Field Trip: School Business Officials and the Power of Analytics
School business officials have a crucial role to play for school districts. Not only are they in charge of balancing the budget for the school year, but they’re also tasked with anticipating future financial plans, sometimes half a decade down the line. Compound that with some responsibilities you might not think come with the job and you have a position that’s integral to a modern district’s functioning.
In this episode, John Brucato, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations at Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District in New York state and host of the podcast SBO Perspectives, gives us an enhanced view into what a school business official thinks about— and the importance of data not just in the short term, but for predicting the future as well.
We’ll discuss how being prepared with a view of the district’s data helped him land his current job, along with:
- Why being a school business official is about more than just numbers
- How data impacts an SBO’s day-to-day
- The importance of refining a long-range financial plan as you go
Also check out:
- Blog: Four Tips for Building Compelling Visual Stories with Data
- Blog: 5 Steps to Forecasting in Uncertain Times
- Webinar: A Winning Model for Your Budget Presentation
KYLE GRECO: This is John Brucato.
JOHN BRUCATO: I’m the Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations at the Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District. We’re located in southern New York in Westchester County.
KG: With stints at two different districts in the Buffalo area prior to joining Briarcliff, John has had a meteoric rise in the school business world — something he wasn’t expecting fresh out of college.
JB: I got all my degrees and everything in technology, thinking that I’d be at Google or Apple by now. I’ll save you all the details, but I fell into the school realm and really got into school finance and it really has become a passion of mine.
So, there are a lot of things I’m involved with, one of which is the ASBO board of directors. I’m on a couple of other local boards here. And I have the SBO Perspectives podcast where we really try to focus in on all things school finance, whether it be conversations with fellow business officials, or legislators or superintendents. So it’s been an exciting journey. I’ve been in the profession about six years now, and it just seems to get better every year.
KG: What does it take to be a successful school business official? How does one make a long-lasting positive impact, not just on the district, but the community at large?
JB: I think the biggest mistake that people make when crafting a long-range financial plan is over-complicating it. The lens that I take when building a long-range financial plan is, “Who really is going to be reading this? And who do I intend to consume this information?”
KG: From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
School business officials, or SBOs, have a crucial role to play in modern school districts. But there’s not what you would call a ‘college-to-SBO pipeline.’
JB: I don’t know many people that went to school as a kid and thought they were going to grow up and be a school business official. I think I can count on one hand the people that really set out to do that, one of which is not me. Like I said, I thought I was going to be in technology for the entirety of my career. I’ve always been into computers, and networking, and infrastructure and things like that. So, I used to work at Yahoo! when I first got out of college, and I started at the Sweet Home School District about a year and a half after that.
And I really kind of fell in love with public education and realizing that I’m able to contribute and give back to the district. You know, prior to them, my only experience in public education was being a student. So I didn’t really know too much. And what I didn’t really know anything about is the fact that school districts do have business departments, and assistant superintendents or school business officials that run that department.
I became friends with the school business official at the time and really got to know a lot more about the profession. And, you know, although the title does suggest finance, in my experience, it’s really only about 20% numbers. Everything else is personnel management, operations, logistics, capital projects. I mean, you name it.
KG: All of the operational departments in a district — transportation, food service, facilities, and the like — can be under a Chief Financial Officer’s locus of control.
JB: It may sound like, again, like it’s just finance, but there’s just so much more to it.
And that’s really what captures my interest. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do like the financial aspect of it. And you know, that does capture my interest, too, but there’s just so much more to it that starting out, I wasn’t even aware of.
There’s everything else in between that really allows me to be more creative and do things that I never thought were possible, thinking that the job was just business. There could be one day where a boiler’s not working. There could be another day where, a kindergartener is presumed lost on a run. I mean, I’ve seen everything, and you know, you need to be able to remain calm, cool, and collected and respond to these crises in a very straightforward manner and try to put your emotion aside a little bit and just do what’s best.
KG: When it comes to crises, few could compare to the COVID-19 pandemic. Saying it caused a major upheaval would maybe be the understatement of the century. It affected the way schools operated entirely, and SBOs were not spared.
JB: The job at a very macro level, I feel, is very cyclical, because when you just factor in the budget, you have certain due dates and deadlines and things like that. But, I mean, COVID is the ultimate wrench when it comes to really trying to plan and to project what’s going to happen.
For my personal experience, I had been in a district for about five years, by the time COVID had hit, so I was very well settled in that district. I felt very integrated into the community there. I knew the politics like the back of my hand. It was just something, because you had that experience year after year, you kind of know what to anticipate.
So I ended up starting to work on kind of an entry plan for that 2021 school year, and really try to look at how we can best get PPE in our staff and students’ hands and making sure that learning loss is mitigated as much as possible, but I ended up transitioning to Briarcliff in August of 2020.
KG: Moving across the state for a new job is daunting enough. Adding in a pandemic only sowed more chaos. John leaned on his data analytics practice as a source of stability and guidance.
JB: Before interview preparation at Briarcliff Manor, I used the 5Cast analytics software and the Comparative Analytics tool in Frontline to open my eyes and let me make the decision. Do I even want to apply at this district?
So I was able to dive in and look at their finances, look at their financial history, and all these things that we have to consider as business officials to say, “Is this a challenge that I want to take on?” Fast forwarding to the actual interview process. Part that was to do a financial health analysis of the district. So I was able to leverage those tools to really put a polished presentation together and to articulate what I thought the challenges were going to be for the 2021 school year.
KG: The presentation won him the job at Briarcliff, and allowed him to hit the ground running. A few months after starting at the district, Briarcliff’s superintendent let John know that he was the only candidate who used that level of data to articulate his vision for the district.
JB: I was able to really just hit the ground running. Because I knew where the pain points were, I knew what we were up against as a district. So I wasn’t spending my first couple of months trying to figure out where we were. I knew that already. I just needed to figure out, “How can we best allocate our resources to get to the next level throughout this pandemic?”
It was an incredibly challenging learning curve coming into a brand new district under the pandemic. But, I will say that having that experience, not only under the pandemic, but in this district specifically, I think has made me a much more qualified and capable business official, because it challenged me to think in new and different ways.
KG: Data is essential to John and his team. From the annual budget to emergency pandemic measures, it offers them a sense of clarity in how to best serve the district. It also helps them think in terms of a long-range financial plan — what the next five years look like for the district financially.
JB: We’re showing, not only internally, but to our board and to our community, just how critical we know the finances are in this community, and how we’re effectively and responsibly spending every single dollar.
And we’re really trying to articulate that message as transparently as possible. I use long-range financial plans multiple times throughout the year. It’s not just something that I build, that looks nice and I put it on the shelf and go back to it the following year. It really is a tool in our toolkit that we use throughout the year to demonstrate and keep track of where our finances are going to be.
It does take time to really build on what your foundation is, and once you get the bulk of it out of the way, you can start adding new features to it. It’s just something that over the past six years I’ve really have loved doing, and it’s just becoming a better and better product every year.
What I’m really proud of that we introduced this year is that we developed a new model based on our teacher contracts, and what the incentives are for retirement, to project out for five years alongside our total plan, where we think those retirements are going to be. So we’re, again, taking some modest projections and building those into our long range financial plan.
When I first started at Ken-Ton, my long-range financial plan that I inherited was one tab of a spreadsheet with a bunch of numbers and the other tab with just kind of words and some cells. And it was like, if I’m having a hard time understanding this is a school of business official, I can only imagine what your typical community member is going to see when they open this. They’re going to look at it and say, I don’t even know what I’m looking at. And how is this a plan if you can’t even articulate it?
I think the biggest mistake that people make when crafting a long-range financial plan is over-complicating it. The lens that I take is, who really is going to be reading this, and who do I intend to consume this information?
So, for me, it’s going to be the board of education and the community. The board and the community want to know, how is our programming being affected? What are the taxes going to be like? And athletics and everything else that the community is focused on, how is that impacted long-term?
KG: John also incorporates visuals, with guidance that allows those with less financial experience to understand their meaning.
JB: If you’re putting too much detail in there, too much in the weeds and using financial jargon, you’re going to lose somebody right away. I’m not saying dumb everything down, but make it publicly consumable in a way that piques somebody’s interest. Because my plan at this point is, I don’t know, 21 pages or so. But a lot of that is explanation in the sidebar of data that’s being outlined in the main body of the page, so there’s context. I think the context is really important. I think making it more of a narrative is really important, rather than just dumping a bunch of data into a document.
KG: Keeping the community on the same page will be essential in a post-pandemic world, as SBO’s face the challenge of defining the new normal.
JB: Are we going to get back to what normal was in 2018 and 2019? Or are we going to have this new hybrid normal, which I’m guessing is going to be more so the case. And then how does that really play into the field of being a school business official? When it comes to capital project planning and negotiations with collective bargaining agreements, the cost right now of materials and labor is just through the roof, and what we could normally get done under typical years prior to the pandemic is not even achievable now, just because of labor and material costs. So, I mean, these things just kind of spiral out of control. So, I think being able to deliver the same or better product with less resources is really going to be a recurring challenge in the next couple of years.
KG: In spite of the uncertainties ahead, John says that staying positive is an important aspect of the job.
JB: And that’s something that I can say that I’ve done in my entire career, even in the darkest of moments. And, you know, the most uncertainty, I think that optimism really helps carry you through and get you to the other side, because as I said, we have a great network of school business officials that are willing to support each other, but knowing that as an individual you’re going to be able to get through it is really, really important. And I think the past two years have really taught us that, because there were moments throughout the pandemic, I’m like, “Is this ever going to end? Are we ever going to get back to normal and feel human again?” And there were times it did not, but sitting here, I’m glad that I stayed optimistic and was able to push through.
KG: That sense of optimism, combined with a solid long-range financial plan has had a major positive impact on Briarcliff.
JB: I’m really proud of the budget that we’ve put together for next year. It’s something that I didn’t think we’d be able to achieve just given the situation over the past two years. And what I mean by that is, we were able to add some much-needed staffing, new programming, new staffing in our facilities department, to really round out who we are as a district.
And we were able to accomplish all of that with minimal impact to the taxpayers. And it’s something that we strive to do every year, but it’s typically not achievable. But we were able to be incredibly strategic with our budgeting over the past couple of years to bring us to this point. And I would say that our community is really appreciative of that. And I can say without a doubt internally, we are very appreciative of our community and their support.
KG: Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software, including robust analytics tools, powered by Forecast5. For more information about how Frontline solutions can help schools with human capital management, business operations, student management, and more, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.