Prism recently delivered an iPad® app to Cornell University’s New York State Center for Rural Schools. Budget Playground™ allows school districts to create multi-year budget scenarios. They can then modify those scenarios in real-time to help boards of education agree to budgets that will be acceptable to district stakeholders. The Center for Rural Schools plans to release Budget Playground™ to all of New York’s school districts in the fall of 2011. The app extends work completed by Cornell’s Program on Applied Demographics.
“The property tax cap in New York State is a game-changer for school districts,” said Center Director Dr. John Sipple. “There is an urgent need for new tools to manage the budgeting process. Thanks to Prism Decision Systems, the Center can now offer the experienced and novice budget professional a sophisticated new tool set for generating multi-year budget scenarios.”
School finance “data store”
The first step in budget forecasting and scenario development is understanding trends. Budget Playground™ makes this effortless for the user. Fed by a REST web service, the app delivers up to 16 years of audited historical financial trend data for 676 school districts. According to Prism’s chief technology officer, Andrew Tait, “By decoupling the data service from Budget Playground™ and making it publicly available, the Center is positioned to leverage its existing investment in the data and promote additional innovation by encouraging the development of an array of highly focused “client” apps that help school district administrators overcome their most urgent challenges.”
Budget Playground™ displays budget history or projections one year per screen. To navigate from year to year, the user swipes the year at the bottom of the screen to flick back and forward through each year’s details. Next to each year’s budget figures, sparklines display the trend (gray) and projection data (blue). As a user swipes from year to year, the spark lines remain the same to provide the context – although the “current year” marker (disc) moves with each swipe. Budget Playground™ also allows users to display budget data as dollars ($) or as percent (%) increase based on the prior year.
Effortless scenario building
Budget Playground™ is designed specifically to explore various budget scenarios. By default, each scenario that is created and named is populated with budget projections based on the average annual historical increase or decrease. However, budget scenarios typically differ based on key assumptions. For example, will the user assume a 1.6% or a 2.0% real property tax increase? A 3% increase or a 1% decrease in state aid? A 2.0% or a 3.0% increase in teacher salaries? Etc.
Budget Playground™ enables quick and easy scenario building. A “slider bar” allows the user to select a revenue or expense item and slide the bar to the assumed percent (%) increase. For example, the user might select Total Expenses and slide the bar to 1.5%. Budget Playground recalculates the Total Expense figure for the selected year. This 1.5% increase also automatically propagates down the expense hierarchy proportionally and forward in time.
By default each scenario solves for Unreserved Fund Balance. That is, the summary impact of the scenario’s expense or revenue decisions is displayed as a change to Unreserved Fund Balance. The user also has the option to see the summary impact of expense or revenues decisions on Real Property Tax.
The budget professional will want to present various budget scenarios to the board of education, first by emailing the scenarios from Budget Playground™ to the board, and then by presenting from the iPad via external projection, such as a laptop projector or Apple TV®. What if the Board wants real time modification to the scenarios? Simple: just open the slider bar and make adjustments on the fly.
Sophisticated and easy-to-use at the same time
“Budget Playground™ is sophisticated and easy-to-use at the same time,” said Dr. Sipple. “Feedback has been extremely positive thus far. Users can complete the complex task of budget forecasting with ease. The software leverages the iPad user interface, resulting in an elegant, enjoyable experience.”
Potential future developments of Budget Playground™ include:
- Crowdsourcing: the capability for users to see other users’ forecasts for each revenue and expenditure category. Users would have the option of crowdsourcing their data anonymously or with attribution.
- Benchmarking: the capability for a school district to compare itself against a pre-determined, peer set of similar school districts or the district’s personally selected set of similar school districts.
- Expansion of the data service to include, for example, national price indices.
- User customization of the reported metrics.