As the new executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), I had the opportunity to talk about the evolving role of the CFO in boarding schools with two experienced CFOs — Chuck McCullagh, CFO at The Williston Northampton School, and Michael Bergin, CFO at Miss Porter’s School and TABS Board member. We discussed challenges and opportunities.
Susan Baldridge: You’ve both been in your roles for quite a while, and have witnessed and experienced a lot of change. How has the role of CFO evolved in boarding schools over the past 25 years?
Chuck McCullagh: Our need to effectively manage risk and make strategic decisions is more obvious and more critical than it was 25 years ago. Any school today that doesn’t have a strategic structure or plan isn’t going to thrive. And that plan needs to speak to every aspect of what boarding schools do: admissions, college placement, athletics, the student experience, all of it. The CFO works with the leadership team, the board, and everyone else in the community to ensure that we stay on a strategic path.
In addition, the expectations for what constitutes excellence in our schools are more specific now than in the past. There’s no room for mediocrity. The importance of a strategic allocation of resources to support those expectations cannot be overstated.
Michael Bergin: What drives this is a more informed consumer; we can no longer rely on presumptions of legacy enrollments. Schools have to know what they’re good at and double down on that to be successful. Every school needs a clear strategy, and CFOs are key execution partners in schools.
Baldridge: The work of day schools and boarding schools certainly overlaps, but the boarding component is distinctive. How does being the CFO of a boarding school — as opposed to a day school — influence your work?
McCullagh: CFOs in boarding schools are involved in nearly every aspect of the work, and work with everyone in the community. That was true 25 years ago and it’s still true: When I started, I was doing it all — journal entries, the endowment, picking out dormitory furniture, all of it. I'm still involved in lots of areas, even though the work has become more delegated but also more strategically focused over time.
Bergin: CFOs in boarding schools wear a lot of hats with significant operational oversight. Once our boarding students arrive, we are on call to support our 24/7 residential community.
Baldridge: When you think about positioning boarding schools for the future, what do you see as the most important challenges and opportunities that leaders need to be prepared to tackle?
"In the future, financial aid needs to be funded, not a discount. Better access to these great educational opportunities at boarding schools has to be an increasingly top priority."
—Chuck McCullagh, The Williston Northampton School
McCullagh: The pricing of boarding schools reflects significant costs associated with the education we offer. Boarding schools are a luxury product, and we have to be comfortable with the fact that we charge the price that is required for our excellence to be maintained. Then we need to constantly fundraise to provide the financial support necessary for greater access to students who can’t afford the sticker price. In the future, financial aid needs to be funded, not a discount. Better access to these great educational opportunities at boarding schools has to be an increasingly top priority.
Bergin: The support that is needed for students — around student life, DEIB work, as well as the need for more technical skill sets, has changed the nature of what employees in a boarding school need to be able to do. There is a need for even greater professionalism and technical and professional expertise; we can’t afford to have anyone sitting on the margins. Schools are a true business that needs to be staffed by professionals.