During The Broad Residency, Rachel Mercer-Smith was Project Director with Houston Independent School District.
I wake up, have breakfast and get ready for work. I subscribe to a few morning news briefings and read them as I get ready. When selecting a place to live, I was intimidated by Houston’s traffic, so I found an apartment close to my office. My morning commute is very short and stress free!
I get to the office, review emails and have a brief meeting with the general manager of budgeting, my supervisor and the budgeting operations manager. While many district staff do not arrive for another hour, I quickly learned that my supervisor and the budgeting operations manager arrive early, providing a time for us to check in before the start of busy days. We typically have this meeting daily. The managers and I spend time reviewing priorities and progress for the day and week. I then prepare for another meeting during which we will review the budget team’s new process for developing the district’s budget book. We will also plan for the development of the mid-year budget update to the school board. I am interrupted by an email from my supervisor, who is off site for the day. He needs information for a board member, so I find this data and respond.
I meet with the budgeting operations team to debrief the budget book process and identify opportunities to align next year’s process with the Government Finance Officers Association’s new set of best practices in school budgeting. We discuss the data we need to complete the budget update for the school board. This year, I will assume the responsibilities my supervisor previously performed, including developing mid-year general fund revenue estimates. The team discusses and determines a timeline and benchmarks for completion of the mid-year update.
I return to my office and spend the next hour completing follow-up work, including the mid-year budget calendar invitations and deadlines. I also send a few emails requesting data from other departments that I need to complete a monthly estimate of state aid, which relies on student attendance data.
I run home for lunch. While eating lunch, I text with a few friends to arrange holiday plans. I look forward to catching up with friends I have not seen since moving to Houston. I head back to the office to prepare for afternoon meetings.
I meet with the budgeting team to gather feedback. One of my key projects is a reorganization of the budgeting office. Currently, 30 staff members oversee individual schools, departments or funds, which requires school principals to call multiple people when they have questions about different revenue streams. Under the new structure, budget analysts will oversee all revenues received by a single school or department. The new structure is designed to improve the level of support principals receive from the district office. The reorganization will take effect in January, and I have been working to coordinate logistics and training in preparation for these changes. I have several meetings this afternoon to check in with staff about these changes. Staff have undergone multiple training sessions over the last few months, and my goal is to gather outstanding questions and concerns to address before the department reorganization is completed.
I wrap up outstanding work and compile feedback from the pulse-check meetings. I develop a matrix to plan responses to each, but I am interrupted by the district’s benefits manager. I volunteer to pull data and run a query to get the information the manager needs before I leave for the day. I wrap up by reviewing my calendar for tomorrow.
After work, I head for the gym and then go home to make dinner. I want to get in a run at a local park, but it is cold and rainy. I settle, instead, for the treadmill.
I wake up, have breakfast and get ready for work. I read morning news briefs while getting ready before I head in to work.
I review my emails and have a brief daily meeting with my supervisor and the budgeting operations manager. I then prepare for the evening’s board meeting. I developed the presentation that my supervisor will share tonight. Texas school districts participate in a financial accountability rating system to hold them accountable for financial management and encourage them to provide the maximum allocation possible for direct instruction. Districts are required to present their annual results to the school board during a public hearing. I check in with the board services department to ensure our presentation is ready, and I reach out to the communications department to craft and review a press release highlighting the district’s rating of “A” for superior achievement.
I attend a meeting to discuss a new process to track grant funds across Houston Independent School District departments. Annually, the district receives roughly $184 million in grant funds.
After the meeting, a colleague stops by my office seeking feedback about the process just discussed. We talk about opportunities for continued improvement on our team.
many states, Texas funds public schools based on a formula that considers student enrollment, with adjustments and additional weight for student demographic characteristics, including students receiving bilingual education, special education, gifted education and free-or reduced-price lunch. The enrollment projections submitted to the state this year will impact the district’s funding for the next two years. The data we use to make these projections is collected from several departments in the district and I spend some time looking at current year and historical trend data. I take a short break for lunch.
My supervisor and I develop the district’s enrollment projections and update our revenue projections. We then upload the data into the state education agency’s online system.
I head to the board room to ensure our PowerPoint presentation is ready, printed copies of the presentation are ready for the board members and handouts are available for the public. The meeting is delayed by an hour, and my supervisor presents our district’s accountability ratings and a bit of discussion occurs about the district’s performance rating. The regular board meeting begins, and items on tonight’s agenda include a presentation by the superintendent, who recently completed a listen-and-learn tour during his first 90 days in the role. Also on tonight’s agenda is the adoption of the district’s legislative priorities. I am particularly interested in this conversation, because the district’s greatest priorities during the upcoming legislative session are changes to the way Texas funds public schools to ensure adequate and equitable resources for all students.
The session ends and I head home for the evening.
May 1, 2017
Why did you join The Broad Residency?
Far too often, ZIP code determines educational outcomes for students, and this is an injustice. I joined The Broad Residency because I am deeply committed to improving opportunities for all students.
How does your work support educational opportunities for the students in your system?
During my time as a Resident, Houston Independent School District faced significant budget challenges. My work focused on identifying opportunities to align financial resources so we could invest more in student opportunities and supports.
What was the most important lesson you learned during the Residency?
In public education, there is always more work to do, and at times I felt pulled in multiple directions. I learned the importance of managing my commitments and prioritizing my work to maintain focus and achieve my goals.
Briefly describe your capstone project: What were your goals, what did you achieve and how did or will your efforts impact the organization?
I worked on a small team to rethink our district’s budgeting process and institutionalize best practices. The district faced significant financial constraints that exposed the need to establish and commit to system-wide budget priorities. My capstone aimed to break down the siloes that often exist in budget development to review existing programs and set district priorities before drafting a budget. Our work established the priorities for the 2017-18 school year.
What was your vision for your career trajectory before you joined the Residency? How has it shifted?
I joined the Residency because I knew that I wanted to work in urban public education. The Residency selection process allowed me to explore roles and functional areas in school systems and identify the one that was the best fit for me. The Residency experience accelerated my career trajectory but, more importantly, it affirmed my commitment to expand opportunities for all students.
What will you miss most about being in the Residency?
I had the privilege of being part of an incredible cohort and have made lifelong friends and colleagues. I will miss knowing I have the opportunity to see them on a regular basis.
What advice do you have for someone considering the Residency?
The Broad Residency provided me with an opportunity to transition into and engage in meaningful work. While this work is challenging, the support the Residency provides is invaluable. Because of this program, I know I can always call on and learn from an incredible network of colleagues. I highly encourage others to apply.