Just about every day, I’m in conversations with school leaders regarding their institution’s financial health. Over the past two years, many of these conversations have focused on the intense short-term challenges related to supporting remote learning and keeping students and adults physically safe on campus during the long pandemic. Equally important have been conversations on developing creative approaches to tuition so that schools can retain current families and attract new ones seeking the safety and academic advantages of independent schools.
But lately I’ve noticed a shift in these conversations. Many leaders find themselves emerging from the intense crisis-management thinking of the past two years and are now looking out to the horizon with a new set of concerns — they are looking to develop financial confidence for their school’s emerging strategic initiatives. In other words, even as virus variants keep us on edge, the systems for managing the pandemic-related concerns are relatively certain, and the next big challenge is longer-range institutional concerns. In particular, because the cultural landscape schools are entering now is significantly different from the pre-pandemic landscape, school leaders are looking to align their business practices to best help them meet these upcoming challenges.
In short, how are expectations shifting with regard to financial stewardship of our schools, and how can a robust partnership between the head of school and business officer support this stewardship in the coming year?
One answer may be found in my introduction to NBOA’s forthcoming book, “The Business of Independent Schools: A Leader’s Guide.” This book introduces professionals new to the independent school business office to the essential aspects of the business officer’s job. It is a fully updated version of “By the Numbers and Beyond: The Business of Independent Schools,” which was first published in 2015. As I note in my chapter, on the leadership role of the business officer, prior to 2009, the leading title in the business office was “business manager.” After 2009, the top moniker shifted to the “chief financial officer.” While business officers always need to be experts with Excel spreadsheets and the like, institutional needs in the majority of schools have evolved to the point that school heads and boards truly need business officers to be strategic partners.
The current era, which I so wish we could now call “post-pandemic,” has further ratcheted up the need for partnerships and collaboration, not just within schools but also across schools — and not just for the sake of meeting annual budget needs but for forecasting the evolving programmatic needs to offer a form of education that is relevant today and well into the future.
Beyond essential business skills, heads also need the business office to skillfully oversee human resources, risk management, security, and facilities maintenance and construction — not to mention supporting the board of trustees and serving as a staff liaison to board committees on such matters. In many instances these responsibilities are augmented further with technology infrastructure, environmental sustainability, and health, food and transportation services. Increasingly, business officers are also called in to provide support for a head of school search and board member selection, to lead community relations efforts, and to partner with the development and enrollment management offices on donor stewardship and financial-aid processes.
The more connected you are to the community, the better you understand its evolving needs. All of this helps you be more informed at every budget committee meeting and every strategic planning meeting.
What does it mean to be a trusted partner to your head of school in these times of cultural and societal change? Among other things, it means that you know the school’s mission inside and out, spend time talking with faculty and visiting classrooms, and engage in planning with academic leaders to support faculty advancement. It helps, too, to talk with students and parents about their needs, experiences and wishes. The more connected you are to the community, the better you understand its evolving needs. All of this helps you be more informed at every budget committee meeting and every strategic planning meeting.
I recently spoke with two “pandemic heads,” as I like to call them — new heads of school who began their tenure just before the pandemic started or mid-pandemic. Steve Salvo is one, now head of St. Mary’s Episcopal Day School, a K-8 independent school in Tampa, Florida. At the start of his tenure, he wrote a piece for Net Assets magazine focused on ways the admission, fundraising and business offices can help schools thrive by working collaboratively toward shared goals. In our recent conversation, I asked Steve about the financial anxiety many heads are feeling as they look ahead.
“Financial concern is certainly high on every head’s list,” he said. In fact, he was deeply focused on the question of financial health when he was applying for a headship in 2019, looking at schools that had a high level of financial IQ regarding both present operations and strategic initiatives. He found it in St. Mary’s. And while his school, along with all others, is facing the complexity of a world in great flux, he says, given the financial health of his school, he is looking forward to a strong future there. Among his first initiatives was to ensure the latest strategic plan included a robust financial component. Now the school is focusing on managing uncertainty about inflation and teacher retention, the latter of which has become the focus of fundraising efforts.
Kathryn Purcell became head of Saint Joseph Academy, an independent Catholic all-girls high school in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 2020-21 school year. School leaders there too are concerned with teacher retention, and Purcell recognizes that faculty and staff have had reasonable trepidation regarding job security, salaries and raises, and the potential for “right-sizing. The pandemic has certainly created greater insecurity in this regard,” she said.
Fundraising efforts have been another top concern because Purcell must “build relationships from scratch in a ZOOM world,” she said. “My biggest challenge has been getting to know people in a way that I could remember them and feel a real connection to them. For example, I have not met one of our biggest donors in person. As a new head, this would have been one of the first relationships I would have developed, but because of the pandemic, the relationship is developing more slowly.” She says having a strong CFO is part of what helps her manage these challenges and makes her job easier.
More than ever, I encourage all business officers to focus on being a trusted colleague for their head of school so that the head can wake each morning with financial confidence about the path forward. While the proactive steps can vary per school and per business officer, I think much of it boils down to an understanding of the complex roles and responsibilities of school leadership and learning how to build relationships throughout one’s independent school community.
To that end, the business officer that makes the time to visit classrooms this year, observing the mission in action, can bring added insight to the leadership table. And of course, take steps to both engage and collaborate outside the business office itself, to serve as valued partners in understanding the school’s needs and to create strategies to address those needs. And connecting with colleagues across schools is needed now more than ever, as that social capital will pay dividends down the road.
To help ensure heads have the confidence they need to lead schools into this new era of independent education, we want them to have confidence in us as both good financial stewards and good relationship stewards. As one business officer notes in my chapter in NBOA’s forthcoming leader's guide: “I tell my head of school that my job every day is to further the mission of the school and to make their job easier.”
A good mantra for the year.
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.