One of our former school budget officials reflects on his work in the system.
My first annual budget for the school board was prepared on accounting paper using a pencil with hand-written notes for explanations. Erasers were an essential commodity when the budget was being prepared. I’ve worked in a district that initially followed the traditional centralized model of budgeting but converted to a decentralized model with the introduction of system consultation with its stakeholders. We went to spreadsheets and finally to software, but it’s not the technology that ensures a good budget. What really constitutes a meaningful budget…a budget that will aim us in the direction we want to go and provide the scaffolding to support us on the journey?
A great budget results from a process when information flows freely in an open system that allows stakeholders to express their needs and their values, and where honesty and transparency characterize that process. A great budget ensures that the input of school and site administrators precedes the creation of the budget blueprint and then assigns the responsibility to meet the targets with the allocated resources. A good budget acknowledges the obstacles and challenges individuals to collaborate to overcome them.
A budget process that looks to the future in terms of direction and allows flexibility to accommodate emergent circumstances is stronger than a 5-year strategic planning document impervious to change. A strong budget process builds in stability around shared purpose and has a plan for succession. Communication needs to be ongoing with decision–makers clearly understanding their responsibility. An accountability mechanism supports the responsible use of resources in an organization and increases the trust of the staff as well as the public.
In my work with software implementations I recall how an administrator of a school district did not want to reveal some of the allocation details with the implementation of MBF because it disclosed the inconsistencies of the subjective decisions to distribute the system’s resources. Here is evidence that the most elegant technology will not support effective budgeting where there is unprincipled leadership. Where there are hidden agendas the resulting budget is a house of cards.
In another instance, seeing a financial manager with an unofficial real budget versus the approved public document was disconcerting to me as a former school business official. I am so pleased the transparency of MBF through the web-based process does not permit that practice to continue. Certainly web-based software is a tremendous boon to the entire budgeting operation from beginning to end, but its effectiveness, at the end of the day, will depend on the same honesty, trust and transparency that have characterized good stewardship for decades.