To dramatically improve student outcomes for the long term we must fundamentally modernize both how we "do school" and the cost structures that support it. Chief Budget and Chief Financial Officers must be empowered to lead on these issues, but typically have limited support and tools to help them transform their own organizations.
In 2018 ERS launched the California Strategic CBO/CFO network to help finance leaders play a strategic leadership role to accelerate district progress toward equity and excellence by breaking free from old patterns and rethinking the way they invest. Through the network participants consider ways to re-envision resource use in their districts rather than making incremental changes that lead to incremental results.
The California network builds on 10 years of ERS experience working with similar groups of district finance leaders from around the country. Since 2009, ERS has partnered with the Aspen Institute to convene the Strategic CFO Network, where leaders from about 15 prominent urban districts meet semi-annually to explore barriers and challenges to strategic resource use, collaborate across districts, hear from experts, analyze data, and connect as peers.
The California Strategic CFO network now includes a select group of seven districts (Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Stockton, and Gilroy) that send leaders such as Chief Business/Financial Officers, Budget Managers, and Assistant Superintendents of Business Services to two-day retreats twice a year. In the coming year we intend to grow the group to 8-10 districts. The network creates a forum for participants to discuss best practices in finance leadership and strategic decision-making in the unique California policy and fiscal landscape.
Each retreat introduces new research and frameworks to inform decision-making and provides an opportunity for leaders to learn from each other by, for example, sharing a problem of practice for discussion. Example retreat topics include:
School finance policy (e.g., implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act in conjunction with LCFF & an evolving LCAP)
Effective long term financial planning
How finance teams can provide principals with strategic and transformational budget support
Change management in the face of California's evolving accountability regime
Best practices related to transparency
Retreats also often cover topics like the intersection of funding models and strategic school design, return on investment, and crafting a strategic budget development process - sometimes through the Budget Hold’em for Districts interactive exercise. We also ensure time for personal connection through participant dinners and opportunities to share “leadership stories.”
On post-event surveys, all of the participants have agreed or strongly agreed that they found the experience valuable and walked away with new insights.
This participant comment illustrates common post-retreat feedback: “Sharing and collaborating with California peer districts was invaluable. I especially found the efficient/strategic framework thought-provoking as a lens to view our resources.”
Participants also made “commitments to action” such as: “greater, more intentional collaboration with our instructional team to inform a more strategic allocation framework.” Others plan to work with their teams to involve principals more effectively in the budgeting process.
Importantly, the Network strives to build a sense of community and trust, both of which are needed for meaningful - and at times challenging - conversations about resource use in their districts. This is a unique moment for California school systems: while LCFF has not yet transformed how resources are allocated, the equity-focused funding model still presents an opportunity to transform how scarce dollars are used. The California Strategic CBO/CFO Network is helping participating finance leaders become truly strategic leaders who can partner more effectively with academic leaders to drive the outcomes all students deserve.