27 Jul Looking to software to manage the business of education
For years, there have been calls to run government institutions as a business, with a tight bottom line and strict accountability to their shareholders: taxpayers. Now schools are facing similar scrutiny. The increased academic expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act have expanded the federal regulations with which schools must comply.
Taxpayers and local governments are also demanding more budget accountability at a time when school funding and staffing are under strain, enrollments are up in many urban and suburban districts, and schools nationwide are serving more students with special needs. To operate like businesses, schools need the same tools as businesses. In particular, they need the sophisticated business software that businesses rely on to streamline their business and administrative tasks.
In the past, business management software didn’t provide the flexibility school districts needed to adapt to constantly shifting rules, regulations and policies. As a result, administrative and financial systems at most schools remained outdated, even as software was being welcomed into the classroom and curriculum.
Today’s business management software, by contrast, can be adapted or automatically updated to keep school administrators and financial officers current with government mandates, and provide tools to create new efficiencies. Schools are beginning to take note. IDC projected that K-12 schools would spend $3.4 billion on all software in 2005 and $4 billion by 2006. Those figures include classroom or teaching software as well as a faster-growing market for enterprise software. According to Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based research and advisory firm, spending on enterprise software and services by high schools rose nearly 15 percent in 2004.
School district business managers and other administrators can use business management software to do the following:
• Integrate payroll, financials and human resources information. Data can be entered one time and shared throughout the school and the district, helping improve efficiency and accuracy.
• Easily calculate and manage complex payroll inputs, including flexible pay periods, variable compensation packages, contract management, licensure, certifications and tenure
• Reduce the time central office staff spends looking up human resources and benefits information for employees, by creating self-service business portals that enable employees to access their own information via a security-enhanced Web browser
• Streamline procurement of supplies and materials by having the most current financial information at users’ fingertips
Merry Brodzinski, owner and CEO of Sunergi Inc., a certified Microsoft Business Solutions Partner, has helped clients such as the Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., integrate the latest business management software with their other administrative systems. “The major goal in K-12 school districts is to increase productivity and efficiency in the business office in order to free up more time and resources to educate students,” Brodzinski said.
The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) requires school districts to use software programs from its list of approved applications. When the ISD 916 Director of Administrative Services decided to reevaluate her financial software a year ago, she didn’t see any commercial packages on the list that would meet all of her needs. She knew she had to meet her school district’s need for a robust financial, payroll and human resources system.
Sunergi, a specialist in Microsoft Great Plains financial management software, offered the services of a developer recognized by Microsoft for its technical excellence. On its own, Microsoft Great Plains met 85 percent of Carr’s requirements. The remaining functionality needed to be built, and Sunergi worked with ISD 916 for nearly a year to develop and test applications that addressed the school’s specific needs for payroll, state and retirement reporting, fund accounting and purchase-order processing.
Colleges and universities face similar financial and planning challenges, and can benefit from modern business management software in many of the same ways as K-12 schools.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is among the higher education institutions that have embraced modern business management software — and it is now reaping the rewards.
The university’s Materials Distribution Services and Surplus With A Purpose (MDS/SWAP) department used Microsoft Business Solutions-Great Plains along with other third-party applications to create an integrated inventory and purchasing management system, along with an e-commerce storefront for purchasers and an online auction for disposing of surplus property.
Since adopting its current software in 2000, MDS/SWAP has eliminated $439,000 (U.S.) in annual administrative expenses.
The integrated procurement and inventory management system has allowed MDS/SWAP to eliminate more than 6,000 purchase orders and 135,000 invoices each year — a significant reduction. “Our buyers find it easier to order and track these purchases online, and our prime vendors benefit as well; they know they will be paid in 10 days —guaranteed,” said Jeff Sailor, accountant for MDS/SWAP. “Before, while we tried to pay in 10 days, we couldn’t guarantee it.”
In addition to reducing expenses, the university has employed its business software to help increase revenues from sales of surplus items. Over a four-year period, sales from the online auction and retail floor space grew from $606,000 to $1.1 million. The online auction sales alone increased from $124,000 to $271,000 in two years.
Just as businesses consult a lawyer or accountant, they also rely on technology consultants to help them use and understand the unique tools and features of software. Schools can — and should — do the same if they aren’t sure of how to begin upgrading their administrative and business processes. Some consultants specialize in software for schools and higher education, and provide advice on how they can maximize their technology investment.
Schools, colleges and universities that are considering investing in technology should consider the following:
• Does the system simplify processes and unify data, improving productivity and accuracy for your staff?
• Does the software integrate well with current systems? Does your technology partner understand your institution’s needs, and will the partner provide a high level of support and training?
• Will this solution encompass all the financial needs of business management, from payroll to procurement?
• Can the business management program you plan to purchase adapt as your business practices evolve?