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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Lincoln v. Douglas

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

At most independent schools, the most important board meeting of the year is embedded in the winter holiday season. In high-functioning boards, the finance committee and perhaps another committee (more on this later) have spent the fall assembling budget and benchmark data and piped it into decision-making rubrics, documents that also receive yearly review. After considerable debate, they submit to the executive committee a recommendation and a carefully curated set of supporting documents on next year's budget and, importantly, the tuition and salary/benefits rate of increase for the next year. After board approval, trustees and head of school squirrel away this "gift" until the second part of January, typically, when it is presented to continuing families in the form of re-enrollment contracts and the accompanying letter, which parents skim quickly for dollar and percentage signs and numbers, and promptly abandon reading thereafter, having only recently confronted their holiday overspending. Common responses: ball up letter and toss across room, pour another drink then write terse, bitter email to head of school, start Facebook dogpile.

These responses are evidence of the unsustainable financial model of independent schooling, but they are often exacerbated by an undisciplined board process that leaves school leaders under-confident in responding to even the soberest inquiries. The former is the subject for another day (and several volumes), but if you're experiencing the scenario I describe in the latter, this article offers an approach to help your school build a process focused on reasoned deliberation that promotes confidence in the school's governing leadership.

Considerable Debate: Lincoln Douglas

The board of one school where I was head had a standing "Personnel Committee." I distinctly remember the sinking feeling I experienced as a candidate when this fact was revealed. My imagination ran wild with scenes of over-reach and dysfunction: a committee that read teacher evaluations, or offered frequent updates on how individual teachers were "playing out there" with the parent community. What I discovered instead was a brilliant strategy to support faculty and to put a classic debate structure around the yearly tuition/salary and benefit rate of increase discussion. The model was simple: the finance committee took the position of the current parents, and the personnel committee took the position of the faculty. Each committee deliberated separate from the other, traded proposals from their positions (that is, the personnel committee offered only a salary/benefits rate of increase, finance committee only a tuition rate of increase), then met jointly for "rebuttals" and conversation. In the end, the two committees agreed on a proposal to forward to the executive committee and ultimately to the full board. If your board committee structure is already maxed out, it's possible to apply the Lincoln Douglas structure to the yearly tuition and salary/benefits conversation by dividing the finance committee for portions of two or three meetings.


Both committees should be supplied with the same data set including:

  • Ten year longitudinal graphs of percentage rate and discrete dollar number increase tuition and salary/benefits at your school

  • Local CPI

  • Five year graphs of percentage rate and discrete dollar number increase tuition and median salary/benefits at local independent school competitors

  • Median salary figures from best local public schools

  • List of current teacher salaries (without names, of course) with median salary highlighted

  • Proposed budget for year in question

  • Custom benchmark data on salaries, benefits and tuition (important to shape a group similar to yours in enrollment, local CPI, endowment resources, grade level make up)

Rules of Thumb

A set of working principles, as opposed to policies, can serve as important navigation points. At the school I mention here, the personnel committee endeavored to keep faculty salaries in the top one or two among our many strong, local independent school competitors and in the ballpark by comparison to the well-funded public schools nearby (over time we moved from the playing field to the cheap seats, however). The finance committee endeavored to keep our salaries somewhere in the 50th - 75th percentile in our custom benchmark group.

Beyond the Debate

Personnel committees can carry out critical study initiatives during the rest of the year. Options for retirement benefits have expanded greatly for non-profits in the last ten years, and the evolution of medical insurance bears close study. Tuition remission policies and other benefits like childcare and lunch bear significant cultural value that can outweigh their line on the budget. And, the personnel committee is an excellent resource for the head in keeping the faculty/staff handbook current with evolving employment law.

A deliberate, repeatable process like I describe here, which embodies the riders on each end of the budget seesaw and puts them in a lightly ritualized conversation, produces a disciplined decision on this critical matter and puts school leaders in a position of confidence, one they'll need to get to the harder work of building a more sustainable financial model.

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