• Mike Vachow

On the Horizon: Budget 2021 - 2022

Diligent planning is one of the great strengths and great potential weaknesses of independent schools: 7 year accreditation cycles, 5 year strategic plans, 12 - 18 month head searches with appointments made 6 months to a year before leaders assume office, next year's budget approved halfway through the current year.


During the pandemic, independent schools have largely managed to accelerate their traditional glacial planning pace. School leaders cleared the decks over the summer by streamlining decision making, shifting from consensus building to task force teams with representation from multiple constituencies. Other decks have been cleared for the school year: most associations have pressed pause on accreditation, and schools have done the same with big-tent strategic planning processes and other system-wide efforts, with the exception of anti-racism work.


Forming next year's budget, however, is the planning timeline that can only be changed on the margins and presents school leaders with their next major, predictable challenge. If the school expects to extend re-enrollment contracts and faculty contracts during the January to March timeline and leverage those deadlines to firm up the school's bottom line, then the board must approve next year's budget in December, early January at the latest. Beyond the usual benchmarking data and forecasting on inquiries/attrition and charitable giving that schools have used in the past, they'll have some crisis-specific information to use:

  1. a final budget from 2020 - 2021 with (mostly) actual pandemic expenses

  2. some concrete news on the arrival of a vaccine (hopefully)

  3. four months' experience seeing the school's scenario planning in action, flexing to provide kids and their families with a great program founded on compassion

The last, of course, is simply an extreme version of the squishy central question that schools confront every year: how are we playing out there with current and prospective parents and with our faculty and staff? Annual campaign participation and inquiry numbers provide rough proxy answers to those questions, but retaining students and employees requires a much more nuanced approach.


The director of admission in collaboration with the business director, the development director, the division directors and, through them, the faculty should design and oversee the student retention plan. I've written extensively and counseled schools on how to do this and on how the value of admission data is only as good as the degree to which your admission director is, second only to the Head, the most deeply networked leader on campus. If your school has not yet asked your director of admission to build and lead a concrete retention plan and integrated that leader into the budget planning process, now is the time to start. It will be a retention plan that will have to overcome the many communication challenges that this year will present--canceled events and stop-at-the-door policies for parents at in person schools, and only a digital tether to families at schools where kids are learning remotely.


The division directors in collaboration with academic deans and deans of faculty at larger schools also need to craft a deliberate retention plan for faculty. Even at schools with a strong faculty retention record, it's going to take much more this year and can't be left to chance. Industry analysts believe that a disrupted, largely remote year could result in a much greater number of teacher resignations and early retirements and far fewer candidates in the market for the 2021 - 2022 school year. The same communication challenges apply here as well as the additional support that teachers will need to do their work well this year. It's hard to overstate how important these efforts in empathetic listening and support will be to the school's culture, bottom line, and future, immediate future in the case of some schools. As all heads know, teachers are the central value proposition of our schools. You might lose a few great teachers who are genuinely tapped out by the last year and a half, but those departures should only come after extraordinary support.


In many ways retention of students and faculty is always at the center of budget planning--although it's astonishing how many schools have no concrete plan for either--but both will take customized planning this year. Heads should break their directors of admission free from pandemic task force duty and ask them to prioritize retention work, even as they implement and tweak the remote admission tools they built this summer. Division directors and other teacher-focused administrators are already the key figures in realizing the specific kinds of support that teachers will need this year. The additional task they'll need to take on is a comprehensive meta-effort to understand how each teacher is faring with that support and with the support they're providing to their students and colleagues. Coaching strategies like the Orid Framework can help these leaders dig beneath the brave disguises that some faculty use to hide their exhaustion and fear.


Deep conversations about financial aid dollars and staffing models for next year will also be essential to these budget plans, but it's important to remember now that it's the people part that will make the biggest difference in the short and long going.


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