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From Boiler Room to Board Room

Today’s independent school facilities director handles far more than maintenance; they should share a long-term vision for the campus.

Apr 29, 2024  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

From the May-June 2024 Net Assets Magazine.

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Independent school business officers are well positioned to understand that a school’s facilities director is one of the most important jobs on campuses today. Consider the financial implications of your physical plant. An independent school’s physical assets are often worth more than its fiscal assets, and on average, 10% to 15% of a school’s annual operating budget supports the physical plant.

With that kind of financial investment in play, independent schools need facilities directors who understand the importance of those assets — not only from a maintenance and upkeep standpoint but also from a strategic perspective. With the right person filling it, the role is integral to strategic planning and daily operations, sustainability initiatives, technology integration and the overall mission.

Independent school business officers are well positioned to understand that a school’s facilities director is one of the most important jobs on campuses today.

The Right Fit

How do school leaders identify a great facilities director capable of taking on those expanded responsibilities? To find out, I talked with two veteran facilities management experts — Bill Rouse, president of Campus Services Group (CSG), and Larry Eighmy, managing principal of The Stone House Group — about what schools are and should be seeking in a facilities director.

First, schools need to assess short- and long-term plans for the physical assets and the administrative burdens those plans present. If too many functions are falling on the business officer or CFO, there is likely a need for a director of facilities or a broader-scope director of campus operations, said Rouse. A director of facilities primarily focuses on functions such as maintenance, groundskeeping and custodial services, while a director of campus operations (DO) assumes oversight of those functions as well as food service, security, transportation, auxiliary services and capital project management. A DO is likelier to be feasible at a large school, whereas a smaller school will look for a facilities director. “Essentially, it reflects a division of responsibilities based on the size and complexity of the educational institution,” Rouse notes.

Eighmy sees a shift toward a broader definition of facilities director — someone who is not just a supervisor but functions at a higher level. In that scenario, the business officer is truly the vision-focused CFO, supported by a controller and taking on the responsibility of facilities strategist with a facilities director managing the physical plant. “Business officers who are externally focused on the big picture — that’s where we see productive facilities management,” he said.

That partnership between the business officer and facilities director at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, allows the school to function at a higher level. CFOO Elani Jakabovics joined the school just this year after 17 years in government consulting. She had to learn school culture in addition to rebuilding the business office. “It was crucial for me to know that my operations directors could not only function on their own but were highly skilled at their jobs so that I would not have to micromanage.” Facilities Director Bill Belke’s knowledge and ability to be a “utility player,” plus his reliance on an outstanding team, allowed Jakabovics to perform her finance-related duties effectively.

It’s time to change from the 'old school' image of handyperson to the 'new school' concept of the multifaceted strategist. 

“New School” Skills

Eighmy says it’s time to change from the “old school” image of handyperson to the “new school” concept of the multifaceted strategist. “An ‘old school’ approach of promoting a tradesperson into a leadership role may not work,” he explains. “The facilities director needs to be the keeper of the campus plan, the fiduciary of the physical assets, the organizer of the sustainability plan, in addition to the fixer of things that are broken.”

Changes in technology, environmental concerns and even educational philosophies have shifted the facilities director role from reactive to proactive. Today’s facilities directors need to be ready to handle a variety of vital initiatives. Consider these:

  • Sustainability and Environmental Stewardship: Facilities directors are now at the forefront of implementing green initiatives, from energy-efficient buildings to waste reduction programs. They play a critical role in aligning the school’s operations with broader environmental goals.
  • Technology Integration: The digital transformation of education means that facilities directors must be techies, too. They are involved in planning and overseeing the installation of smart classrooms, digital security systems and IT infrastructure, including CMMS software and BAS systems, to optimize facility operations and maintenance.
  • Strategic Planning and Capital Projects: Facilities directors must be part of the strategic planning process, contributing to discussions about long-term campus development, renovation projects and space utilization to support the school’s educational mission. They need experience in navigating complex challenges and overseeing large-scale projects.
  • Community Engagement and Accessibility: Facilities directors work on projects that enhance accessibility, foster community use of school facilities and ensure that the physical environment supports inclusivity. That means building relationships with diverse constituencies.
  • Financial Acumen: Recognizing the campus real estate as a significant institutional asset and managing it accordingly are both essential skills. So is proficiency in budgeting and financial administration for effective resource management.

Quality Connections

Intangible qualities in a facilities director are not to be underestimated, as they are one of the most visible members of the school community. I am inspired by the stories school leaders have shared about the positive impacts their facilities directors are making, particularly through the NBOA Professional Achievement Award recipients. In 2023, three were facilities directors. Here’s a flavor of those nominations.

Jimmy Vess, director of facilities at The John Cooper School in Woodlands, Texas, understands the long-term impact of his work. A few examples: He set up regular maintenance schedules, reconfigured space to better meet campus needs and brought disparate legacy systems into one modern one. “In short, we would not be the school we are and been able to grow the way we have, without Jimmy, his expertise and his commitment to the school,” said CFO Chris Patterson. Whenever a problem arises, “Jimmy is always the first one to be on campus,” despite living 30 miles away.

At Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Director of Facilities Tony LeMenager “is driven and completely buys into the 24/7 lifestyle that is part of boarding schools,” wrote COO Margot Riley. She recalled LeMenager’s crucial roles supporting the physical reinvention of the teaching and learning environment during the pandemic and serving as Riley’s go-to source on the school’s history and culture. The two have collaborated on a record number of building projects over the past four years. LeMenger “personifies what we culturally refer to at Holderness as ‘we leadership’ as opposed to ‘me leadership.’”

Last but not least is Director of Facilities Cally Vevers of Bennett Day School in Chicago. Vevers developed a safer and more efficient student pickup procedure and realized more than $100,000 in savings by eliminating certain vendor contracts. Just as important, says Business Officer Peggy Lofgren, “Cally loves Bennett and cares deeply for the institution and their co-workers.” So much so, that Cally — worried about an absent employee — went to the colleague’s home and found the person in urgent need of medical help. They “can be found delivering notes of gratitude to colleagues throughout the building, taking a moment to acknowledge the efforts of their colleagues.”

Reimagining the facilities director role as a visionary leader and steward of institutional excellence is hardly optional. It’s imperative. It means that independent schools can navigate the complexities of the modern educational landscape with confidence and resilience. Facilities work goes far beyond the boiler room — and well into the board room.


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Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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