K12 can run like a business

ERP software has power to automate financial functions and other routine tasks to save educators time

Just about every major company uses sophisticated enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to streamline procedures, automate purchasing and monitor finances. Now, some early adopters in K12 education have deployed ERP to manage a range of operations more efficiently.

The technology has the power to automate many routine events—from payroll to procurement to recruitment—that keep school systems running.

For example, rather than having an employee monitor cash flow and create balance sheets to make sure there’s enough cash on hand to pay salaries and expenses, the software completes these tasks continuously and sends alerts if there’s too much or too little.

Sidebar: Word of caution: District’s ERP recovers after false start

This information can allow administrators to more quickly make well-informed decisions on areas such as staffing levels and purchasing. In the future, ERP will have the potential to impact instruction by automating reports, from those mandated by the state for attendance to the information schools send to parents.

“ERP used to be only for big companies that could afford it—now, it can be used to impose financial discipline on any school or district” says Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education, a national research institute that advises K12 and higher ed on tech trends.

What is ERP?

Enterprise resource planning software monitors and controls an organization’s routine operations—from balance sheets to payroll to spending.

How does it work?

The software tracks everything that can be quantified, from bank balances to on-time performance of buses. It can be set with triggers to automatically perform tasks, such as sending reports.

How far can ERP go in a district?

As far as you want. Some districts are incorporating student information system functions to compile grades and test data.

Early adopters

While ERP helps companies sell everything from dishwashers to fidget spinners, its current mission in schools is to manage payroll and similar tasks with minimal human intervention. As time goes on, it will likely encompass more and more of what a district does.

In Arizona, Pima USD’s Tyler Technologies-based ERP system monitors everything from human resources to payroll to accounts payable. Several years ago, Pima’s financial reports were often based on outdated, incomplete or incorrect data, resulting in $1.4 million in debt, Superintendent Sean Rickert says.

“I chose to learn to utilize our ERP system” he says. “When budget decisions are made they are based on a more complete understanding of all the district’s resource positions.”

For instance, in the 2012-13 school year, the district had a negative cash balance of more than $746,000. Even as Pima now spends more per pupil on a larger student body, the small district now has a positive balance of nearly $2.5 million. Rickert calls ERP an “opportunity to embrace innovations.”

On Florida’s west coast, Pinellas County Schools’ ERP system may seem ancient with unsupported 24-year-old software and an IBM AS/400 mainframe computer, but every day it examines the Florida district’s purchasing, payroll and general finance for things like cash on hand.

“It’s inefficient, but we get the data we want to keep the district running” says Thomas Lechner, assistant superintendent for technology and information systems. The district has eight programmers maintaining the ERP system for its 104,000 students and 142 facilities.

There’s a danger, however, that administrators who rely too heavily on ERP to track everything in the district could drown in data. The solution is to turn it all into information by analyzing and reducing it to actions that can be taken, Lechner says.

“Too much data is worse than too little—it can be overwhelming. You have to remember that each data point is a child’s education and future.”

Informed decisions

Many districts want to consolidate as much of their operations as possible into resource planning framework.

Los Angeles USD’s SAP-based ERP system, which monitors the district’s $7.6 billion budget, controls human resources, payroll and purchasing while other systems track fleet and maintenance at 1,100 schools.

“The idea is to identify procedures that can be automated” says Shahryar Khazei, LAUSD’s chief information officer.

Khazei’s team has integrated student information system data with its ERP system. The dashboard his group created incorporates the major aspects of the district’s functions—everything from grades and attendance to cash on hand and the status of its fleet.

The ERP can make the first weeks of school go easier, because in LAUSD every building’s employee head count depends on the number of students enrolled. The district can then make real-time decisions about reassigning staff.

This information used to take up to seven weeks to compile. “Now, every night, we do a run that tabulates a school’s student count” says Khazei. “The goal is to react to changes quickly and feed data into actionable reports.”

This degree of automation leaves more resources available for teaching, says Joel Hames, vice president of product management at PowerSchool, a supplier of SIS and ERP software. “ERP has the potential to reach further than financial recordkeeping and balance sheet statements” Hames says.

Hames points to a hypothetical district considering two after-school intervention programs.

“We can use ERP’s analytic abilities to measure costs—salaries paid, rooms used, electricity paid for—against achievement—improving test scores and performance—to decide which works better.”

Predicting the future

The next step is for ERP to become more analytical and predictive, says Ray, of the Center for Digital Education, and this could all come together in the not-too distant future.

A district CIO, for example, would access a screen that consolidates information for every major function—from cash flow to an employee head count and the day’s expected payments to an overview of the recent state assessments and how much electricity the district is using.

This CIO could use the software to determine whether small power outages throughout a district have a pattern. This might lead to targeting maintenance money at repairs that would prevent a larger electrical failure.

The CIO could also explore ERP analytics that combine data from grades, attendance and discipline reports to predict which students are in danger of falling behind.

All this information would also have been compiled automatically and sent to the relevant principals in the wee hours of the night so they can adjust curriculum and add educational resources for students in need of extra help.

“We want to turn raw data into ideas that we can use to push positive changes to education” says Pima USD’s Rickert.

He anticipates eventually being able to look five years ahead at infrastructure and demographic changes to forecast the number of students likely to be in the district’s four schools.

“It’s a delicate balance” adds Rickert. “You don’t want more kids than seats or more seats than kids. We could really use tools that create a long-term picture of what the district would look like to help us budget.”

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer in Pelham, New York.

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