Opening the Books on How a School District Spends Money
- Expertise: Finance
- Position: Chief Financial Officer
- District: Tulsa Public Schools, Tulsa, Okla.
During budget cuts, a chief financial officer’s matter-of-fact, jargon-laced presentations to school boards often strike anxious teachers and parents as dismissive and emotionally detached from the lives their decisions will upend.
Enter Nolberto Delgadillo, the CFO of the Tulsa school district.
Knowing early this school year that he’d have to cut more than $20 million from next year’s $325 million budget, Delgadillo went on the road, explaining in layman’s terms why the district expected a budget shortfall despite an increase in state aid.
And then, he did something school administrators rarely, if ever, do: He invited thousands of community members to dig into the budget with him and figure out what to keep and what to cut.
At high schools, in church basements, in community centers, on the weekends, on weeknights, by email, and even on social media, Delgadillo laid out the district’s books for the Tulsa community, showing them how much was spent on virtually every item in the district and where the money came from. He knows how high the stakes are, he told them, because his wife is a teacher in the district and his two sons are students there.
“These are going to be contentious conversations,” Delgadillo said. “At the same time, it’s needed. How do we engage with the public, dismiss myths, and demystify school finance?”
Lessons from the Leader
- Be a leader not just by leading: Mentoring and coaching others is critical to help create the environment to move the work forward. You can’t do it all yourself and, therefore, it’s important to nurture the space for others to lead and the grace for them to fail forward.
- Have perspective: It’s so easy to get caught up in one’s own world and point of view, particularly if you are not in a classroom. So the more we authentically listen and humbly engage both adults and students, the more capable we’ll be to serve, coalesce, and as important, the better we’ll understand the why behind our beliefs.
- Practice self-care: Understand your limits and know your outlets for joy. Whether it’s blocking out time for the gym, a monthly weeknight to laugh with friends, or protecting dinner time with the family, do it, because you can’t be much of a leader, mentor, or advocate if you’re not (mentally or physically) present.
During his two-year tenure in Tulsa, the former healthcare professional from Compton, Calif., has helped mend a historically fraught relationship between the district’s administration and its under-served Mexican immigrant and black communities.
Delgadillo’s latest pitch is his most ambitious. He wants to transform the district’s budget by overhauling administrative staff, combining jobs, getting rid of others, and laying off dozens of other administrators. The board in January approved the superintendent’s proposal to increase class sizes and close four schools, and approved the workforce recommendations in February.
Such drastic changes are often met with fierce resistance from staff who stand to lose their jobs and parents concerned about overcrowded classrooms. But Delgadillo’s plan, crafted after two dozen community meetings and input from more than 1,500 community members, has the backing of some parents.
“He’s managed to find a way to completely disarm people,” said Marcia Bruno-Todd, the director of programs and community impact at Leadership Tulsa, a community development organization, and a parent who has protested district spending in the past.
“He says to you, ‘you’re angry, let’s talk about it,’ and [he] truly, authentically, brings in their input and invites people to come and talk about their perspectives.”
More than a decade after the Great Recession, thousands of school systems are still slashing millions of dollars from their budgets. Increasing state aid has not kept up with inflation, and districts are saddled with climbing healthcare and pension costs.
Meanwhile, a growing body of research shows that more money can, in fact, improve students’ academic performance, and federal and state lawmakers have passed several new laws to make spending more transparent.
It’s in this climate that many researchers and advocates have turned their attention to the effectiveness and leadership styles of CFOs. Once tasked with just keeping their districts out of the red, CFOs are now being asked by school board members and state lawmakers to show how every dollar is being used to improve student outcomes.
“A CFO is responsible for facilitating a decision-making process so that district leaders and stakeholders can themselves align resources that are strategically sustainable over time,” said Jonathan Travers, a partner with Education Resource Strategies, a consultant and advocacy group that has worked with Delgadillo in the past.
School finance experts say Delgadillo has deftly navigated complex federal and state laws to make money work for, rather than against, this academically struggling district, which has lost thousands of students to a growing charter sector.
In addition, he’s helped other administrators and principals better understand the complexities and nuances of school finance.
Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist was a policy analyst in the U.S. Department of Education and served as a state schools chief in the District of Columbia and Rhode Island. But she said Delgadillo was the first person to explain a state’s school funding formula—a complicated series of mathematical calculations that determine how much money a district receives each year—in a way that actually made sense.
“He has this patience and demeanor that really helps to lower people’s anxiety,” Gist said.
“It wasn’t until working with Nolberto that I really got to my own level of confidence about knowing how deeply our state’s funding affects our district and what our options are, as far as making structural changes.”
Delgadillo has also transformed the district’s finance department to be more engaged in schools.
While the finance department has received national plaudits for its detailed bookkeeping, employees in the past have worked on projects alone, rarely talking to each other.
Delgadillo began holding weekly meetings to have the accounting, payroll, treasury, and federal program officers figure out together how to provide more money to schools and do it in a faster, more efficient way. Every meeting starts with a team member describing a problem they’re trying to tackle.
“He’s created this space where we get to communicate and ask questions, and get a heads up on what’s coming up,” said Jill E. Hendricks, the district’s executive director of federal programs and special projects.
At least once a quarter, Delgadillo and his staff work on a community service project with a school, such as helping teachers box science supplies at the end of the school year or helping decorate hallway bulletins.
“It helps make the work we do so much more meaningful,” said Hendricks. “It shows us that what we do is really making a difference.”
For the last several decades, Tulsa’s budget has been especially volatile for a variety of reasons.
State legislators passed a series of tax cuts to boost the state’s oil industry that resulted in a precipitous drop in revenue for school districts. In 2018, teachers across the state staged a nine-day strike, which forced the legislature to reverse some of the tax cuts and increase teacher pay by an average of $6,000.
But Tulsa’s revenue continued to fall as expenses climbed, because of the number of students who were opting to attend charter schools or using the state’s voucher program to enroll in private schools. More than 1,600 students left the 39,000 student school district in the last decade, and the school system continues to lose dozens of students each month to charter schools.
Gist plucked Delgadillo from Los Angeles, where he had served for three years as the chief operating officer of LA Promise Fund, an organization that was created to turn around some of that city’s troubled schools and runs two traditional public high schools, a public middle school, and two charter schools.
He was an unusual pick because, aside from not being an Oklahoman, he had never served as the CFO of a traditional school district. In fact, after receiving degrees in chemistry and Spanish from the University of Southern California, he spent the majority of his career working for United Healthcare, the insurance company, and helping to run a California sperm bank.
How do we engage with the public, dismiss myths, and demystify school finance?
Delgadillo decided to change careers after a moving experience while mentoring a high school student at his alma mater inspired him to do something in life that had a more direct impact on low-income children. “I wanted to start giving back to society in a different way,” he said. He completed the Broad Residency program in 2014.
Gist was impressed with his extensive business background and uncanny ability to boil down complex concepts for the general public.
She had promised the school board that she’d align the district’s $600 million budget with its new academic vision, a herculean task that requires fiscal dexterity along with teacher and community buy-in.
“I wanted someone who was extraordinarily qualified and had a stellar background and track record,” Gist said. “We also needed someone who could come in and help us look at things differently.”
Just months after he was hired in August 2017, Delgadillo joined several community associations and started showing up at community events with his wife to introduce himself and get to know Tulsa residents.
“He’s really seen around here as much more than just a numbers cruncher,” Gist said.
At the budget meetings last fall, Delgadillo started his presentations by sharing his personal story: being raised in a trailer in Compton by his parents, undocumented immigrants from Mexico who worked in an automotive manufacturing plant. He said he was saved from his neighborhood’s gang-infested streets by a pilot accelerated math and science magnet program offered by the Long Beach Unified School District.
“I’ve never seen a CFO or any person who’s in a position of authority come up and present their own vulnerabilities like Nolberto,” said Bruno-Todd. “He says, ‘I hear you, I feel you.’ When he says that, that’s what’s bridged the gap between the community and the administration.”
Over the last two years, Delgadillo said, he’s also invested a large chunk of his time trying to understand Tulsans’ evolving relationship with their school system.
“I’ve had to learn to be a better listener, and not come in with [a] consultant hat, ” he said. “I need to listen, understand their perspective, and context, and history of why things are the way they are, and still hold back and sit and let it process and then come back and make a decision.”