Language on the Illinois Association of School Business Officials website (IASBO) leaves no doubt.
“For those seeking a master’s degree, Northern Illinois University has become the quintessential training ground in the state for school business leaders!” it proclaims. “Students in the School Business Management program benefit from all NIU has to offer, plus an expansive pool of expertise and resources through Illinois ASBO student membership.”
Partners for years, IASBO and the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Pscyhology and Foundations are currently delivering one of the few state-approved Chief Business School Official programs to their 17th cohort.
IASBO contracts with NIU as a service-provider of the mostly online coursework, hosts annual meetings between its board of directors and NIU instructors to ensure the curriculum is current and relevant and pairs its members with students to serve as supervisors during their three-semester internships.
Students enjoy access to IASBO’s professional development that includes workshops and conferences, its Job Bank that lists available positions, scholarships and the realization that they’re likely to get hired as soon as they earn their endorsements.
Alumni are working throughout Illinois, thanks to the online format launched in 2010 with the vision of IASBO Executive Director Michael Jacoby and former LEPF Chair Charles Howell.
That decision harnessed technology to create a statewide program that leveraged what is now seven decades of IASBO advocacy and more than 40 years of NIU coursework focused on purchasing, supply management, business trends in education and internship opportunities.
Jacoby calls the NIU/Illinois ASBO program “the perfect blend of higher ed and practice” with a “development of knowledge and networks that is second to none.”
“Not only do you get the value of a large university but you also become a member of one of the leading associations in the nation for school business,” says Jacoby, who became executive director in 2006.
“We work very closely with each other to make sure that our students get the right exposure to the field and the highest caliber of teaching to be prepared to have success on the job. We do a regular review of curriculum and instructors as well as delivery options and best practice,” he adds. “And with the advice of former students and long-standing professionals in the school business field, we are always finetuning the program for students.”
Most students – around 60% – are pursuing the graduate certificate of study rather than the M.S.Ed. in School Business Management. Both routes lead to the Chief School Business Official endorsement.
Brad Hawk, NIU clinical assistant professor and retired superintendent of Burlington Central Community Unit School District 301, sees three types of students enrolling in the former.
Some are principals who want to advance in their careers and see the CSBO as opening those doors. Some are aspiring superintendents who believe the certificate will separate them from other job candidates.
Others are current superintendents, Hawk says, either in smaller school districts where they are expected to perform those financial functions or those who need to satisfy professional development clauses in their contracts.
Every graduate who completes the program, which takes no more than two years, leaves with a strong background of knowledge and skill and a robust network of professional connections.
“When I go to the IASBO conference in May, I see our students all sitting together at the same table,” Hawk says. “They rely on each other. Long after their instruction is done, and their internship is done, they still can pick up the phone and call each other. That’s really why we make a difference.”
“One of the best parts of this job, as opposed to private-sector financial officers, is that school districts are not in competition with each other,” says Parisi, who completed his CSBO certificate in 2013 and his Ed.S. in Educational Administration in 2019.
“When I encounter a problem or a situation, I can pick up the phone and call anyone I know well or who I don’t know well at all to ask questions or seek advice,” he adds. “I did that a lot in the early part of my career and now I try to reverse the role and give back to early-career CSBOs.”
Parisi, who began his education career as a social studies teacher, was an assistant principal at a middle school with ambitions for district-level administration that included human resources.
Because his district lacked a separate HR department – the school business official was handling those functions, including negotiations and finance – he attended an open house for NIU’s CSBO program and enrolled immediately.
He loved courses in labor relations, especially the mock bargaining of union contracts, as well as a field trip to DeKalb High School for a close-up look at facilities.
“Depending on the size of your district and the culture, you’re either overseeing someone who does facilities or you’re doing that directly,” Parisi says. “I am the director of Facilities, interacting with architects, engineers, putting everything out to bid and being the leader of the design phase.”
She left a workshop on budgeting, and how to explain budgets, revenues and expenditures to staff, with a clear realization.
“When I came back from that academy, the first thing I did was reach out to Northern and Dr. Hawk, who worked with me immediately to get me enrolled,” says Brua, who completed her CSBO certificate in 2018. “It was extremely helpful in getting my superintendent’s position. I’m more of a curriculum person.”
Her coursework – and guidance from NIU Clinical Assistant Professor Lynn Gibson – also prepared her to lead a successful referendum in Gavin that allowed the district to extend its debt service ability and thereby borrow funding for capital projects.
March 2018’s first attempt failed because voters wanted to know a specific use for those dollars; returning to the ballot in November in 2018, and following that guidance, paid off in a district where 60% of students are low-income or qualify for free lunch.
“They approved it, every single precinct,” Brua says. “I was really grateful for the CSBO endorsement because I understood the behind-the-scenes in regard to what you’re asking for when you solicit your community for bonds. I learned all of these pieces that I feel made me more qualified to lead a district.”
Like Parisi, she also appreciated the field trip to DeKalb High School.
“You really had to do a full-building audit. We’re looking at what products the custodians used; are they all labeled appropriately? We’re looking at HVAC systems. We’re looking at where the defibrillators are,” Brua says, “and when the county comes to audit, you look with them. It’s about making sure your schools are safe for kids.”
Tim Vincent, superintendent of Galena Unit District 120, is already quite familiar with DeKalb High School: Vincent worked in District 428 from 2004 to 2020 as a math and science teacher, principal of Clinton Rosette Middle School and finally as director of Curriculum and Instruction.
He decided to pursue the CSBO certificate after completing his Ed.S. in Educational Administration in 2017.
“At the conclusion of that, I had the decision of whether I was going to continue on to get my doctorate, but I just wasn’t sure if that was the route I wanted to go,” Vincent says. “I’m a numbers guy, and a pretty practical guy, so I started looking at some different options.”
Knowing that “a superintendency was probably going to be the next step” in his career, and knowing that he had little experience in public finance matters such as bonds and levies, he chose the CSBO.
“As I reflected on my overall skill set, and even though I was a former math teacher and numbers guy, and I had a done a building-level budget, I knew I was uncomfortable with that,” he says. “The practical choice for me to gain that skill set was the CSBO endorsement, which was around the same amount of time, and the thing that really spoke to me was the practical experience that it gave me.”
Vincent echoes the other alumni in praising Jacoby, who teaches the first course in the sequence.
“He had been the leader in passing the evidence-based financial model,” Vincent says. “From the jump, I was really impressed with the quality of the program and the exposure to the people who had really laid the groundwork for the entire state.”
The preparation is already paying off.
“In Galena, we just passed alternative revenue bonds for a major facility project,” he says, “and that, along with preparing a budget presentation and passing a levy, were things I had already done as hypotheticals and mock presentations within my courses.”
For John Petzke, the journey is only beginning: The superintendent of Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico Community Unit School District 3 just completed his M.S.Ed. in School Business Management last semester.
Petzke believes his previous role, as chief technology officer in North Shore School District 112, provided a strong foundation for climbing the ladder.
“It allowed me to work with every department. Human Resources. The Business Office. Transportation. Buildings and Grounds. Teaching and Learning. The Superintendent’s Office,” he says. “I got to delve a little bit deeper in the types of work they do, just working with their tech systems but also learning about the challenges in those departments. As chief technology officer, I then applied a lot of those concepts to my department.”
But he’s also grounded with 25 years in education, starting as a teacher, serving later as a building principal and finally moving into central office administration.
“I could have done just the certificate or endorsement, but looking at the courses, I ended up going for the full master’s degree,” he says.
“I’m kind of a lifelong learner, and I enjoy the camaraderie that the cohort creates. We had several of us who were going through the whole program and we formed, I think, some closer bonds,” he adds. “I just wanted to continue to learn and know more about the different elements of a healthy school system, and finance is huge, especially considering the financial challenges we’re facing in Illinois. School districts have to be very creative.”
Leading a district that enrolls only 850 students, Petzke is wearing many financial hats and feeling grateful for his faculty who “did a great job” in explain complicated issues and allowing students to work through them as scenarios on paper.
Yet this is exactly what he wanted – and why he wanted the CSBO preparation and its networking connections to hear what’s happening in places such as Carpentersville, Lombard and Winfield while sharing what’s happening in Prophetstown.
“As an educator, I knew that I wanted to be a superintendent in a district with about 1,000 kids,” he says. “I knew what the central office would look like, and I knew that I wouldn’t have the resources to hire those professionals.”
The IASBO-NIU partnership benefits extend beyond the expected students.
Bookkeepers, payroll specialists, administrative assistants and other clerical employees are invited each December to a professional development workshop for support staff to learn ways to improve their job performance and how to expand their career prospects.
Some of those have taken that encouragement to catapult into top financial roles with school districts and regional education cooperatives, Hawk says.
Yet no matter how far the IASBO-NIU footprint expands, graduates of the program still find direct contact with, and strong advocacy from, DeKalb.
“When evidence-based funding was coming out, and I listened to Dr. Jacoby through his webinars,” Brua says, “I emailed to ask him how you should figure out how many teachers you should have based on evidence-based funding, or librarians, or social workers. Within the same day, he sent me a copy of the research behind it, and I put together a quick presentation for my board about what it meant and what the impact was going to be for us.”
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