Everyone wants to make sure taxpayer dollars are being well spent. But how do schools determine what it means to spend money well?
Alberta Education currently operates under its “Accountability Pillar,” which measures schools’ success in achieving provincially set benchmarks to determine whether funding is being effectively spent. Every year, boards need to complete a three-year education plan as the basis for their assessment.
But while accountability makes sense, the process can make planning and budgeting a centralized, top-down affair. That’s why engaging everyone involved with student education, including parents and teachers, is essential. Enter: the assurance model.
“We need to engage parents, students and staff in these three-year plans, as well as provide proof that we’re achieving our plan,” explains Ryan Stierman, Secretary Treasurer and CFO at the Elk Island Catholic School Division in Sherwood Park. “It’s about putting things in place to assure the community that their voices are heard.”
Alberta’s first assurance model pilots began in 2013, and Stierman’s division joined in 2015. Under the assurance model, a district’s goals and strategies are formed collaboratively with its stakeholders. Frontline staff are also empowered to make essential choices that affect the district’s overall budget and education plan.
For the Elk Island Catholic School Division, the model is driven by three principles: distributed decision-making, transparency and stakeholder engagement.
Districts empower frontline staff to make budget decisions, rather than waiting on allocations from the district’s central office.
“We have a policy where we expect that the people closest to the decision, whether that’s a teacher or a principal, should be able to make that decision,” says Stierman.
For example, a principal would no longer have to go the district’s central office to hire an education assistant for a student with special needs. Instead, he would already have access to a pool of qualified assistants and funding at his disposal when creating budgets with staff.
In combination with increased leadership training to make sure that staff are ready to make these decisions, the result of distributed decision making is a more dynamic, proactive process.
Transparency makes every other part of the assurance model possible by building credibility among stakeholders. All of the financial implications of budget decisions are available to the public.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re willing to provide the public with raw data,” says Stierman. “We share all of our division, school and department plans, which is unique. Even for Central Learning Services departments, we share our work plans that tie the strategies of the district to our budgets.”
This openness provides a way of justifying school fees and funds, but it also has larger implications for the assurance model when it comes to stakeholder engagement.
Genuine Stakeholder engagement
Unlike traditional, top-down funding models, the assurance model begins by consulting with the people most affected. For example, when it came time to restructure the district’s schools, the Elk Island Catholic School Divisions used a system called EICS TALKS to solicit feedback from the community. One of the questions asked community members to rank their priorities.
“By engaging our stakeholders, we were able to restructure schools throughout the community in a way that greatly enhanced our ability to provide education services and that was widely accepted by the community,” says Stierman. “EICS TALKS was so successful that it was utilised again to create the Division’s strategic priorities with stakeholders.”
Once stakeholders have helped craft school district priorities and its frontline staff are empowered to best use their own resources, the district’s leadership has to be able to monitor these decisions and adjust the budget accordingly.
MyBudgetFile’s integration with financial systems make it possible to track each allocation adjustment back to a specific person. The division is using its performance planning module to have school leaders link their budget to the specific priorities within their plan. This alignment allows the division to report back to stakeholders on how it is actually investing its resources in the co-created priorities.
“In the past, people would do their budget in May, then the three-year education plan would be done in November,” explains Stierman. “So we’d have our budget driving our education plan, whereas now it’s our education plan driving our budgeting.”
From initially engaging parents to providing ongoing empowerment and transparency, the assurance model is a powerful tool for the future of education. And the results speak for themselves.
“We’ve dramatically improved the efficiency of our operations,” says Stierman. “We’re going in and empowering our staff to make important decisions for themselves.”
For further information on the Assurance Model click here.
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