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December: Survive & Thrive!

Welcome to VisM’s “Reflections” for December 2020. What else should we have as a theme as one of the most memorable years in recent memory but “Survive and Thrive”? Schools of every description are facing unprecedented challenges. Demographics, the high cost of independent school tuition, economic challenges arising out of the COVID crisis, and preceding it? Not to mention changes in the public’s perception of the college value proposition.

Dexter Morse: Boards and Heads have to recognize the reality that continuity of their institutions may well be at stake. And they need to make realistic, disciplined plans. Too often administrators and boards tend toward esoteric thinking that can’t lead schools forward. Class sizes, for example, as well as teaching loads, are important considerations when budgets are stressed. Athletic schedules are another area for close scrutiny.

Bill Toomey: Dexter, it might be time for schools to seriously consider strategic partnerships with other institutions. Close ties with feeder schools might lead to shared expenses and a reduction of overhead. If a school has a friendly relationship with a neighboring institution, perhaps based upon admissions, that affiliation might lead to efficiencies for both.

Harry Lynch: Here is where board contacts can be important. It might be easier for board members of institutions, whose roles involve both dedication to their institutions and a level of objectivity that provides needed perspective, to compare notes with board members of other independent schools and explore areas of shared experiences and challenges.

Dexter: I’d emphasize that the challenges are immediate and that the focus should be on the question: how will the institution survive, and how will the institution position itself for future success?

Bill: Agreed. Cost reductions and possible consolidation should be seen as producing intermediate- or long-term reduction of net cash outflow. And while schools are focused on expense control, they have to be thinking about creative ways of increasing revenue. For example, as a school person with a business background, I always wondered why our assets, both our pool of professional talent and our campuses, are so under-employed during the summer months. Why not 12-month schooling? Is there a market for this?

Dexter: that would be a comprehensive conversation for faculties, administrations, and trustees to engage in. It could be an interesting configuration!

Harry: I suspect that post-Covid, whenever that is, the patterns of life will be significantly changed for many families. So many people are working effectively while being 100 per cent online. Employers are comfortable with this. I read of a large Boston company, a tech company, that expects to be able to sublease half of its downtown office space in the future because while they will continue to employ all the same people, probably in the future only 50 % of staff will be onsite on any particular day. Their CEO reported that they have just hired a new CFO who lives outside of New England and will only occasionally come to Boston. If this pattern repeats itself, and I suspect that it will, families who are attracted to our schools may have less concern for transportation issues. To Bill’s point, they might appreciate a flexible year-round schedule that accommodates family travel at various times of year, not restricted to school vacation schedules.

Bill: Schools will need instructional technology that meets the needs of these parents and students!

Dexter: You bet. There are many issues. Remember we’re thinking “survival mode” so faculty and administrators might have to reconsider their accustomed work schedules if they want to continue their careers as independent school educators. And both the curriculum and the teaching methodology has to be responsive to the expectations of parents and students. Those key aspects of school life must be more than just adequate---they must be truly compelling.

Harry: If a four-year college degree is no longer the assumed “next step” after high school, parents will naturally start to question exactly what the outcome is for prep school alumni. The recent graduate might, for instance, be expected to undertake professional-level training with the maturity and focus expected of adults. We don’t know, but if traditional four-year college is, due to expense, no longer the default option, our graduates could indeed be pushed out immediately into the adult world and expected to engage in training and education that makes them employable and productive. I personally think the liberal arts will continue to be an important educational pathway but students and parents will recognize a need to push for work-readiness and will expect to see that financial investments in education (and loans taken on) are economically feasible.

Dexter: There’s a lot here. I think schools and boards need to get very focused, very fast. The importance of a solid, actionable strategic plan cannot be overemphasized. We’ve worked successfully with schools and boards on those plans, and on the all-important process of keeping the Strategic Plan “off the shelf and on the desk” so it’s a guide to management and planning every day.

A few words about our backgrounds...

Vital Independent School Management is a New England based consultancy composed of three experienced independent school leaders.

Dexter Morse led Worcester Academy for 15 years with a laser focus on enrollment growth, development and implementation of the school's student-centered strategic plan. During Dexter's tenure, enrollment increased from 317 to 655 students and the school completed its first two major capital campaigns- the first for $30,000,000 and the second for $50,000,000.Dexter graduated from Phillips Andover, Bowdoin College (BA), UVM (MEd) and UMass Amherst, (CAGS).Dexter resides in Holden Massachusetts, and is VisM’s Senior Partner.

Bill Toomey served for 22 years as Chief Financial Officer/Controller of Worcester Academy and other large New England boarding schools. Bill has a pragmatic insistence upon expense control and realistic budgeting. Bill resides in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, and holds his BS in Accounting from New Hampshire College.

Harry Lynch served as Head of School at Boston’s The Newman School for 35 years, leading the institution through initial accreditation with NEASC/CIS in 1993, and the introduction of the school’s International Baccalaureate program. Harry lives in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and is a graduate of College of the Holy Cross (B.A.) and Northeastern University (M.B.A.)


VisM focuses on Strategic Mentoring of Boards and School Leadership teams. We are experienced, successful school leaders with years of service both as Board members and as administrators. We are sensitive to school budgeting realities and are focused on the success of YOUR school.

For information about how we can help your Board or your school leadership, contact Dexter Morse

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