Writer: Margaret Blanchard
When Cindi Dean moved into a managerial position in the finance department at the Rabun County Board of Education four years ago, she saw that some school-level bookkeepers could benefit from extended training.
She found just the thing in the School Financial Accounting Personnel certificate program, a recently launched training opportunity from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Dean, who completed the program along with nine colleagues in late April, said the training has made a difference in her daily duties as director of business operations and human resources.
“It gave me a better working relationship with bookkeepers, especially those in departments like transportation that I don’t work with daily. The camaraderie it helped create has been a great benefit,” she said.
Dean says going through the program helped accomplish a task that had been hanging over her head — a revision of the school system’s accounting handbook, which hadn’t been updated since 2003.
The handbook allows new or current employees to train across departments so they can jump in to assist if necessary.
Building support for K-12 programs is familiar territory for Russ Cook, who spent 40 years as a teacher and administrator in Georgia schools as well as an executive director of a Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) before joining the institute. Cook and fellow faculty member Beth Horacek, a financial management trainer, developed the program to fill a critical workforce development need that was not addressed elsewhere: ensuring employees in positions of trust have the specific skills and knowledge to be effective in their work.
“Going as far back to my time as an elementary principal, I always thought there needed to be more training and more support for the school-level bookkeeping position,” Cook said. “This position plays a vital role in the day-to-day operations of a school.”
Recognizing such needs for professional learning is a core aspect of the Institute of Government’s mission and expertise as a Public Service and Outreach unit of the University of Georgia.
“It’s about developing a curriculum and a program that supports and builds capacity within the individual or group that has an impact on school operations long after completion of the program. Public service is about being committed to building capacity in the individuals of the organizations we serve,” Cook said.
Designed for K-12 school-based personnel responsible for the daily school accounting operations, the school accounting curriculum was developed with input from school system accounting personnel, school superintendents, state agencies and professional organizations. Horacek customized the program for schools based on standards set by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA).
“This program is as rigorous as those followed by governmental accounting agencies or the private sector,” she said.
Participants learn the finer points of budgeting, purchasing and payroll processing as well as the importance of ensuring a school’s financial procedures follow local board policies and state and federal laws. Developing internal controls are important to help school accounting personnel, principals and CFOs remain good stewards of taxpayer funds, according to Horacek.
“In addition, it is critical that we not only continue to respond to the existing needs of schools, as well as anticipate emerging issues and trends within the schools,” she said.
The new program also gives a confidence boost to an often under-served group of school employees, said Kristie Dover, director of accounting and budgets for the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency.
“It was especially effective in giving understanding to the ‘why’ of what we do, which sometimes gets lost in translation when it comes to accounting,” she said. “The fraud section of the training is eye-opening for so many people to see what could happen if someone’s not doing their job correctly.”
“It helped me realize how much more we have to do to make sure we have controls in place to prevent any kind of misuse of funds. And also the importance of training everyone around you and making sure they understand the ‘why’ even if they don’t work in finance,” added Dover. “There’s reason behind it and it’s right to have those internal controls.”
The program also brings about more tangible rewards. Each group must demonstrate what they’ve learned through a project connected to their day-to-day work and developed with a supervisor’s permission and input. Such requirements are impactful because they directly benefit the position and the school, Cook said.
“Participants must demonstrate they have an action plan for completing the project, including a timeline, artifacts and impact. We’ve heard on several occasions from CFOs and accounting supervisors how valuable the job-embedded project is for improving school and district operations,” he said.
For their project, Dean and her colleagues in Rabun County revised the school system’s accounting handbook, dividing it into sections and tackling it as a group. The result is a 75-page reference guide for new or current employees.
“We were thrilled with getting the handbook done,” Dean said. “We feel like we’re better cross-trained directly related to the project that we completed.”
The handbook is just one of many projects that have benefitted K-12 schools in Georgia, and it won’t be the last. The Institute of Government plans to expand the School Financial Accounting Personnel certificate program throughout the state, and Cook and Horacek are developing similar training for principals and assistant principals.
For more information, visit the School Financial Accounting Personnel Certificate Program page on the Institute of Government’s website.
Top photo: Rabun County Schools employees recently revised the system’s decades-old accounting handbook as part of their work toward the School Financial Accounting Certificate from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Inset photo: Penny Griggs, left, and Mandy Sanford of Gilmer County Schools brought in homemade apple pies to share during their project presentation for the School Financial Accounting Personnel certificate program. Each group enrolled in the recently launched training opportunity for K-12 financial professionals must demonstrate what they’ve learned through a job-embedded project. The certificate program is offered through the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.