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Case Study

Financial Turnaround: From Overspending to a Healthy Budget

How Clear Lake Schools used Frontline Business Analytics to create reliable financial forecasts and get out of the red.

Clear Lake Schools Hero Image

District Background

A $1.3 Million Shortfall

“If we really care about our students and providing them the best opportunity possible, then we have to take care of our finances.”

Doug Gee is the Superintendent of Clear Lake Schools. Located in north central Iowa, the size of the district is in what Doug considers the sweet spot: “Just big enough to be able to offer kids anything that you want to offer them, but small enough to get to know the kids, the teachers, the parents, the community.”

When he arrived in Clear Lake eight years ago, the district was in dire financial shape. Three years before his arrival, it had overspent its budget by $1.3 million and was still struggling to dig out. Doug believes a superintendent’s priorities should focus on things like academics, instructional leadership, strategic planning, and hiring, but he recognizes how critical finances are to keeping schools running.

Doug set out to understand why the district’s finances were in difficult shape and found that the various funding sources available for specific types of purchases were not being maximized. “There were a lot of things that were spent using general fund dollars that could have been spent out of one of these other silos,” he says. “Really, your goal here is to save those general fund dollars for the things that we absolutely have to use for that.”

Doug Gee Photo

“If you don’t take care of the finances, you are not going to be able to do any of the other things. You are not going to be able to hire staff. You are not going to be able to recruit and retain staff. You are not going to be able to add any kind of program. You are going to be doing the opposite, which is reducing programming. You are not going to be able to provide the type of curriculum and supplies and materials for your staff and your students.”

Doug Gee
– Superintendent

In his previous school district, Doug used Frontline Business Analytics for financial planning and to forecast budget scenarios. He decided to bring the system to Clear Lake Schools as well.

Budget Scenarios in Frontline Business Analytics

Each month, the Business Manager in Clear Lake Schools uploads the data from their financial system. As Doug prepares presentations to the school board, he uses Business Analytics to look at the variances and build scenarios to see the effect different actions could have over time.

Doug used Business Analytics to put together several scenarios for moving the district toward financial health. Then he built some simple reports with visuals to communicate the scenarios clearly and showed his findings to leaders in each building. “I used the tool to put together probably seven or eight different scenarios of what we could or couldn’t do to get us in a better spot, and how that would transpire over the next four or five years. ‘If we do this, this is what will happen. If we do this, this will happen.’”

“If I didn’t have Frontline, it would be a lot of spreadsheets and folders. But the reason that Frontline is so valuable for us is the forecasting part, the planning. Because prior to things like this, they really just looked at the past and then they looked at the present, but they really weren’t able to plan out for the future.”

Doug Gee
– Superintendent

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School Board Reports

Each fall, Doug shows the board and the community how the district ended the year financially and can easily display how action or inaction could affect the financial situation years down the line. This is helpful even if things appear to be on track.

“We can say, look, we are in a great position. If we stay on this route, in five years we are going to have to make some drastic reductions. But if we do one or two small things right now, we are going to be fine. It shows them that by doing a couple of small things right now, how that pans out over the next five years.”

Once Doug presents the high-level picture to the board and collects their input, he can then work with his administrative team to determine the specific actions that need to be taken.

“It has allowed me to keep a focus on the important things, which are student learning and student achievement and the students, because I am able to keep track of the finances.”

Doug Gee
– Superintendent

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Earning the Board’s Trust

Doug’s presentations have been so helpful and accurate over time that he can confidently make requests — additional staff positions, for example — knowing the school board will trust what forecasts show. “Our board here at Clear Lake believes so heavily in this tool that if I want to add a staff member, I show them, ‘Here is what that is going to look like five years from now.’ And they say, ‘If it fits in Frontline, we are okay with it.’ That is really how much they believe in it.”

Making Complex Data Simple to Grasp

As Doug prepares his monthly board reports, Business Analytics contains many visuals that he uses regularly. “Most of the board writer reports have the spreadsheet and then right underneath them have the graph. So it is very easy, very convenient to have them right there.” This is especially helpful in highlighting key points, which helps keep major issues front and center without letting the board get mired in unnecessary details.

The visuals are also helpful in gaining community buy-in. A few years ago, Clear Lake passed an $18 million bond referendum without raising tax rates. “I can show them both by spreadsheets and graphing. ‘Here is what this is going to do with the tax rate. It’s going to change or it’s not going to change it. Here’s why it’s going to change or not.’ And then you can follow that up with a nice, easy graph.” That helped establish trust with the community as they have seen tax rates stay the same.

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Compliance and Funding Sources

Doug says Clear Lake Schools also relies on Frontline to maintain fiscal compliance. “It helps us monitor some of our different budgeting areas. For example, special ed: it’s one of those things where you do not want to overspend by too much, but you do not want to underspend because then you’ve got to give the money back.” The district monitors various budgeting areas and can look forward to ensuring their levels of spending are appropriate.

Results: “The Best Financial Shape Clear Lake Has Ever Been In.”

Now, Clear Lake Schools’ financial projections are more accurate than ever, enabling district leadership to plan effectively. The results are clear. “We are in the best financial shape that Clear Lake has ever been in,” says Doug, “with an unspent balance of over 23% and a solvency of about 30%, as opposed to 5% when I came in.”

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With the budget in a healthy spot, Clear Lake was able to add more programs in computer science and engineering, agriculture education, and a Project Lead the Way program. These, in turn, have brought additional students to the district, with the number of students attending Clear Lake through open enrollment rising from 165 when Doug started to 300 today. “At $8,000 a kid, you can do the math on what that has done for our funding, to be able to add this programming. But again, we would not have been able to do those things without the planning that is involved in this tool.”

“As a superintendent and as a school district, [Frontline Business Analytics] has allowed us to put our district in great financial shape, which then allows us to recruit and retain some of the best staff out there. That is so vitally important to me as I try to serve the community and students. Without these tools, at Clear Lake we would not be able to forecast out four and five years and make educated decisions about what we are doing for our kids.”

Doug Gee
– Superintendent