The Giant Account Coding Monster

“Here’s your process. It satisfies all my needs.”



Even when there is lots of customer input, the more powerful party will resolve disagreements in its own favor.

Even though California’s Standardized Account Code Structure (SACS) is far superior the previous system and was a done deal fifteen years ago, whenever I take an assignment in a new district or county I am forced to revisit the basics (in a “what-were-they-thinking” kind of way).

The state’s required account string is 22 digits. This provides information to the state about what funding source was used (6 digits) for which fiscal year (one digit) for what students or instructional setting (4 digits). It describes what activities were funded (4 digits) and what supplies or services were paid for (4 digits). It also describes the school or location where the activities occurred (3 digits).

This does not fully accommodate district needs. School districts additionally need to:

Break up the budget into smaller meaningful chunks, often referred to as “Programs” or “Cost Centers”. A program may be funded with several funding sources, it may serve students with different needs in different settings, and it may encompass more than one activity. It may also occur at more than one location. Using just state codes won’t work.

Here’s an example. A summer program may serve different kinds of students (“Regular” K-12 and English learners), the program will require different activities (classroom instruction, school administration, meals, custodial services), and it may be funded from several sources (general unrestricted funds, local grant funding, federal English learner funds), and it may occur at several different schools sites.

A “Summer Program” code gathers together all costs for all activities and this can be used to compare, say, test scores for those who went through the program and those who did not. One can then ask whether there is a better and less costly solution to improve student engagement and learning.

Identify who is responsible. Districts want to record who develops the budget, authorizes spending, is charged with producing results, and who will be held accountable if anything goes wrong.

The district manager needs to be able to pull up all her program responsibilities, ideally with a single management code.

Parts of the summer program budget may not be under her control (e.g. transportation, meals, and custodians). Those managers need to be able to view their portion of the summer program and evaluate what they are spending on it.

Identify those parts of the budget over which the controlling manager has no say (e.g. cost of negotiated staffing ratios and salaries) versus those parts of the budget where he or she gets to make spending decisions. “What’s my discretionary budget?” is an essential question that needs to be easily answered.

Different districts and county offices of education have come up with various solutions. The county where I am currently working attempts to address all these needs with one four-digit management code. It doesn’t work.

Again, the party with the power has dictated the solution. The county owns and runs the financial system and it appears that it decided that the item of overarching importance was to limit the length of the string.

This comes from the idea that the 22 digit string is already a giant monster, so let’s not make it any bigger. The thinking goes that the state has detonated an H bomb (new reporting requirement) and the result is a monster (SACS) that is wreaking havoc with our financial records and is taxing our human ability to cope. If we cannot kill it, at least we can stop it from getting any bigger.

In fact, this is merely a translation challenge.


There could easily be an app for that!


  1. How to Align Your Budget | FiscalShare - May 5, 2014

    […] By sharing ideas, something workable will emerge I am sure.  Except, perhaps, if you have just one four digit optional field to work […]

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