Meritorious: The Gold Standard for School Budgets #Business by Erin Werra Erin Werra SBO Storyteller The process of producing a budget is enough heavy lifting for a team—why stretch for a budget worthy of a Meritorious Budget Award? A small shift in mindset can transform this crucial pursuit into an opportunity to share your district’s story with the wider community. The effort of translating calculations and forecasts into plain language may seem daunting at first, but it can amplify confidence among community stakeholders. Is your budget top-notch? Does your team view the budget as necessary task, or an art form? The Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) created the Meritorious Budget Award (MBA) to recognize districts for creating budgets which successfully speak to the community. Meritorious budgets meet many carefully selected criteria, but at their cores they are: Easy to read Accurate Detailed Able to clearly communicate district goals and objectives Capable of building credibility and trust within the community Two tiers guide school business officials (SBOs) toward award-winning status: The Meritorious Budget Award and the Pathway to the Meritorious Budget Award. The guidelines for each help district SBOs develop the skills and confidence needed to produce budgets the community can understand and learn from, no training required. What’s the value? “The ASBO Meritorious Budget Award is a benefit to all, as it exemplifies transparency and excellence in the budget process,” explained Chris Wildman, chief financial officer at North Shore School District 112 in Illinois, whose district has received the MBA for seven years running. “It’s another way that school districts can successfully tell their story.” Meritorious budgets meet a national standard designed to promote best practices for fiscal management, which is important for communities to understand, Wildman added. Along with comparative data, The Meritorious Budget Award process requires districts to create budget documentation which will aid their community readers. Districts are provided a comprehensive checklist and asked for an explanation of their story. Details include: How the district is governed Mission and goals State financial goals Revenue sources Legal and fiscal information Areas served Student population Schools/campuses Glossary of terms These characteristics give the reader a snapshot of the population each business office is serving—the real people behind the numbers. A district’s story helps stakeholders understand the specific challenges behind each financial decision business offices make to keep their district functioning smoothly. The process of improving budget documentation is an opportunity to shift toward the community’s perspective. Readers outside the district may be perusing a hefty document for the very first time—guiding the experience can make a huge difference in solidifying their support. SBO winners also polish their presentation and documentation skills along the way. One important benefit for SBOs is the learning curve, which helps teams build collaboration toward short- and long-term goals. The ASBO professionals reviewing each budget entry identify great opportunities for improvement year after year. Get started Careful consideration and planning is needed before proceeding, especially for districts embarking on their first MBA journey. “The one tip I would give to aspiring Pathway to the MBA districts is to really assess if this is the right step,” Wildman suggested. “The first year is the most arduous.” Once the SBO team decides to take on the challenge, the ASBO checklist lays out the requirements. Districts will discover the checklist is designed to help them refine their process just as much as their documentation. “The criteria checklist goes into detail, but in essence the template is a clear and logical process,” Wildman explained. “It helps ensure your narrative makes sense and the content is based on budget document best practices.” The MBA process also includes personalized feedback from professional reviewers, which can be used in subsequent years to fine-tune the process. Ultimately, the most valuable outcome of achieving a Meritorious Budget Award is strengthening the community’s relationship with each district. “It’s important that our communities and stakeholders understand the budget is peer reviewed and nationally acclaimed,” Wildman summed up. Storytelling is one of the best ways to gain trust, but it’s not limited to classrooms and libraries. One path to building trust in the community can be found in the school business office. Follow-up resource: Designing Beautiful Budgets (Infographic) Find the beauty in the business office, learn how small details can increase community engagement, and see it all in action in Making Budgets Beautiful. Erin Werra SBO Storyteller Follow Erin Werra: .