With Oracle Cloud, Aurora Public Schools aims to tie spending more closely to student outcomes

November 10, 2022 | 5 minute read
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Aurora Public Schools aims to tie spending more closely to student outcomes with Oracle Cloud

 

Scrutiny just comes with the territory when you’re running public schools. Gina Lanier, controller for Aurora Public Schools, a district roughly 10 miles east of Denver, answers to a large, diverse set of stakeholders: the school board, administrators, parents, taxpayers, and teachers, who all care deeply about the future of Aurora’s 63 schools.

With so many people invested in spending tax dollars well, it’s vital to run the numbers quickly and accurately—and to show how investments pay off in student outcomes. But it’s no easy feat, and most school districts, including Aurora, are still figuring out how to do it.

“Everyone in K-12 is trying to connect spending to academic progress,” says Lanier, who has more than 10 years of experience in school finance leadership. “When someone wants to spends millions of dollars on new materials or tools, we have to be able to measure how it helps students.”

However, the school district’s financial systems craved modernization. Producing reports on an aging on-premises application platform meant hours of manual work, slow turnaround times, the risk of human error, and inconsistent reporting. It was a significant challenge to clearly show how money fueled student achievement.

Even budget forecasting was tricky. “Our finance and HR systems weren’t fully integrated,” Lanier explains. “There was a big disconnect, which was problematic because 80% of our expenditures are personnel-related. We couldn’t do adequate forecasting or reliable modeling.”

Aurora knew what it wanted from a finance platform

The need for better reporting and system integration drove the decision to adopt Oracle Fusion Cloud ERP and HCM.

Aurora Public Schools aims to tie spending to student outcomes using Oracle CloudWorking with partner AST, Lanier’s team launched the Oracle Cloud ERP implementation in April 2020, completing it well before the start of the 2021 school year, despite working remotely during the height of the pandemic. In the final phase of the project, payroll will go live on Oracle Cloud HCM in late 2022.

“We had a clear vision going into the implementation,” Lanier says. “We knew exactly what we wanted the end result to be: more robust reporting and full integration. While we listened to our implementation and technology partners, we took the lead. Every step of the way, we stayed focused on our pain points and the best ways to relieve them.”

As they tackled reporting needs, Aurora was confident about the accuracy of information going into the applications—financial journal entries, budgeting data, and the like—but needed to improve the information reported out. Oracle automation would help drive this change, along with structural changes to Aurora’s financial processes. The goal was to produce reports that more efficiently supported monthly, quarterly, and year-end closes, enabling more precise forecasting and better spending controls.

That vision would be tested during one of the most challenging school years ever in 2021 to 2022, with students returning to classrooms after being home for much of the previous year because of COVID-19, and schools and families navigating an often-bumpy reentry. Aurora’s financial operations needed to perform reliably while helping build a future of higher academic achievement.

Beginning to tie dollars to classroom progress

The Oracle systems give Aurora the tools to tie spending to student outcomes, though Aurora is just now learning how best to do it. “We’re starting to see clear paths to connecting funds and student outcomes,” Lanier says. “The data we produce in the cloud gives us a programmatic way to make smarter investments. The schools have limited resources and can’t invest in every initiative. If we don’t know what works, we don’t know where to put the money.”

Tighter integration is already helping Aurora hone its annual budget. Previously, forecasters made educated estimates about the number of employees signing up for benefits, such as healthcare.

“Though we’ve only been live on Cloud HCM for a few months, we’re able to see near real-time data on who’s enrolled,” Lanier says. “That makes our budget projections more accurate, so we can set aside adequate funds while ensuring we have other monies for things our students need. The last thing you want is to discover a budget variance amounting to millions of dollars.”

More precise reporting is making a difference too. “In the cloud, I now build reports where I can change the time period, hit refresh, and have my data within minutes,” Lanier says. No more data dumps and Excel spreadsheets, no more pivot tables and manual entry. Automation eliminates manual error, and standardized data sources yield a more consistent process and greater accuracy. School leaders enjoy faster, more up-to-date information to guide decisions on curriculum, after-school care, nutrition programs, sports, and much more. Indeed, Aurora has shortened its financial close by eight calendar days.

Workflows are smoother too. Throughout finance and accounting, digital processes have mostly replaced paper and signatures in triplicate. Invoices now come via email, with accounts payable staff simply checking to see that all fields are correct—again, a minimum of manual work, and no need for full-time employees to scan them by hand. The new platform also accommodates automated vendor payments, reducing the cost to process payments by more than 13%.

“The data we produce in the cloud gives us a programmatic way to make smarter investments. If we don’t know what works, we don’t know where to put the money.”

— Gina Lanier, Aurora Public Schools Controller

Another big improvement: the way Aurora issues refunds. Before, when a parent overpaid for school lunches or activities, or a teacher was owed money for supplies bought out of pocket, finance employees had to enter each person in the system as a vendor. With 38,000 students and 2,400 teachers across the school district, the process was tedious. Now, once the refund information is uploaded, coding and check-cutting happen automatically.

With less time spent on manual tasks, employees are free to analyze and understand the numbers. “Right now, we’re doing our annual audit in the cloud for the first time, and it’s been much more efficient,” Lanier says.

A stronger focus on analysis also lets the finance team better guide school purchasing. Annual funds are exactly that, earmarked for the current year, but schools sometimes hold back money to use the following fall. With the ability to analyze spending on a per-school basis, Aurora has the data to insist that taxpayer money cover what students need now.

Oracle software also lets Aurora restrict the use of funds to specific purposes. “Today, schools know every minute how much money they have to spend and what they can spend it on,” Lanier says. The software is also flexible. A recent update allows schools to split costs on expense reports—paying for something from multiple funding sources is no problem.

Perhaps more than anything else, Aurora’s cloud-based platform delivers clarity and confidence. “When we share our five-year forecast with the State Board of Education, taxpayers, and voters, it’s based on better information,” says Lanier. Not a bad example for learners of all ages.

Mark Jackley

Mark Jackley is an Oracle digital content specialist.


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