Expert Viewpoint

How Schools Can Score High on Their ESSA Financial Report Cards

As the winter season is in full swing, so is the academic year — students are opening their textbooks, sharpening their pencils and setting goals for the year ahead. Students and teachers aren’t the only ones who have to worry about evaluations this year. Several new key reporting mandates outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a K-12 education policy that aims to establish equal opportunity for all students, will now be a requirement of schools.

One of the developments to ESSA’s new list of benchmarks requires schools to deliver financial reports that break out funding at the school-level — a task that was previously reported at the district-level. By December 31, 2019, each individual school must present their fiscal year budgets through an online report card. That end of year deadline will be here before you know it.

The shift from district-level to school-level reporting is new territory for school administrators. And because legacy and manual systems are likely still being used to report and process the critical data related to budget spending — administrators are likely feeling overwhelmed by the ask. Additional factors that could make this a particularly difficult task this first year include:

  • Categorizing costs: School district spending is not always easily split into specific spend categories. For instance, a school bus that stops at different schools within a district might require funding from several schools’ budgets.

  • Data transparency concerns: Some school leaders are worried that this new reporting requirement might reveal real or perceived funding differences in schools across districts and neighborhoods. Although these disparities may be justified, they might be difficult to explain to parents and civil rights advocates based on the raw numbers being reported on paper.

While there are certainly challenges that come with this new requirement, reporting accurately and on time is going to be crucial. If schools are unable to meet the deadline due to disparate and potentially inaccurate data, they may miss out on funding for critical programs.

ESSA was established to advance equity and excellence throughout our schools across the nation. These new reporting requirements shouldn’t take away from all the good this program is meant to inspire and drive. In order to meet the reporting deadline and address the challenges that come with the new mandate, I offer the following “ABCs” of advice to help school administrators get ready to comply with ESSA requirements come December and beyond:

  1. Automate processes where you can: Automating common processes tied to major budget line items like travel, expenses and invoices can not only save administrators time managing these areas of spend, but also provide a more accurate view into spend data. Another benefit is reducing the chances of human error, which can compromise the accuracy of the data you’re reviewing and reporting. Advanced technologies such as machine learning can take automation one step further by analyzing mobile receipts to automatically populate typical data fields on expense reports for employees, so they don’t have to manually enter that information line by line.

  1. Be a steward of your data destiny: This requires two key steps. First, centralize all data so you have more informed insights to draw from. Connecting and aggregating all spend data ensures administrators are getting a more comprehensive view, leading to more accurate, representative insights, that can then easily be presented as part of a schools’ mandatory annual ESSA reporting. As we all know, data insights are only as good as what is put in, so setting data input parameters is equally important. To improve oversight into and understanding of employee-initiated spending (such as teachers purchasing classroom supplies or attending a workshop), set parameters around data input, such as defining the required receipt type and expense itemizations. Some schools find success by establishing a school purchasing card program, which makes it possible to automatically import transactions into an expense management system.

  1. Collaborate across departments and districts (and consider mobile tools): Data silos are often a byproduct of siloed departments. This can mean leaders from different groups are unable to access or are simply unaware of sources of information that can lead to smarter spend management. School administrators should encourage “data democratization” among employees across HR, IT and finance units to ensure decisions are being made based on comprehensive data and shared goals. Not only does cross-team collaboration give you richer insights, it can also open doors to unexpected efficiencies and savings across schools in a given district. Mobile tools can also help employees manage spend and access information on the go. For example, eliminate lost receipts and inaccurate expenses by equipping employees with mobile apps that can capture receipts by simply taking a picture. This encourages employees to input data in a timelier manner, allowing for a more current view of spend. Even better, find a tool that allows administrators to review and approve invoices on the go via a mobile app.

By letting intuitive technology do the heavy lifting, breaking down silos, and putting simple but effective reporting processes in place, schools can address the challenges of the new ESSA reporting requirements head on — providing clear and transparent information that impacts critical measures surrounding school equity. This new mandate should make local school leaders feel empowered to look at school-level data in new ways that ultimately improve decision making for the benefit of students, teachers and parents alike.

About the Author

Dave Ballard is Senior Vice President of Public Sector, SAP Concur.