Former long-time business officer, recent interim CFO, and founding member of NBOA Jim Pugh shares wisdom he has collected in his decades of service to independent schools. This is the fourth article in the series. The series thus far includes the following: entry interviews when you start at a new school, trustee orientation in terms of school finance and financial reporting strategies.
One way to fend of cynicism about budget decisions from around the school is to distribute a department budget request form (available for download to NBOA members only). In late October or early November, the form should go to everyone in the school who is responsible for a budget or a set of budgets. Areas of responsibility may range from small to large, from the teacher who oversees the Model UN Club to the IT director and the facilities manager.
These department requests are a type of grassroots participation in the annual budget process. Senior leaders should encourage department chairs to discuss the budget request form at a department meeting to encourage participation. The returned forms facilitate a dialogue between the departments and the business office.
This annual window for budget requests is good for teacher and administrator morale. Everyone knows there is equal opportunity to share the needs of one’s department. The process clearly demonstrates it’s not just the “squeaky wheels” that are being heard in terms of budget needs.
Once teachers and administrators learn the discipline of the annual budget request, it cuts down on budget asks that come up too late in the school year to be considered for the next year’s operating budget. Late requests still surface, but the business office can reply to them with: “Good idea – please save it for the next year’s budget request,” rather than with: “Good idea – you are too late.”
There are four parts to this Budget Request Form:
Operating budget. Depending on the size of school and the administrative style of the head of school, the CFO may discuss the budget requests with: a) just the head, b) with the head and division heads, or c) with the head and the administrative leadership team. They discuss needs and priorities, and decide what to recommend to the board of trustees consistent with the school’s budget process.
Capital budget. There are two types of requests. The first is for high-priority needs. The second type is for needs which are on the horizon, or perhaps on a wish list. It is good to encourage teachers and administrators to think long-term. It is good for the CFO to know what they are thinking.
These requests are reviewed and prioritized by the same group as above. Proposed capital projects and equipment often need further research and consideration of options. Work on the capital budget may continue through the winter and spring. Commitments for summer work may have to be made with contractors in March or April.
Personnel changes and requests. The CFO forwards these replies to division heads and the head of school. Hopefully these administrators already know the thinking of the department chairs on personnel matters, but it never hurts to close the communications loop.
Repairs in need of immediate attention. No matter how responsive the facilities department is to its service request software, there are always needed repairs that fall through the cracks. This section of the Budget Request Form reminds people throughout the school that their eyes are important part of the school’s maintenance program.
The CFO forwards these requests to the facilities director. There may be an agenda item for the next weekly meeting. Responding to the written requests, where appropriate, goes a long way to letting teachers and staff know that “Someone is listening.”
Good Will Generator
In some years, when there is a healthy operating surplus, it is possible to knock off some of the requests which did not make it into capital budget. I have never met a department head who did not appreciate being asked in mid-June something like the following: “You know that set of shelves your department wanted to purchase for $4,000? Can you order it now and ask for the invoice to be dated no later than June 30?” Not only does the department chair appreciate the consideration, word will get around to others that the CFO has a good memory. This strengthens the budget request process.
The Budget Request Form is an integral part of the process of developing next year’s operating and capital budgets. It helps the business office to gather and organize the important bits of financial information and ideas that makes the school tick. Just as importantly, it helps to keep the CFO informed of the work around the school in the trenches.
NBOA members can download the form from the NBOA library and modify it for their own purposes.