In a mandate from the Vermont Legislature, Vermont public schools will adopt a unified chart of accounts by July 1, 2019 and make the switch from their current finance management programs to eFinancePlus, a PowerSchool program, by July 1, 2020.
For Milton, the changes pose a challenge due to a unique finance agreement between the town and school district. The two government bodies share an elected treasurer, and the school contracts with the town to perform its payroll and accounts payable services.
Operating on two different systems means their data will not be as easy to compare and interpret, finance director Jessica Morris said. She added the town does the district’s bank reconciliations, among other functions, outlined in a Jan. 29, 2018 agreement.
Both the town’s two finance employees, the district’s two finance employees and Morris use NEMRC to record their data. NEMRC is an accounting system defined by its “flexibility” and integration of software, according to its website.
“If someone is out unexpectedly or planned, we can cover seamlessly because the system is known to everyone,” Morris said.
The town will continue to use NEMRC and its current chart of accounts even as the school transitions to new systems, according to Morris. This means the town’s finance employees will have less opportunity to become comfortable with the school’s software and provide the same coverage, Morris said.
For the Vt. Agency of Education and the public, the changes are intended to improve the clarity and readability of state schools’ finances.
“There are some pretty huge benefits to having a statewide system in terms of our ability of being able to understand how we’re spending money to educate kids,” said Emily Byrne, the chief financial officer for the AOE.
She said the consistency and comparability that will come from a unified chart of accounts as well as a standardized recording software will help policymakers, legislators and citizens better understand what schools are spending their money on.
“Then we can ask the question like ‘Why?’” Byrne said. “Or if there’s changes over time, to kind of understand the pressures that public schools are under.”
She added the standardized system will offer transparency for Vermonters since they’ll be able to see how their district spends as compared to other schools.
Milton School Board chairman Mike Joseph said the transition leaves MTSD at a “crossroads” as it tries to navigate what this means for its finance agreement with the town.
“Does this mean that the folks in the finance office will have to enter stuff into two systems?” he wondered.
According to Morris, town finance employees are currently working with MTSD business manager Don Johnson and superintendent Amy Rex to demo the new software and discuss “next steps” and their impact on the town.
The state has entered a seven-year, $5.2 million contract with PowerSchool to use its eFinancePlus software, Byrne said. The legislature appropriated $3 million.
“We’re going to start conversations to ensure that once that is exhausted, there is a mechanism to fund the system,” Byrne said. “There’ll have to be some mechanism for us to pay for it at the statewide level of a mechanism for us to bill a school for their share.”
For now, any school district or supervisory union that makes the switch before Nov. 30, 2018 will receive free unlimited data conversion support and remote one-on-one help with PowerSchool consultants, a June 20 AOE memo says.
After November 30, schools will still receive help from PowerSchool but at a cost, Byrne said.
The AOE’s contract with PowerSchool will end in March 2025, at which point the agency will seek new bids from finance management system providers, according to Byrne. She added this creates an opportunity to receive competitive pricing every few years.
According to Johnson, MTSD can wait on the change and convert NEMRC to a larger character set for $10,000 before switching to the new software by the July 1, 2020 deadline.
“It’s going to depend on what the finance department and what the town is willing to take on,” Joseph said. “It’s going to change the structure of the financial management agreement between the town and the school.”
Morris is confident the town and school finance departments can determine a solution.
“A year ago this might have been a totally different conversation,” she said. “But with the relationship being what it is today and with two boards who are very supportive of each other, I think this isn’t a challenge that we can’t tackle together.”