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Case Study

Enhancing the Clarity and Impact of Financial Reporting in Dieringer School District

How Frontline Analytics helps the Superintendent and the Executive Director of Business Services at Dieringer School District make clear financial decisions and garner school board support.

Dieringer School District Hero Image

District Background

In Brief

Dieringer School District chose Frontline Analytics to make budget projections and present financial information to the school board. Here’s how it helped them:

  • Better financial understanding and communication. With detailed visuals, the board can now focus on the big picture — rather than getting drawn into the weeds. This results in better engagement and understanding and faster decision-making.
  • Enhanced financial planning and forecasting. The ability to forecast based on various scenarios like staff salary increases or a higher free- and reduced-lunch rate gives leadership confidence in financial projections and the ability to make informed decisions.
  • Informed collective bargaining. Dieringer School District comes prepared to the bargaining table, with transparent data that builds trust.
  • Better staffing decisions. Comparing financial and staffing metrics to other districts helps guide the district when it comes to salaries and addressing turnover.
  • Insightful student performance analysis. Identifying educational disparities helps guide district programming and funding.
  • Efficiency and cost savings. Easy access to financial data in an easily consumable format saves countless hours and reduces the need for additional business office personnel.

When Dieringer School District lost 12% of its enrollment in 2020, it suddenly faced an unfamiliar challenge. “You have a very affluent school district that in their mind never had any money issues. And then you bring on a 12% drop of enrollment and the loss of state funding that comes with that,” which came as a surprise to the district, says Kim Knight, Executive Director of Business Services. Nearly 200 students left Dieringer that year, which translated to $2 million in state funding that disappeared. Additionally, because ESSER funding is based on districts’ free- and reduced-lunch percentages, and Dieringer’s students do not qualify at the rates seen by the average district, Dieringer did not benefit from the relief funds as greatly as many others.

Superintendent Michael Farmer was just a few months into his tenure at Dieringer, one of the highest-performing districts in Washington. Not only was he trying to get to know the staff and students, he was also trying to build relationships with school board members — many of them new to the board. He needed a way to share the right data about the district’s financial situation with the right people.

Line by Line Through Spreadsheets

School district budget oversight can be challenging in the best of times. For board members stepping into the fray during a turbulent time, it can be grueling — especially going line by line through 145-page documents. “When I started and came to those first couple of board meetings, the board was going through spreadsheet after spreadsheet and line after line of data, going through the budget by object code,” says Michael.

For board members, the complex finances of a school district take time to learn. “You are asking people, who are essentially elected volunteers with little to no school experience and definitely no school financial experience, to wade through things that that can be tough for the professionals to wade through,” explains Kim. “It generated question after question and it really pulled the board out of their lane. They are supposed to be the big picture people, and instead they were way down in the weeds.”

This led to second-guessing decisions the Finance Department made.

Kim Knight Photo

“You are asking people, who are essentially elected volunteers with little to no school experience and definitely no school financial experience, to wade through things that that can be tough for the professionals to wade through. It generated question after question and it really pulled the board out of their lane. They are supposed to be the big picture people, and instead they were way down in the weeds.”

Kim Knight
– Executive Director of Business Services

Better Board Presentations

Kim shares, “I really feel my role is to make ‘Yes’ possible. They say, ‘This is what we need for the kids,’ and then I have to look at what’s available to make it possible.” She and Michael knew they needed a way to clearly explain to the board where the district was financially.

In a previous district, Kim had used Frontline’s Financial Planning and Budget Management Analytics, which makes it easy to create budget projections based on various scenarios and communicate financial information in a visually compelling way. They decided to put it to use in Dieringer to present the proposed budget to the board. “Instead of giving them the actual budget document, I gave them 10 slides saying, ‘Here is how your object codes are broken down. Here is instruction, and then here are the salaries.’ There was a really positive response to that, because that was something for them to grasp easily and move on to the higher-level pieces that they wanted to be able to focus on,” Kim says.

“Honestly, the feedback was, ‘We have never seen it presented in this way. This is really helpful. It’s easy to understand. Let’s just keep doing this.’ And I have never had any pushback since then.”

Now at each board meeting, Kim shares various reports, focuses on a different aspect of the budget each month, and helps board members understand how to look at the data and what it means in the long term.

“Those are things that are really beneficial and easy for the board to see at a glance. It does not take more than three minutes for them to look through that and say, ‘We are where we want to be,’ or, ‘Maybe we have some work in this particular area.’ But looking at fund balance, looking at staff retention, looking at test scores, it is so quick and easily shared. It is something we can take to the board and it can go on our website.”

Kim Knight
– Executive Director of Business Services

Dieringer’s free- and reduced-lunch rate is increasing. Its English Learner population has grown. Frontline Analytics enables Kim to project how those changes will affect district finances over time and communicate that visually to the board and highlight any budgetary changes that need to be made. “It really has allowed them to see the bigger picture. You can say, ‘We have a higher free and reduced rate,’ but when you show them a 10-year graph and you go from 5% to 22%, suddenly it’s, ‘Okay. Maybe we need to start talking.’”

Like every district, most of the budget is taken up with staff salaries. Even when the numbers look good today, negotiated salary increases can quickly throw a budget off track. Kim can project several years ahead and show if the fund balance will still be in the black in three years based on salary projections.

Collective Bargaining

When Dieringer School District approaches collective bargaining negotiations, Kim says that Frontline Analytics enables the district to come to the table with confidence and integrity, sharing an easy-to-understand picture of their financial situation. This way, she says, there are no surprises. They can respond to teachers union demands with clear data, which builds trust and makes it easier to come to an agreement.

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[Podcast] Analytics in Collective Bargaining

In this interview, Kim Knight at Dieringer School District explains how she uses analytics to come prepared to the collective bargaining table.

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Staffing Decisions

Dieringer School District also uses Frontline’s Comparative Analytics, which enables school districts to compare their own district to others using publicly available data. For Michael, this was especially useful as he tried to understand why teachers in the district were leaving. “There are misperceptions about what is really going on, and the data says something completely opposite,” he says. Some people thought that teachers were leaving for higher-paying jobs in other districts, but the data told a different story. “People tend not to argue with data.”

Kim appreciates the ability to compare financial and salary data with other districts, which helps her team make confident decisions around salaries. “We can push this button and here is our staffing story. It is all in this beautiful packet that we can compare to our peers as far as levy collections per student, we can compare to the comp districts named in the collective bargaining agreement. We can compare to our county districts as to how we are comparing and retaining our staff.”

Grade Level Realignment

As Michael and Kim have conversations about grade level realignment, moving various grade levels to different buildings, analytics allow them to see what kind of cost savings and return on investment they can expect. This is highly impactful, because when funds are freed up, they can be reallocated to other efforts, such as interventions.

Student Analytics

Dieringer School District also uses Frontline’s Student Analytics Lab, looking at everything from test scores and classroom grades to attendance and behavior data. This enables them to see how different groups of students perform and helps determine what actions might be necessary. “Our test scores have been great, but because the district demographics are changing, when you break down the test scores into different demographic groups, you notice that there is a very noticeable disparity in how certain groups perform,” Kim says. “Then you are able to look at that at a high level and say, ‘Okay, it looks like we need to put some more interventions into our English language learners.’”

Kim says this is the flip side of financial analytics. Student Analytics Lab helps district leadership determine the need — “This is what we need to do.” Financial Planning Analytics helps them understand, “This is what we need to do financially to meet that need.

“The cost and time savings are tremendous for me.”

Kim is quick to say that spreadsheets are still a part of her day — she is a school business official, after all. But she spends far less time looking at numbers in cells than she would if she did not have Frontline Analytics.

“Honestly, you would have to hire another person. There are not enough hours in the day for me to be able to produce meaningful information for the board and still do the rest of my job. You would have to hire somebody else who could take over the state reporting and the day-to-day so that I could sit and go blind in front of spreadsheets on a daily basis.”

Michael Farmer Photo

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, the data is worth a million, because it can paint a picture that really, truly tells the story and gives you a good place to start having a conversation, whether it is about funding or about what is really happening in the classroom with kids, or what could happen sometime down the road.”

Michael Farmer
– Superintendent