Prepare for Your Audit! Step 4: The Main Audit.

By EdTec Staff

August 8, 2018

You’ve selected an auditor, communicated with them frequently, and completed the pre-audit steps. Now it’s time for The Main Audit. This phase involves all information as of the fiscal year close and occurs between August and November. During this stage the audit firm will perform fieldwork at your school and request sample financial transactions from the school administration.

What Happens?

During the pre-audit or interim audit, most audit firms do as much as possible for items not dependent on the fiscal year being closed. Now is the time to tackle the information as of fiscal year close.

Pay close attention to:

  • Financial activity immediately following the close of fiscal year
  • Information and how it has or has not changed from the unaudited actuals
  • Subsequent events, all important financial or relevant school events that occur after year end

School administrators should be prepared for the auditors to test financial information by selecting a sample of transactions and requesting back-up (invoices, receipts), as well as perform procedures on financial statement balances. The auditors will ask for specific documentation to provide evidence that the school is following all necessary policies. Take the time and effort to organize all your financial information and back-up ahead of time so that everything is readily available upon request.

You should expect your auditor to do fieldwork during late Summer or Fall either at your school or at the office of your back office provider (such as EdTec), if you are using one. The in-person work usually takes around 2-4 days. Nowadays, with a lot of information being stored on internet accessible platforms the need for fieldwork is beginning to diminish. Confirm the plan with your auditor and establish when and how the fieldwork will take place.

How Do You Facilitate?

During the pre-audit, you should have created a plan that outlines how you will provide information to the audit firm. Stick to that plan. If possible, try to create an electronic share space to place your school’s financial information and make it available to the audit firm. This ensures an organized and expedient way to share information.

If your audit team is coming to your school location, a dedicated physical space for the auditors is crucial. Take the time to set aside a room or space and confirm that it will be available when the auditors visit.

The audit firm will generate requests for more information as they are conducting testing. It’s important to be responsive to prevent holding up the process or requiring them to stay on site longer than necessary.

Example for CA Charters: Auditing the LCAP

The auditors will begin by selecting an action or service from the LCAP that your school (LEA) has identified as having expenditures.

You will then be responsible for guiding the auditor as to how they can find those certain expenditures in the general ledger.

Having all your documentation and back-up clearly organized and accessible will ensure the main audit runs as smoothly as possible.

Auditor’s Next Steps

Even when fieldwork is over, there’s still a lot of work for the auditors to complete. They need to follow up with outstanding items or tests being conducted after the main fieldwork and organize audit work and documentation. They also need to prepare a list of audit adjustments, if any are required, double-check all work, and conduct peer and partner review of work papers. Lastly, the auditors will provide a draft of the financial statements for your review.

When discussing timeline with the contracted audit firm, it’s important to make sure this time-frame is discussed and included in planning.

Conclusion

If you have done a good job communicating with your auditor during the pre-audit and have your files ready to share for testing, the main audit should take place without any unexpected setbacks. Be prepared to discuss any changes from the unaudited actuals and explain financial activity following the fiscal year close. Remember to have a space dedicated for your auditors and work hard to response to their requests quickly. The faster the main audit can be completed, the easier for all parties involved and the less likelihood of having issues.

Stay tuned for our next and final article on the audit cycle, the Audit Report Review and Submission!

Organizational Design for Charter Schools: A Case Study

By Christina L Greenberg, Co-Founder & Partner, Edgility Consulting

May 16, 2018

“”Every company has two organizational structures: The formal one is written on the charts; the other is the everyday relationship of the men and women in the organization.”  – Harold Geneen

Among all the things I have learned working with schools over the past fifteen years, perhaps the most important lesson is that each school community is a distinct organism with a culture, traditions, and character all its own. This does not mean that best practices from a particular school cannot be leveraged or applied at another, but it does mean that we need to be sensitive to the site context and culture when making recommendations. This is especially true if the best practices we are considering require change on the part of current employees and/or the functional division of labor and organizational structures in which they sit.

One of the areas where I think schools have the most to learn from other organizations is in their talent management practices. And one of the core talent management practices that many growing school organizations ignore at their peril is the imperative to create a clear and appropriate organizational design, reporting structure, and job responsibilities along with a transparent salary schedule that is evidence-based and reflective of broader market trends.

Case Study 

About 18 months ago I was brought in by a small but growing charter school organization to help them evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of their non-teaching staff roles, responsibilities, and reporting structure. The principal and many of the staff had started there when it was a brand new, stand-alone school six years before. Based on parent demand and its academic success, the school decided to expand the grade levels they served, creating an elementary and middle school program.

In planning for this change, school leaders had spent time developing and implementing a model for the increased educator capacity they would need including demand for new classroom teachers, specialists, and other instructional staff. They had modeled the facilities needs that would result from an increase in enrollment and ensured that their student enrollment and thus budget revenues would cover these updates. Finally, they hired one new school leader and promoted others so they would have adequate instructional leadership for their expanded grade levels. In short, they did all the things that most schools in their situation would do in preparing for an expansion or replication of an existing academic program.

The one thing they didn’t plan for, though, was the need to update their projections and expectations for leaders and staff who did not sit squarely on the academic side of the house. They still had one single office where all non-teaching staff worked, with an open reception area and a few offices along the perimeter for more senior staff. The Director of HR, Data Analyst, and other admin team members would regularly get pulled into conversations with parents around school routines or student health and discipline matters even though there were dedicated receptionist/assistant staff that should have been managing those types of issues and inquiries.

In addition to the lack of physical separation between what we would typically consider “central office” staff and those dedicated to school site activities, there was a lack of clarity regarding who reported to whom and who was in charge of which functions. All of the clerical/admin staff felt overworked, in large part because they each felt they were supposed to be involved in everything but did not understand who had ultimate accountability for most core activities. Small matters like preparing flyers and ordering food for events took on outsized importance as the office lacked clear systems for ownership of even low level tasks. And finally, job descriptions were nonexistent or out of date while salaries were inconsistent – some employees seemed to be paid outside the market range (either too low or too high) without a clear rationale.

Areas of Concern

This school approached our firm to help them sort out these challenges and come to resolution on these key questions:

  • What is the difference between school site and central office staff and how do we delineate between these folks in their titles, duties, reporting structure, and where they physically work in the building?
  • How do we adjust our previous org chart, reporting structure and roles/responsibilities for staff as our school organization expands? Once we develop the ideal org chart for our team, how do we evaluate the skills and interests of our current team to discern which roles are appropriate for whom? And finally, what do we do if we don’t see a match between someone’s skills and interests with one of our new positions?
  • How do we start to identify inefficient practices and workflows on the non-instructional side of the house and how do we communicate these areas for growth to the rest of the team without people feeling personally challenged or that their work (and thus their job) is threatened long-term?

Project Outcomes

Before jumping to recommendations, we started by first examining what staff members were currently doing in their jobs in the hopes of then being able to pinpoint areas of inefficiency or where too few resources were being allocated to ensure staff success. We asked the school’s HR lead to require employees to track their time over a one month period, i.e. listing the tasks they worked on, category of work those tasks fell under (i.e. admin work, data analysis, parent communication, etc.) and duration of each activity. In addition, we scheduled one-on-one interviews with every admin team member, from receptionists to directors and senior school leaders. With each, we discussed what they saw as their core responsibilities, what challenges they faced in completing those tasks, and what they liked best and felt most confident in within their current duties.

Once we had a sense of the current state of the organization, we then turned our attention to best practices research to design the ideal for: how responsibilities should break down in terms of teams and individuals; how to ensure functional areas are covered in an efficient way; and a reporting structure that maximized current staff talents and future needs. We gathered sample org charts from a dozen similar sized charter school organizations as well as interviewed several talent leads and administrators at those schools to find out their answers to some of the questions above.

Both of these steps – diagnosing the current state and looking at how others have solved similar problems – led us and the school leadership team to realize they needed a much clearer line between staff who were primarily responsible to a specific school site and those whose purview was broader, requiring them to be more separate from the school both physically and in terms of job accountability. The leadership team decided to put up physical barriers between the school reception desk and the office space dedicated to admin who worked on HR, accounting, and data so they could have a quiet space and sustained, uninterrupted time to work.

We also realized that having a corps of admin generalists did not serve anyone’s interests well, and thus managers needed to be much more specific about what each person needed to manage and to whom they reported. This meant that some folks had to give up responsibility for things they were used to being a part of while others had to change who they reported to and thus adjust to a new manager. At the same time, it also meant each job was more specific and narrowly tailored to a common set of responsibilities, and targeted a similar range of competencies that better match skills and abilities that tend to go together (i.e. external facing interactions with community members vs. detail oriented, paper-based tasks).

With a new org chart, coherent job descriptions, and evidence-based salary schedules in hand, senior leaders decided to open up these positions to the public for the first time in years. Managers met individually with staff who could be affected to talk through the reorganization plans and share new job titles and responsibilities. Current staff were invited to apply for any of the roles and were given priority for interviewing. In the end, most people were able to stay, either in a very similar role or by shifting to a new, more defined job title and set of responsibilities. One person did end up leaving because there was not a role that fit her expectations. (In this case, the organization honored her service by giving her time to search for a new job and providing her with positive references.)

When we checked in one year later, school leaders were feeling much better about how the office runs. They appreciated the benefits of tightening up on accountability and reporting structures, and observed a large boost in employee morale as a result of improved role definition and focus.

What We Learned

In this project, we were reminded that although it can be tough to tackle reorganization head-on, not acting and just hoping things will work out can be a much worse outcome for everyone involved. By starting with gathering and analyzing data about the current state of affairs, collecting artifacts and examples around best practices, and then using both of those – as well as your own intuition and understanding of your organizational culture – to craft a new org design (including roles, responsibilities, and clarity around lines of accountability), you can dramatically improve office efficiency and morale, thus better serving your instructional team and – most importantly – your students, in the process.

About the Author

Christina L Greenberg is Co-Founder and Partner of Edgility Consulting, a leading executive search and talent management firm serving schools and nonprofits in the education space. Her practice has a particular focus on the talent needs of small- to mid-sized charter school organizations. Christina is originally from the Bay Area, lived in LA for almost a decade, and for the last 14 years has lived with her family in Oakland, CA. She is a long-time board member of Lighthouse Community Public Schools, a charter network with two schools serving grades K-12 in East Oakland.

Prepare for Your Audit! Step 3: The Pre-Audit

By the EdTec Client Management Team 

March 22, 2018

In our last blog post, we covered the first two phases of the audit cycle: Auditor Solicitation and Auditor Engagement. In this post, we’ll take a deeper dive into the third phase, the Pre-Audit. This phase occurs between April and June, and involves the auditor’s first visit to the school and frequent communication between the auditor and school leaders.

Once your charter school board has selected an auditor, the first step will be working with the auditor to establish a timeline for the final report. Keep in mind that you’ll want to leave enough time to conduct a thorough review of the audit report, so the earlier you can begin the pre-audit, the better.

During the pre-audit phase, it’s important to ask questions as they come up. Remember, your auditor is a resource, not an adversary, and they want a clean audit just as much as you do. The pre-audit phase is designed to prepare the school for the main audit, so now is the time to clear up any confusion about the process, test internal controls and compliance, and remediate any issues before the end of the fiscal year.

As you prepare for the auditor’s first visit, there are a few things you’ll want to get in order so the visit runs smoothly. It is helpful to have reviewed the segregation of financial duties, prepare an explanation for significant or complex transactions, and gather key documents. These documents include internal controls policies and procedures, paperwork related to pending legal matters, as well as copies of significant transaction such as leases and loans, new contracts with service providers, and new grant agreements. Your auditor may also ask for financial documents such as trail balances and check registers.

In addition to making sure your financial house is in order, the auditor will need proof that the school has been keeping up with state reporting compliance. Well in advance of the first visit, start compiling copies of all state compliance records and supporting documentation, as this process can be quite time consuming. This documentation includes:

  • Student records, bell schedules, calendar, instructional minutes
  • CALPADS Fall I reports (1.17, 1.18 and 8.1)
  • English Learner, Free/Reduced Lunch Program records
    • CELDT or ELPAC scores for EL/RFEP students
    • NSLP or alt. income form for all students reported as FRL
    • Direct Certification reports (3 reports pulled throughout the year)
  • Teacher credentials
  • ASES attendance reports and supporting documentation
  • Attendance records
    • Copy of P2 and all supporting documentation
    • Detail and Summary for testing month
    • Teacher signed verification for testing month

Whenever possible, provide your auditor with electronic documentation to keep everything organized, and try to fulfill their requests in a timely manner to avoid delays; remember, delays now mean you will have to rush during the main audit phase later. If you have any concerns about being able to produce certain documents, share them with your auditor as soon as possible so you can work together toward a solution. Lastly, remember to share major new developments with your auditor as they occur; your auditor will need to know about plans to open a new school or take out new loans, or expectations of new funding sources, as this will impact your school’s financial situation.

Once it’s time for the actual visit, make sure you set aside ample time to meet with the auditors to provide an overview of the school’s operations and review their questions about the school’s policies and procedures. This will set the stage for a smooth and efficient visit.

The pre-audit phase is designed to prepare your school for a successful main audit. Treat your auditor like a true partner; don’t hold back any information, be clear and timely in your communication, be open to suggestions regarding how to improve processes, and ask questions as they come up! And stay tuned for our next blog post about the next phase of the audit cycle, the Main Audit!

Strategic Planning for Charter Schools: A 101 Guide

By Guest Blogger Jonathan Kaufman, Co-Founder & Principal of  Third Plateau

One of the biggest missed opportunities we see among charter schools is operating without a strategic plan in place. LCAPs and charter renewals are necessary and useful, but they are far from a substitute for a strong strategic plan. For most school leaders, that then begs the question, “Okay, but what is a strategic plan and how do I get one?”  

A strategic plan is a document that sets a bold vision for what an organization wants to accomplish and outlines the path to make that vision a reality. Unlike LCAPS and renewals, strategic plans are internal documents, meaning they are never audited by an authorizer or the state. This means that a school can be aspirational and audacious in its thinking and planning, and include goals that it could never risk including in a compliance-focused LCAP or renewal. By giving your stakeholders the freedom to dream big without compliance restrictions, you’re helping to push the school to higher levels and reminding everyone why the school exists in the first place. Simply put: strategic plans allow school leaders to be far more authentic regarding what they care about and why, truly rallying their teachers, boards, students, families, and community around a bold vision and purpose.  

Even more important than the document itself, the strategic planning process is exceptionally valuable. A successful strategic planning process takes about six months and does four things: 

  • Takes an honest look at what’s going well and what’s not. This means asking tough questions and giving honest answers. For example, if your four-year college attendance rate hasn’t shown improvement over the last few years, avoid excuses and identify the root causes. Perhaps more supports are needed for students struggling with certain subject areas required for admittance into four-year colleges. 
  • Solicits candid input and feedback from supporters and detractors. There are bound to be uncomfortable discussions, but it’s better to address those head on than to pretend the underlying issues don’t exist. 
  • Enlists a wide range of stakeholders to co-create the plan. Create a strategic planning task force and make sure to invite representatives from all stakeholder groups, including teachers, staff, board members, students, parents, and community members.
  • Empowers a school and community to take ownership over the future they are trying to build. It’s easier to generate buy-in for your strategic plan when there are genuine efforts to identify opportunities for improvement, and when all groups are represented and informed.  

Great schools are driven by great strategic plans. So what are you waiting for?  

Prepare for Your Audit! Steps 1 & 2: Choose an Audit Firm and Engage

By the EdTec Client Management Team 

December 12, 2017

An audit is an official, independent review of your charter school’s financial statements by an approved CPA. An annual audit is required of charters in most states.  

There is much preparation required before the annual audit.  The timeline below breaks up the charter school audit cycle into multiple phases and includes suggested dates. In today’s blog post, we’re going to focus on the first and second phases: Auditor Solicitation, which all schools should ideally start preparing for in September, and Auditor Engagement, which should be completed by April 1. If you’re not there yet, there’s still time – but you should start now!  

Charter schools must select an auditing firm at a publicly noticed board meeting, and contract with the selected audit firm by April 1 of the current fiscal year (e.g. you need to select an audit firm for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018 by April 1, 2018).  Before this can be done, a charter school’s board must issue a request for proposal (RFP) from auditing firms. You can find sample RFPs for audit services online, or ask your local charter schools association or peers at other charter schools. A school’s letter to auditors should include the school’s legal name, address, and contact person; years of operation of the school; history of prior audits; status of 501c (3) application; fiscal year to be reviewed; enrollment and ADA data for fiscal year to be reviewed; if the school is site-based or independent study; if federal expenditures will exceed $750K; if the school also requests tax filing services.  Remember that you should only reach out to auditors listed on your authorizer’s approved vendor list. You might want to ask peers at other charter schools for auditor recommendations, as this can be helpful advice.   

Once you have proposals in hand, it’s time to bring them to the board for review and voting action. There are a few key qualities that are important for board members to look for in an audit firm.  Preferably, the auditing firm will have experience working with charter schools and understand how they operate; if your school is in its first year of operations, you’ll want to work with a firm that has experience working with first-year charters. An ideal firm will also be responsive to questions and proposal requests, as this is an indication that there will be good communication during the auditing process when pressing questions arise and the school requests feedback and support. It’s also important to select a firm that seems to have a reasonable, fair mentality.  

Many districts and county offices of education require some sort of notification of the selected audit firm, along with cost information and certification that the firm is authorized to conduct school audits, and some may require notification prior to April 1, so be sure to check with your authorizer. And be on the lookout for our upcoming blog post about the third phase of the audit cycle, the Pre-Audit! 

Tax Season Is Coming…Get the 411 on 1099s!

By Jacqui Runholt, AP & Business Process Specialist

November 29, 2017

You may not be a tax expert, but if you work with vendors that provide services to your charter school, you’ll need to know the basics about 1099s. A 1099 Form is used to report income from self-employment earnings, as well as interest, dividends, and other earnings, and you’ll need to submit these forms to eligible vendors and to the IRS. We’ve put together a few tips to keep in mind leading up to tax season:

  • Any vendor that is paid to provide services to your school could be eligible to pay taxes on 1099 income. As a best practice, get in the habit of requesting W-9’s from all your vendors when you start working with them, so you have the information you need to issue 1099s when the time comes.
  • Start reviewing your vendor list now so you’re not scrambling to meet the January 31 deadline!
  • If your charter school leases its facilities, the rent expenses may be reported on a 1099 Form.
  • If you’re not sure if you need to submit a 1099 for a certain vendor, just go ahead and submit it. The IRS will know whether a vendor is eligible. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

The due date for submitting 1099s to vendors and to the IRS is January 31st, but don’t wait until then. If you’re done at the beginning of January, submit! Corrections can be made through the end of March.

Five Minutes of Practical Fundraising Advice for Charter Schools

By Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

October 24, 2017

All charter schools can use a few extra dollars to fund projects and programs that support the success of their students. Wherever your school is with its fundraising strategy, there’s always room for evaluation and improvement. We’ve put together a list of five simple actions schools can take to increase donations, as well as a few quick tips to help strengthen the connection to potential and existing donors.

Five Fundraising Actions Your School Can Take Today

1. Participate in #GivingTuesday: Celebrated the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, #GivingTuesday was started in 2012 as a way to harness “the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities” (www.givingtuesday.org). The movement provides an opportunity for charitable organizations to rally their communities and encourage donations to their causes, and has grown rapidly over the last few years. For #GivingTuesday 2015, 700,000 donors contributed nearly $117 million, and the hashtag earned 1.3 million mentions on social media and 114 billion Twitter impressions! You can find several resources to help plan for #GivingTuesday 2017 at givingtuesday.org, including a social media toolkit and ideas and case studies specific to schools. Don’t worry about implementing all the recommendations the first time you participate; you can start by incorporating #GivingTuesday into your existing social media plan, and set aside time well in advance next year to develop a more comprehensive strategy.

2. Register on Amazon Smile. Amazon Smile donates 0.5% of the price of eligible purchases to the charitable organization of your choice. There is a simple registration process, so you will need access to the school’s EIN and bank account information. Once you are registered, remind parents, teachers, staff, and other stakeholders to bookmark amazon.com, where they can select your school as their charitable organization of choice; they only need to do this once, and all future eligible purchases made at smile.amazon.com will result in a 0.5% donation to your school. Once an individual makes a purchase that results in a donation, they’ll be able to view and keep track of the total amount donated to the school across time; this is a fun, useful feature that allows donors to see the collective impact of several small donations made by members of the school community across time.

3. Remember to ask donors if their employer participates in a matching gift program. Most people are not aware their employer offers a matching gift program, leaving potential fundraising dollars on the table! Make sure to include this reminder on your website’s donation page, as well as in any direct mail fundraising campaigns. While there is technology available for purchase that can be linked to your school’s website, which allows donors to check their employer’s matching gift policy and guidelines on the spot, this is easy to do without the help of extra tools. Just include a simple, noticeable message that prompts donors to ask if their employer, or their spouse’s employer, participates in a matching gift program. You can also prompt donors to check a box if they already know they have access to a matching gift program, and remind them to proceed with the necessary paperwork. Asking donors to check a box makes it easy for you to follow-up about matching gifts.

What happens next? The donor will then need to request the proper paperwork from their employer (as well as verify that the school is eligible for a matching donation) and submit a matching gift form to your school. Upon receipt of the form, a school employee will need to confirm donation from the individual, and submit the form to the employer.

4. Register with local supermarkets and other retail stores. Several retailers offer programs that allow customers to donate a percentage of their purchase to the charitable organization of their choice. For example, Ralphs’ has a Community Contribution Program that allows rewards card users to select a community organization to donate to. The process varies with each retailer, so it’s best to pay a visit to your local retailers and ask if they have similar programs.

5. Don’t leave grant money on the table! There are hundreds of grant opportunities available to charter schools, some of which require no more than a simple application form It can be difficult to make time to focus on grant writing when there are so many other things to get done, which is why EdTec offers flexible grant research and writing services for busy school leaders.  Set up a call with us for more information and sign up to receive our monthly grants email.

Two Ways to Strengthen Your School’s Fundraising Program

1. Make your case. The stronger your story, the more compelled your stakeholders will feel to give. Is your per-student funding rate less than the state average? Less than the neighborhood school district? Share these facts with your audience, and include numbers when you have them. You’ll also want to include a list of things you aim to accomplish through fundraising, be it reducing class size, purchasing new musical instruments, enhancing facilities, or starting an after-school STEM program, as well as a tally of funds raised to date (if any) and what you’ve been able to accomplish as a result. Give your potential donors proof that their money will be put to good use!

2. Be thankful! Always send timely thank you notes, preferably within two weeks of receiving a donation (and sooner if you can). While it is a nice gesture to send hand-written notes, this is not always feasible, especially for larger schools. Have a template thank you note ready to go, personalize the letter with the donor’s name and donation details, and ask the school’s principal or executive director to sign it. You might also consider putting together an annual publication that recognizes donors for their contributions, and includes information about the projects and improvements that were made possible by their generosity. Donors will enjoy being recognized, and be more compelled to give in the future.

Grow Your Enrollment Applications With School Tours 

Use tours as a marketing tool to reach prospective families and tell your school’s story.

by Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

July 10, 2017

You’ve gone through all the hard work of starting a charter school.  Your programs are successful and your students are doing well. But you’re still struggling to meet your target enrollment numbers each year.  Success on its own will not automatically generate a waiting list; you must arm prospective parents with information about why your school is a strong educational option for their children.  Because while school choice provides the opportunity for your school to exist in the first place, it also creates competition.

Tweet: Most charter schools don’t have a large marketing budget, but there’s a lot you can do that doesn’t cost much at all. Start by offering tours of your school. Advertise these tours on social media and at local community events. Get in touch with the local homeowners’ association or chamber of commerce, and ask if you can speak for a few minutes at the next meeting. Talk about your school’s mission and how you serve local families, highlight recent achievements, and invite community members to take a tour of the school and/or pass along the message to those with school-aged children.  Reach out to local churches, community centers, and businesses, and ask if you can post flyers on their bulletin boards.  Make sure to include the tour schedule along with your school’s website, phone number, and social media information so that those who wish to contact you about tours are able to do so.

It’s important to get the tour logistics right. Aim to schedule tours at times that are convenient for working parents, such as early in the morning or during lunch hours.  Make sure to keep the tours under an hour (you can always assign staff to stay later and talk to families who aren’t in a rush). If you’re not sure when to schedule the tours, ask a few parents of current students for their input. Maybe evenings and/or weekends work best for your community.  In that case, you might not be able to implement all of the suggestions below, but at least you’ll have a captive audience.

It’s helpful to capture visitors’ contact information so you can stay in touch and monitor interest in your school across time. Create a simple sign-in sheet – the data gathering is easier if this is done on a tablet or computer – that includes the  parent’s name and email address, and the prospective student’s current school (if applicable), and ask visitors to sign in when they arrive for the tour. Knowing where prospective students are coming from will help you to target future communications efforts, and having a database of email addresses of interested families makes it easier to keep telling your school’s story after the tour. If your school sends  newsletters to current parents, include your new contacts in future newsletters to keep them informed of all the great things happening at your school.

Start a cohort of student ambassadors who, along with school staff, will participate in the tours and talk about their experiences. This is especially valuable at the high school level, as parents tend to bring their children on the tours, and they often have questions that only current students can answer.  Inviting parent volunteers to participate in the tours is also beneficial, as they can speak to why your school is a good fit for their families.

It is helpful for the tours to be led by an administrator and a teacher, as both offer valuable perspectives and can answer different questions about the school, its programs, and policies and procedures.  If possible, divide the visit into a school overview (complete with a short question and answer session), and a walking tour. During the presentation, remember to highlight what makes your school unique, including interesting programs and classes, innovative learning methods, and awards and achievements. Invite the student ambassadors to give a quick presentation about something they’re involved in at the school, and invite parent volunteers to speak about parental involvement.

Parents like to know what their child’s day-to-day will look like. On the tour, make sure to visit at least one classroom in action; you can create a rotating sign-up schedule in advance so there isn’t any last minute planning on the day of the tour. Guests don’t need to sit down and observe the class, but they will appreciate being able to pop in and note the setup and size. If possible, visit both a core subject classroom (e.g. math or science) as well as a music or arts classroom. Also plan to stop by areas that are unique to your school, such as a school garden or robotics lab. For larger schools,  parents might be interested in seeing key facilities such as the gymnasium and theatre.

Make sure to provide visiting families with something they can take with them that will aide in their decision-making process. Create a simple one-pager that includes key statistics about the school, such as enrollment, average class size, special programs and classes available, graduation and college statistics (if applicable), contact information, and enrollment/lottery dates and details (there will likely be a lot of questions about this last one, and you want to make sure everyone has the information they need – after all, this is the point of the tour!).  You don’t need to be a graphic design expert to create an effective document, and free online tools like Canva and HubSpot can help with layout and design.

If anyone on the tour has a question you can’t answer, note their contact information so you can follow up with them when you find the answer. And make sure your main office staff is knowledgeable of the school and trained to answer questions, or direct inquires to the appropriate people, when they receive follow-up phone calls.

When guests leave the tour, they should have a clear understanding of what your school is all about. This is a valuable opportunity to connect with prospective families and brag about your school; make the most of it!

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

by Dena Koren, Senior Client Manager

July 3, 2017

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.

Landing Your 2017–18 Charter School Budget: Finalizing your budget for the next school year

by Dena Koren, Senior Client Manager

June 6, 2017

It’s June, and many charter schools are scrambling to put the finishing touches on their charter school budgets for the 2017–18 school year. This can be frustrating and overwhelming given all the moving parts —finalizing staff compensation, collecting final proposals for next year’s contracts, deciding which software and curriculum to use, tracking down charter school budget plans from all the department leads, and of course, the state budget revisions… all while trying to finish out the school year!

Here’s my advice: Don’t sweat it! There is no way you are going to have all of these items finalized by the time you need to send your budget to the board for approval (likely this week or next week!). Plus, there are many aspects of the budget that are completely out of your control. Instead of worrying, try this approach:

1. Pick two or three areas of the charter school budget you’re going to focus on in the 11th hour. These should be areas of the charter school budget that are either your most significant sources of revenue or expense, or have caused problems in the past. And don’t pick “staff”! (See my next suggestion below for wrapping up your compensation budget.) Once you have picked your areas of focus, set aside a designated time (~30 minutes for each area) to dig in and try to firm up the assumptions — then put a bow on it! Once the year starts, and you have more information, you can work with your Finance Director or adviser to adjust the annual forecast to include all your latest knowledge and assumptions.

2. For staffing, again — do your best! Finalize the charter school budget with the information you know now, and include reasonable and conservative assumptions for the things you don’t know. At some point, you have to stop trying to get everything locked up and just go with what you have. But being conservative will help you avoid the frustration of going over budget down the road.

3. Make a list of the areas where you feel assumptions aren’t solid, and over the summer, push to solidify them. Also, be upfront with your board about the areas of uncertainty (note: no need to share every uncertainty, just the ones you feel are the biggest opportunities/risks). I find that outlining the missing information at a high level actually strengthens the board’s comfort with the financial plan. The board members will appreciate the transparency and feel reassured knowing you are aware of the uncertainties and on top of all the moving parts.

For most charter schools, budgeting is an art, not a science. There are countless details, many of them unknown or unknowable, so we just do our best with what we have and keep pushing for improved clarity as the year goes on!