Finance and Innovation: The Role of Finance in the Early Stages of Academic Innovation

June 20, 2018 |

By Scott Milam, Afton Partners

Engaging Finance early in the development of new school models allows school design teams to:

  1. Empower school leaders with financial data to ensure academic plans are built to be financially sustainable.
  2. Integrate new pedagogic approaches into academic strategy – rather than “layering on top”, which leaves new programs vulnerable to budget cuts.
  3. Engage an important team member, allowing the finance team to become supporters, rather than potential roadblocks to success.

A common misconception many school teams have in the early stages of developing innovative school models is their pilot is too small or the timing is too early to contemplate financial sustainability. However, this is exactly the time for school teams to begin considering how the model can be sustained in the long-term. Scott Milam, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Afton Partners, shares his three key lessons learned from working with some of the most innovative school districts, CMOs and school design teams in the country, including Afton’s work with the Raising Blended Learners (“RBL”) grant program.

  • Assess Financial Readiness and Mitigate Risks
    As part of the RBL initiative, Afton developed and conducted a “financial pulse check”essentially a financial readiness self-assessment for districts and CMOs developing innovative school designs. This exercise was completed by school design teams to assess their level of agreement or confidence in several statements that represent financial best practices for implementing new school models. (You can take our financial pulse check too!)
    Completing a pulse check like this can help identify roadblocks, and can lead to proactive mitigation planning, to help ensure efforts don’t stop before they start. The pulse check can also serve as an indicator of which teams will be actively engaged in the financial aspects of this work during implementation, and which teams may need further guidance or coaching. High performing teams will identify potential risks early in the planning process, and develop plans to address those risks before they are realized (i.e. procurement process, contracting for professional development, staff capacity and scheduling, etc.).
  • Understand resource requirements and consider data tracking processes
    An important point of guidance for school design teams is to create a framework to track the instructional pilot’s financial investments. However, based on data from conducting the pulse check with over 30 school design teams, this is the area where teams had the lowest level of confidence. In the early stages of implementation, one of the most useful exercises is to develop a simple, operationally-focused, financial plan for the pilot, and ensure data tracking processes are in place to test actual investments as compared to plan. This will allow for more accurate long-term financial planning as pilots grow and evolve. Some steps to consider when developing this resource plan include:

    • Identify key design elements of the innovative model. Examples include project based learning, flipped classroom and/or data-driven instruction.
    • Identify the potential investments required to support the key design element(s). For project based learning, these investments may include securing coaching and other professional development for teachers, project materials or other content, and / or planning time for teachers to develop curricula that aligns to pedagogic goals and objectives. Whatever the elements are, the school team should agree that the success of their approach will hinge on successfully understanding them, determining what is needed to implement, and then funding these key components.
    • Estimate the costs associated with the key design elements.
      • Identify costs that are one-time (i.e. external PD, site visits) vs. recurring (i.e. device refresh, substitute pay, software subscriptions, etc.).
      • Build a steady-state forecast based on reasonable funding assumptions.
      • Review school level budget(s), as well as central support available to schools, to identify possible trade-offs to fund recurring requirements of the innovative school model.
      • Develop scenarios and iterate.
  • Assess Human Capital Requirements
    Begin contemplating how human capital needs may change over time given the needs of the school model. How should roles and responsibilities change over time to help scale the initiative, assuming minimal incremental funding is available? Consider if there are policies that may be roadblocks to innovation. Developing a position-by-position long-term human capital plan is a powerful exercise, particularly for small to mid-sized districts and networks that are converting existing schools and classrooms (see Case Study) to blended learning models. Considering financial sustainability from the outset can help offset the risk of blended and personalized learning initiatives being cut or scaled back before they have a chance to show academic impact. Even if impact can be shown at schools and classrooms, if there are incremental costs of the program with no corresponding funding plan, then the program is immediately at risk of being eliminated, as the investments in people and other resources required for success are seemingly “layered on top” of the existing structure.

Raising Blended Learners

Raising Blended Learners (“RBL”) is a statewide initiative demonstrating the ability to use blended learning strategies to improve student achievement across diverse student demographics and geographic regions in Texas. Four school districts and one charter network received up to $500,000 in grant funding and comprehensive implementation supports after a competitive consideration process; these organizations, called demonstration sites, will serve as proof points for the effective implementation of blended learning. Fifteen additional districts/networks were selected as pilot sites and are receiving comprehensive implementation supports but no incremental funding; these sites will further promote the expansion of blended learning statewide and contribute toward learning. Afton Partners is supporting this initiative as financial and sustainability planning experts within the comprehensive implementation supports available to the districts and networks.

Afton Partners is a team of financial and analytic minds dedicated to improving America’s public schools. Our mission is to support public education organizations by aligning finance with operational strategies – to sustain effective academic initiatives. Since 2011, Afton has worked on over 95 initiatives with public school districts, charter operators, state education agencies and education advocates, bringing a nationwide perspective to local situations.

This blog is part of a series on Afton’s experiences, findings, and thought evolution over the course of the RBL initiative.

Case Study: Tulia ISD Human Capital Plan

As part of its long-term planning process, where the District developed a five-year plan to sustain and scale its blended learning plan, Tulia ISD leadership developed a position-by-position plan to understand the specific needs for its planned district-level conversion.

Participants: Superintendent and Director of Finance

Data required: Latest full district financial results, staffing roster, including position title and location. Key design elements of blended learning pilot identified and quantified.

Process: Leadership reviewed the current staffing roster by location compared to roles and responsibilities required for the District’s blended learning pilot. A year one versus year five plan was developed by position, resulting in new human capital requirements (i.e. professional development) and some that needed to be modified or eliminated (i.e. librarian, admin support staff, IT support).

Outcomes: By planning at the position level the District was able to identify enough trade-off decisions to fund the projected incremental costs of its blended learning program at scale.

Next steps: The District plans to leverage and update the staffing plan as turnover occurs, and consult the plan as they draft updated
job descriptions for new hires to ensure they align to the long-term plan.

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