School districts often serve as the identity of a community, thus making nothing more valuable than having a positive brand. At Wayzata, we commit to creating a positive brand through prudent financial management, operational excellence and customer intimacy.
Prudent financial management speaks for itself. A community is going to be far more trusting of a district that spends taxpayers’ money responsibly than it would be of a district that makes poor financial decisions. We are proud to say we have maintained an “AAA” bond rating from Moody’s since September 2008. Only 50 districts in the country have this rating and we’ve been able to maintain it for more than a decade. We’ve also been awarded the ASBO Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting for 35 years straight. This certificate honors districts for high quality Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, which go above and beyond the minimums set by the National Council on Governmental Accounting.
Where I think districts can learn most from our efforts, however, is with our initiatives to promote operational excellence and customer intimacy.
In 2009, we started the “Operational Excellence” initiative to better understand and improve our operations. We first looked at processes we felt were not as efficient or effective as they could be. After choosing a process in need of an audit, a subcommittee of school board members has the administration conduct a deep dive to determine the task’s effectiveness and efficiency using benchmark data and industry best practices. The committee reports their findings and suggestions for improvements to the board for approval. This internal audit had led to many improvements, making life better and even safer for staff and students.
For example, we conducted an Operational Excellence audit of the process for reporting and managing staff and student incidents and accidents. The audit team reviewed the process we had in place – handwriting reports when an incident or accident occurred – and found it was cumbersome for our administration and left us vulnerable to error and increased risk. To help alleviate some of the inefficiencies and added risk, the audit team suggested piloting an online process.
The online Staff and Student Accident Management Systems from PublicSchoolWORKS require employees to include all pertinent information in the online report before they can submit it, which made investigating reports much easier. When a report is submitted, the system automatically alerts key administrators to take action, including contacting emergency contacts for those injured, as well as other key parties like the insurance company, if necessary. All reports are stored online, which helps decrease the likelihood of human error and paperwork. It also gives us the unprecedented ability to identify possible trends, such as time, location, or the employees or students involved, which we can use for prevention efforts.
After the successful pilot, the board approved a districtwide implementation of the online accident management system. The district also began using PublicSchoolWORKS’ online Staff Safety Training System. Moving these processes online allowed us to reduce certain clerical positions, saving us at least $50K in payroll costs, all while providing a higher level of reliability.
Other processes we’ve audited and improved include employee time sheets and purchase orders, both of which switched from a paper process to an online process. After audits found the cleaning processes in our halls and bathrooms were inefficient, we purchased riding floor cleaners and tiled all bathrooms from floor to ceiling so custodians could spray down the walls and floors with a disinfectant.
While these annual audits are not mandated, we choose to do them because we value continuous improvement – and so does our community.
We define “community” as the greater community such as residents and business owners, parents and students, and staff. We consider these stakeholders to be our “customers” so it’s important to us that we keep them in the loop and encourage them to get involved.
It’s all about communication and sharing information. We post our comprehensive annual financial reports on our website. We also post our budget; our mission, vision, and values; and more. Additionally, our district is very active on social media.
We write and distribute “The Communicator,” a quarterly newsletter sent to every resident in our service area, which primarily includes qualitative achievements occurring throughout the district, as well as updates on enrollment growth, facility updates, construction projects, and more. Our superintendent sends a weekly staff newsletter and many principals and program leaders send weekly newsletters to families. Even more, many teachers have a blog or webpage to provide parents and students with important information.
We maintain close relationships with the City Councils, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, and other business organizations in the eight cities we serve to help disseminate information. We work closely with local news stations and newspapers to share student success stories and extracurricular achievements, as well as financial data and updates on facilities projects.
Another way we create intimacy with our customers is by encouraging them to get involved. We have many committees that include members from the greater community. For example, we have a 12-member Citizen Financial Advisory Council that works closely with administrators and management to identify opportunities for improvement and advise our board. Our Citizens’ Technology Advisory Council makes technology recommendations to the board, which subsequently proposes projects to the taxpayers for approval. This committee was instrumental in helping us use a voter-approved reoccurring annual technology levy to implement a 1-to-1 device program for our students.
Just one way we ask staff to get involved is inviting them to sit on a number of committees, including our Dental and Health Insurance Committee to discuss our self-funded insurance and benefits. They meet to discuss how our district can concentrate on wellness and consumer-driven health care plan design.
As a district, we are transparent with the community and are constantly engaging its members. When they advocate for themselves or give us their opinion, it is our job to take their feedback and use it to make a decision. Because of this, our community knows that when we ask for their opinion, it will be heard.
Jim Westrum is the executive director of business and finance at Wayzata Public Schools in Wayzata, Minn.
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