What Meaningful Transparency Really Means

Following the do’s and don’ts for transparent communication will not solve all problems, but it will go a long way toward building the kind of mutual trust and openness we all want to attain.

As districts across the nation pivot and creatively react to changes they could not foresee, maintaining transparency in many kinds of communication can be difficult. Whether you’re giving a presentation to the Board, leading a strategic internal meeting with management, or responding to a request for information from a third party, the spotlight is on you.

Do’s and Don’ts for Transparent Communications

DO be yourself and tell the truth. Establishing trust begins with authentic communication. Honest responses to questions and accuracy in your data are key, and without them, your credibility and value is at stake. When you are communicating a problem, address these questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. What is being done to address the problem?
  4. What are the next steps?

DO keep it simple. Concise explanations and descriptions may take more effort, but you will be rewarded when your leadership team has a better understanding of the subject matter. Avoid the temptation to overwhelm listeners with too much information, and organize the information clearly. Whenever possible, use tables, graphs, timelines and charts to communicate financial information.

DON’T make assumptions. Board members are unlikely to remember every piece of information from the previous meeting, so you will need to repeat key pieces of financial information such as significant transactions or future commitments, i.e. a TRE and its effect on fund balance. Avoid acronyms that are common to business officials, but if you do use them, be sure to explain what they mean.

What information should you provide?

Here are 14 key pieces of information that will increase transparency between the business office and other members of district leadership:

  1. Monthly financial statements by fund, relative to its Board-approved budget. We recommend presenting:
    1. Expenditures by function and at the more detailed level of object code, or sub-components of payroll, professional and contracted services, supplies, other operating and capital outlay
    2. Revenues by local, state and federal program revenues with more detailed subdivisions, when applicable
  2. Monthly tax collection reports compared to budget and prior year(s).
  3. Monthly budget transfer and amendment requests, including the effect on fund balance.
  4. Monthly disbursements by fund. If possible, separate the disbursements between General Fund, Debt Service Fund, Capital Projects Fund, Child Nutrition Fund, Grant Funds and Campus Activity Funds; show the vendor and dollar amount disbursed.
  5. Monthly progress report on construction projects, identifying any change order requests.
  6. Monthly cashflow forecasts and actual cashflow reports. Forecasts estimate future revenues from federal, state and local sources, as well as planned expenditures, such as grant expenditures, payroll costs, capital acquisition costs, debt payments and contractually obligated payments.
  7. Quarterly investment reports. Present the types of investments held by the district, the values at the beginning and ending dates of the reporting period, and the average yield to maturity.
  8. Quarterly grant status reports. Show each grant award amount, the expenditures and cash drawdowns.
  9. Annual construction update showing each project, the original cost and revised cost.
  10. Annual update and results for each bond program.
  11. Annual District demographic assessment. Examples of demographics that assist in decision making are: economic conditions, job growth, unemployment, residential sales price trends, vacant developed lots, future lots, multi-family activity, TEA transfer report with charter school impact, birth rate analysis and a 10-year enrollment forecast by grade level and campus.
  12. Annual comprehensive facility assessment. Examples include an evaluation of the building’s overall condition, including its site, roof, structural integrity, the exterior building envelope, the interior of the campus, and the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. An evaluation of the safety and security at each campus could also be included. The assessments will aid district personnel in long-range planning, cost projections and current maintenance of each facility.
  13. Benchmarking metrics and key performance indicators, such as peer district comparisons, staffing level formulas, enrollment trends, property value trends, compensation projections on fund balance, the fund balance policy, technology replacement cycles and revenue projections based upon attendance and program participation data during the year (PEIMS data).
  14. Alignment between the budget and the strategic plan, district improvement plan and campus improvement plan.

Remember, district leaders are far likelier to make a mistake when they act on too little information. Following the do’s and don’ts for transparent communication will not solve all problems, but it will go a long way toward building the kind of mutual trust and openness we all want to attain.

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