School Leader Summer Reading: Cleaning Up Your School’s Payment Processes

by Dena Koren, Senior Client Manager

July 3, 2017

Now that your 2017-18 budget is approved, it’s time to start preparing for the upcoming school year. The (slightly) less hectic summer months are a good time to review the school’s financial policies and procedures to make sure everything is in place. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about one very important topic in this area: payment methods!

For many of our clients across the country, we see the same problems around navigating how to pay for supplies and services: school leaders want to be nimble and responsive to their team, but they also worry about managing the budget and following policies and procedures for the audit. Not an easy task!

As a school, you have several different payment methods at your disposal:

  • requesting a vendor invoice – perhaps matched with an internal purchase order (PO) – and paying that vendor by check
  • reimbursing employees or volunteers
  • maintaining petty cash at your school or central office
  • using a debit card associated with your bank account, or
  • paying by credit card

While there are reasons and occasions to use each of these, I strongly recommend using the invoice (and PO, if you have a PO process) and paying by check as often as possible!

The benefits of an invoice and check are:

  • Visibility into what you’re buying
  • Documentation and authorization that clearly follow your financial policies
  • Savings driven by consolidating orders and purchasing through contracted vendors
  • Cash management because you can readily control when checks are written

Because a well-run invoice and check process is centralized through your business staff, the ostensible drawback is that you are strictly controlling and slowing down the purchasing of materials and services. This may feel limiting to people! One way you can address this is to keep a regular weekly schedule of ordering and negotiate fast shipment times with your vendors. Another method can be purchasing portals like Staples.com or ClassWallet.com or purchasing systems like Procurify, which can allow individuals to order through a single source and follow the approval process.

For other payment methods, limit usage to the needs that they address best. Here are a few examples:

  • Employee reimbursements: mileage and meals when traveling, fingerprinting fees, limited emergency supply purchases
  • Petty cash: making change in the front office for school purposes (e.g., break a $20 or give change for the purchase of a school t-shirt), pay an emergency plumber who only accepts cash
  • Debit card: if you have a school credit card, almost nothing. The reason is that debit cards take money directly out of your account, potentially bypassing internal authorization and increasing the risk of missing documentation. If you don’t have a school credit card, then see the “credit card” section below for some reasons you might need your debit card.
  • Credit card: ah, a necessary evil! Let’s talk about this in greater length . . .

With so many digital purchases done online via credit card now, it is nearly impossible to avoid getting a school credit card. But be sure to create a robust credit card policy to go along with it! Think about both the card uses and the mechanics for your policy:

  1. Who will have a school credit card? Keep this limited, perhaps only the office manager, executive director, and/or principals. Note that it’s likely that either the cardholder or someone else at the school will need to personally guarantee the card. It’s difficult for charters to get small business cards that do not require a guarantee.
  2. What can be purchased on the credit card? Keep this limited as well, for example: travel expenses, team appreciation dinners, conference fees, specialty supplies (can be a slippery slope, so be careful!).
  3. What cannot be purchased on the credit card? Make this list robust to show you’re serious, for example: curriculum, books, school supplies, computer equipment or technology, field trip entry fees, yearbook vendor fees, refills on postage meter.
  4. How will credit card owners document purchases? Several best practices are: require all receipts to be submitted within one week of the close of the CC statement; outline consequences if documentation isn’t provided (e.g., CC usage suspended until receipts submitted); ensure that purchases of a certain level are pre-authorized; and ensure CC statements are reviewed by a supervisor (note: make sure your most senior school leader has a member of the board reviewing and signing off on his or her CC statements monthly).

One final take-away for your financial operations – It’s ok to make purchasing and payment a little inconvenient! The slight inconvenience will help ensure that you are conscious of your spending, you are staying in line with your budget, and you have everything you need when it comes time for your annual audit.

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