“Schools have been closed, why aren’t things cheaper?”
At a recent CFO Strategy Network, district finance leaders shared some of the tough questions they’ve faced over the past six months, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and fundamentally changed what teaching and learning look like. And these tough questions from school and system leaders, students, teachers, families, school board members, and taxpayers at large are sure to continue. Although much is still uncertain about the 2020-21 school year, school and district communities are looking to finance leaders for something they’ve always been able to provide, until now — clear answers about revenue, expenses, and what school designs they can or cannot afford.
Why are the conversations so high stakes right now? First, there is sustained uncertainty.Changing CDC guidelines, virus trajectories, and local conditions leave the short and long-term future feeling unpredictable. On top of that, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities at a time when resources are declining, resulting in tough decisions on the horizon. And finally, there is the very real feeling that there are no “good” choices. In nearly every scenario posed around school designs and virtual/hybrid/ or in-person models, we are asking even more of students, teachers, families, and staff, and people are weighing impossible options (i.e. “Do I jeopardize my (or my child’s) education, health, or career?”).
It’s a tough, tough position. But having an effective communications strategy is a core part of any strategic CFO’s role and can make a big difference right now. From our work with strategic CFOs across the country, we’ve identified seven guiding principles for CFOs communicating during times of sustained uncertainty. These guiding principles can help ensure that high-stakes moments go smoothly and become productive conversations that lead to change, rather than combative moments that cause tension or confusion, elevate stress, and derail progress. We shared these guiding principles during a recent session with the Government Finance Officers Association, and Jim Carpenter (CFO of Denver Public Schools) and Nolberto Delgadillo (CFO of Tulsa Public Schools) —both members of our ERS-Aspen CFO Strategy Network — reflected on the successes and lessons learned within their own districts.
So, what should we, as strategic CFOs, do to effectively communicate in times of great uncertainty?
- Establish overarching guiding principles for decision-making.
At the end of the day, a budget communicates values — so it is important to have shared clarity about what your district’s values are before diving into decision-making. As Jim shared, having guiding principles gives people a common language and allows people to disagree based on criteria, which depersonalizes disagreement. Grounding decision-making in these values will help ensure alignment across your district’s goals, budgets, and implementation strategies.
- Engage stakeholders early and often. Provide transparency about the impact of budget projections.
Engaging early gives people opportunities to unpack and make sense of information before weighing in on decisions. Engaging often leverages crucial opportunities for two-way learning and trust-building, as district staff and community members develop deeper understandings of perspectives, priorities, and options.
- Name key assumptions and link decisions to clearly defined scenarios.
When we’re surrounded by so much uncertainty, the notion of “making decisions” is a false construct. Really, strategic CFOs are naming which options are available under what circumstances and working to identify preferred options. Nolberto calls this “setting dimensions to the sandbox.” In Tulsa, they set dimensions, such as limiting back-to-school investments if those proposed investments didn’t advance the district’s broader strategic goals or didn’t target supports to students with the greatest needs.
- Preserve decision-making flexibility and set expectations that conditions may change.
It is critical that strategic CFOs emphasize that national, state, and local circumstances can change and that all decisions and options are based on the information we have available to us now. The more this is emphasized proactively, the less jarring it will be as conditions continue to evolve.
- Seek input when it can be most impactful.
It is important to seek input and engage those affected by decisions —but these efforts have to be timed in ways that are genuine and strategic.As Nolberto put it, “[You] don’t want to ask for input on something you’ve already decided. If there is already a plan, call it out.” Additionally, internal checks and self-reflection will be important to ensure that your team isn’t unintentionally “running out the clock” by using input-gathering as a way to stall decision-making.
- Be people-oriented. Acknowledge the real impact on students, teachers, families, and staff.
School district budgets go (almost) entirely to funding personnel, so when we make budgetary decisions, we have to name and honor the real impact on peoples’ careers and lives. We should be mindful of how we approach this — CFOs like numbers and are good with data, but numbers and data alone won’t comprise an effective communications strategy. To help district and school communities wrap their arms around the real impacts of the choices at hand, strategic CFOs will need to listen and communicate explicitly about the impacts and stories that may not always be as easy to quantify.
- Be consistent about how you display information.
Using repetition will help establish a shared fact base quicker, and therefore help people uncover insights and explore potential implications more efficiently. At every board meeting, Jim showsconsistent information that board members are used to seeing. This predictable format allows them to digest it, think about it, and then move forward.