Blog Post 4: Preparing for the Transparency Provision: Perspectives From Districts

This blog is the fourth in a series on how states and districts can improve resource allocation decision-making. For the first blog post in the series, click here; for the second blog post, click here; for the third blog post, click here.

The third blog post in this series highlighted the steps Illinois and Oregon have taken to prepare for meeting new requirements in ESEA’s financial transparency provision. Like states, districts also need to be proactive in preparing to report per-pupil expenditures and communicate with stakeholders around financial transparency. This fourth and final blog post in the series focuses on the experiences of district leaders in preparing for financial transparency reporting. The State Support Network spoke with Bradley McMillen, Assistant Superintendent for Data, Research, and Accountability at Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, and with Michelle Morrison, Chief Financial Officer at Hillsboro School District in Oregon, about what each has done.

What have you done to prepare for this new financial transparency reporting provision?

Dr. McMillen (Wake County, NC): It is important to understand that beyond the technical and statistical issues, this new provision is also a significant communication and public relations opportunity. Reporting per-pupil expenditures at the individual school level opens lots of opportunities for communication—including miscommunication—in a way that is reminiscent of [the initial years of] test score reporting [in the 2000s]. District and state leaders need to prepare for those conversations in a proactive way that reinforces positive and accurate messaging about financial equity and efficiency, or they run the risk of letting others create their own messages, perhaps in ways that prevent us from having the right conversations.

Ms. Morrison (Hillsboro, OR): We have worked at building shared knowledge around definitions and stakeholder interpretations. We also took advantage of opportunities to dialog with other districts to create balanced messaging. Giving the state previews and insights into internal data can be helpful, as well as being open to state feedback and input.

How do you ensure that all this initial work doesn’t just end with reporting the data as a compliance exercise?

Dr. McMillen (Wake County, NC): Work with your state to ask for assistance in messaging, not just in the technical aspects of coding expenses. Some states may approach this as a compliance activity. However, encouraging states to help districts think about how to talk about and contextualize these data, especially for smaller districts that might not have the bandwidth or expertise in public relations, is important.

Ms. Morrison (Hillsboro, OR): In Oregon, the state implements feedback loops to ensure understanding of the new reporting. We have also been using the Financial Transparency and Reporting Readiness Assessment Tool over multiple years to look for trends in spending and student achievement.

How are you ensuring consistent, shared reporting practices across your district?

Dr. McMillen (Wake County, NC): In North Carolina, we have a centralized, statewide financial reporting system that should ensure that the reporting will be an “apples to apples” exercise across both schools and districts. Common messaging across schools is the bigger challenge. Engaging district leadership and principals early in the process can help ensure that communication is also consistent and accurate.

Ms. Morrison (Hillsboro, OR): We make sure to adhere to state standards for accounting, staffing, and student data reporting. Also, our integrated data are focused on instructional and financial leadership throughout the district.

How is your district communicating this information to all stakeholders, including communities and parents?

Dr. McMillen (Wake County, NC): We have an internal team of financial and communications staff who will be working on messages for various stakeholder groups. The key here is to know that you don’t just have one audience for this information, you have several—parents, the business community, principals and staff, etc.—and that the needs of those audiences will be different.

Ms. Morrison (Hillsboro, OR): We work together with the superintendent and the school board to make sure the information is communicated to all the right people. We also ask the state if they can reach out to stakeholders through their networks. Another thing we do is request samples from the state on what they are communicating, which helps create a consistent message.

What advice do you have for other districts to prepare for this reporting?

Dr. McMillen (Wake County, NC): First, don’t spend so much time focusing on the technicalities of data reporting and quality control that you sell yourself short on the communication side. That’s where things will either go well or poorly. Second, ensure that this is a districtwide effort that includes all aspects of leadership—communications staff, principals, superintendent’s leadership group, etc.—as they will all be involved in some aspect of it at some point. It’s not just a financial exercise, it’s an opportunity to develop and send messages to your community about why your district does what it does.

Ms. Morrison (Hillsboro, OR): Since funding is driven by student enrollment and taxpayer willingness to vote for levies, resist the urge to use this reporting as competitive leverage across districts. Financial and instructional leadership must have a solid understanding of how their school improvement programs are accounted for in terms of funding and whether they are effective.

What questions should leaders be asking within their districts, schools, and communities?

Dr. McMillen (Wake County, NC): Who is going to see this information? Who needs to see it? What are the possible narratives, both positive and negative, that could result from the interpretation of these data? What do WE want to say about it? How can we use these data to further conversations about equity in our system?

Ms. Morrison (Hillsboro, OR): How can we work collaboratively to serve students? How can we engage Education Service Districts in this work? What checkpoints are there for equitable (not equal) spending to reduce the achievement gap?

Blog Series Overview

For more information, please see the previous blogs in this series: