By Kevin Junk and Jim Colyott- September 25, 2023
School district financial transparency is the act of school leaders providing various financial data to its school community. Types of data that can be shared are local, state, and federal revenues, operational expenditures, tax levies, annual budgets, audit reports, and anything else related to the financial operations of the district. To be fully transparent, districts will implement processes and protocols to share financial information online and throughout the community, and create financial committees with students, parents, staff, community members, and business owners, to collaboratively develop budgets and long-term financial plans for the district.
In an era of information overload and internet access nearly everywhere, accountability has become paramount and financial transparency emerged as a foundational principle for businesses and institutions. Now more than ever, school districts are tasked with maintaining financial transparency with school communities. Below are 4 essential questions school leaders must consider when practicing financial transparency.
What are some benefits of financial transparency?
Creating trust and positive engagement between schools and community. When community members feel informed of their schools’ financial decisions, they feel a sense of trust with school leaders and are more likely to participate in opportunities to provide feedback.
Improving financial equity among education programs and diverse student populations. Hosting annual events with the community to encourage collaboration and obtain feedback from stakeholders can lead to improved financial equity among education programs and diverse student populations of all ages.
Accountability between school leaders and community members. When community members are more knowledgeable of school financial operations, there is a shared accountability among school leaders and community members.
Enhancing public perception of the school district. As potential residents look for a new community to raise their families, a common question they ask is, “how are the local schools?” When the community is generally informed of school finances and has developed trust with its school leaders, public perception is improved and may be perceived as attractive to new residents.
What are the roles of school boards and superintendents in financial transparency?
“Today’s constituents expect a high level of transparency from their school districts. We implement ongoing transparency strategies that complement each other, such as monthly financial reporting provided to the board of education in the public-facing agenda packet and the district’s Annual Comprehensive Financial Report and Certified Budget Book, submitted annually for recognition by the Government Finance Officers Association and Association of School Business Officials International. We also have a Facilities and Finance board committee, which serves in an advisory capacity to management and the board of education on school finance and operations issues.”
Dr. Erik Pruitt, Superintendent of Schools, Ankeny Community School District, Ankeny, Iowa
Both school boards and superintendents play crucial roles in maintaining financial transparency with the community.
Superintendents are responsible for ensuring the district is compliant with local policies and state and federal laws. The superintendent can also hold multiple “state of the school” meetings to provide updates about financial decisions and obtain feedback from the community. The superintendent can also ensure that the district shares and publicizes important financial information to the public. Lastly, the superintendent should advocate for the desire for all leaders to practice financial transparency and for all communities to expect open communication.
School boards are responsible for setting financial policies, guidelines, and procedures that promote financial transparency and accountability. This framework along with a culture of accountability will set the tone for all school leaders to follow. In addition, school boards review all financial documents, approve the annual budget and tax levy, reflect the needs of all members of the community, and act fiscally responsible. School board members can ensure they receive regular financial reports from the superintendent and building principals, and use this information to assess the district’s financial health on a regular basis. School boards also collaborate with external financial auditors and attorneys to remain compliant with financial regulations. Lastly, school boards can clearly communicate financial information and all decisions to the community. They hold public meetings where financial matters are discussed and provide opportunities for the public to provide input and ask questions.
What tools and resources are available to school leaders to support financial transparency?
The Community Financial Meeting Toolkit provides a great template that promotes transparent discussions with district stakeholders as it relates to the academic and financial standings of the district. It provides a nice format to compile all of our district's relevant data in one place to present to the school board, staff, and the community.
Dr. Landon Sommer, Century School District #100, Ullin, IL Superintendent
Region 9 collaborated with the Illinois State Board of Education and created a Community Financial Meeting Toolkit (CFMT) for school leaders. This toolkit provides guidance to build transparency and engage the community in understanding school finance. Using this toolkit will allow school leaders to tell their story and engage the community in a way that they will understand how financial decisions are made and promote equity of spending for students of all ages.
Using the CFMT, districts will be able to provide local background information and provide opportunities for additional information and feedback. Other benefits for using the CFMT, districts will be able to summarize and explain: the elements of the Illinois School Report Card, local and state financial information, and special circumstances specific to the local district. Overall, the using the CFMT will allow district to tell their story and provide explanations to the community.
What can community members do to promote financial transparency?
Members of the community can play an essential role in supporting financial transparency in their school districts.
Encourage school leaders to practice financial transparency and provide opportunities for community members to give input.
Review board meeting agendas and minutes for board meetings and public hearings to keep informed of upcoming discussions.
Attend school board meetings and public hearings to keep informed of financial decisions in their school district.
Review property tax bills and ask district leaders about any noticeable changes from previous years.
Consider joining district and school advisory committees to learn more about local decision-making practices and offer ideas to school leaders.
Still have questions about Illinois Public School Finance and the Every Student Succeeds Act? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions resource.
Kevin N. Junk is a technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research® (AIR®). His work includes serving as a project lead for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center, as well as leading school improvement work in multiple states. He serves as a leadership coach and an instructional coach for districts across the country and participates in the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle study through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He specializes in school improvement and coaching district and school leaders on how to use data more effectively in their settings. Prior to joining AIR, Junk was a superintendent, building principal, and teacher in southern Illinois.
James Colyott, EdS, is the lead for the Illinois project on teacher recruitment, retention, and recognition for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center. As a technical assistance consultant through the district and school improvement team at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), Colyott provided weekly leadership coaching to superintendents and principals in Illinois schools in the Chicago area. Through this support, school leadership teams analyzed student performance data, completed root cause analysis sessions, developed and monitored school improvement plans, and used effective meeting practices. Before joining AIR, Colyott had more than 20 years of experience in Illinois public schools, serving 7 years as a district superintendent and 6 years as a building principal.