Finance & Operations: 5 Key Things Every Charter School Leader Should Know

Originally published November 2015

Here at EdTec, we have the fortune of working with many school leaders, both seasoned and new to the charter world, which allows us to see the most effective school leadership practices.  Many new school leaders have brought successful strategies implemented in their classrooms to their new roles as executive directors.  Inevitably, however, there are aspects of managing a school that fall outside the comfort zones of school leaders and board members, such as finance and operations.  While most grow to develop skill sets in these areas, it can take time to develop those skill sets, and for those brand new school leaders, going into the job with the full knowledge base required to successfully run a charter can feel impossible.  But there is hope!  This article highlights questions that routinely come up from directors who have had to adapt to the unfamiliar financial and operational demands of their position.

  1. What key concepts do I need to know to monitor my school’s financial position?

The following indicators should be examined when building or managing your school’s budget.  You should understand these concepts to gain a sufficient understanding of your school’s financial situation:

  • Balance Sheet vs. Income Statement: In financial accounting, the balance sheet and income statement are the two most important types of financial statements. A balance sheet lists the assets and liabilities of the school as of a certain date. These may include receivables and payables (see accruals below).  An income statement, also called a profit and loss (P&L) statement, is a report for revenues and expenses over a specific time period, usually a fiscal year.
  • Operating Income: The most basic financial indicator you will need to monitor on an ongoing basis is your school’s operating income, which is derived from the income statement. This figure is simply the amount of revenues received minus the amount of expenses your school incurs in a given fiscal year. In the business world, “operating income” and “operating profit” are often used interchangeably.
  • Depreciation: It’s also important to understand the effect that depreciation will have on your school’s operating income. Depreciation is a method of allocating the cost of a tangible asset over its useful life. If your school purchases technology for $10K that has a useful life of five years, $2K of that expense will be realized each year over the course of those five years.  This means that the operating income may only be reduced by $2K each year for accounting purposes, but the full $10K still had to come out of the school’s checking account at the time of purchase.
  • Fund Balance vs. Cash Balance: The fund balance is the net worth or equity of the school. This is measured by its total assets (all that the school owns that has a monetary value and enhances its worth) minus its total liabilities (all that the school owes in debts and obligations). In other words, it is the net amount of money the school has accumulated over its lifetime (the sum of each year’s operating income since inception).  The fund balance is a good indication of the long-term financial health of a school.  Similar sounding, but distinct, is the cash balance: the amount of cash the school has in the bank at a given time.  Keep in mind that your fund balance will likely not equal your cash balance, because your fund balance represents all of your assets, not just cash.  Assets include cash and any payables or receivables, or land and equipment that is being depreciated.  When examining a cash flow statement, the projected cash balances indicate whether your school can meet its obligations on time.  If that balance is positive, you will be able to pay your bills and employees on time; if it is negative, you will not, and will need to figure out a way to manage those shortfalls through negotiating with vendors or borrowing money.
  • Accruals: Accrued expenses are liabilities which are recognized on your books before they are paid for, while accrued revenues are assets which are recognized on your books before they are received. Remember, accruals are a big reason for the difference between fund balance and cash balance. Depending on the accounting system your school uses, accruals can be booked differently.  Despite the differences, however, it’s essential to know that at the end of each fiscal year, there will be a significant percentage of current year funds that the school is still owed, but those funds won’t actually be received until the following fiscal year.  Accruals are those amounts that are still remaining past June 30 that count as current year revenue even though they aren’t received in the actual current year.  The same applies for expenses that are incurred before June 30, but paid out after June 30.
  1. What are the big-ticket items to keep in mind when managing this year’s expenses and starting to budget for the next?

While you might stress over whether you should budget $5K or $10K for professional development, an additional set of textbooks, or extra office supplies, it is important to remember that these are smaller-scale, discretionary expenses.  Other more rigid, bigger-ticket items determine the amount left over for those discretionary items.  Taking the time to address the big-ticket items that are within your control well before the start of a new school year will enable you to maximize the amount of funds that remain for day-to-day programmatic expenses, and any extras you can afford.

  • Special Education encroachment costs typically fall somewhere in the wide range of $300-$1,000/ADA if the charter acts as a school of the district for Special Ed purposes. If you are unhappy with the services received for the associated costs, then don’t view this as a set cost in the long term. Evaluate how the district compares to becoming your own LEA and joining a charter SELPA, where you will receive the Special Ed revenues and avoid the district’s encroachment, but will need to provide the Special Ed services to those students in need.
  • Rent costs can vary wildly depending on the terms of your school’s lease. Evaluate whether the school’s current space is serving its needs well. If it is, explore whether there might be room to negotiate lower rent for the coming year.  If it isn’t, explore what other options may be available within your area.  Additionally, can you request facilities from the district under Prop 39, or can you seek reimbursement for part of your school’s rent through SB 740 or CSFIG?
  • Various services can represent a significant decision point for schools: in-house personnel or outsourced provider? When sourcing services such as food providers, custodial, back-office, or other consultants, hiring in-house is the option that likely affords you the most flexibility. It also requires benefits and employer contributions, as well as the cost of any associated supplies needed to fulfill that service. On the flip side, using an outsourced provider may provide cost savings and may simply be less of a headache, allowing the school to keep a smaller, more streamlined staff focused on the instructional program, while avoiding the hassles and costs of addressing staff turnover in those areas.  If pursuing this option, make sure the vendor is competitively priced for the services or service level being offered and can fulfill the specific needs of the school.
  1. Examining this year’s budget: Is an operating loss acceptable? How much?

You should be making any necessary expense cuts in order to maintain a balanced budget and an operating income that will meet your authorizer’s requirements for minimum reserves.  Note that the longer in the year you wait to make cuts to ongoing expenses, the less effective they are in preserving your operating income.  Because it is relatively early in the school year, making the hard decisions now will save you headaches later when it is too late to make any fiscally meaningful changes.

While projecting an operating loss should never be taken lightly, if you’ve already made all the cuts possible and cannot cut further without significantly jeopardizing your program, projecting a loss may be a last resort only if you have a healthy enough fund balance to sustain the loss.  If you have a positive fund balance that is larger than your projected current year loss, your fund balance will at least remain positive at the end of the year, after taking this year’s hit.  If you find yourself in this position, it will be crucial to work with your board and financial advisors to examine two specific areas as you consider how much of a loss can be sustained:

  • Cash: What are the cash projections throughout the year? If cash flow looks tight from month-to-month, spending decisions should be determined more by short-term obligations than annual budget considerations. If cash balances are healthy, however, assessing cash flow is not quite as imperative to your overall approach to budgeting.
  • Fund Balance: Has the school accrued substantial reserves from prior years resulting in a positive, strong fund balance? If so, tolerating a loss in this year’s budget will not jeopardize the school’s long-term financial health, if there are essential elements to your program that cannot be sacrificed. However, your school will not be able to sustain this approach for long, as authorizers will want to see fiscally sound, sustainable projections come time for charter renewal. Accepting an operating loss for the year should be an absolute last resort, and only if your school has the fund balance to sustain it.
  1. Cash flow financing: How do I evaluate options if my school is in need of cash?

Managing limited funds can be one of your more stressful financial responsibilities as a school leader.  Given the nature of the timing for charter schools’ revenues and expenses, even a positive operating income and fund balance can sometimes lead to cash shortfalls.  You are responsible for evaluating whether borrowing is the right solution for your school.  There are three crucial questions to ask:

  • How much does the school need to borrow?
  • How long will the school have to repay?
  • What is the interest rate and what other fees (e.g. origination or management) are involved?

It’s important to think about the long-term implications of the questions above.  Any interest or fees will not only limit the amount you can borrow, but will also decrease your operating income for the year.  Additionally, it’s important to think of those fees in annualized terms.  If your school will need to pay 5% in fees to borrow money for two months, that would be comparable to a ~34% annual percentage rate (APR).  Evaluating options on an annualized percentage basis will also help you weigh multiple borrowing options, as you are then comparing apples-to-apples.

Throughout this process, continue to ask the bigger picture questions that have implications for your school down the road:

  • Why am I short on cash? Is it a temporary issue, or is it systemic within the school’s financial planning?
  • Does borrowing cash now put me in a position to need to borrow again in the near future?
  • Where in the budget can I make cuts to balance the additional cost of borrowing money?
  • What is my long-term plan to develop cash reserves to reach sustainability?
  1. Getting your ducks in a row: What do auditors look for?

Contrary to common expectations, auditors do not focus on whether your school is doing a good job.  Rather, auditors’ main function is to evaluate whether your school is telling the truth about the job that it’s doing.  This means that they assess the accuracy and compliance of your school’s attendance records, financial statements, and some procedural items such as resolutions passed by the board and the financial controls in place at the organization.  In the end, auditors make a determination about whether your school is at risk of no longer being a “going concern” (meaning the school is able to continue operations in the foreseeable future), but the bulk of their work is to ensure that your school is fairly stating all financial information.

If you are a new school leader, you may be looking for the auditor to tell you that the school is doing a great job.  More likely, if things are going well, they will inform you that the school is doing a sufficient job and is in compliance.  For example, if things are not going well in the auditors’ eyes, their reason will not be that attendance is too low; instead, their reason may be that attendance is inaccurate according to the reports submitted versus the daily records.  The setup and organization of attendance files, documentation of invoices and payments, backup for any deposits made, contracts or MOUs signed for the year, and board agendas/minutes/resolutions are all items that require substantial record-keeping for auditing purposes.  Make sure whoever oversees operations at your school is continuously evaluating the compliance of these auditable items throughout the year.

Financial management can be challenging even in the best of fiscal times.  However, keeping these basics in mind can help you meet those new school year resolutions.  And remember – never be afraid to ask for help!

Assessing Your School’s Back-Office Support Needs

By Adam Miller, SVP, EdTec Inc. and Peter Laub, EVP, EdTec

Originally published May 2012

Charter school leaders face two difficult challenges: managing a non-profit business and navigating the maze-like world of public education bureaucracy.  This one-two punch has left many charter school leaders and board members dazed and confused.  Help is not always easy to find, as specialized knowledge of school operations and finance, as well as non-profit corporate regulations, rarely reside in a single individual.  Even if relief is found, it is a continuing struggle to stay on top of changing funding schedules, amended reporting requirements, and moving grant deadlines.  Not to mention, of course, that all of this needs to be done while maintaining focus on the school’s mission to provide an outstanding education.

The complexity of charter school finance, the lack of experienced finance staff, and the desire to concentrate on the school’s educational mission has led hundreds of charters to conclude that a high quality business services provider can be an invaluable asset.  However, the decision as to whether to outsource services and to which provider depends on the unique needs and desires of each charter school.  If there is one thing those of us in the charter school world all know, one model does not fit all.

Bringing You Scale, Allowing You Focus

Being independent allows a charter school the autonomy to be nimble and to focus on the needs of its unique students and community.  Unfortunately, this wonderful flexibility comes with a price:  lack of scale.  The benefits of scale allow a Safeway supermarket to charge less than the corner store and Ikea to bring you a dresser for $50.  It should theoretically allow your school district to operate less expensively than your charter school, but alas that must be the exception that proves the rule.  a business services provider brings the benefits of scale to a charter school.  Scale allows business services providers to hire and train specialized staff that many charter schools could not afford on their own.  Further, scale allows providers to build redundancy within functional areas.  If a staff member at the business services provider who lives and breathes the ConApp leaves, there is another person there with similar skills and knowledge who can step in.  If this happens at the school level, it can be a different story.  The school’s intellectual capital related to business operations walks out the door with the staffer, and the school struggles to fill the void.

Scale also allows the rapid development and implementation of best practices.  Each year, the business services provider learns from the challenges and successes of dozens of schools.  Scale then allows some providers to invest in an internal knowledge base as well as efficient tools and systems to disseminate its knowledge to every client.  A business services provider can move a school quickly up the learning curve and help it avoid obstacles that tripped up other charters in the past.

Besides providing the latest information and a consistent resource, outsourcing to a high quality business services provider can have a positive effect on the bottom line.  Small and medium sized schools will almost always realize cost savings by outsourcing business services, compared to hiring internal staff with similar levels of expertise, especially when the true costs of hiring, training, managing, and retaining or replacing staff are factored into the equation.  It is cost prohibitive to hire experts across a range of business functions.  Even for larger schools, outsourcing can be a cost savings because a high quality back-office services firm’s business operations emphasis creates efficient internal systems resulting in time and cost savings.

Lastly, business services providers can bring focus to the financial operations of a school.  The key purpose of a charter school is to increase student achievement.  Rare is the charter school founder who wrote a petition because he or she was passionate about STRS reporting, cash flow management, or audit filings.  The focus of the school leadership should be on instructional issues, and fulfilling the promise of its charter.  However, the business and financial operations are necessary prerequisites to a successful academic program.  The best academic model can be torpedoed by poor financial oversight.    An outsourced business services provider can often bring the necessary level of focus and experience to the business and financial operations, freeing the school staff to focus on improving the education of their students.

If the pain points sound familiar and the benefits attractive, it is worth exploring with your school leadership if a business services provider is a smart investment that will help further your mission.

Choosing a Partner

Once you’ve decided you’d like to work with a business services provider, you need to determine which one will work best for your school.  A business services provider should be more than simply a vendor to the school.  It should be a strategic partner that has as much invested in the success of the school as the board and staff do.  To be a partner, the business services provider needs to do more than process financial transactions and provide historical financials.  While a provider’s handling of transactions and financials may still free you up to focus on the school’s academic program, a true partner is one that helps you align your budget and operations in support of that academic program.  The provider should view itself (and more importantly, you should view the provider) as an outsourced CFO who monitors historical financials, creates accurate, forward-looking budget forecasts, closely watches cash flow, and offers strategic advice tailored to your school’s financial and business operations.

There are meaningful and important differences in service delivery among the established back-office providers in California.  It is critical that the school staff and board evaluate their own needs and then carefully choose the appropriate provider that matches those needs.  The foundation for any successful relationship is knowing what you bring to the partnership and what you need from your partner.  Too often there is a mismatch between the needs and expectations of the school and the provider.

When expectations are not aligned, incorrect assumptions can be made about who is doing what, which can lead
to costly and even disastrous outcomes.  This mismatch can range from who is completing and filing which reports to who is responsible for keeping track of the budget forecast.  A missed report or an inaccurate forecast can result in losses in the tens of thousands.  To put it more plainly, it can result in the loss of a budget for an instructional aide, a set of musical instruments, or a series of field trips.

Critical Questions to Ask When Choosing a Back-Office Partner:

  • Where do we need help? Identify the gaps in skills and knowledge of your staff and board.  Do you have a charter finance expert on your team and therefore, are simply looking for an outsourced bookkeeper or transaction specialist (accounting, payroll, etc.), or are you looking for CFO level guidance about your financials and financial plan?  Do you need support finding and financing a facility?  Are there back-office operations that you want to keep in house (e.g., AP or attendance reporting)?
  • What specifically is included in the service bundle? Understand what is specially offered and what is not.  Seek detailed clarification on pricing, depth and frequency of services.  For example, will the provider attend all of your board meetings and how often are forecasts and cash flows updated?  Will they work with you on budget projections?  What tools are made available to the school for on-demand visibility to its financial data?  Then ask yourself if those services and tools match the expectations and needs of the school staff and board.
  • Can the service flexibly adjust to my needs over time? Ask if the provider will tailor services to your needs or if it’s a one-size-fits-all service.  What other defined service scope options are available?  Further, as your school’s needs change over time, will the provider adjust its service scope to meet your requirements?
  • What is the service delivery staffing model? Find out if the provider has specialized staff with deep expertise in their functional area or if a single individual is attempting to wear many different hats.  Ask how many schools are assigned to your primary support resource and find out each provider’s back-office support staff to client ratio.
  • What will the service delivery experience be like? While the back-office services described by different providers may appear to be similar on paper, there can be tangible differences related to service delivery approach, support levels, and responsiveness.  Your best course is to spend the necessary time to speak with several clients of each provider to hear about the service experience directly from the schools. Additionally, don’t be satisfied with a few reference schools that have been selected for you by the provider; ask providers for a complete list of their back-office clients so that you can choose which schools to contact when performing reference checks.

Making the Most of the Relationship

You’ve worked hard to choose the right business services provider, now it’s time to make the relationship flourish.  A good relationship is built on a foundation of mutual understanding of expectations, roles, and responsibilities.  Your school needs to establish clear lines of communication with the provider, develop a clear understanding of the work flow with the provider, and have a reliable, designated onsite/internal staff member who coordinates the sharing of information (e.g. payroll, AP, etc.) with the provider.

As mentioned earlier, understanding what the service provider can and will provide for your school is critical for a good working relationship.  Once a school leader and board understand what the business services provider will deliver, they can fill any remaining gaps with additional staff or staff allocations to particular tasks.  This understanding aids in the efficient completion of back-office tasks and avoids costly mistakes that can be time consuming to fix.  Gently, but firmly, keep the provider accountable for what is included in the contract.  It’s up to you to ensure continually that your needs are being met and your expectations exceeded.   Just as you do not settle for substandard work in the classroom, do not settle for it from your business services provider.  Excellence in the classroom can either be furthered or inhibited by the quality of your back-office operation.

As a school leader, you put tremendous time, energy, and effort into ensuring that your students have the best teachers and the necessary resources to reach their potential.   To ensure that your charter school, both as a business and learning center, reaches its highest potential, you need to provide your school’s leadership with the finest support and resources.   After a close examination of your team’s strengths and weaknesses, you may find that a business services provider, or more appropriately, a business services partner, can help you build a more sustainable and successful charter school.

Charter Renewal Do’s and Don’ts from an Authorizer’s Lens

By Stephanie Cho, Business Development Manager, EdTec 

Originally published October 2011

Renewal can be a daunting process for even the most prepared and organized charter schools. The process is time-consuming and often produces anxiety within the community. The uncertainty and politics that surround charter approvals and renewals. In an effort to shed light on what authorizers look for from schools going through renewal, EdTec conducted interviews with authorizers from around the state, to provide their charter renewal advice and get their take on how schools can equip themselves to emerge successful.

Keith Butler

Business Advisory Services Consultant

San Diego County Office of Education

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: Successful schools start early and carefully watch for deadlines (often in June). Schools that don’t plan ahead and are still making significant corrections in March and April are bound to fall short. It’s important for schools to come to an agreement with their authorizers on oversight. Figure out what is expected ahead of time in this area and address those expectations.

Q: What are some common issues you see schools fail to address in their petitions that hurt their renewal efforts?

A: Common pitfalls tend to happen in the budget assumptions. I want to be sure that the numbers presented in the petition budget are based on reality. The school needs to be able to back up their enrollment numbers and provide evidence to support other assumptions. This can be a growth plan, and other details such as what a school is paying for its liability insurance. Schools can run into problems when the funding rates used are not from SSC (School Services of California), the ADA isn’t sufficiently backed up, or cash flow timing isn’t accurate or consistent with county projections. Expenses should tie to both the school’s historical data and incorporate what’s on the horizon. For example, healthcare costs year over year should be consistent with previous policies (e.g. a cap) and anticipate future needs. Expenses should be clearly laid out and classified by category and object code. Overall, the financials should include actuals as well as a good list of assumptions for the projections.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: More documentation and specification that backs up what’s written. For example, the school’s learning outcomes – what methods exactly is the school using to achieve those outcomes? I would like to see how schools are meeting the various measurable pupil outcomes (MPOs). When shortcomings are identified, I’d like to see schools put a system in place that lays out exactly how to drive change and what results are expected to come of it.

Q: Sometimes schools put in very aggressive goals in their original petitions, often at the request of the authorizer, and then fall short of meeting those goals. What can a charter do in that situation?

A: Revise your projections early with various scenarios that are reasonable. For example, show that you’ve thought through the different scenarios that could happen. Have projections based on current data, current projections plus a cost of living adjustment to your salaries, current projections plus cuts, etc. On the instructional side, the goal is to show that you know what you’re doing and are able to offer realistic alternatives if the status quo isn’t working.

Q: What is your main piece of charter renewal advice to schools that are going through the renewal process this year?

A: My main piece of charter renewal advice is to agree with your authorizer on expectations regarding oversight guidelines, keep communications up, and it should go smoothly.

José J. Cole-Gutiérrez

Director, Charter Schools

Innovation and Charter Schools Division, LAUSD

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: More effective schools are the ones planning well ahead the year before renewal. These schools have gone through each and every year, well aware of how they have done performance-wise, engaged their communities, engaged their boards, and have made the time for self-assessment. This is why they earn another five years. These schools can also address what they can improve in the next five years. Smaller things that schools have done include looking at the LAUSD oversight report on a yearly basis, taking corrective action when necessary, and communicating with their assigned renewal team well ahead of time. Schools that do well have addressed problems in advance. During the actual renewal process LAUSD should not have to go back to those issues. On the finance side, finances should be in good order and the cash flow and balance sheet need to look strong.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: More of a demonstration of community and staff support. I’d also like to see folks addressing outstanding issues and what they want to accomplish in the next five years. Ultimately, I want to see a strong performing school that meets what leaders said they would do and the standard of the law.

Q: What is your main piece of charter renewal advice to schools that are going through the renewal process this year?

A: Be very clear and proud of your accomplishments as candidly as possible. Celebrate! At the same time, let us know what challenges you face and how you plan to deal with them. Looking back, ask yourself how did we do? What did we do well and how can we do more of that? Looking forward, how will we change? Regarding financial challenges, how can we be more prudent?

Q: Do you have any other comments?

A: LAUSD has 30 schools up for renewal this year. In many cases, this is more than districts have in charters total. We want to make it an efficient process for community, staff, and the school, and we value a collaborative approach with schools. LAUSD believes in high performing schools and holding schools accountable. We are open to those conversations on how schools have done.

Gail Greely

Coordinator, Office of Charter Schools

Oakland Unified School District

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: Our office publishes both a Petition Evaluation Instrument for all charter petitions and a Charter Renewal Handbook that includes guidance on the renewal process and on the charter renewal quality standards.  Using these resources can help a school produce a more complete document that supports their case for renewal with specific evidence related to our standards. However, the specific content of the school’s renewal petition is less important than the quality of its performance throughout the preceding charter term.

Q: What are some common issues you see schools fail to address in their petitions that hurt their renewal efforts?

A: Our quality standards cover four key questions: 1) Is the school academically sound?; 2) Is the school an effective and viable organization?; 3) Has the school been faithful to the terms of its charter?; and 4) Is the school’s petition reasonably comprehensive?  A school that has not implemented the program described in the charter and has not met or made substantial progress towards meeting the measurable pupil outcomes (MPOs) in its charter is unlikely to be renewed.  Note that making a case for meeting or making substantial progress towards MPOs involves using data that the school has been collecting over the entire term of the charter, so strong data collection systems are critical. We respect the charter as an agreement between the district and the school. The school accepts strong accountability in exchange for increased autonomy. They are accountable for achieving the outcomes described in their charter, so schools that fail to address these, or fail to describe why they have taken a different approach, hurt their renewal efforts.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: Charter renewal provides a chance for the school to reflect on the preceding years and engage in serious self-evaluation, involving all stakeholders. We believe a quality school should take this opportunity to revise its charter to include plans for continuous improvement in all aspects of the academic program, management, and governance.

Q: Sometimes schools put in very aggressive goals in its original petition, often at the request of the authorizer, and then fall short of meeting those goals. What can a charter do in that situation?

A: Our quality standards look for student outcomes that are aligned with the school’s mission: clear, specific and measurable, and ambitious yet attainable. Because we review a school’s performance with respect to its student outcomes every year, a school concerned about over-ambitious goals should be raising the issue with our office during the charter term. Then during charter renewal, the school can provide in its petition an explanation (based on reliable data) of why the outcomes were not met (or substantial progress was not made) and describe what they propose as ambitious and attainable goals for the next charter term.

Q: When do you advise a school to submit their petition, and what specific information do you request, above and beyond the normal petition?

A: We accept charter renewal petitions no earlier than October 1st of the charter’s final year and recommend submission no later than the end of January. Schools that consider themselves at risk of denial may wish to submit earlier to allow time for appeals. In addition to the charter petition, we require a Performance Report that is to be prepared in draft prior to our site inspection and then finalized as part of the charter renewal submission.

Q: Are there things prior to the one year renewal process that you would like to see charters do? What would you like to see three years ahead of renewal? Two years?

A: From the first day of operation, schools should make sure that they are tracking the MPOs to which they have committed in their charters. Progress toward achievement of these outcomes should be checked regularly throughout the school year, with program adjustments made in response. As renewal approaches, but while there is still time for meaningful change, schools should review the renewal quality standards published by our office and honestly assess their own performance. Rather than viewing charter renewal as a periodic compliance task, the MPOs and charter renewal standards should be integrated into the school’s continuous improvement process.

Dr. Lucretia D. Peebles

Director, Charter Schools Department

Santa Clara County Office of Education

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: The ones that are successful are conscious of new laws pertaining to renewals. Successful schools also set up meetings, understand expectations, understand if anything has changed in the guidelines, and get the information up front to find out the requirements. It is the school’s responsibility to know the laws, understand what the guidelines are ahead of time, and understand logistics.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: More comprehensive in the educational program section, more clarity in governance, and how parents will be included.

Q: Sometimes schools put in very aggressive goals in its original petition, often at the request of the authorizer, and then fall short of meeting those goals. What can a charter do in that situation?

A: Be as transparent about your goals as you can. Develop realistic objectives and be aware of what you can implement. You might need to do a material revision if you aren’t meeting goals, and you should talk to your authorizer about the best way to go about this. Be up front about your problems.

Q: When do you advise a school to submit their petition, and what specific information do you request, above and beyond the normal petition?

A: Early fall for a charter expiring the following June would be best practice.

Q: What is your main piece of charter renewal advice to schools that are going through the renewal process this year?

A: Become familiar with guidelines and work with your authorizer so that you understand how the process will be handled. Know times and roles and responsibilities.

 

EdTec would like to thank the above authorizers for contributing their time, knowledge and charter renewal advice. All of the authorizers echoed throughout each interview that renewal should not be viewed as simply an obligatory assignment to be completed every five years, but rather, a continuous process to track progress and improve the school. All charters face renewal at some point, and no matter where your school might currently fall on that timeline, it’s always a good time to:

  • Stay in the know on requirements and timelines. Rules and laws related to the renewal process are continually changing and it’s critical to stay on top of which ones apply to your school. Furthermore, your authorizer might have specific oversight guidelines and timelines they want you to follow. In general, it is recommended you start drafting your renewal petition 18 months to no less than a year in advance of the charter expiration date. This will give you adequate time for back and forth communications between you and your authorizer and an appeals process if necessary. Check with your authorizer regarding exact timelines for submitting the renewal petition.
  • Maintain constant and open contact with your authorizer. Communication is particularly important because you want to create context around both the successes and shortcomings of your school well before the renewal year. Authorizers appreciate transparency and want schools to be realistic about their plans. Come to an agreement on oversight ahead of time and know what their expectations are so you can tailor your petition to address any specific concerns.
  • Utilize data assessment and analysis. While qualitative aspects such as positive testimonials are important, authorizers like to see hard facts and longitudinal assessment data to substantiate how you are meeting your goals and delivering results. Concrete, specific and measurable data is a convincing way to show your authorizer that you can both back up your claims on past performance and have a tool for formative assessments going forward. Use data analysis to showcase your successes. At the same time, the data can expose your weaknesses – so be honest about the areas you’re looking to improve, and how you plan to focus on those areas.
  • Get a strong handle on your finances. The petition budget and cash flow are concrete areas that your authorizer will review closely, especially in this unforgiving economic environment. Make sure your assumptions make sense with the goals outlined in the rest of your petition. Be able to speak intelligently on the financial situation of your school. If you are working with any consultants or back-office providers in this area, leverage them to go through every assumption with you so that you have a thorough understanding of your finances.
  • Engage key stakeholders. Don’t wait until you are walking into your renewal hearing to garner community support. Authorizers want to see an active, involved board that is well aware of the details of the renewal petition, along with parents, staff, and students who are genuinely excited and interested in the continued existence of their school.
  • Set aside time for regular self-evaluation. Throughout each year, periodically reflect on how your school is meeting the MPOs pledged in its original charter. Set up a process for developing program adjustments to address any deficiencies. Have a team devoted to self assessment and responsible for executing and holding the school accountable to a results-oriented action plan.
  • Budget time and resources for strategic planning. In addition to regular check-ins on the progress of meeting the charter’s MPOs, plan time for key stakeholders to establish real, viable tactics for the long-term health and wellbeing of your school. Conduct a needs assessment and develop a clear strategic roadmap to establish and tackle long-term objectives for the sustainability of your school.

Though many aspects of the renewal process can be trying, you should remember that it is also a great opportunity to showcase your school’s strengths and accomplishments. Stay in control of the process by starting early and regularly communicating with your authorizer. This gives yourself the best chance possible at getting your charter renewed.