Welcome to VisM’s “Reflections” minutes for November 2020!
In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, needing an appropriate place to meet, we found ourselves gathered on the town green in Amherst, New Hampshire on a beautiful Autumn day. We highly recommend our venue to you. We’re three independent school people accustomed to managing budgets...the parking is free, there is no meeting room rental cost, and the surroundings are conducive to thoughtful conversation!
Our topic for the day was Dr. Mike Bills’ article about the state of small colleges amidst the many challenges facing the education world. Dr. Bills is President of ConExEd , and is an experienced college trustee. We encountered his thinking through his article, “Saving a Struggling College”
Dexter Morse: The issues facing independent schools mirror those discussed by Mike Bills that face colleges, particularly smaller, tuition-driven colleges. This makes sense as the two types of institutions, American prep schools and colleges are historically intertwined, are by intent interdependent, and share the same tax-exempt legal status. Overall the colleges have historically enjoyed greater funding, but now both the prep schools and the colleges are facing fundamental challenges due to declining demographics in their student age groups and questions about affordability..
Dexter Morse: The issues facing independent schools are the same ones that face small tuition-driven colleges
Bill Toomey: Mike Bills observes that "the smaller and more tuition dependent are the most vulnerable." Of course with independent schools this has always been the case and always will be the case. It’s important to find other revenue sources, but as Dr. Bills says “those without a niche must make major changes” and in the case of independent schools, they should examine why they began and what it was that they offered that was appealing and different..
Bill Toomey: Independent schools should examine why they began and what they offered that was different.
Harry Lynch: I agree that this is critical. The world is changing rapidly, but amidst this inevitable process, students and parents are interested in being associated with institutions that have a living history that’s informed by something more than just market forces. Finding a niche that is a natural fit for the institution can deepen the experience of everyone and increase the appeal of the school. Yet amidst the current crises, it’s a daunting challenge.
Harry Lynch: students and parents are interested in being associated with institutions that have a living history and an identity...Finding a niche that is a natural fit for the institution increases the institution’s appeal.
Morse: True, but I am an optimist, there is always a market for a good independent school. We need to remind our colleagues every day that the student’s experience is at the center of our work, and that when we’re student-focused, we’ll have happy customers, achieving students and grateful parents. And we cannot allow ourselves to forget that our schools are businesses and must be run responsibly and realistically.
Toomey: Right, Dexter, this brings us to the necessity of budget discipline as well as the development of new revenue sources.
Lynch: Absolutely. I’ve always thought that independent schools, particularly smaller schools, have the potential to pivot quickly in order to address new challenges and opportunities. This is a great strength and the schools should build upon it.
Morse: I agree. We’re in an era that calls for careful management of resources, both human and financial. It will be important for schools to control expenses, and they may find it appropriate to look inside for leadership. Internal candidates bring loyalty and understanding of their institutions but probably lack admissions, fund-raising, and budgetary expertise. A strategy to develop expertise in those areas can help such leaders.
Dexter Morse: Boards must develop committed leaders and avoid the “hire/fire” syndrome!
Dr. Bills’ article warns against the “hire/fire” syndrome at the college level. We see the same issue at the independent school level. It’s critical to develop people so that talent and loyalty are not wasted. And it all has to be done in a way that provides a model of responsible stewardship of resources for all to see.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org