CBOs: Predicting the future for our kids

January 15, 2019 Staff Writer

The following article was written by Sheldon Smith, assistant superintendent, Business Services, San Luis Obispo COE

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of being a Chief Business Official is the balancing act of gazing into a crystal ball as one crafts educated assumptions about future revenues, while also remaining completely aware of current-year demands on existing dollars. Anyone who has gazed at his bank balance trying to figure out how to replace the car that was just wrecked can perhaps understand how CBOs feel when faced with a new collective bargaining agreement or large expenditure.

Making these types of fiscal decisions is tough, and not all district CBOs and management teams get it right. During the 1980s, 27 California school districts found themselves with no cash for monthly payroll and other legal obligations requiring the Legislature to loan California treasury dollars to these bankrupt districts. Subsequently, in 1991, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1200 requiring numerous fiscal oversight actions. Every California school district and COE now is required to make budget revisions at least two times a year, and include multi-year projections two years into the future. Since AB 1200’s enactment, only nine loans have been afforded to school districts in the last 25 years.

There is no question that school business is complex. From the days of the one room schoolhouse, the utilization of public moneys for educating our children brings layers of complexity and accountability that are particularly endemic to school business. The intricacies are not going away, but the best method to combat them is through ongoing training for staff who is involved in the business functions of the district.

Although no CBO admits to possessing soothsaying abilities, most CBOs utilize forecasting tools such as the School Services Dartboard and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Team’s LCFF Calculator to assist with forecasting out-year revenues, so that a district or COE budget does not become fiscally overcommitted. Despite these forecasting tools, all CBOs experience a gut-check when making any large fiscal obligations that could potentially affect a district’s future fiscal solvency.

In good years when there are plenty of dollars coming from Sacramento,  people think that the CBO’s job is easier because there are dollars to alleviate every request, but in actuality it’s harder. What makes it tough for CBOs is that they must continually balance growing fiscal demands while preparing for future revenue reductions for which they have no control.

Training underlies the success of the school business office. School districts have plenty of reasons for not promoting business services training, including travel, registration expenses, the loss in hours, and finding desk coverage. Nevertheless, districts that do not have ongoing training for business staff find themselves with problems relating to filling openings and the district’s overall fiscal health. As Henry Ford says, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay…”

Look in any school administration magazine and there are plenty of advertisements for school business professionals, because it’s difficult finding experience and know-how. Unlike the certificated ranks whereby a teaching credential indicates that the applicant possesses certain skills for the position as a condition of employment, the school business field does not have that entrance requirement.

Subsequently, school districts find themselves hiring applicants from outside industries who can flip their brains from public accounting to government accounting. Unfortunately, these candidates are not well versed in the tenets and processes that keep a school district fiscally solvent. The upshot is that without the business office establishing and maintaining sound school business practices for effective communication, sound budget development, budget monitoring, ASB accounting, cash monitoring, and ADA accounting, the district finds itself with the “problem” of fiscal health.

Over the course of the last three years, the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education has partnered with ACSA and the California Association of School Business Officials by holding two 9-18 month Chief Business Official training academies, with a third program starting last October. SLOCOE hosts these academies to allow school administrators and office staff interested in school business to improve the business functions in their district, promote practices that contribute to their district’s fiscal health, and allow for employee professional growth and confidence in school business. Business offices with well-trained staff allows for promotional tracks such that when openings occur, there is not a scramble to fill the position with a school business neophyte, as there is a trained staff member ready to take the position. Additionally, business staff have the opportunity to train for their next job in their existing job, reducing the invisible force of “job entitlement.”

One tenet that we have in the SLOCOE Business Division is that to work in this department, an applicant must possess two traits; the first is that they cannot be a human hater, and the second is that the applicant has to be smarter than me. The easiest way to become smart in school business is enrolling in any ACSA or CASBO school business program offered at SLOCOE or other surrounding county offices of education.

Despite the challenges, all CBOs look forward to LCAP development in order to make future expenditures realistic and sustainable. Any CBO needs to know upcoming program demands well before LCAP budget development such that those needs are addressed in a systematic, solvent and sustainable fashion so every student benefits.

Keep all of this in mind when working with your district CBO during budget and LCAP development. It is not the present that keeps CBOs awake at night, but rather the future.

Sheldon Smith is ACSA’s 2018 School Business Administrator of the Year.

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