Setting the Tone at the Top - From Somewhere in the Middle

Internal controls are all of our jobs. Let’s keep those jobs by continuously educating our supervisors, coworkers and subordinates.

“I really need to keep my job,” she whispered into the phone, her heart racing and her palms getting sweaty. Had she understood the superintendent, a brilliant educator, correctly? Was she to pay the bills as presented just because he had said to do so? Suzy Q’s first year as Business Manager had been going so well; her first budget was behind her and staff appeared eager and willing to implement the new initiatives she was putting in place. “We all need our jobs, Suzy,” came the calm voice on the other end of the phone a trusted mentor, “But we can’t do them very well from jail, so let’s think of some alternatives.”

Suzy’s story might sound familiar to some of us and included the superintendent storming into her office wanting to know why she didn’t just write the check for the equipment that was absolutely necessary for his new initiative that would take the district to the next level academically. Although she had not had run ins with the superintendent previously, this purchase was something new to her and hadn’t gone through the district’s customary process for purchasing goods and services. She didn’t want to just say “No” as she had done many times to many different administrators and teachers over the past year, but she also wanted to follow the law and district policy.

Becky reminded Suzy that internal controls and compliance are everyone’s business, even if they aren’t fully aware of the needs and the intricacies of the activities and practices that surround them. As school business officials, while we have plenty of training in understanding these controls, we need to be able to articulate the benefits of these controls to our districts. The Tone at the Top, which refers generally to the attitude of an organization’s senior leadership towards internal controls and compliance, is key to how effective the controls are executed in the day-to-day operations of a district. Getting senior leadership to understand and appreciate these controls, and in turn helping to set that Tone at the Top, is a job that will often fall squarely on the shoulders of a district’s business manager.

Some suggestions Becky had for Suzy included:

  • Have the Facts – Be up to speed with your training on the different compliance matters that affect your job. Attend training on these issues provided by TASBO and your Regional ESC. Have copies of source documents, laws, regulations and policies so you are not guessing at the rules.
  • Do the Right Thing – Don’t jeopardize the district’s or your reputation (or legal status) just to get an unpleasant conversation out of your office. If you have to, explain the ramification of these actions to the requestor’s life and reputation.
  • Don’t Be Dr. No – you know that person, always ready to crush any new idea or innovation with a hearty “No” because “we’ve never done that before” or even because “that might be a lot of work”. We do not make educational decisions. We facilitate the process; the mission of our district. Explain the compliance issues with the requestor and seek ways of facilitating educational processes while safeguarding the taxpayers’ money and adhering to the law.
  • Show the Benefits of Using the System – Help your superintendent or other coworkers see the benefits of using the procedures and systems already in place from budgeting, to procurement to payment. Explain how these systems and procedures are designed to avoid embarrassment at an open board meeting or in the local press.
  • Take Responsibility – As the Business Manager, let your superintendent or colleagues know that you feel it is your responsibility to keep them out of the newspapers and out of jail and that you will need all of their support to keep that from happening. Hyperbole? Maybe, but it certainly lets them know you are on their side and will help them to think about what they are asking.

Even if the Tone at the Top in your organization is spot on, it might need a gentle nudge, some technical support from time to time from you, irrespective of your position. Internal controls are all of our jobs. Let’s keep those jobs by continuously educating our supervisors, coworkers and subordinates.

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