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Facing School Budget Cuts? 5 Ways to Build Trust Through Transparency

School Budget Cuts Build Trust with Transparency

Many school districts nationwide are currently facing major budgetary challenges. ESSER Covid relief funds are ending and enrollment and revenues are down, leaving many districts with significant deficits. This has led to the hard decision to cut programs, teachers, and staff. In some areas, proposed tax increases to cover shortfalls have led to budgets being rejected by voters.

People want to know what’s happening with school money, and transparency in school budgeting has never been more important. By presenting financial information in a clear, accessible, and easy-to-understand way, districts can help their communities understand the difficult tradeoffs and decisions that must be made. While it still might not be the outcome citizens want to hear, this openness supports a more informed conversation and can help build trust and buy-in for the road forward.

This is why ClearGov’s Digital Budget Book and Transparency solutions are some of the most effective tools for supporting transparency. By using ClearGov to automatically create an interactive web-based budget book that makes even the most complex financial data easy for anyone to understand and explore, school leaders are free to spend more time in strategic and productive discussions—rather than fielding a barrage of questions and accusations from concerned citizens.

Here are five elements to include in your budget book to prioritize transparency.

#1 Highlight Key Points with a Clear and Concise Executive Summary

Start with an executive summary that distills the key points of the budget in plain language. Use visuals and callouts to draw attention to critical figures and changes. This provides a quick overview for busy citizens and allows schools to highlight challenges and opportunities front-and-center, instead of citizens having to dig for it. This shows your community you’re not trying to hide anything.

#2 Visualize Data with Charts

A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to financial data. Include pie charts showing the breakdown of revenues and expenditures and trend lines to illustrate how finances have changed over time. ClearGov’s Chart Builder features lets you create custom, interactive charts that allow citizens to drill down into the data that’s most important to them.

#3 Connect the Budget to Strategic Plans and Goals

Connect the dollars to student outcomes. Show how investments are aligned to strategic priorities like improving achievement, enhancing STEM programs, or expanding mental health resources. Especially during difficult times when schools are proposing cuts, it’s important for citizens to see that the district’s long-term vision and priorities are still moving in the right direction.

#4 Explain the Decision-Making Process with Clear Narratives

While a spreadsheet full of numbers technically gets the job done, it doesn’t advance the goal of transparency. Don’t just show the numbers, explain them by providing a written narrative that gives context to the decision-making process. Describe the factors and constraints that shaped the budget. By offering clear, honest context, it can help citizens appreciate the decision-making process and the trade-offs involved.

#5 Maximize Accessibility by Sharing the Book Everywhere

A budget book is only valuable if people see it. Meet residents where they are by sharing the link prominently on your website and social media. Email it directly to parents, and make printed copies available at schools and libraries.

Most importantly, solicit feedback. Follow up with surveys, polls, town hall meetings, and other avenues for citizens to provide input. While there might not be anything you can do to change the outcome, giving citizens a productive way to make their voices heard opens the door to trust and more engagement during future budget seasons.

BONUS: Boost Credibility by Earning Budget Book Awards

ClearGov’s platform includes built-in checklists for industry-recognized awards programs like the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award and the ASBO Meritorious Budget Award. These tools help ensure your budget book meets the strict criteria required for these awards and showcases your district’s commitment to financial excellence.

Eagle County School District streamlined their budget book creation process and continued a 9-year winning streak of prestigious budgeting awards after adopting ClearGov’s Digital Budget Book. Read the full case study here.

ClearGov’s Digital Budget Book: The Transparency Toolkit For School Districts

The elements outlined above are powerful for improving transparency, but manually compiling such a complex document is a massive time commitment. ClearGov’s Digital Budget Book solution transforms the budget book creation process by automatically generating key sections so that you can focus on delivering personal insights to your community.

  • Automation & Templates: Our pre-built templates and automatic data import eliminate time spent on spreadsheets and formatting. This frees up finance teams to focus on more strategic and impactful tasks.
  • Interactive & Intuitive Visualizations: ClearGov’s dynamic charts and graphs transform raw data into easy-to-understand visuals. Citizens can explore the budget at their own pace to deepen their understanding of the district’s financial situation.
  • Integrated Narratives: Budget narratives are easy to incorporate alongside charts so that the “why” behind the numbers is presented clearly.
  • Collaboration Made Easy: Invite department heads to contribute to their sections. Not only does this take the burden off the finance team, but department heads can often provide a more in-depth explanation of their operations and decision-making processes.
  • Accessibility Anywhere, Anytime: The web-based format means your budget book is always accessible. Distribute the link widely and encourage citizen feedback to create a two-way dialogue about your school district’s financial health.

Showcase Your Budget Book With ClearGov’s Transparency Solution

Once you’ve finalized your budget book, the next step is making it accessible and easy-to-understand for your community. This is where ClearGov’s Transparency solution comes in.

Transparency provides an interactive, public-facing portal that automatically transforms your budget data into engaging visuals, infographics, and narrative content.

  • Link to your Digital Budget Book: Prominently feature a link to your digital budget book right on your Transparency homepage.
  • Automated financial summaries: Transparency pulls key financial data and insights from your budget to populate easy-to-understand overview pages.
  • Demographic and community data: Give citizens a snapshot of your school district and community with auto-generated infographics on population, student enrollment, test scores and more.
  • Department dashboards: Invite department heads to create their own pages highlighting their budget and key initiatives to connect spending to real-world outcomes.
  • Timely updates: As you make updates to your live budget, that data automatically syncs to your Transparency portal so that citizens always have access to the latest financial information.

By combining your  Digital Budget Book with Transparency , you’ll be providing a comprehensive, 360-degree view of district finances for better understanding, trust, and engagement. It’s a powerful way to not just meet, but exceed, transparency expectations—even in challenging times.

Ready to transform your school district’s budgeting process, improve transparency, and build trust with your community? Schedule a quick demo today!

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May 15, 2024

Matt Benati

Matt Benati is Vice President of Marketing for ClearGov®, the leading provider of Budget Cycle Management software for local governments. Matt is passionate about helping organizations modernize their annual budgeting process by automating workflow, increasing collaboration, and improving transparency between governments and citizens.

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