When Jess Gartner started her teaching career at a Baltimore City middle school, she had to begin the year without textbooks and paper. Like many teachers in similar situations, she used her own money to buy supplies.
What Gartner couldn’t understand was how another nearby school had all the textbooks they needed, iPads for students and a fully stocked library/resource center.
A University of Pennsylvania graduate and Teach for America Corps member, she moved to Baltimore in 2009 to teach middle school and, at the same time, started working on her master’s degree in secondary education at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
While investigating the lack of supplies, Gartner discovered that the Baltimore school system was spending more than most other districts in the country. In fact, the budget for city schools was $15,000 per student compared to a national average of $12,000. (The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2011 the Baltimore City Schools ranked second in per-pupil spending among the nation’s top 100 largest districts, only behind New York City.)
When she realized that the problem at her school was more about how funds were distributed rather than the total dollars available, she turned her attention to the budget. “The more I learned, the more horrified I grew at how difficult it was to access financial information and even harder to understand the information that was available.”
Gartner also learned that the school district had recently put in place a new student-based budget funding model that gave more financial autonomy to principals. However, principals had not received adequate training tools or support to be successful with the new fiscal responsibilities.
From her experiences, she saw a system that collected a great deal of financial data, but only a few individuals really understood what to do with it. “Of all the problems educators face, I saw the budget problem as one that was inherently solvable.”
She resolved to find ways to help principals and school districts make better spending decisions. Gartner left teaching after three years to start her own company, Allovue. She planned to bring together the best and brightest minds in education, business, technology and finance to find a way to help educators connect spending decisions to student achievement data.
She applied for and received $25,000 in startup funds from Accelerate Baltimore. The funds enabled her to assemble a staff to develop a prototype for a new user-friendly tool for educators.
“We design software to help administrators track education dollars and their impact on the success of students.”
The platform, called Balance, was officially launched in July 2015. It’s a school financial management tool that combines financial data with data on student achievement, enrollment, demographics and attendance. Balance is now in use by nearly 1,000 educators who manage over $15 billion in 10 states.
In the three years since its founding, Allovue has raised $7 million in capital and increased its staff to 22 full-time and two part-time employees. She was recognized as one of the Baltimore Sun’s Women to Watch in 2013, and Baltimore Magazine’s 40 Under 40. In 2014, she was named the Maryland SmartCEO Innovator of the Year in the emerging business category.
In naming Gartner as one of the nation’s 30 under 30 leaders in education technology, Forbes called Balance “a powerful tool to reduce waste and misspending [and] to redirect dollars to teaching and learning.” Last May, she was awarded the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association’s Outstanding Recent Graduate Award at the School of Education’s graduation ceremony.
Gartner credits her degree and teaching background with much of her success as a CEO. She says her most favorite management strategies were tested in the classroom, not the boardroom. She also feels her academic experiences are beneficial when marketing her products to chief financial officers, superintendents and former principals.
“It definitely helps with my credibility that they can see from my academic credentials and classroom experience that I am not an executive only trying to hit my numbers, but rather a mission-driven person who wants to see our products work and committed to their success. We’re small enough that they know they are a big part of our business.”
Joe Manko, an alumnus of the School of Education and principal at Liberty Elementary School in northwest Baltimore, said, “Allovue has the potential to completely transform the world of educational finance by taking byzantine systems of budgeting and fiscal management and making them transparent, user friendly and tied to student outcomes.”