Tennessee’s Williamson County Schools Makes the Case for Needed Funding with OpenGov

STUDENTS: 39,000 | AGENCY TYPE: School District | ANNUAL BUDGET: $340 Million

Williamson County Schools is a K-12 school district comprised of 44 schools. Known as Tennessee’s top district, it prides itself on high student achievement and outstanding test scores. Close proximity to Nashville contributes to the County’s ranking as one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, with many residents being in the country music industry. The school district’s parents are engaged and involved partners in a collaborative teaching and learning environment. District administrators and the local Board manage a budget approved by the County Commission, which is mainly supported by local sales and property taxes. The District is tasked with continuously providing a top-tier education in a lean and efficient manner.

Managing the largest financial unit within the County’s government, district administrators sought a way to increase transparency between County Commissioners, the Board of Education, and the public. They also wanted to enhance decision-making and public understanding of the district’s budget and capital project details.


Telling the District’s Financial Story


Chief Financial Officer Leslie Holman first learned of OpenGov at a Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) conference, where a live demonstration caught her eye. “I walked over to the OpenGov demonstration and started asking questions,” Holman said. “The clear platform, ease of access to information and the ability to drill down through pivot tables and graphs was really exciting.”

A common public perception, or at least to the commission, during budget seasons has been that the school district’s budget was inflated with money to spare. Additionally, candidates for elected office have made reference that district finances were not transparent. “There is a universal distrust between the County Commission and the Board of Education, mainly because we are the reason for over 75% of the tax rate,” Holman said.

Tennessee’s Williamson County Schools uses OpenGov to convey the district’s financials to stakeholders, allowing users to consume information at a high level or drill down into detail.

OpenGov provides a way to bridge that trust gap and correct inaccurate assumptions. “This is a tool that allows anybody to explore all of our budget details and see that, on the whole, we don’t spend a lot of money – over 85 percent of any of our budgets over the years is locked into salaries and benefits, not discretionary spending,” she said. The presentations that Opengov offers through their software gives citizens, public officials and even our department heads to drill down and see what costs actually are and have been over the last several years.


Enhanced Stakeholder Engagement


Not every Board of Education member comes from a public sector background, and even those in private finance have a learning curve concerning the government budgeting operations. Holman loaded several years of District finances into OpenGov and created an experiential scavenger hunt for her Board members to explore the platform and see how easy it was to research and find specific information.

Holman also used the transparency site and its capabilities as her “show and tell” session in the district’s annual “InfoThon” held at the local galleria at the beginning of the school year. “Typically, nobody comes by my table because I’m in finance and I guess they think I have nothing to say but “give me the money”, but this year I handed out a prepared pamphlet of the scavenger hunt I had given the Board as a training tool,” she said. Holman engaged parents and community members with the site and shared the platform’s user-friendly landing page, which includes “How to Use OpenGov” and FAQ sections.

Being able to break down the district’s financials by individual school allows users to make comparisons across the district.

“A lot of people are excited about it when they find out that we have it,” Holman said, who took the opportunity to advertise the platform in a state legislative meetings to advocate for her District receiving a fair distribution of resources through the state’s education funding formula.

Holman envisions that students, too, will be able to use the OpenGov platform, and plans to reach out to share the tool with teachers. “The platform is so interactive, and kids could get a lot of interesting and useful facts out of it. I can imagine teachers even making a class out of it,” Holman said.


Customized Reports Make Data Useful and Used


One of the things that initially attracted Holman to OpenGov was the customization of reports and permissions that let her choose what information to share and with whom. The external-facing transparency site caters to the main public interest points with Saved Views that effectively illustrate where tax dollars go in the main operating fund.

Reports can also be narrowed to detail revenues and expenditures by individual school, a popular choice for parents and school administrators alike, who enjoy increased access to their own school site’s line items, as well as details for similar schools within the district. “An after-school program administrator, for example, can drill down within the applicable fund, see a graph by site, and see that yes, a certain site did get as much as the other site or not; and there is value in that,” Holman explained.

OpenGov’s visualizations helped Williamson County Schools show revenue trends over time and make the case for required funding.

A visual break-out of revenue and expenses comparing local versus state generated revenues proved effective in illustrating to state legislators a downward trend of state funding even as expenses related to mandates have increased. “In talking with the state last week, I was able to show that Williamson County has seen its share of state funding decreased by ten percent, whereas other districts across the state have stayed the same,” Holman said.

Results

  • Strengthened Trust Among Decision-Makers.

    Easy access to detailed budget information in OpenGov improves financial transparency and effectively tells the District’s financial story to decision-makers.

  • Effectively Advocated for State Funds.

    In OpenGov’s cloud-based platform, state legislators can see visual representations of grant funding declines alongside new, mandated expenditure increases.

  • Better Informed Stakeholders.

    School administrators, parents, and even students can drill down to line-item detail to see an accurate accounting of revenues and expenses overall and by building.

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