Articles Tagged with

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Education, Fiscal Health, K-12, Municipal, Opinion

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

How to Apply Comparative Analytics to Make Better Decisions and Forecasts

American computer scientist Kurt Bollacker once said that, “Data that is loved tends to survive.”

While many of us might find it difficult to “love” data, it is the lifeline of the organizations we run. Data tells us how we’ve performed in the past, what is likely to happen in the future, and how we can alter the path forward, for better or worse. So while we may prefer to ignore data than love it, we do so at our own peril.

In fact, too often, leaders of public institutions like schools, districts and municipalities either willingly or through benign neglect fail to apply a necessary love of data, and in doing so, fail to maximize the potential to make better decisions and more accurate forecasts.

Too many times, it is tempting to believe that you have all of the data you need, when in reality, there is data out there…keeping secrets from you…causing you to “not know what you don’t know”…and as a result, potentially leading you to draw inaccurate conclusions and make under-informed decisions. Not only can leaders fail to see the big picture, they may be looking at the wrong picture altogether.

After the past two years, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, it’s never been more critical to have the most complete data set possible so that we are making the most informed decisions and the best possible prognostications.

Comparative Analytics and Errors of Omission

The future of planning and budgeting is something called “comparative analytics.” Put simply, comparative analytics refers to the process of examining your own organization’s data and performance against those of your peers and competitors to draw more informed conclusions and to make better decisions. It’s a methodology for avoiding one of the greatest perils to critical decision-making: thinking we have all of the information we need and omitting a potentially decision-changing data set.

The good news: For schools and municipalities, the performance and budgeting data for all of your competitors and benchmarked peers is publicly available. All you have to do is go find it.

If you can view your own historical data and forward-looking projections against those of neighboring entities with whom you may be competing, won’t you be able to make more confident decisions and more strategic allocations of time, treasure and talent? Anything less, and you’re making critical decisions in a vacuum.

To provide just one illustrative example, let’s say you’re examining a school district’s expenditures on instructional investments for the past three years, and the data show that the district is accounting for 10% annual increases in that budget category. Sounds promising. The district appears to be investing in educational outcomes, the chief metric for educational excellence. 

Not so fast. Unfortunately, all that data set provides is an insular, backward-looking reporting of past events — and only the district’s own. Now imagine a scenario in which district leadership could instantly compare their own budget allocations against a neighboring district. Suppose the neighboring district is reporting student achievement data that far surpasses the first district. And then imagine that, through just a few clicks, we can see that the outperforming district is allocating a much larger budget to instructional line items, likely accounting for (at least in part) the better achievement outcomes. Despite the scheduled 10% increases, the spending gap remains large between districts, and so does the disparity in student achievement.

In other words, while District A at first blush appears to be investing in educational priorities, when we look at the big picture, we discover that District B is far outpacing District A in student achievement and taking an entirely different approach to prioritizing instructional spending.

How that might change District A’s assessment of its own budget allocations, and how might that data inform a decision about how to allocate public funding going forward?

Failing to “love” all of the data, in this example, is how an error of omission can quickly lead to errors of commission.

How to Avoid the Most Common “Errors of Omission”

If getting access to the complete set of all available data were difficult, we’d understand why someone might be tempted to take shortcuts or expedite decision making. But practically everything a public employee or leader needs to equip themselves for optimized decision making is publicly available, much of it required by mandate to be made readily accessible. So given that the “secrets” are out there, let’s examine what some of the most common self-inflicted errors of omission tend to be:

(If you would like any of the following reports pulled for your district or municipality and its relevant peers, contact us and we will send you a PDF report within 48 hours at no cost or obligation).

Error #1: Not Going Far Enough Back

The more historical perspective you have, the better you are able to draw conclusions as to what’s driving trends, and what’s likely to change or continue. Too often, data analysts look only one or two years back, when there could be some revelatory trend data hiding in the entity’s more distant past that would prove informative and applicable to the present and the future.

10-year historical analysis

Error #2: Missing the Comparative Intelligence

Looking at your own data only is an error of omission that can, as illustrated above, lead to errors of commission. Here we look at comparative analytics that demonstrate how a sample school district allocates its own budget categorically relative to how all districts within that region do. Now we know if we are overspending, underspending, or misallocating resources, based on how our peers are doing their own budgeting. Look at the disparities and gaps, and consider what that data is trying to tell you.

Budget allocation peer-comparison report

Error #3: Failing to Connect the Dots

How is budgeting data aligned with performance metrics? Isn’t that the key to truly understanding whether our budgeting decisions and forecasts are aligned (or misaligned) with outcomes? With just a few clicks, you should be able to overlay key performance indicators with budgeting inputs to see if you’re getting sufficient return on investment, or whether you need to redirect funds and either double down or reallocate resources.

Overlay data sets to spot trends and performance drivers

Error #4: Not Seeing How Small Data Drives Big Trends

If you’re not examining historically significant data sets, and you’re not comparing both past performance and future forecasting against competitors or peers, you can’t possibly draw accurate correlations and conclusions relative to drivers of big-picture trends. One of the most critical trend data sets for schools and districts, for example, is enrollment. Enrollment data not only reflects success metrics of all kinds, it directly impacts per-pupil funding. The small discrete data points all come together to influence the larger trends we all hold dear and measure ultimate success or failure by. Failure to put the pieces together and see the entire puzzle is perilous, and an unforced error in the modern age.

Data visualizations matched with trend analysis provide a clearer picture yet.

Love the Data that Survives

Perhaps it’s too heavy a lift to expect everyone within leadership at public institutions to truly “love” data. But we do urge that those in positions of critical decision-making at least embrace all that data has to offer…and all that lies in wait to undermine decisions if leaders neglect to listen to the secrets data is keeping from them.

That “loved” data will not only survive, as Bollacker suggests…it will help government institutions thrive.

Unlock the best-kept secrets today! If you would like any of the referenced reports above (or others) pulled for your district or municipality and its peers, contact us and we will send you a PDF report within 48 hours at no cost or obligation.

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30-Second Preview of Munetrix in Action:

Education, Fiscal Health, Municipal, News, Opinion

Finally, it’s not the economy; unfortunately, it’s still the education void

By: Bob Kittle

If it ain’t one thing, it’s another. Perhaps not the best way to start a blog that is ultimately on education, but as the economy hums along (despite some potentially scary headwinds with the recent GM announcement) education is the nemesis that Michigan (or at least Detroit) can’t seem to conquer.

The Detroit Regional Chamber recently released its 2018-2019 State of the Region providing economic indicators and critical areas of improvement for its 11-county region plus Detroit. The report overall offered an upbeat outlook on the region’s progress in many sectors, but underscored the importance in addressing areas in which the region continues to lag – notably education. In a spot-on Detroit News column by Daniel Howes, the education void is so dark and vast, its challenges may temper many of the positive gains made in the region and the state for recent years.

The good news is that Detroit is outpacing the nation in growth in real gross domestic product (2.7 percent vs. 2.2 percent nationally) and per capita income (4.3 percent compared to 4.1 percent nationally). That can’t be overlooked. Nor can the fact that Detroit was second in the nation in growth of median home values between 2013 and 2017, increasing by 42.4 percent (Seattle was number one). The high cost of living on the East and West Coasts makes Detroit attractive—a plus for companies aiming to boost and cultivate tech talent.

But contradicting these positive indicators are critical areas where Detroit is missing out, notably extreme poverty, low metrics on community well-being, and stagnant population growth. Yet the most pressing issue is the mediocre status of Detroit’s educational attainment—which was actually below the national numbers in 2017.

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.

Fiscal Health, Municipal, News, Opinion

At least for now, Michigan closes the chapter on Emergency Financial Managers

By: Bob Kittle and Katrina Powell

The State of Michigan Department of the Treasury sent out a press release on June 27, 2018 announcing that for the first time in 18 years, neither a school district or municipality in Michigan has an emergency manager. You can read the press release in its entirety here, but following is an excerpt.

“LANSING, Mich. – State Treasurer Nick Khouri today announced that no Michigan municipality or school district is under state financial oversight through an emergency manager for the first time in nearly 18 years. The…announcement comes after releasing Highland Park School District from receivership under the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act. Since 2000, there has been an emergency manager providing financial oversight somewhere in Michigan.”

For many years the Emergency Financial Manager (later changed to Emergency Manager or EM) concept was regularly maligned by some constituents, citing it as an overreach of state government at the loss of local control and racially motivated. The term carpetbagger was bandied about as well. One respected national government trade publication headlined a 2012 article, Emergency Financial Managers: Michigan’s Unwelcome Savior. As local government financial advisors ourselves, (Katrina was the State-appointed City Manager for Hamtramck from 2014 to 2017) we, but especially Katrina, have been on the receiving end of some hurtful and untrue verbal attacks about roles and motives.

Opinion

Why do virtual academies get the same per-student funding as traditional brick and mortar schools?

Along with my business partner, Buzz Brown, I spend a great deal of time each day mired in Michigan local government and school district data and often ask myself questions about the information the data provides. For example, on the hot-button topic of school funding, the state provides equal state reimbursement for students who attend a virtual school, versus a traditional K12 or charter school.  Why?  Is this trend filling the coffers of for-profit virtual schools while draining much needed funds from traditional schools?