Regardless of school size, business officers are often one of very few staff members who consider financial matters closely and are surrounded by colleagues who focus primarily on the classroom. Being the only person in your school’s business office makes your role even more distinct. Three business officers share their perspectives on their unique role within their schools.
My career started out in construction, and I’ve always worked as a one-person finance office. To be honest, I love it, because when it comes to the end of the month and I’m working on the financial statement, I know what has gone through. If something looks off, I don’t have to take the time to go pull the invoice for most part. I have a mind like a steel trap; if I’ve touched it, I remember it. So I don’t have a lot of review, and I don’t have to make corrections on the work of another team member. I have a handle on what’s happening. That has really been very beneficial.
The major drawback is that any time I’m sick or when I’m on vacation, everything comes to a halt. We are a small school, and I do a lot of things manually. Some things are automated, like the invoices, but I review them all before I send them out.
Another challenge is being on call when I’m not at school, if somebody needs money for something or we have an emergency at the school. I’m pretty much on call all the time because I handle both pieces of the puzzle [both finance and operations]. But I make sure that I have time with my family and myself. I put my phone on do not disturb mode between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
This past year I’ve had less time to do a lot of analytical stuff on our financials, so we’ve talked about bringing in a part-time bookkeeper to help with the daily stuff. Our current enrollment right now is 311. I don’t know from a budget standpoint if we will ever be able to afford someone else full time in the business office. And I don’t know that we would have enough work to keep someone full time either. I’d rather hire a full-time operations manager than hire another accounting person because if I could get more of the operations stuff off my plate, I could think more about school finances in the long run.
As an industry, I think we’re going to see more and more schools move to a smaller finance team with the option of outsourcing payroll and AP and that kind of stuff. It’s something I’ve looked into, but I feel like I would lose that visibility that I have in touching everything on a regular basis. It would make my month-end harder versus making my during-the-month is a little harder. But the cost of outsourcing is much less than the cost of an employee.
If I were to outsource anything, it would be the HR piece first, to make onboarding easier and less time consuming. In the last year I’ve added DocuSign to a lot of my processes, especially the new hire paperwork, and that’s cut down on some headaches. DocuSign will send reminders and make sure everything is in the right boxes. It’s really gotten me thinking about outsourcing payroll. There have been times I’ve had to stay really late to do payroll, and outsourcing would relieve that stress.
Director of Finance & Operations, Bergman Academy, Des Moines, Iowa
One challenge I face is being spread thin. I have to stay on top of all my responsibilities; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Taking time off is difficult due to lack of backup. I also must multitask throughout the day, every day. On any given day I may be considering building and grounds, payables, tuition, collections, payroll issues, HR issues, board meetings, committee meetings and parents association activities. It can be overwhelming if I need to focus on just one area. Multitasking and being organized are key to being a business office of one.
In terms of highlights, I have a close relationship with the families at school. They feel comfortable talking to me about their financial situations since I am the one handling their tuition accounts and know any financial assistance awarded. And because I am the only one posting to the accounting software, I am aware of every transaction. This makes reconciling monthly much easier, and it helps with budgeting. I know what is behind both revenue and expense, down to every bill that is paid and every journal entry made.
I have the opportunity to work closely with the board of trustees and head of school to be a good steward of the school’s financial future. I get to see the current financial picture, and also forecast where we will be in 10 or 20 years. Making changes to improve that forecast is a large responsibility, which I see as a daily opportunity.
I have recently moved payments processing to an automated service, which has definitely improved my workload for payables. My goal is to move payroll processing to an outside vendor by the end of 2023 for the same reason. Assigning some of these monotonous tasks to a service will give me more time to focus on the larger responsibilities of my role.
Business Manager, All Saints’ Episcopal School, Fort Worth, Texas
Setting the Agenda
It helps that I work with great people. I have really good communication with the head of school and with the diocese. And since Bishop Feehan took on independent governance in the past year, I also now work closely with the board of trustees, specifically the finance and audit committee. They have been a source of inspiration and also support, picking up on things that I haven’t been able to focus on because I’ve taken on more responsibilities during the transition. They bring questions to the table that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of, as they have different kinds of experiences in their jobs.
As a business office of one, you have a good idea of what each day is going to look like. I can set my schedule and prepare and plan what times will be busier and less busy and when I can take on a new project. That internal calendar empowers me to prioritize the needs of the school and the office.
When we moved away from the diocese financially, my most important task became to make sure everyone got paid and the bills got paid. Families needed to know how much aid they would be awarded. It wasn’t just accounting anymore. As we transition to being an independent school, I’m setting the procedures going forward. Being a business office of one allows me to do a little trial and error. Maybe it’s payroll, maybe it’s accounts payable. Whatever it is, I have some flexibility.
After college I worked for a large corporation, then I took some time off to raise my family, and when I returned to work it was to Bishop Feehan. At the large company you really never got thanked. You just did your job and got a performance review every year. Here at the school, I’m just doing my job and yet people will thank me, which is amazing. I hadn’t experienced that before.
I also feel like here the numbers are really making a difference. It’s allowing students to attend our school that may not have been able to. It’s paying people for a job that they do really well. I take it very seriously, but also look at it with a grateful heart because I can do the work that I like to do in an environment that I really enjoy.
Lauren R. Cayer
Director of Finance and Business Operations, Bishop Feehan High School, Attleboro, Massachusetts