Digital Tools Deliver ROI for District Finance Leaders
Arthur Watts, chief school financial officer for Montgomery Public Schools
(MPS) in Alabama — the state’s third-largest district — has spent more than 25 years as a finance leader in districts big and small. In that time, he’s overseen the implementation of new technologies to help schools control spending, streamline procurement, reduce transaction costs, and achieve a variety of additional benefits. In his view, public schools can go even further in embracing digital processes:
“Private industry has been doing a lot of these things now for years,” said Watts. “And I’m so glad K–12 is catching up to some degree, because it provides us an opportunity to save tax dollars and not have to sink so much money into administrative processes.”
Increased Satisfaction for the School Community
Watts lists improved accuracy, real-time reporting and budget management capabilities, and speedier purchasing and accounts payable processes among the positive outcomes achieved through technology adoption. He also describes positive outcomes for parents and the community, illustrating that the benefits extend well beyond internal staff.
For example, MPS uses digital platform GoFan
for sports and event ticketing. Community members and students can purchase tickets to football games, school dances, and many other types of events online and cash-free. This decreases the number of event staff schools must employ for ticket selling and enables faster entry into events.
Further, through Square
, the district has gone cashless with concession sales. Patrons order and pay digitally, quickly receive their orders, and return to their seats with limited delay. Once more, the district can simultaneously improve the individual experience while decreasing staffing.
The district also uses MySchoolBucks
, a platform supporting online payment for school meals, fees, and other expenses, which boasts a customer base of over 30,000 schools reaching more than 2 million parents. Watts explains that parents are concerned when they have to send cash to school, because it may go missing or fail to reach the intended recipient. The digital system puts control back into their hands.
“Now we have happier customers,” he said. “It saves parents so much time, and the parents don’t have to worry — especially if you have a little six or seven year old — when you send them with $20 and you’re concerned … Now the money goes directly to the school’s bank account.”
Comprehensive Improvements in Financial Operations
Internally, MPS has observed technology’s positive effect on almost all areas of financial operations. Purchasing and reimbursement, in particular, is an area cited by Watts that’s a real challenge for districts nationwide. According to data provided by ClassWallet
, nearly one in five districts spend 20 or more hours per month
on purchase orders. MPS has been using ClassWallet, which bills itself as an “end-to-end solution” for everything from “purchasing school supplies to distributing microgrants” and Watts says it’s made a difference.
When all of this was done by paper, “I was probably signing off on a couple hundred purchase orders every day, or every couple days, and now I don’t have to do that anymore,” said Watts. The accounts payable (AP) department was manually processing many thousands of checks each year, as well, but electronic sorting processes have made that unnecessary. The digital process has increased efficiency to the extend that the district has no need to replace multiple AP staffers who retired earlier in the year.
Watts also highlighted additional ways technology has improved financial operations:
1. Automation plus accuracy
A variety of processes are now automated, as indicated above in the description of purchasing and reimbursement. Payroll processing is another. The old way consisted of paper time cards, which had to be reviewed by bookkeepers, then by school principals, then transported to the central office payroll department, which would perform an additional check for accuracy. All of this is now accomplished electronically, and within a few hours all reviews and approvals can be completed to the satisfaction of the district.
Although many processes are now done much more quickly, accuracy has not suffered. In fact, it may have improved. “As an accountant, I have to check some of the [tools] myself to be sure that the numbers are correct,” said Watts. “I’m happy to say they’re even more accurate than doing it by hand.”
2. Compliance support
Watts explains that tools he selects must align to the state’s auditing and accounting standards. In his experience, the auditors have been pleased with the quality of tools used in the district. Digital tools have proven accurate, align with generally accepted accounting principles, and have enabled reports to be generated in a timely fashion. The district saves both time and stress in the critical compliance processes.
3. Real-time reporting and budget management
Not only can digital tools provide thorough, accurate reports more quickly — saving significant time and effort — but this also enables the district to make informed decisions and adjust budget allocation fast. Rather than waiting until the following school year, for example, the district may see where things stand in real-time, understanding they have available budget to implement a new tool, or to move funds from one department to another where they’re most needed.
The Right Approach to Ensure Implementation Success
Communication is key to making implementation and continued use of digital tools a success, said Watts. From the very beginning when a tool is under consideration, administrators must clearly convey to staff and faculty how it will provide them with results — reduced time spent on certain processes, more time to dedicate in other areas, and greater accuracy, for example.
Implementation involves collaboration with other departments. The technology department leads installation and training. They also review products to ensure safety and security standards are met. Depending on the type of product, other departments and individuals, including student support services, as well as school leaders and bookkeepers, may all play a role in evaluation and implementation. They may have opportunities to ask questions of the vendor, gain an understanding of the desired outcomes of implementation, and then help to secure buy-in as new products are rolled out.
Once the district has gone through the thorough evaluation process and purchased a new tool, Watts says sticking with that product is important to achieve success. But, he said, high-quality training and professional development is essential to making success a reality. In his view, MPS has worked with vendors whose training has consistently met the district’s needs.
Effective Tools Lead to Instructional Investments
“We need a return on investment (ROI) with whichever tool we use,” Watts said. The first and most important question he asks any vendor is how they’ll deliver that ROI to the district. Direct cost savings is one aspect, but time saved on administrative processes and increases in employee satisfaction are also important measures of ROI.
With the tools in use, MPS has achieved the results Watts desires. The reduction in administrative processes requires fewer staff members to complete the processes and the remaining staff are less overwhelmed by burdensome paper-based workflows. Within this new reality, the district is able to free up funding for capital projects and also achieve its main objective: Invest dollars back into the classroom.
“Our students are getting a much better academic and educational experience [when we] save money from these terrible administrative processes,” said Watts. “That’s always the goal: To put as much money into instruction as we possibly can.”