After many years of working in long established independent schools, including dozens of years at all-girls boarding schools, I decided to work at Alzar School, a small semester school based in Cascade, Idaho, and Patagonia, Chile. I made this choice conscientiously in order to share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the decades with a young school so they can strengthen their financial and operational foundation in the years to come and beyond, when I fully retire.
It's exciting to be part of a young school and see the energy behind a new approach to education. That's what got me excited about working in schools in the first place. And I am honored to support one more institution by imparting strong financial and operational practices that will help it endure well beyond my full retirement.
Interests in the Interim
I wish I could say that I have a well-thought-out plan for how to ease into retirement. Instead, most of my friends believe that I simply failed at retirement. In the spring before I retired from the school where I had served for 17 years, I learned of another school that needed a one-year interim CFO. There were four reasons that I considered the position, in descending order of importance.
- I loved the city where I would be working and knew I would enjoy being there.
- The work, while challenging, would not carry the pressure of my full-time, permanent position. I only needed to keep the place running for a year.
- I believed that I could be of help.
- I really didn’t have any other specific plans and I could structure this work as part-time.
All this turned out to be true. I did enjoy being in Louisville, where I had worked many years ago and where my husband and I still had friends. I was there for two weeks at a time, working full time, and then would work from home, in Cleveland, for a week at 50% FTE. This gave me time to start experiencing some of the freedom of retirement. I enjoyed the challenge of learning a new school, meeting great people and feeling that I made a difference. It is great to feel needed.
I decided to take a second interim assignment for similar reasons, with the added factor of global circumstances. The opportunity surfaced at the end of the first year of the pandemic, and I really wanted to get out of the house! In this situation, I was reporting to someone I admired and considered a friend. I like to think that I eased her way and wholeheartedly enjoyed working with her while I was there.
A school can be looking for an interim either to maintain operations while they search for a replacement, or to solve a specific problem. In my experience, it’s not unusual for the former to turn into the latter. In taking an interim position, you have to be flexible and adapt to what the school’s needs turn out to be.
As for my next steps, I have now figured out how to really retire. For me, that means staying involved with NBOA through the Leadership Academy, working with three local nonprofits, doing a tiny bit of consulting, and enjoying my free time, bicycling, kayaking and skiing.
I worked for 25 years as a full-time independent school business officer before I moved to rural Vermont and became a “business manager at large.” During the early years of this transition, I felt like I was throwing darts at the wall, finding out which darts would help me earn my daily bread.
I have taken on about 25 consulting projects over the past 10 years. These include: endowment unitization, business office assessment, CFO searches, finance reports, debt capacity research, chart of accounts updates, program feasibility studies, tuition remission study and mentoring new CFOs. I have enjoyed writing articles for NBOA and NAIS and made about 15 presentations to schools and school groups.
A large share of my work has been as an interim CFO. I have served in this role at seven schools. Highlights of this work include observing the Quaker program of Westtown School, participating in lively administrative meetings at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and helping Northfield Mount Hermon School move forward on a new math and science center. At these schools I especially enjoyed working with the trustees.
The other big share of my work has been conducting surveys. Some of the 18 groups I worked with include PAISBOA, Cal-ISBOA, MISBO, ISAS and North Texas. For three years I was the director of statistics for School Office Services. In recent years my biggest surveys have been the EARCOS Large Schools Group (17 international schools in East Asia) and ABOPS (40 boarding schools in the northeast). I enjoyed a trip to a major city in East Asia each spring as a part of this work.
Two projects have served as springboards to a reasonably steady workload. I am pleased they received broad circulation in the independent school community. The first is the Financial Position Survey (FPS). It started as a hobby in 2007 while I was still at Brooks School. The FPS is now a part of NBOA’s BIIS data platform and the basis for NBOA’s Financial State of the Industry Report. The other springboard is The Trustee Dashboard, which I first presented at the 2011 NAIS annual conference. It gave me exposure to many heads of school who have sent me a large amount of work over the years.
My motivation for the statistical work is threefold. First, I care about data, especially accurate data. All of the surveys I work with include active scrubbing, including NBOA’s BIIS. Second, I care about the visual presentation of information. Third, I am an introvert. After a day of school meetings and being with people, I needed to retreat. Sticking one’s head into an Excel spreadsheet was a safe place for me to recharge the batteries.
This fall’s surveys of the Greater Boston Independent Schools will be my last project. My wife says it is time for me to retire. I will miss the people, the adventures, and the challenge of assembling and presenting important data.
A Fond Farewell
I have loved everything about my work in schools. It has been incredibly rewarding. But after 24 years at Williston Northampton School, 28 years working in independent schools and a 41-year overall professional career, I am simply at the point where I want to spend time with my wife and to do the things we love to do — all the time! We are looking forward to skiing on weekdays, long bike rides, many hikes and extended trips in our motor home. I love to read, and I also intend to spend more time with my photography and to do some writing as well.
I may volunteer to support organizations for causes I am passionate about, so who knows where those efforts might lead. That is not to say I wouldn’t consider something professionally again in the future, but for now the plan is to not have plans!
—Charles McCullagh, Jr.