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  • Mike Vachow

Bubble Season

If only it were champagne. Instead: enrollment and employment. Late winter and early spring find independent schools heads playing tense games of chance at multiple tables. The odds--emotional, cultural, moral, practical--add up to elaborate decision-making and communication matrices and often force heads to make limited-win decisions that set precedents, and incur cultural-capital losses that are only mitigated by the degree to which parents and teachers on the bubble feel well-served even when things don't go their way, and when outside observers perceive underlying fairness and consistency.


At Knuckleball Consulting, we believe that heads should work very hard to build a school culture where moving on is viewed as a healthy prospect, and where faculty and students/families whom you'll not invite back learn this news in a crisp, timely way at the end of a long, frank conversation. And even though you can't expect every constituency to understand it, the compassion you extend on these contractual matters must end when the integrity of the faculty corps and the school's budget are jeopardized.


Let's take the toughest matter first, the teacher or family you're letting go. In both cases, short of some emergent situation, the process should start an entire year out and presumes a posture of "early intervention" with struggling teachers, students or parents. At the end of the previous school year, after the completion of a yearly evaluation for a faculty member or a year-long conversation with a struggling student or disruptive parents, the head should inform them that the next year will be a final opportunity for growth with monthly check-ins culminating in a go/no-go meeting just before winter break when you'll let them know whether they will receive a re-enrollment or employment contract for the next school year. Many heads might ask, Shouldn't I be worried about having resentful people on campus all second semester? Yes, you should, and you should describe the behaviors you expect and plan for an abrupt separation before the year is out if those destructive behaviors materialize. Conversely, you should be more worried about the other options: a twitchy termination notice confirming the darkest fears of continuing faculty and parents that your decisions are inhumane and arbitrary and that you lack the courage to protect the mission of the school.


The matter of faculty or families who might be moving on contains less dread but more complication. Sometime just before winter break, heads are wise to remind faculty and parents that employment/re-enrollment contracts will arrive in the first few months after winter break. Spell out to faculty that an early heads up, even if it's just a slim possibility that they might be moving out of town or considering another opportunity, helps them and the school as it gives you the opportunity to support them in their search and helps the school do some early, quiet searching. The poker game gets tighter thereafter, especially once employment contracts are offered. At that point, it's essential to begin defining the terms of contract extensions based on the local market and communicating to the faculty member when you'll go live with a search and when you will have to move forward with a replacement even if they have not reached the end of their story. There's more art than science to this work and the matter is particularly gut-wrenching if the potential move is about a partner's opportunity or an ill relative or some other matter not under the faculty member's control. Nevertheless, your duty to staff the school with outstanding teachers eventually must outweigh the compassion you extend to a faculty family. On the other end of the equation, a lack of compassion and flexibility on the school's part invites teachers to sign contracts that they know they're likely to break and a sure way to breed cynicism in faculty culture.


Because money is at stake, current families who are uncertain about returning present a much more complicated scenario. At fully enrolled schools in competitive markets, the only extension a bubble family can reasonably expect is derived from whatever tolerance your school culture has for going over optimal class size. At schools where enrollment is not complete at the new family deadline or where there are many competitors, enrollment managers are faced with a much more complicated prospect and very likely have installed strategies like large, non-refundable deposits, secondary deposits before parents become obliged for the entire tuition, tuition insurance. In the end, however, the school's bottom line is at stake and by extension all of the programmatic promises that are funded through it. Protecting these promises must outweigh the compassion and flexibility that might be ideal for an individual family.


The intimacy and caring that define our schools often lead us to speak of ourselves as a family, but the winter/spring time conundrums I discuss here are clear examples of the limits of this metaphor. That the privacy of these matters is protected by law or at least by common ethical standards makes these scenarios even more difficult for heads who must say little about salient human stories in their school communities. Over time, however, all constituencies will notice and appreciate thematic consistencies like fairness, flexibility, compassion and courage.