this paradigm and make their boards and stakeholders care about the district’s financials. Connecting financial operations with curricular decisions is a great starting point. Look at your strategic plan with the various initiatives – does your budget align? A community member should be able to look at a school district’s budget and have a good sense for what is being prioritized in the strategic plan before even looking at it. Does your budget reflect district goals? Does your board understand this?
How to Effectively Prepare and Communicate Your Budget Presentation to Stakeholders
Look Backwards to Move Forwards
Another, related idea, is to look backwards at previous years’ budgets and ask – did outcomes match dollars invested? Did the dollars invested in Project X produce the outcomes we were hoping for? If not, how are we adjusting? What might we do differently with those dollars? Thinking along these lines and asking these types of questions will not only lead to sound budget development processes for the entire organization, but will also lead to more engagement, excitement, and understanding from the board and community.
Use Visualizations to Bring Your Story to Life
If you are the chief school business official for your district, while you wear many hats when it comes to your interactions with your Board or community, one of your primary activities will be storytelling and presenting data. Whether it is the budget, tax levy, audit, collective bargaining comparatives, or just your monthly Treasurer’s Report, the ability to effectively tell your story will benefit you and your district as your peers can attest.
Saad Bawany, the Data Analyst at Oak Park Elementary District 97 states, “the use of peer groups and comparative analysis did wonders for our referendum committee. Not only did it help us internally evaluate our financial performance compared to similar districts, but also for presenting to the community. We were able to communicate that we had been good stewards of the local tax dollars from the last referendum while also displaying the impact of rising costs and ballooning enrollment that necessitated another referendum.”
Retired Associate Superintendent for Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115, Allen Albus recounts an instance where a visualization changed the outcome of a board vote: “A few years ago, a couple members of the Board stated that they were going to propose a levy below the product of the Tax Cap formula. In anticipation, the Administration used a simple illustration to show why the district should levy the full amount allowed under the formula. The graph illustrated how other local and state revenue sources had been decreasing since the beginning of the recession. After the administrative presentation, the Board voted 7-0 to approve the levy as presented. Later, one of the board members stated that the graphics presented made him change his mind.”
These types of data storytelling successes are not uncommon, but also are not skills that develop overnight. Own your data, strategize how best to present it and create an environment where it integrates with the priorities that your board and community have established for the district. Lastly, leverage your peers. Colleagues both within and outside your organization can provide valuable feedback and a fresh set of eyes that is not as immersed in the data as you are.
Steve Miller is a Senior Product Manager for Forecast5 Analytics, Inc. – a technology company focused on providing decision support solutions for the public sector. Steve has spent his entire 20+ year career in school district finance as an auditor, chief school business official and consultant and currently manages Forecast5’s 5Sight data analytics product. Steve is a CPA and CSBO with a Bachelors in Accounting from the University of Illinois and a Masters in Education Administration from North Illinois University