They’re the people behind the scenes responsible for billions of tax dollars to support Iowa students, teachers, and families.
And for the past five years, Iowa State University has played a key role in providing new school business officials (SBOs) with the training, mentoring, networking, and support needed to effectively do their jobs.
“Our people are the ones responsible for the legal and ethical expenditure of public funds," said Jim Scharff, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Business Officials. “Most citizens don’t realize how big a deal it is. Most K-12 schools receive half of all property taxes collected and about 50 percent of the state of Iowa general fund budget. It’s a great deal of funding responsibility.”
Establishing entry-level requirements
School business officials across Iowa ensure that the $6 billion received by Iowa schools from the federal, state, and local government is spent appropriately, ethically, and legally. They also manage data to help school board members and superintendents make appropriate decisions.
A 2012 state law created entry-level requirements for school business officials — an “authorization” for those new to the job, with experienced school business officials grandfathered into authorization. Those who are authorized are required to earn 60 contact hours of renewal credit every three years to maintain this authorization. The legislation was supported by the professional organizations representing school administrators, school boards, and teachers.
The Iowa School Business Management Academy at Iowa State, established in 1991, prepares school business managers, board secretaries, and school administrators for performance of their business management responsibilities. Since 2012, the academy has had the only program approved by the state to provide new school business officials with the training and support required by law.
“Before this, there was no entry-level criteria for being a school business official,” said Debra Van Gorp, a retired Saydel school superintendent who is now director of the Iowa School Business Management Academy and an assistant clinical professor in the ISU School of Education.
Learning government regulations and accountability
Iowa has 333 school districts serving about 485,147 students. The 2012 state law requires each district to employ a school business official who is “authorized” through completion of a two-year school business official authorization program offered by Iowa State.
The program’s courses are designed to improve management and leadership abilities of school personnel responsible for human resource services, business functions, and finance operations in Iowa schools.
“The framework of the program provides a consistent, solid base for understanding the complexities of school finance and the important role SBOs have in providing oversight of public funds,” said Denise Ragias, a finance consultant with the Iowa Department of Education. “Through the requirements for maintaining the authorization, SBOs attend trainings and keep abreast of current issues. In addition, the new SBOs are provided additional training and a mentor who is an experienced business manager.”
In 135 instructional hours, participants learn about budgeting, accounting, cash and debt management, liability and risk management, special education funding, inventory, the purchasing process, facility planning, employment law, negotiating, record-keeping, and preparation for the end of the fiscal year.
They also learn about the regulatory aspects of school finance — the state's legislative process, the resulting statutes and rules, federal guidelines, and local context — and their impact on day-to-day operations. And they learn how government fund accounting is different than private, for-profit accounting.
“I came from the banking world in both the corporate and local capacity,” said Kris Wood, the former business manager of the Hamburg Community School District who now works with the Green Hills Area Education Agency. “I always felt we had great training programs at the banks. However, the SBO authorization program offers the most extensive training program and support system I have ever experienced. It definitely sets the tone for success.”
Sixty-one new school business officials have so far completed the authorization program offered through the Iowa School Business Management Academy. Another 35 are currently enrolled.
“Learning the many different financial codes from the Iowa Chart of Account Coding is imperative as it really helps you with your Certified Annual Report at the end of each school year,” said Rhiannon Tessum, the school business official, human resources director, and board secretary of the East Union and Diagonal school districts. "In addition, learning the financial basics — forming an essential understanding of the code of Iowa and knowledge of where to look for the information that you may need throughout the career — is essential, as well."
Eric Howard, who graduated from the program in August and serves as the human resources services director for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said his role requires a strong knowledge of school finance and law.
“I recently completed a data analysis of school district master contracts in Iowa,” he said. “It would have been more difficult to complete that type of data analysis without the foundation that the SBO authorization program provided me.”
Providing a network of support
Cyndie Johnson, business manager and board secretary at the Central DeWitt Community School District, said the program provided her with a professional network of colleagues where she could both receive and offer help.
“It was the place I met friends who would support me,” she said. “A place where I could learn and be a part of a great group.”
"There were times when I first started that I didn't know anything other than my group was telling me it would be OK," Johnson said. “There were times when I didn't have a clue about the topic and other times that I was able to help others because I had already been through that part. Completing this felt like going a full circle from not knowing anything, to knowing enough to help others with their questions.”
Tessum said she was amazed by the support she received — from her mentor, and from contacts she made throughout the state — as she learned about her position as a school business official, human resources director, and board secretary.
And Howard, who previously served as the school business official for the IKM-Manning Community School District, described the mentoring and networking as the most helpful components of the program.
“The structure of the SBO authorization program makes it easy to build strong working relationships with your peers,” he said. “I still rely on those relationships for advice and support.”
Outreach touching every corner of the state
Iowa State brings together more than 60 instructors each year to serve the Iowa School Business Management Academy. Instructors are highly qualified and respected practitioners in the field. Many have advanced degrees or certification such as a master of business administration, law degree, or certified public account.
Following the two-year authorization program, school business officials have the option to obtain a “diploma” or certificate of completion by continuing to levels 3 and 4 of the academy. A four-year sequential program is offered each spring, and supplementary half-day academies are held in conjunction with the annual fall and spring conferences of the Iowa Association of School Business Officials.
“From our end of the world, the authorization program has been really sound,” said Scharff, an Iowa State alumnus and former senior clinical professor, teacher, principal, superintendent, and school business official. “I’ve seen a lot of difference. Just the nature of the questions by new school business officials is at a higher level than it used to be.”
Scharff said Iowa State is preparing new school business officials to be successful. Ragias said the authorization program has resulted in school business officials who are more knowledgeable and better equipped for their positions. The mentoring has also resulted in increased collaboration.
It’s just another way that Iowa State is fulfilling its land-grant mission of sharing knowledge with the citizens of Iowa through teaching, research, extension, and outreach.
“We bring people in from all over the state to teach these sessions,” Van Gorp said. “This is our outreach. We are touching every corner of the state.”