NBOA’s Jeffrey Shields Innovation in School Business Operations Award recognizes NBOA member schools that have demonstrated innovation in school business operations, through approaches, programs and/or practices that may serve as a model in our independent schools community.
This year, Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, won the award for former business officer Chad Stacey’s development of the Financial Sustainability Heat Map, which is now a strategic financial management tool in BIIS, NBOA’s data analysis platform. Saint Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, led by Head of School Spencer Taintor, also received the award for developing Sea Lab, a human-made tide pool that replaced an aging sea wall and has become a hub of research for not only Saint Mark’s students but also the community. The project has boosted enrollment and advancement efforts as well as reputation and most importantly program impact. Both recipients are smaller schools.
Net Assets: Having published articles on both projects, I understand that the innovation in each was driven by a problem the school was striving to solve. But both went in truly new directions, when the course could have been more moderate, less innovative. What was it that inspired you to think so differently about business operations?
Chad Stacy: The Financial Sustainability Heat Map was inspired by financial challenges at Dunn related to the 2008-2009 recession. That coupled with rolling out a strategic plan that had financial sustainability at the heart of it, leadership had to consider: OK, so, how do we do this? Financial sustainability was aspirational more than it was a reflection of our reality at that time.
At the same time, I was working with a group of kids in an investing club, and one of them showed me a phone app to monitor daily stocks. All of your holdings would appear in red or green in these little blocks, and it was called the heat map. It was easy to tell if it was a good day or a bad day or mixed. It was just one of those light bulb moments, when I realized that throwing some color in could help me quickly communicate financial information. So we introduced color into our strategic measurement tool, and now I’m here being called an innovator [laughs].
Spencer Taintor: It’s interesting because our inspiration for the Sea Lab goes back to the same time period, which is 2008. Around 2016-17, I did an independent research project with Barbara Hodges, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, to look at how schools fared during that recession. In the 10-year period after, there were schools that that failed, schools that just kind of survived and schools that thrived. We interviewed 25 heads across the state and then identified those things that allowed schools to thrive. One was the ability to innovate and to drive a powerful vision and increase value proposition even during a downturn. That’s what parents will flock to.
We set a goal to create a powerful vision and raise the value proposition of our school and of our students’ learning through addressing that. It took us just listening to what was going on in our community and asking, How can we help solve those problems?
—Spencer Taintor, Saint Mark’s Episcopal School
Along the lines of what Chad said, when I came on board at Saint Mark’s three and a half years ago, we were not in the best financial situation. A lot of that stemmed from a lack of vision. Someone needed to pull the rope on the sail and tighten it up to start moving in a direction. So in terms of our school’s innovation, we went a different route, which was that we had a huge capital project, to replace a failing sea wall. And so we set a goal to create a powerful vision and raise the value proposition of our school and of our students’ learning through addressing that. It took us just listening to what was going on in our community and asking, How can we help solve those problems? So the Sea Lab was born to strengthen our value proposition and our learning outcomes.
Net Assets: It’s interesting how your perspectives on these initiatives play into your particular roles, Chad as a former business officer and now director of Dunn’s entrepreneurship program, and Spencer as a head of school. Do you have any insights regarding collaboration with your colleagues when bringing new ideas into action, particularly connections between the business and academic sides of the house?
Taintor: Saint Mark’s is unusual in that we outsource our CFO. We are a small school, and while I’ve been working in schools for 25 years now, before that I was an entrepreneur, building hotels and resorts worldwide, and I worked for several entrepreneurs. So I’ve always had a solid foundation in business and finance, and probably play more of a role in our business office than many other heads of school. Also, this is the fourth school for which I’ve served as head, and I’ve had vast experience, from schools that are a 1,000+ to schools that are 200 students, from boarding to day, from for-profit to non-profit.
So I’ve run the gamut, and I think the key to anything is to start talking. Too often, business officers and business units are somewhat separate, and the educators are afraid to talk to the business people because they’re afraid they’re going to say no. And the business office is afraid to talk to the educators because they think they’re going to ask for more when they’re trying to tighten the belt and manage risk and budgets. It’s creating that time to collaborate, to say here are things that we’re going to need to spend money on, and then asking: Is there a way to leverage this for the greater good of our mission, for the greater good of our kids?
The Sea Lab project has exponentially grown the mindset of our business office. Now, for example, we get an air conditioner that we’re replacing, and facilities calls down to our project lead at the lower school, and they’re asking, “Do you want an air conditioner to take apart and see how things work?” So now they’re thinking like educators, and our educators are seeing opportunities too. They’ll say, “We’re installing a new elevator lift — can our kids come watch that how this is constructed?”
So I think the key is just to start talking, start collaborating, start figuring out how the business office and the education side can do things together. Then naturally the ideas start flowing.
Stacy: I’ll take that a different direction, toward external collaboration. When I wrote that first article back in 2015, it was bearing the school’s soul a bit, right? If you’re talking about the impact of a recession on your school, you’ve got to say some things that aren’t so flattering. So I had some deep conversations with my head of school to determine if sharing the story made sense for us. The head and the finance committee chair all affirmed and said, “Yes, let’s show how we’re growing, let’s show how we’re leading.”
And NBOA is such a sharing community. I can send an email right now to the network list servs [NBOA Connect], and in 10 minutes I’d have an investment policy statement or an RFP for construction management services or something like that. Everybody shares. So many of business officers have helped me. So I think for me, writing that first article and then all of the sharing that’s happened in between, with the heat map becoming a national product in my mind is a perfect reflection of this possibility of collaboration among colleagues not to mention one way I can give back to people who have given me so much in my career.
Net Assets: Were there any moments that were especially challenging in bringing across a new idea? Moments where you had to cultivate colleagues or the community to accept change or a new approach?
Stacy: One challenge with introducing a heat map where green is good and red is bad is that when you put a red number up there, somebody somewhere feels that they’re responsible for that and may be offended. The typical response is to question if this really is an important metric or if are we counting it the wrong way, have we excluded this group and that group. I could be a business officer for a hundred years and that would be a human reaction. But if you have good trust with your colleagues and everyone understands that you’re all trying to get better, you can work through it. If everything was green, it would be a worthless tool. We have to identify our challenges in order to work on them.
Taintor: I would say we had three challenges. First, it took a lot of guts to do what we did. Saint Mark’s wasn’t in the best financial situation when I came on board four years ago, with about 355 students. Prior to the recession, the school was at about 590, so the enrollment drop was significant. It would’ve been easy to say, let’s just slowly move our way out of this and stay the path and stabilize. We probably would’ve seen some slow growth. With the Sea Lab project in full swing, this year we’re back at 505 and will be at 530 next year. So we have rebounded quickly.
This project is one of the main things that put the gas in the engine, but it required investment. Our initial construction RFPs estimated the project was going to be $350,000. When the engineers finally finished designing everything and we went for final RFPs, the cost had ballooned to $850,000. And there was a point where you look at it, and you think, Woah, is this even worth it anymore? Is this really going to drive the value proposition, or will it torpedo our school? Going forward was a bold move.
Second, the pandemic was going on during the construction phase, and there were so many things we were stacked up against, like all other schools at that time. I remember going to the board and them all looking at me and asking, “Spence, why should we go forward?” I went back to that research I did with Barbara Hodges. I acknowledged that there are a lot of ways to skin the cat. But the Sea Lab project is so unique, and it aligns with the research — there’s nothing like it in K12 education. And we’re tackling a community issue, which means we’re going to get community partners on board, which will raise our overall word-of-mouth marketing value proposition across the board. To their credit, the board leaned in instead of leaning out. They took a risk.
We don’t often take risks in education; I think as a group, we’re very conservative. If the education we offer is going to be bold, we as school administrators must lead the way.
Third, there was the challenge of actually building the structure. The engineers had poured the concrete and the first tide came in, and the thing just started draining naturally — it wasn’t filling with water, which was essential to the project outcomes — and my heart just dropped. I wondered, did we just spend two and a half years all to watch this thing fail? It was a moment of reckoning. But we just kept going forward. We called the engineers and said, “Let’s problem solve.” And we got to where we are today, and we continue to develop curriculum with our university partners. It took a lot of faith and a lot of guts.
We’re competing with free in many of our markets, so you can’t be incrementally better. You have to be excitingly better.
—Chad Stacy, Dunn School
Stacy: In the business office, we’re a measurement team, right? We measure what’s already happened. And so the innovative business officers are typically the ones that work for great schools that have amazing operations and amazing programs. If you work at a school that is not financially strong, there’s so much that you can do. I’ve done a lot, but at the end of the day, the program has to drive the ship. So I want to echo what Spencer said. We’re competing with free in many of our markets, so you can’t be incrementally better. You have to be excitingly better. Part of the reason why I’m shifting over in my role to be the director of the entrepreneurship program is that I want to help Dunn move forward in a new way. Which is all to say that I agree: Grab your regional differences and differentiators and do them better than anyone else.
Net Assets: So where do you go from here? How have these projects inspired your schools to keep moving forward?
Stacy: Data coming out of the business office is relatively easy to handle because it’s dollars, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to measure where our dollars go. Data in other areas is a lot harder to manage. So my hope for Dunn and other schools is to create data measurement in these other very important areas. Environmental sustainability is one that has long needed good data, but it’s frustratingly hard to gather.
I’ll go super wonky on you — let’s take human resources data. How do you know if an employee is good, how do we measure that, and get beyond the anecdotal? Are teachers actually reaching the students and impacting their lives? That’s hard stuff. But in heat map parlance, if we could swap out a “red” history teacher for a “green” history teacher, guess what? Twenty years from now alumni donations are going to be up; it’s as simple as that. So this type of data has financial impact. I would love it if Dunn became an organization that was measuring a lot of really important things.
Taintor: My hope is that this project inspires other schools to take a look at creative ways to bring the business office and the education side together. Clearly not everyone is going to want to build a manmade tide pool. Rather it’s about looking into your own community and identifying a long-term community challenge, and asking, how can our kids be part of that problem solving? Because kids lack the experience that we have as adults, they have great imaginations and come up with things that we adults sometimes don’t believe will work.
Back to the AC example, tinkering with a simple air conditioner replacement could lead to the next invention of a new, more efficient air conditioner 10 or 15 or 40 years down the line. And then, as Chad says, they come back to the school and they’re donating millions of dollars because they invented a new HVAC system. And it all started at our schools because we took something that we would’ve thrown away and said instead, Go play with it.
When we can do this, we’re helping students break down real problems. We’re teaching students that they can lean into problem solving, rather than leaning out of it. We’re teaching them to become solution makers, just as we administrators are leading as solution makers.