Updated: Mar 17, 2022
Common problems I encounter when working with schools on their ESSA Grants have two underlying issues: collaboration and communication. These seem like relatively easy tasks, but for various reasons (and regardless of school size), the lack of processes in place can give Grant Managers some headaches.
For this blog post, I will use the terms CFO (for the Chief Financial Officer or Business Manager/Official) and Grant Manager (Program Staff/Federal Programs Director, etc.), since these positions tend to have various titles.
Problem #1: Failing to Allocate in the Local Budgeting Software
Sometimes Grant Managers forget to communicate with the CFO to make sure grant funds are set up in the local accounting software. Problems arise later, because the Grant Manager isn’t sure of the amount of funds spent and how much is still available. Work with your CFO to create a template to use, so everyone is on the same page.
Problem #2: Forgetting to Add Carryover and Reallocation to the Local Budget
Related to Problem # 1, forgetting to add carryover and reallocation is also a common issue. This occurs when schools receive their carryover funds from the previous year, or receive additional grant funds. Often, the Grant Managers will amend their grant to add the funds into the budget, but then forget to communicate this to the CFO. This typically results in funds not being added into their local budgeting software. Grant Managers then get surprised at the very end-of-the-year with significant amounts of unspent money, and they feel confused as to how that happened.
Problem #3: Trying to be the Lone Ranger
Being a Grant Manager doesn't mean making all the decisions by yourself. Sometimes we think doing everything ourselves is helping others by saving them time, but this is not the most effective way. (I have been guilty of this, too, before I knew better!)
Collaboration and communication are the keys to effectively managing grants.
Problem #4: I Paid for That. No Wait. You Paid for That!
Sometimes...CFOs move funds around to maximize their use of supplemental state funds, and maybe don't realize they are now paying for things the Grant Manager had planned to pay for with their grant funds. The Grant Manager is then left struggling to figure out an allowable, supplemental activity to utilize their grant funds. Again, communication is the key here.
Problem #5: Not Spending Funds
Often, funds are budgeted for activities on campuses, but Principals or other program staff are unaware of the amounts, or that they are responsible for initiating purchase orders. The Grant Manager should ensure communication with the campus staff responsible for spending these funds, and have checkpoints throughout the year as reminders.
Problem #6: Not Conducting a Thorough Comprehensive Needs Assessment
Conducting a Comprehensive Needs Assessment should not be done in isolation. Identifying needs, prioritizing, and planning for strategies should be based on multiple measures of data, with all stakeholders involved to ensure collaboration.
Not only is this a good idea, it is required by federal law.
Problem #7 Not Collaborating to Determine Funding Sources
Once the needs are identified and prioritized, the next step is to determine which funding sources are going to be used. First, state and local funds must be used before any discussions can take place around supplemental funds. This is grants management 101. All fiscal stakeholders of the district need to be involved in this conversation. It is a chipping away, or pecking order process, to determine which funding sources will pay for what, based on needs, resources, and what is allowable.
Problem #8: Power Struggles
I really hate to say this, but sometimes problems come down to a simple power struggle. Decision-making should be based on the needs of the campuses or district. Funding should be tied directly to prioritized needs and smart goals developed as a result of a comprehensive needs assessment.
When the focus is tied directly to these prioritized needs, then collectively decisions should be made about where funds are going to be spent and from which funding sources.
If you find yourself in a in the midst of a power struggle situation, then I recommend a collaborative approach with more than two people making these decisions. The power of the group will enable discussions about the needs and priorities in a non-threatening way.
Problem #9: Changing What We Have Always Done
Often times schools continue to pay for the exact same activities, personnel, and materials that they have paid for year after year after year.
This may or may not be the most effective use of funds.
Once again, an effective comprehensive needs assessment should be driving your spending decisions. These decisions should be based on data you can produce. If you can show, WITH DATA, the activities you have conducted year after year are effective, then by all means, keep doing that!
However, if you’re not sure why you continue to use certain programs or pay certain staff, then you may want to look deeply and make sure you have data supporting the effectiveness of what you’re doing. It may be, that is time to change horses.