Business Practices

Financial Dashboards

The deluge of information readily available to school finance officers in our technological and data-driven world means we need to find a new and easily understandable way to present relevant, accurate and timely information about our district’s financial situation to our school board and community.

Unfortunately, the complexities of school finance aren’t always easily understood by those outside the district office doors. At a time when transparency and clear communication with the public about the fiscal health of schools are essential, financial dashboards are becoming the go-to tool to fill that need.

What Is a financial dashboard?

A school financial dashboard is a tool used to summarize the organization’s fiscal health and operations in one place. Effective dashboards are simple and visual.

Simple. The most valuable trait of a financial dashboard is its simplicity. Ideally, any visitor to your district website should be able to glance at the dashboard and understand where the district stands financially. The structure and presentation should be easily navigable and segmented, thus avoiding the same data-saturation problems alluded to previously. The components included in each dashboard should require very little introduction or explanation and should be intuitive to anyone with a basic understanding of how finances work.

Visual. Dashboards use visual components to gain the viewer’s attention. Although exercising creativity may seem counter to the “traditional” SBO’s true focus on metrics and operations, graphs and charts are already commonplace in the presentations we give our boards and administrators. Tailoring them to be even more eye-catching, visually pleasing, and informative, yet easily understandable, is a must for effective dashboards.

Dashboard components

What makes dashboards unique and useful tools is that they can be tailored to suit the particular goals and traits of individual districts. Unlike state-required budget and audit documents that are uniform or have basic requirements, information that is valuable for one district may not be valuable for another. Dashboards let SBOs present their financial data in a way that allows easy monitoring, analysis and interpretation in conjunction with the strategic goals of the district.

When assembling my own district’s dashboards, I put together a list of key questions that I wanted to ensure were answered, including the following.

  • Are we spending more money than we are bringing in?
  • How do the actuals compare with our budgeted amounts?
  • What percentage of our revenues and expenditures is allocated to each fund?
  • How have our budget and actuals changed over time?
  • Are our district demographics changing?
  • What data matter most to our community?

From that list of questions, I was able to assemble a list of metrics that I thought would create a comprehensive summary of our district finances.

The dashboards’ construction is laid out in a way that translates the data to the right graphical representation and that is accessible and easily navigable. The more advanced dashboards include interactive components with drop-down menus that will alter the graphic available and give the reader a more fluid viewpoint.

Dashboard uses

The primary uses of a financial dashboard involve effective communication and data-informed decision making.

Communication. At their very core, dashboards are tools school districts can use to exercise greater transparency. An effective dashboard cuts through the school finance complexity and helps all members of the community better understand the state of the district’s finances.

Decision making. With the ability to analyze past performance, identify areas for improvement, and track current performance in a variety of areas, a district’s dashboard can serve as a road map for improvement.

Dashboards allow other decision makers within a district to understand the financial ramifications of education-based decisions. When eliminating the barrier to understanding for a district’s taxpayers is necessary for transparency, eliminating that same barrier for other administrators brings context to recommendations and decisions from the business office.

— Excerpted from the September 2014 issue of School Business Affairs.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Jeff Feyerer is business manager/CSBO, Fairview School District 72, Skokie, Ill.

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