Kentucky School Advocate
In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Nick Clark, internal auditor for Fayette County Public Schools, has worked in school finance for 15 years in school districts of various sizes, from the now closed Silver Grove Ind., which was one of the smallest, to Fayette, the second-largest in the state. Clark currently serves as president of the Kentucky Association of School Business Officials.Q. You are president of the Kentucky Association of School Business Officials (KASBO). Can you describe KASBO’s membership and explain how the group helps those who work in school business and finance?
. KASBO was founded in 1960 and currently has about 500 members. Membership ranges from district finance officers to accounts payable and payroll clerks and also includes human resources and food service staffs. We want to branch out to include maintenance and transportation. We provide a variety of training opportunities and try to be a one-stop shop for the operational side of school business. As far as training, our members do presentations and we have two conferences a year, with attendance usually 300 to 500. When we did our strategic plan a few years ago, we decided we wanted to branch out into other operational areas so our membership is increasing.Q. So what might some topics be at your conferences?
Nick Clark presents to Kentucky Association of School Business Officials about The Redbook, which is the set of rules that govern school activity funds. A.
There are anywhere from 70 to 90 different sessions at each conference. Some examples are how to better present financial information or build communication with your board or superintendent; leadership, emotional intelligence, how to deal with difficult employees. We get into more specifics too, such as sessions on how to process payroll or use Excel, Outlook or the state accounting system. Tyler, the software developer for the state accounting system, participates in our conference. Our fall conference will be Nov. 15-18 at the Marriott Griffin Gate in Lexington.Q. In your 15 years in school finance you’ve worked for one of the smallest districts as well as the second-largest district in the state. How is school finance the same in large and small districts? How does it differ?
. There are a lot of similarities. Every district’s finance department or school business official makes sure that districts are financially sufficient to provide the best education for kids. We all use the same accounting system and try to be as transparent as possible. But there are differences. The larger the district, the more people you have and the better you can separate duties, which is a huge internal control mechanism to mitigate and prevent fraud, which unfortunately, has been pretty heavy in school districts over the last five to seven years.Q. School finances are pretty complicated. What advice do you have for board members who want to get a better understanding of school finance?
. Communicate with your superintendent and finance officer and be open to suggestions from finance officers. Sometimes boards have a one-track mind – they want to get the biggest bang for the buck. But often finance officers have outside-the-box thinking because they are looking from the finance side. It’s a different perspective than the educational side, but still everybody’s trying to get to that same goal. Trust is built the more they communicate. KSBA has offered trainings for board members and several of KASBO’s board members have presented, which is a benefit because the board members are learning from people who are actually doing the work.Q. Explaining school finance to the public is also complicated. What do you think is the most misunderstood issue among the general public?
That all the revenue received by a school district can be used to pay for anything and everything. It’s not that way because some funds have specific requirements and are obligated for specific items. Federal funding, for example, is for specific projects so it can’t necessarily be used to build a new school. People don’t realize 75% to 85% of a general fund is used to pay for a district’s salaries and benefits. So it leaves a small percentage of revenue for operational expenses.Q. Is there anything board members can do to help correct that misunderstanding?
The more it’s communicated, the more people will understand. Right now most districts are getting ready to approve their tax rates. So as board members talk to their constituents, they can continuously remind them, saying, ‘Yes, we’re looking to do this with this tax revenue, but only a portion of it can be used for these purposes and the other portion can be only used for this.’ Finance officers provide that information to the boards. Those budgets are very specific and detailed about how funds can and can’t be used.
Q. The General Assembly increased SEEK funding this year and provided funding for full-day kindergarten, but it didn’t mandate a certain percentage raise for school board employees as it did for state employees. Is this the preferred way to go?
A. I feel it is. The survey that KSBA did and that KASBO assisted with showed that districts are giving pay raises, even throughout the pandemic. They may not be giving as much as they would have liked but they were giving a pay raise. If the board chooses not to give a pay raise, there is a step increase. So if a teacher goes from year 15 to year 16, there is a little bit of a cost of living increase there. Some districts do it on a yearly basis, some in five-year chunks. A lot still try to do a 1% raise on top of it. I feel like leaving that decision up to the board and at the school level is where it should have been. I think every board knows what they can and can’t afford, and just because the legislators come in and say, ‘Hey everybody, you’re going to give a 2% raise and here’s the funding for that 2% raise.’ That funding only applies to that fiscal year and that 2% raise compounds each year going forward. So it’s one thing to pay for it one year, but to be able to pay for it every year after, that’s an area where finance officers are saying we can do the 1%, but 2% is pushing us a little bit.Q. Explain why some school boards don’t give raises at the same level across the board.
They are seeing where their biggest areas of concern are. One district may choose to do a 3% across the board raise, but another district may do 2% for certified, but because it is struggling to find custodial or transportation staff, it will give them a raise of 50 cents or a dollar an hour, which may equate to a 10% raise. They’re trying to fill those voids. What works for one school district may not work for another school district. Finance officers are very adaptive to and understand the climate of the area that they are in. Q. When you're dealing with school finance, a lot of needs have to be met, from transportation and staffing to mandates instituted by the state. How do finance officers and superintendents weigh these competing needs as they make finance recommendations to the board?
As carefully as possible. First, they must look at mandates. After they have met those, they look at how to use these funds to best educate kids. Is it to hire additional staff? To invest in more emotional wellness for kids? Typically, districts have a strategic plan in place as to what they want to accomplish and those priorities will guide them. An example of a mandate is the legislature’s requirement to have SROs at all campuses. If additional SROs must be hired, a district might not be able to hire additional teachers. With the SRO requirement, some districts have asked for permission to phase it in over a couple of years. Some are doing that because it is hard to find individuals who are qualified. Sometimes the timeframe on when you can accomplish something has to be extended.Q. What one suggestion would you make to board members that could help them work more effectively with finance officers?
Communicate. Be willing to have those conversations with the finance officer, be approachable. For board members and finance officers, the ultimate goal is to do what is best for their community and for the kids. Remember that we’re on the same page, we’re not against each other. And be willing to listen. Ideas finance officers have compared to educators may be a little bit different, but ultimately they are aimed at getting to the same result. But on the front end there may be some little differences, so be willing to listen.