Back/Big Ideas from Hop, Skip, Leapfrog: Leveraging Collaborative Leadership When Making Long- and Short-Term Financial Decisions

Big Ideas from Hop, Skip, Leapfrog: Leveraging Collaborative Leadership When Making Long- and Short-Term Financial Decisions

by Scott Milam on October 12 2021

Scott Milam is the co-founder and managing director of Afton Partners LLC, a professional services firm focused on forging an alignment between financial strategies and educational priorities. With over 25 years of experience providing management and advisory services for clients in the commercial and public sectors, Scott supports school districts, charter networks, state education agencies, philanthropies, and other public education stakeholders with strategic and financial planning.

As part of our Hop, Skip, Leapfrog interviews with subject-matter experts across the K-12 field, we asked him to weigh in on education opportunities in a post-pandemic world and key takeaways he hopes will support leaders going forward. Read on for three big ideas from our conversation, in Scott’s words.

Takeaway #1: Create structures and mindsets to support collaboration among leadership teams.

“A practice we'd like to see carry on from the COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing collaboration among and across leadership teams. The superintendent, chief academic officer, chief financial officer, and their teams, working together the way they did – both at the onset of the pandemic and through the year – [were able to establish new types of routines] and communication structures that allowed thoughtful decision-making to happen on a more expedited basis.

Leaders had a more collaborative mindset, at least compared to how we had seen many teams operate previously. Teamwork between the superintendent, the CFO, and CAO are crucial for success – regardless of the situation - so it was heartening to see the collaboration efforts take hold during the pandemic. Decision-making required real-time input across the leadership team, which is not unlike situations that other organizations or private sector companies might face during a time of financial crisis.

A district we worked with closely in early COVID instituted daily leadership meetings to understand how they would collectively identify and address the most pressing issues facing their schools and organization. From remote school planning to preparing for hybrid schedules and school reopening, the team sought input from all functional areas before determining the most effective actions to take. These daily meetings were not only a change in practice, but a change in culture, [in which] all leadership roles – from the superintendent to CAO and CFO – worked together to learn, iterate, and improve.”

Takeaway #2: Design ways to spend ESSER money on both short-term and long-term priorities.

“We at Afton have spent much time discussing the implication of ESSER funds, and how the funds might be spent most effectively. How much should be spent in the immediate (to address learning loss) versus plan for more long-term initiatives? What strategies will be most effective at supporting students in the short- and long-term? How will district and charter leaders (and states) measure success? How can they prepare for the ‘fiscal cliff’ after the funds have been exhausted? Answering these questions will help leaders make the best decisions possible for FY22, and particularly in FY23 and FY24, on the most effective use of these funds set aside for learning loss.

Use of ESSER funds also provides an opportunity for district and charter leaders to look at resource-planning in a longer time horizon than most have focused on in the past, which may be a relatively new concept for many in the public education space. Building a multi-year plan is an effective strategy to align resources and academic strategies, particularly when considering longer-term instructional model changes. The requirement that ESSER funds are spent over a multi-year timeframe (FY22 through FY25) provides an opportunity for school and district leaders to build a long-term plan to weave in ESSER funds, and update that plan on at least an annual basis.

As districts plan for use of funds, they can and should consider:

  1. The opportunity to support immediate learning needs, while also leveraging the funds to improve the system as a whole. The goal for districts is to implement effective educational strategies that outlast the limited time horizon of the ESSER funds.

  2. Planning in the short- and longer-term requires an ability to think beyond the typical one-year planning cycle school systems typically use.

  3. There is a significant risk of a fiscal cliff, particularly if districts use ESSER funding for recurring investments (e.g., full-time positions), rather than one-time initiatives (e.g., high-dose tutoring, effective professional development).

In sum, the ESSER funds provide a short- and long-term, once-in-a-generation opportunity to support children with effective academic interventions and educational strategies, while also building a skillset at the district level to focus on long-term resource allocation to align to those academic strategies. This opportunity reinforces the importance of leadership collaboration and communication, with a focus on setting short- and long-term goals to hold themselves accountable to students and parents.”

Takeaway #3: Focus on data to make better, more flexible, and more responsive investments and understand their impact.

“The use of data has never been more important. With an immediate focus on meeting every student where they are and understanding their specific needs, data should help drive decisions while also allowing for flexibility to adjust strategies that may work for some students but not others. Districts will have a unique ability to ‘tell their stories’ – both successes and failures – which can be shared with education leaders around the country to help promote strategies that work for students of all needs, including [students who are learning English, are receiving special education services, are economically disadvantaged, or those who] were disengaged throughout the pandemic.

In sum, we see some potential glimmers of hope that could arise from this pandemic that we have all experienced (and continue to experience) since March of 2020. A focus on authentic collaboration between the academic and finance [teams], a strategic use of ESSER funds, with a focus on long-term planning while proactively building and leveraging student-level outcomes data, can all be effective strategies as districts come out of the crises. [These strategies] can be highly valuable when we all (hopefully) return to some semblance of normalcy in the coming years.”

This blog is one in a series describing interviews from TLA’s Hop, Skip, Leapfrog project. Explore more resources.

About the Author

Scott Milam is the co-founder and managing director of Afton Partners LLC, a professional services firm focused on forging an alignment between financial strategies and educational priorities. With over 25 years of experience providing management and advisory services for clients in the commercial and public sectors, Scott supports school districts, charter networks, state education agencies, philanthropies, and other public education stakeholders with strategic and financial planning.