2020 was the toughest year to date for many charter schools. The global pandemic limited available resources, and while spending on PPE increased, access to funding and grants has significantly decreased.
Consequently, charter schools abandoned important goals, adjusted staffing, and drastically reduced budgets. To ensure every dollar is accounted for in 2021, financial leaders at charter schools are rethinking their entire financial strategy. In a short space of time, they’re finding new ways to simplify processes and improve efficiencies to retain the one thing that’s required when all is uncertain – adaptability.
Procurify sat down with two veteran charter school executives in a fireside chat. At the event, they shared their experience on managing multiple campuses, working with governing boards, and modernizing outdated back-office procedures. They also explain how to use procurement technology to make sure every dollar goes towards bettering the educational experience for your school and your students.
Here are the key takeaways from the event.
Meet the speakers
Director of Operations, A+ Charter Schools
Damon Norris worked in procurement in Fortune 500 companies such as Nestle before starting his career in education. His passion for improving processes, operations and cutting costs in schools led him to become a purchasing manager at Legacy Traditional Schools. Today, he is the Director of Memberships at the Arizona Charter School Association.
Founder/CEO – Lotus Training and Consulting Group
Rob Di Bacco has garnered a wide variety of business and education experience over his 25-year career. He is currently the CEO and co-founder of Lotus Training & Consulting Group, a consulting organization dedicated to helping schools, nonprofits, and small businesses achieve organizational excellence. In this role, he has helped schools design and implement effective marketing plans, and improved analysis so that they can better understand academic data.
Alice Ko, CPA, CA (Moderator)
Ex-Director of Marketing Communications
Alice Ko, CPA, CA, was the Director of Marketing Communications at Procurify. She launched her career in audit at KPMG before working in a number of different in-house accounting and finance roles across the US and Canada. Alice now bridges her background in audit, analytics, and finance to help B2B and tech organizations build strategic and scalable marketing and content plans with a focus on generating leads and meeting targets.
The key takeaways from the webinar
Our fireside chat with Rob and Damon came with some very real and very stark revelations around the financial state of play for charter schools in 2021. This year, every cent must count.
Here are some of the key takeaways from our conversation.
1. Make every cent count in 2021
“I think the hardest thing for charter schools right now is the lack of funding and the lack of understanding of funding,” Damon explains. “Unfortunately, there’s not enough money to go around as we’re trying to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. And so a lot of schools are seeing reduced budgets, which constrains you in multiple ways from getting technology to do online virtual schools and so forth.”
Damon sums this sentiment up with a one-sentence reality check:
“I think that’s one of the biggest issues that we see currently is just being able to afford everything.”
In 2021, charter schools won’t receive the budgets needed to strongly bounce back from the pandemic. And as COVID-19 continues to rage across much of the country, budgets will continue to remain restricted. Because of this, charter schools have to fight against a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ mentality and prove their academic gains.
“One of the things that charter schools across the country will struggle with in the upcoming year because of the pandemic is recovering from some of the academic gains that they’ve had over the past 20 years,” says Rob. “They’ve really had to fight to show their effectiveness across the country. They’ve also made significant gains in the academic areas, and especially since a lot of the charter schools across the country focus on lower income students and at-risk students.”
Rob continues, “It’s been a lot harder to show their academic gains over these years and with the pandemic and losing some of that steam, I think that charters really need to focus a lot more on proving these academic gains moving forward.”
2. Analyze your spend and allocate resources efficiently
“With the pandemic, there’s been a lot of unanticipated expenses and not only for charter schools, but nonprofits really across the board where you live and die by your budgets,” Rob explains. “Even though we have a lot of these additional burdens with costs, I think that one of the opportunities within this financing and funding space is to do a comprehensive analysis of where you’re spending your money.”
By dedicating time to better understanding where you’re spending, charter schools can begin making prioritized spending decisions. In short, they can free up resources in one area to pay for resources in another.
As Rob explains during the event:
“I just think you need to understand things at the thirty thousand foot level and then,
as you get a better understanding of each of your spend buckets, you can really start questioning the impact that each of these dollars has on the outcomes you’re looking for.”
3. Keep it simple and prioritize operational efficiencies
“As a charter school, we have to remember to think simply,” explains Damon. “Schools have a tendency to over complicate any process that we come up with. So, work with a small group of your admin to try to figure out where the efficiencies are, where the waste is at. But think simple, not everything is as a mission to Mars.”
Spending hours trying to figure out where to save money is one thing, but making sure you find effective ways to implement that change across the charter school is another. As Damon continues, “Don’t spend hours figuring out how to create a flowchart to figure things out. Keep it quick, nimble, and simple.”
4. Source and implement practical technological solutions
“I think technology really can help you in the evolution within your school,” says Damon. “This pandemic has shown us a lot of ways that we can use technology to help out our school. I have teachers saying that their job has never been easier when it comes to entering grades or putting things into this. And while they are fearful of using technology before, they’ve adapted to it and it’s making things more streamlined than it ever has been.”
But technology isn’t only the answer to classroom teaching. As Rob explains, “schools use software for our attendance, marketing, communications, procurement, finances. I mean, there’s a thousand different things.”
Without the right culture, however, adoption of new softwares is going to be tricky. “One of the things I’ve noticed is this gap that we just assume people know how to use the technology efficiently and a lot of people don’t,” says Rob.
At the end of the day, you need to support your teachers and your staff and offer the appropriate training in order for both user adoption and operational efficiencies to exist.
Want to hear how Damon digitized his school’s procurement process? Read this interview with him.
5. Track your budgets in real time in 2021
“We’re always looking for past months and past years to track our current budget,” explains Rob, “and one of the things I don’t see a lot of is real-time budget tracking. And this is where we get into the nitty gritty of how we’re managing our budget.”
Finding a solution that offers real-time budget tracking is an imperative for charter school success in 2021. As Rob continues to explain during the event, you need to know exactly how much you have built into your budget, and you need to know if the state’s going to give you money or not. It’s not about understanding whether they’ve previously given you money. He summarizes:
“By really understanding where you are right in the moment, that’s one of the most effective and efficient ways of obviously tracking your budget.”
6. Spend time streamlining your purchasing process
“Obviously a lot of schools use accounting software and put their budgets into that accounting software. Some schools still have Excel spreadsheets everywhere though,” says Rob.
According to a poll we ran during the event, 46 percent of attendees still use paper purchase orders, and 46 percent use procurement software. “I think you can realize savings faster when you’re doing it electronically,” Damon explains. “I would run as fast as I could from a paper procurement system and as quickly as I can.”
Rob was quick to agree with Damon’s point. He explains that an e-procurement solution frees up time so charter schools can analyze and lead. “That’s really where we need to get people,” he explains. “Your role is to analyze that and then lead based off of that data, not make sure all of it gets inputted into the system. You’re wasting time by doing that.”
Overall, charter schools need to become fiscally responsible in 2021
Prior to the pandemic, the expectation on fiscal responsibility was low. Schools could get away with more non-essential purchases, for example, and processes didn’t need to be digitized.
But 2020 changed all that, and today, charter schools must account for every cent in order to be as sustainable as possible. But, this all starts with ‘why’. “I think what you need to do is focus on why,” explains Rob. “Focus on why you want to be more fiscally responsible as a school. And the reasons that are top of mind for me are so that you can complete your mission or vision for your organization.”
By keeping focus on the reason you exist as a charter school, you can drive your mission better to serve students of the school. And that’s where fiscal responsibility really comes into play. We’ll give Rob the last word:
“Quite simply, if you’re managing your back of the house, well, the front of the house isn’t going to excel, and that’s really why you need to focus.”
If you’d like to watch this webinar, you can register for it here.