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IASB JOINT ANNUAL CONFERENCE


2003 JOINT ANNUAL CONFERENCE

School funding talk requires common cents

Analogies of putting money in separate checking accounts or paying bills out of separate buckets may help school board members better explain district finances to their communities.

Diane Rado, education reporter with the Chicago Tribune, and Linda Rafanello, vice president of the Public Finance Division with Harris Trust & Savings in Chicago, joined representatives of Woodstock CUSD 200 to put the difficult issue of school finances into terms a community can understand.

Their presentation, School Finance Made Simple, was one of 30 panels presented Saturday morning at the 71st Joint Annual Conference.

Misunderstandings about how money comes in and how it can be used coupled with an underlying mistrust of public officials cause problems in districts all across the state, with no regard to size or actual financial status.

Rado urged school officials to tell the entire story when it comes to their finances. She compared trying to get the entire story from districts to trying to find out about her son Andrew's homework. When she asks him about his homework, she said, she gets vague answers that are never a lie ... they just don't tell the whole story.

"School districts are like giant Andrews," Rado said. "Why don't I get the whole truth?"

Rado said reporters want to paint the correct picture for their readers, but they can't do that if they only have part of the facts. She encouraged school districts to open their financial records as well as better explaining the budget process. She often uses the analogy of separate checkbooks to help readers understand how different school funds operate.

Rafanello, who works with districts on debt financing, said she often sees a high level of distrust when it comes to school taxes and spending. She encouraged school officials to keep their messages simple, especially when they want to pass a referendum.

"Complicated materials are suspect," she said. "Keep it memorable and meaningful. Think visual or create statements that are repeatable."

Her best images involve the use of different buckets to represent the school funds. Money that flows into a bucket can only be used for expenses that also are related to that bucket.

Rafanello also has created a "Court" analogy that depicts a hypothetical street, complete with homeowners, children per household, valuations and tax liabilities. The "Court" also aligns with her "court hens" theory of communicating budget information.

"Court hens" refer to the women who gather daily or weekly on the cul-de-sacs or in a neighborhood to exchange information, Rafanello said. "You have to use examples that the court hens will understand."

Her strategy is to keep it honest, keep it consistent and keep it real. That means conveying the same facts and figures each time the message is presented and, if possible, using people from the community, rather than the district, to communicate those facts and figures.

She also recommended that boards try to better explain the lag time that occurs with accessing tax money.

An 18- to 24-month delay exists, Rafanello said, from when a child moves into the school district and when the district actually receives property tax money for that child, and state aid is a full year behind. But every child needs district services immediately.

Sandwiched between Rado and Rafanello, Ray Reynolds, associate superintendent of finance and business services, and Barbara Banker, director of community service, both from Woodstock CUSD 200, talked about the ways their district tries to explain finances to the community.

Reynolds talked about establishing a public education process on finances and how having a good attitude can affect the success of communicating with the press. Banker showed examples of the district's newsletter that explains the budget. By putting the budget in easily understood terms, using pictures of students throughout ("Because that's what we're all about.") and adding graphics to help explain where the money comes from and where it goes, they create a well-read document that people in the community appreciate, she said.

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