By James Graham
This article was originally published in the October 2002 School Business Affairs.
Are you an artist?
This may seem like a strange question to ask a group of professionals thought more to be "bean counters" than Rembrandts, but the question is valid nonetheless. Of course, the answer is yes. Like an artist, creativity is an integral part of the work that we do. As we all know too well, everyday can be an adventure, and no two days are alike. We need to be creative to solve budget problems, deal with upset employees or citizens, problem solve maintenance issues, etc.
One of the areas thought not to be traditionally a haven for the creative is the annual budget. I'm not talking about the persistent rumor that I have creatively hidden a million dollars somewhere in the budget that no one can find; I'm speaking of the document itself.
HISTORY OF THE MBA PROGRAM
The Meritorious Budget Award Program was developed in 1995 for the purpose of promoting and recognizing excellence in school budget presentation. Since 1995, the program has grown substantially with 51 school districts receiving the award for the 2001-2002 fiscal year.
As stated in ASBO's Web site: The Meritorious Budget Awards Program encourages and recognizes excellence in school system budgeting. This comprehensive program teaches school business administrators the latest in school system budget presentation techniques. Participants build solid skills in developing, analyzing and presenting a school system budget. Those who successfully complete this program receive the prestigious Meritorious Budget Award; enhance the credibility of their budget with their superintendent, school board and community; and boost the professionalism of their budget staff.
The Meritorious Budget Award (MBA) is the "sister" award to the Certificate of Excellence (COE) in Financial Reporting, or as I like to say, the MBA document is the "cradle" of the fiscal year and the COE is the "grave". (I could make a CPA joke here, but I will refrain.)
I'm sure that most business officials are familiar with the MBA program and have possibly even gone to one of the training sessions at the annual conference or at a State conference. What I would like to focus on is not the mechanics of the program, but what it really takes to develop an award winning budget and the impact that the document could have on your school district, community, and yourself.
If I had a nickel for every time I have heard "I can't do an MBA document, my staff is too small", I would have enough money to buy a ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals, (i.e., a small fortune). Seriously, I think going from a more traditional school budget to an MBA document can be daunting. So why do it? I won't say "because it's there" (since most of us know what happened to George Mallory), but I can think of a few reasons.
IMPACT ON THE ORGANIZATION
In my previous life as a Finance Director for a local municipality, I wanted to get the Governmental Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Distinguished Budget Award. I don't really remember what caused me to want to do this; maybe it was just to prove to myself that I could. Anyway, the municipality did receive the award in 1989 and I subsequently moved on to my school district job. I recently went to visit some of my old colleagues at their new offices, and right on the main wall of the new building was the 1989 award plaque. Unfortunately, my successors did not continue with the program, but the municipality still thought enough of the 13-year-old award to place it prominently for all the employees and community to see.
It is no different for my school district. From the Board of Education to the teachers and staff, everyone is proud of the award. I got a call today while I was writing this article (due in three hours) from a teacher who meant to call the main number. "By the way" he said, "Congratulations on the award."
Our Curriculum Department likes to use many acronyms and phrases to talk about the changes in curriculum in our district, and the one word that has stuck with me is systemic change. I believe the MBA document and the preparation of it have caused systemic change in our district.
First of all, we do a much better job in financial planning for the district. In fact, this process has forced all departments to work together so that we can reconcile district and departmental goals with our financial resources. This wasn't always done effectively before. Also, we have become proficient in long-term forecasting for everything from bus and equipment purchases, to capital projects and major curriculum purchasing.
In the "old" days of what we called "feast or famine", there was little planning. As dollars became available, they we spent on the many needs that existed. When dollars became scarce, there were budget cuts, layoffs, etc. This is an example of why the forecasting requirement of the MBA document is so critical.
We also make it easy for all staff and community to see our level of productivity. That is, the resources that go in (dollars) and the system output (test scores, quality of building and grounds, etc.) The document also allows us to describe the assumptions we are making and what might go wrong if our assumptions change.
The MBA award, like the COE award, absolutely adds credibility to you and your district. As an example of this, I can remember a few years ago speaking to a friend who was a teacher in another district and asking him about their Business Manager. He responded by saying "Well I know he has received awards, so I guess he must be doing a good job". I think this sentiment is common is our district as well.
I also think that the fact the MBA program is relatively new, your district could likely be in the minority in terms of MBA recipients in your State. This would put your district in the company of a select few, and again, add credibility to what you do everyday. Also, something happens when Board Members or Superintendents go to their State and National Conferences. Suddenly what they stated to you as "your" (i.e., business official's) award becomes "our" (i.e. district's) award when they speak proudly to their colleagues.
One final note about the superintendent and board of education: If your Superintendent or board member is on the receiving end of the above mentioned conversation, you might find yourself being asked to participate in the program. Therefore, if you are thinking about getting involved and doing it without being requested, that credibility quotient will shoot up. On the other hand, if you are asked to prepare the document, maybe you can hold out for that additional help you have been requesting. You never know.
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT (I.E., JOB SECURITY)
I probably shouldn't bring this up, since this should not be the motivating factor to getting involved with the program, but it is nonetheless a reality. I can say with complete assurance that if I were to leave my current district, that the Board of Education and Superintendent would want a Business Administrator that has received the award previously. Conversely, winning the award is certainly a boost to any future endeavors. I remember back when I interviewed for my current position thinking I had no chance since I didn't have any school district experience. To my surprise, I was offered the position. The Accounting Supervisor, who was on the interview team, indicated to me that one of the reasons they chose me versus others with school experience was the municipal budget award that I had received.
IT'S NOT SO BAD
Really. As a member of the Meritorious Budget Award Advisory Committee, we are constantly suggesting that someone interested in the program should start a year early and begin gathering the necessary information to meet the program criteria. In my case, I spend a few concentrated months and got things together. In other words, it really depends on what type of person you are; organized and methodical (not me) or a procrastinator with a messy desk, who pulls the occasional all-nighter (me).
My best advice would be to look at the criteria as well as a copy of an award winning budget, and check off the "stuff" that you already have somewhere in your district. I think you would be surprised to find out that you are really closer than you think to meeting the criteria. Back in 1995 when there were very little resources to prepare an MBA budget, I think it was more difficult to get involved with the program. Presently, there are multiple examples of MBA documents that Business Officials can review, the ability to have a mentor assist you with developing the budget, the book "Standards of Excellence in Budget Presentation" available from ASBO, as well as workshops at the National and sometimes State level.
The first year is truly the hardest year. Once you have your information in place and have won the award, you will be spending most of your time updating the information. However, I think to be truly effective it is worthwhile to "tweak" the document each year. For example in my District, we have a new theme every year. One year, we had a contest for elementary kids to draw pictures for the cover and dividers, another year we had historical documents, yet another year we highlighted a new school building in the district.
The nice thing about the MBA program is that there are so many ways to meet the program criteria. I have yet to see two budgets that looked anything alike. It can truly be an act of artistic impression.
You will use the thing. Like me, I'm sure you have reports that committees worked days on end to complete that end up sitting on shelves with no one looking at them, ever. This will not happen with an MBA document. One of the pleasant results of having the document is the amount of time you save looking up stuff. Enrollment information for past three years? Got it. Board goals? Got it. Capital Improvement projects? Got it. It's like the old Prego commercial, "It's in there."
Another benefit is the lack of questioning and suspicion. We had a public hearing this year to discuss the spending plan for over $46 million. We had not one question. The Board of Education adopted the budget at the next meeting. Again, no questions, just congratulations on a well-prepared document. You would think that providing a 193-page document would result in numerous questions, but the opposite is true. I have been told of years long ago when the budget was a green bar report which did little to pacify the packed board meetings with people demanding to know where the money was being spent. As the Superintendent said last week to me, "$46 million and no questions? That is amazing!"
I have to make one more point. I can hear you out there saying, "Well, it's 193 pages; I bet no one reads it; that's why there are no questions. Aha, got you!" The truth is that the document must be readable and understandable to the general public. This is critical to the success of the document. In addition, there is a concise executive summary that gives a brief but thorough glimpse of the budget. I will agree that many readers might not venture far past the summary, but they probably don't need to.
The benefits I have received in the past seven years of involvement in the MBA program has far exceeded the work I put into it. No question.
SO, WHAT NOW?
Check out ASBO's Website or call Vee Boehringer at ASBO (866/ 682-2729, x7069) for additional information and get started on your masterpiece.
James Graham is a former Chair of ASBO International's Meritorious Budget Awards Committee.