Business & Operations

To kick off the new year, American School & University talks with John D. Musso, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International, about trends and issues that will most affect school business and operations in 2007 and beyond. John, who most recently was chief financial officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools and responsible for an annual budget of $2 billion, has more than 30 years experience in education.

AS&U: As executive director of ASBO, you have a unique perspective — having also served as a chief business official for a number of school districts. Based on your experiences, what are the primary challenges facing school business and operations?

Musso: Resource allocation. There is an increasing competition for resources — time, people and money. With increased accountability in instructional areas, pressure for improved test scores and making AYP, school and district report cards, and staffing classrooms with only qualified instructors, resources are being stretched more than ever before.

For many years, school budgets failed to increase commensurate with inflation. Over the years, this gap grew wider and wider. Even today, when we are successful in our attempts at securing funding that is equal to the rate of inflation, we are still playing ‘catch up’ from years past. Schools can never catch up in this scenario without huge influxes of resources.

School business officials (SBOs) of today are faced with being able to allocate resources across many areas that are equally important. This being said, it becomes very difficult to determine which programs are funded and which are not. SBOs typically are called upon by superintendents and boards to help make this decision.

Increasingly, we find that the SBO is the advocate for equitable school funding to invest in high-quality teachers, instructional resources and facilities. This means that the SBO of today must be skilled in many other areas besides school finance, accounting and budgeting. Not only must the SBO know what's happening on the instructional side, but they must also understand all other areas of the school system's support structure.

AS&U: How has the role of the school business official evolved, and where do you see it going?

Musso: Thirty years ago, there were very few of us who took an active role in the program side of the school system, let alone the instructional process at the classroom level.

I was an anomaly as an SBO, in part because I started my career as a classroom teacher and not long after found myself serving as an elementary school principal for seven years. I also had a superintendent who believed that the school business official played a vital role in the instructional process, so I was allowed to ‘play’ in that sandbox as well.

Not always did I see it, but I played an integral role in student achievement. There were certainly times when I had my hands full implementing a new budget, closing out an old budget year, thinking about negotiations … and so on. During these times, the last thing I wanted to do was go to an instructional department meeting. But I went because I knew I had a lot to offer, and I also knew that my job would be easier knowing what those ‘program’ folks were up to.

Increasingly, we see more and more school business officials involved in the instructional process on a daily basis. Just as the school principal is referred to as the instructional leader, so should we refer to the school business official. One might dispute that based upon the fact that the SBO's oversight typically is limited to the support and operations side of the house. But the critical question for me becomes, ‘How do I make the support and operations effective and efficient if I don't know what's happening with the instructional programs?’ Our role certainly has evolved from that of assembling data for financial reports, and no longer should we be referred to as ‘bean counters.’

Today, you will find that most if not all school districts prepare a budget based upon a strategic plan and associated strategic initiatives that focus on student achievement. Unfortunately, we also find that we have more strategic programs and initiatives that need funding than funding itself. That's where the school business official comes in; allocation of limited resources in such a manner that all of the programs are funded.

Oh, did I forget to mention that we also are considered magicians? This is where we begin pulling rabbits out of our hat. This doesn't happen in isolation, but rather through a complete investigative process with the superintendent and instructional staff.

Today we find that initiatives range from class-size reduction, extended-day programs, summer school, professional development, and a host of instructional models. It would be very simple to provide an allocation to the superintendent and staff, and let them figure it out. But as stewards of our school system's assets, we are in a unique position to evaluate and manage the major initiatives about to be launched in our school systems.

What does this mean? It means that we have moved away from being the budget police where we would say ‘no, you can't spend that money,’ to a budget facilitator where we are helping everyone implement their strategic initiatives to help effectuate student achievement.

Think of yourself as a pilot in a plane at 50,000 feet. Today, school business officials are developing an overview of the entire school district, not just the support and operations areas. There is no other position in the school system that understands how to integrate the instructional programs with the budget, and pull rabbits out of the hat.

As school business officials, we must understand the cause-effect relationship between budgets and programs. It becomes critical then that we know and understand what the program side does, how they talk, what they mean, and the value of the programs. Without knowing the value of class-size reduction, intensive professional development for staff and other key strategic initiatives, we are not able to make meaningful contributions to the decisionmaking process. By being able to see the school system from that 50,000-foot level, business officials are better armed with all of the facts to help district leaders make critical and accurate decisions.

When asked what our critical mission is, we should be able to say that our mission is to protect and preserve the assets of the school district — not just the fiscal assets, but rather all of the assets that include the students, staff and community.

AS&U: As quickly as the education landscape is changing, what do you see as the major challenges facing school operations in the foreseeable future?

Musso: School business officials will always face challenges of more needs than available resources. However, as we look forward, we can see an entirely different set of challenges we must be prepared to cope with. SBOs must be the master of all within the school system.

There are myriad challenges that we face and will continue to face. But I believe the key to being successful at all of these challenges, whatever they are and whenever they present themselves, is to have a strong foundation and be steadfast within the community. We know that successful schools contribute to successful communities, and that current and future educational reforms are placing schools and their communities under pressure to improve student performance. This then makes our communities and its leaders very critical of our public school systems.

The SBO must be visible in the community; be able to articulate the school district's instructional vision and mission; understand staffing patterns and their affect upon the educational process, progress toward student achievement and school improvement; as well as have a complete understanding of the school system's support structure including facilities, maintenance, technology, nutrition service, transportation, purchasing, budgeting, finance and accounting, taxing structures and tax laws … I could go on.

I was once told that the person who controls the budget controls the school district. I'm not sure if that's entirely true, but I do know that the person who controls the budget must have a complete knowledge and understanding of the school system they serve — inside and out.

Building relationships

It is incumbent upon school business officials to form working partnerships with school officials, community leaders and their communities to ensure that all children can succeed, according to John D. Musso, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International. Some things SBOs must be able to do:

  • Articulate the school district's vision toward school improvement.

  • Facilitate ongoing discussions with city leaders to build relationships and lay the foundation for future issues.

  • Bring community leaders and faith-based organizations together.

  • Build public engagement with parents, residents and city leaders.

  • Use data to tell stories and interpret that data to the community.

  • Be the advocate in the community for equitable school funding for investing in highly qualified staff, instructional resources and facilities.

Agron, editor-in-chief/associate publisher, can be reached at [email protected].

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