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Schools Should Take a Three-Phased Approach as They Plan to Return to “Normal”

How to Adapt Today, Become Adept Tomorrow, and What to Adopt Permanently

[A version of this post originally appeared on District Administration, a national trade journal serving school district administrators and educators.]

When announcements came that states were closing schools for the remainder of this school year, in a way they brought the first semblance of clarity to the myriad spate of unknowns. Soon, we began to look ahead to the fall school year, which brings its own set of variables and unknowns. While we expect timelines and announcements to vary from district to district and state to state, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is unlikely that things will soon be getting “back to normal” in large measure.

With each day comes increased clarity, if only at the margins, but that clarity is often difficult to recognize in moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities. But each day, discoveries are being made: we weren’t prepared for this or that, we hadn’t accounted for every contingency, or perhaps, maybe we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.

Which is why, though it may seem difficult at first, school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it likely won’t happen overnight. In fact, we suggest that educators and administrators take a three-phased approach: take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice long-term.

Phase One: Triage for Today

Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning, nor training. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices in an instant. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.

Access to systems and documents proved challenging for those who are used to keeping software and hardware under literal and figurative lock-and-key. If “it’s at my desktop at school,” it’s practically unreachable at the moment.

But work needs to get done. Meetings need to happen. Projects need to press forward, and budgets will soon be due. We cannot permanently pause. As many have discovered, time waits for no one. 

All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs it, 24/7. 

Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:

  • Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
  • Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
  • Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
  • Metrics: Measure progress and success against pre-established desired outcomes.
  • Prompts and Reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
  • Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.

Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will make sure nothing gets missed or skipped and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.

Phase Two: Transition to Tomorrow

Workflows, processes, systems and task forces will eventually need to return to a more conventional reality. The problem is, we don’t currently know when that will be. Perhaps it will be announced as suddenly as we transitioned away from our regularly scheduled programming. There will be a sense of relief, to be sure…but there will also be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today. 

If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and clerical support to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed, not only in the long term, but to avoid a painful transition-back in the nearer term.

In the past several weeks, decisions had to be made with little warning, and new processes had to be up and running overnight. But now we do have some luxury of foresight, knowing that a return to regular education is coming, even if we don’t know when. Perhaps now is the time to plan for those workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force might have several sub-workflows, and perhaps even disparate teams collaborating at different points and times.

A few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:

How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?

What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?

What updates to registration workflows might need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely/digitally?

How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?

What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—remote delivery or centralized pickup?

Many districts were preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?

How will summer school be administered?

Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?

As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?

Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans, pen-and-paper, or even static spreadsheet software (like Excel or Google Sheets). In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available to school districts. There’s never been a better nor more urgent time to plug in to the tools at our disposal.

Phase Three: Adopt to Adapt, and Stay Adept

What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered then defined to make our teams more effective while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.

The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—from anywhere, at any time, by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.

Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:

  • plan and prepare for the unknown
  • proactively put processes in place and document workflows
  • account for contingencies
  • consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
  • trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
  • maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared, not only among existing team members, but in perpetuity, even as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future

School district professionals may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it…both in standard operating procedures and, heaven forbid, when the next crisis presents itself.

This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Engagement with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com.

Fiscal Health, K-12, Municipal

What Can We Learn from this Forced New Reality?

Municipalities and School Districts Finding Need to Modernize Systems, Processes and Technology to Cope, Collaborate and Conquer Uncertainty

By and large, municipal governments and public school systems are doing admiral and applaudable work during this crisis that was suddenly thrust upon us all. From communicating to constituents with timely updates and critical announcements to establishing remote, virtual working and learning environments, what many have been able to achieve in such a short, compressed time frame is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, things haven’t been perfect. And some communities are coping more easily than others. But considering the circumstances, the early returns for most are encouraging, even as they are dispiriting. “We’re all in this together,” is a mantra we keep hearing, and it’s an important one to keep in mind as events continue to unfold.

No doubt, the cracks are starting to reveal themselves. Educators are confronting and working to overcome obstacles, as local governments are rising to meet previously unforeseen challenges, many seemingly unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. And while some of these newfound hurdles must and can be immediately cleared to keep our communities and schools operating, others are larger than what can be remedied in the here and now.

And therein lies both our collective challenge and opportunity: Take stock—there are lessons to be learned, and there are future decisions to inventory.

Prioritize and Triage Your Newly Discovered Vulnerabilities

In the short term, no doubt many school and municipal administrators are struggling to keep their heads above the proverbial water. But all water eventually finds its level, and there will, at some point, be an adjustment to this new normal, if only in parts. 

Some day, believe it or not, we will all get back to the old normal, and when we do, we will emerge more aware than ever of the challenges, vulnerabilities and downright deficiencies we were once willing to live with. We should use this opportunity—and the respite we’ll receive when we get back to “business as usual”—to take stock of the most critical cracks in our armor, knowing that the next crisis may just as quickly and just as critically present itself without warning. Will we be ready next time? Only if we start preparing today!

We encourage all municipal and school district administrators to document any discoveries they make relative to challenges they suddenly face, which may not have been quite so obvious when things were closer to normal. And we further urge them to encourage their entire staffs to do the same. 

Some challenges we expect many of you are struggling with include considerations such as:

Is there a remotely accessible knowledge bank for all to leverage? Or is critical data and information locked in desktop software on a computer that is suddenly behind locked doors? Or, worse yet, is there data, information or knowledge literally locked in a desktop drawer somewhere—as in, physically? Financial, operational and analytical knowledge, if it’s not already, should be accessible to anybody who needs it, wherever work may take them (in good times or in bad).

Are there tools and resources readily available to assist in the critical decisions we need to make in times of crisis? For example, many school districts need to make nearly instantaneous decisions regarding how and where they distribute their free and reduced lunch programs. A database that can instantly cross-sect demographic data based on need is a critical resource to efficiently answer questions, provide intelligence and inform critical decisions, in a whole host of applications and use cases.

How do we manage projects and teams when we’re all working from home? Significant projects, tasks and undertakings typically require the careful coordination of assets, budgets, personnel and calendars. This isn’t nearly as challenging when teams can convene, share physical project assets, and interact fluidly. But what about now, with no two people working in any single location? Project management software should facilitate collaboration, cooperative planning and dynamic budgeting, and even allow for asynchronous, a-geographical communication and coordination. Projects that have been long in the works might need to be urgently migrated to such third-party planning tools…then migrated back once we all get to enjoy some semblance of normalcy again.

What is our organization’s level of emergency preparedness? We’re re-learning during this most recent crisis just how quickly facts on the ground can change the modus operandi. What one day seems unimaginable and draconian may tomorrow feel necessary and intuitive. Coordinating, monitoring and documenting emergency preparedness and safety drills will be increasingly critical and, likely, more widely mandated in the future. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when “active-shooter lockdown” drills weren’t deemed necessary, but nuclear fallout drills were. And today, we are sheltering in place to escape and minimize viral infection. It’s important now more than ever to ask and answer: Will our systems and resources make such compliance and transparency easier, or more difficult?

Address the Urgent. Document the Important.

While we fully expect the cracks in the foundation to be showing (who in this world is today not waking up to new vulnerabilities and challenges?), we don’t expect that they be addressed and remedied overnight. Nor should they be. Sometimes, the decisions we make in times of crisis prove to be overreaches down the road.

But we can triage. We can document everything, and we can prioritize initiatives against considerations of urgency, impact and effect. Some challenges need to be immediately overcome, such as remote learning and virtual working environments. You’ve already taken steps in those regards. There will be more to consider. But you won’t be able to plug every hole in the dam at once.

Use this time to observe, to reflect and to take stock. Eventually, there will come a time when all (or most) of these challenges can and must be addressed. If we want to optimize our operations in preparation for times of crisis, we should modernize our technology, tools and resources now—once the dust of this current crisis clears. We will all need to rethink our priorities, plans and processes, not only to avoid future pain, but to attain an evergreen optimization of data, knowledge and valuable resources that represent the lifeblood of our communities. 

We must create a roadmap for tomorrow’s success, even amid today’s pain. There’s no better time to plan for that than the present, when we are right in the middle of it.

To join a no-cost Webinar that illustrates the capabilities and applications of the Munetrix ProjectTracker app, please register today. We plan to share tips and best practices for managing projects, personnel and budgets remotely.

If you have any questions relative to your community’s preparedness or data management capabilities, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Education, K-12, Municipal, Opinion

The Problem with Buzzwords

Is the use of jargon actually standing in the way of progress?

“Transparency.”

“Smart cities.”

“Big data.”

Our world is littered with them. Call them “buzzwords,” call it “jargon,” call it “government speak.” Whatever you call them, it’s clear that people are using words and expressions they don’t fully understand, can’t reliably define, and, what’s worse, won’t even recognize when they actually see them executed properly.

Heck, even the word “data” has become something of an overused, catch-all moniker being applied to virtually anything containing a fact or figure. Is a printout of a spreadsheet, tucked away in the desk drawer of a retired clerk, “data?” Is a crumpled-up, out-of-date map “data?” Is an artifact dug from an archeological site considered to be “data?”

And what makes data “big,” for that matter?

Or consider the concept of “smart cities.” What makes a city “smart?” Sure, there are definitions out there…but can you recite one? Most people can’t—even those clamoring for them (or even part of the conversation, in many instances).

Which brings us to “transparency.” Transparency is a word I’ve been hearing since the 1980s , first in the automotive world, later in the political arena , and now virtually everywhere you turn—including routine business matters with municipalities and school districts. But ask 100 people to define transparency and you’ll get 100 different answers. (I know…I’ve done it!) 

Even our old friend Noah Webster has a difficult time defining transparency: “the quality or state of being transparent.” (Not joking…look it up.) The definition of transparent per Webster is no joy either, the best of eight options being “readily understood.”  So the answer is: “the quality or state of being readily understood?” See the problem?

If we can’t even agree on definitions, how can we come to consensus as to whether we’ve achieved the outcomes we all profess to desire, such as government transparency, smart cities and the public’s understanding of available community data?

The Problem with Jargon

It’s not that they aren’t admirable and worthwhile pursuits, these commitments to transparency, the continued progress toward smarter cities, and providing universal community access to public data. They are. The problem arises when people use buzzwords as a shield from scrutiny or evaluation.

If nobody truly understands the meaning of a noble-sounding aspiration, it becomes easy to pay lip service to abstractions and hide behind actual results. Claims of transparency and “smart-ness” become easier to tout, as an unwitting public is becoming increasingly immune to their effects: We hear the words, we vaguely understand the actions people are making toward the objectives these buzzwords describe, and we assume progress is being made. It’s comforting, in a way.

But what if it’s not?

What if we end up with  the illusion of transparency, but, in reality, too few are actually achieving the intended goals of informing our public, community employees and elected officials?

Consider a hypothetical: An entity commissions a study and produces a 500-page report, then posts a PDF of that report somewhere buried deep within its website. Is this transparency? Is the PDF even data? At 500 pages, it certainly is big…but big data, it is not.

The ultimate danger that the proliferation of over-used and misapplied terminology poses to our communities is that we hear the lip service, we see activity and proposals, we witness claims of accomplishments, and we fall complacent to actually achieving measurable results and meaningful progress toward the vital ends our communities need to achieve—fiscally, scholastically, and politically.

Less Talk, More Walk

As an industry—and as a community—we can do better. As someone who works in the “data” business, I see the opportunities firsthand. We need to better educate our citizens about important initiatives we pursue on their behalf…and clearly report on the progress (or lack thereof) being made. 

Free of jargon. Free of buzzwords. Overflowing with clarity.

Let’s understand what types of information our community is truly interested in seeing, and let’s package those facts and figures in a way that is accessible and relevant to their interests. Let’s hold “Citizen 101” town halls to better educate our friends and neighbors about what they can know about, what they can care about…and what they should stay educated about…and let them tell us what “transparency” truly means to them.

It’s not that the technology isn’t there. We have all the data we need…big and small! And we look at ours daily. The types of information that people most readily click on and download just might surprise those who might be too close to the data to fully appreciate. People, school districts, and government entities may assume they’re offering data that complies with government-issued transparency mandates, and they may assume that that’s enough. But are they truly giving the people what they really care about in their everyday lives? Often not, I suspect.

There’s a standard for this already, to which I reference (and adhere to) often: the Government Accounting Standards Board’s (GASB) litmus test for the quality of data being shared. The six qualitative characteristics, as set forth in GASB’s Concepts Statement No. 1, Objectives of Financial Reporting are:

  • Relevant
  • Reliable
  • Understandable
  • Timely
  • Consistent
  • Comparable

Most of all, let’s make it simple. Let’s resolve—as an industry, as municipalities, as school districts, and as councils of government—to make it easy for elected officials and citizens alike to understand the terminology we use and the solutions we are trying to provide to achieve things like transparency and smart cities. 

An informed public is a powerful public. Let’s leave the buzzwords behind…and move our communities forward.

[To learn the one acceptable buzzword here at Munetrix, please click here.]

Education, K-12, News

Cities & Schools Reach Crisis Point Due to States’ Low Economic Reserves

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Many States Are Unprepared for Next Economic Downturn) caught my attention because it highlighted a key factor adding to the fiscal stress of municipalities and schools.  The article suggested that most states are unprepared for an inevitable economic downturn as they lack the necessary fiscal reserves or rainy-day funds to cushion the next financial blow, and, it’s already having a negative trickle-down effect.

Forced to do more with less since the last recession, cities and schools are continually struggling with reduced revenue sharing from their states while scrambling to meet the demands of unfunded mandates, retiree obligations, an aging infrastructure and even increased student testing. Add this to the anticipated silver tsunami caused by public sector retirements in the next decade, we see a myriad of local governments that are already stretched too thin and have reached a crisis point.

One of the most alarming things noted in the WSJ article was that some states appear to have little sense of urgency and limited tools to address these budgetary shortfalls. Forget crisis point—this dilemma will have far-reaching and long-term consequences for the populations served by those who gloss over the unavoidable hard truth and do nothing about it now.

Education, K-12, News

Munetrix Helps School Districts Comply with New MDE Transparency Requirements

school-68931_640The State of Michigan continues to push local units of governments and school districts toward greater efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Much like it did with revenue sharing for municipalities through the Economic Vitality and Incentive Program in 2011, the State of Michigan established new best practice standards in 2013 for local and intermediate school districts under the State School Aid Act (Public Act 60) for 2013.

The new law links compliance with 8 best practices to discretionary per-pupil foundation allocations, on top of to any regular transparency requirements. The economic benefit of compliance is substantial; equal to $52.00 in addition to the foundation allowance per pupil. Compliance must occur before June 30, 2014.

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