I’ve worked the past four years as principal of a Catholic school that had been on the verge of closing for a variety of reasons—namely, the enrollment was dangerously close to 100 and the school was bleeding money.  When I was hired in October 2010 as the Interim Principal, I was told that I might have to close the school by the end of that current year.  “Can you handle that challenge?” I was asked.  “It has always been my dream to close a school,” I responded.  But seriously, I answered that I would do what I could to keep the doors open but if it needed to be closed, schools need compassionate leaders for those difficult times.  I have been asked repeatedly over the past three years how I have done it—how the school has seen enrollment growth, better budgets, and a brighter future.  So I thought I would write it down in three parts (operations, personnel, and mission).  It might seem backward to do it this way, but it will make sense if you stick with me.  I’m going to write from the perspective of how do you keep a struggling Catholic school open.  And I’m going to assume that a struggling school doesn’t begin to struggle in one year.  Every school (public, private, Catholic) is different so few of the direct examples will apply to other schools.  However, I think the story has value to every school leader.

The first maxim is consistent transparency.  When I was hired, I told the pastor, the staff, the parents, the students, and everyone who would listen that my job was to try to keep the school open.  I helped everyone understand that we were in danger of closing and this was a very serious situation.  I didn’t have time for turf wars, bows to tradition, or long-winded challenges to the need to do anything different.  The future of the school came first.  I wanted to provide a great school for these enrolled students first and foremost.  It was the same message and it took some people a LONG time for people to believe that I meant it.  I was patient, I was consistent, and I was transparent.  Some people (parishioners, staff members, parents) never believed me.  They left.  Their choice.  We kept moving forward.  No need to dwell on people who are incredulous and non-trusting.

In the midst of it all, we struggled every month to pay the bills.  Around the 20th of every month for that first year, we would start the Payroll Dance.  How are we going to make payroll?  This question framed the reason I felt like the first thing we needed to do was get a handle on the finances and operations of the school.  Throughout the process, I would ask “Is this worth keeping at the expense of the school?”

Absolutely necessary to examining a school’s finances is transparency.  I have seen plenty of schools where people are reticent to share the financial reality.  Pastors, school boards, finance councils, bookkeepers, secretaries, parish administrators, administrative assistants—all can work very hard to throw up roadblocks to understanding.  Sometimes the issue was fear, sometimes incompetence, sometimes lack of trust.  Whatever the reason, it can’t continue if you want to save a school.  So I would make sure you have all the proper permissions and authority to examine the financial records and bills.  If you do, then pull the monthlies for the past few years.  In an ideal world, you would have a partner or two to help you.  You might not be able to pull the monthlies because they weren’t done correctly.  But surely there’s some financial information.

Take a look at the utilities.  Chart the amount spent each month.  Call the utility companies so you can understand where they drop into your building and what the bill means.  You might be paying for the parish, for example, or for a sprinkler system.  You might be paying for a street light that you don’t need.  It brings up the question of what the parish pays versus what the school pays and might provide a healthy discussion about shared costs.  Again, if you’re transparent, everyone should be aware of the discussion.  If the parish is paying a greater share, then draw attention to that fact in your newsletter.  If they are not, perhaps the Parish Council should be challenged.

  • Take a look at your heating.  What do you use?  At our school, the boiler heats the school and the parish and so the parish was wise to convert the boilers to natural gas five years ago.  I’m sure the parish has made up the cost in that time since natural gas prices have stayed low and heating oil has stayed high.
  • Take a look at your thermostats.  We replaced our three thermostats with programmable thermostats with security codes.  Talk to your HVAC repair crews—they can give you advice on how what temperature, how low to go at night, etc.
  • Examine your water meters.  If you pay for irrigation, examine the schedule and make sure it’s set to minimal levels.  Do you have a plumber in your parent community?  Ask him/her to examine your toilets for efficiency.
  • Take a look at your cable/internet/phone bills.  First of all, determine if you need cable in this age of YouTube and streaming Internet.  Then take a look at the possibilities of bundling.  Take a look at how many phone lines you need.  We saved money by eliminating one phone line and bundling phone and Internet while dropping cable.
  • Examine your dumpster and recycling.  Is it the right size?  We went from an 8 yard dumpster to a 4 yarder.  That saved 1/3rd of our garbage bill.  And the recycling dumpster is cheaper than the regular one so there is an incentive to recycle.

Take a look at your service contracts.  Again, look the amount you spend every month.  It might be a good idea to compare that amount with enrollment because they should be directly related.

  • For example, take a look at what you spend on cleaning.  (I’m assuming you don’t have an in-house janitor).  Compare to what other schools in your area spend.  See if you can nail down a very specific contract to serve your needs.   While we all want the building to be spotless, there’s no point in spending the same amount for cleaning services if you have ½ the students.  And we’d all like entry rugs changed every week—but with fewer students could that service be suspended or cut down?
  • What is your copier contract?  Even though we were in year 2 of a service contract for leased copiers, I approached the company and we re-worked the contract to reflect our reduced needs and our aversion to color copiers (too expensive).
  • How do you maintain your IT?  Is it in house?  Even a half-time IT person might be costing you 20,000 per year in salary and benefits.  So take a look at outsourcing and shop around to schools in your area.  And try to draw up a system that is low maintenance and easy to use.  Google Apps, for example, has free storage and lots of great features.  Microsoft has a great Education program that is based on the number of teacher FTE’s.
  • Are you spending money on a security system?  We canceled and just re-keyed the exterior and then have been keeping a very strict key log.  All of our exterior doors lock automatically so we have a very easy system to manage.
  • Can you bundle your service contracts?  We found a company to do our yearly fire alarm certification and fire extinguisher service, for example.  We found another company who serviced our kitchen but could also provide low cost toilet paper and bathroom supplies.
  • Are you spending money on a student information system?  Compare other systems.  We went with Engrade, a Google Apps program that is free.  And cloud-based.  It’s simple to use, not many bells and whistles.  Did I mention it’s free?

Take a look at your supplies.  How do you get your office supplies?  The food for your lunch program?  This is the time to take a look at the prices, meet with your account managers, and seek out new bids.  If nothing else, it requires your current service providers to step it up and vanquish the competition.  Find out the best places to buy copy paper, toilet paper, note pads.  It might seem trite but if you’re trying to establish a reputation for caring about the future of the school, it will serve you well to be a micromanager.  I suspect we will live to see the day when “micromanager” becomes a more desired description.  In this instance, becoming a micromanager for operations will impress upon your staff how much you want to know about every detail and how much you care about the future of the school.

When you look at your monthly financials for the past few years, take a look at repairs.  Specifically, look for anything that appears frequently or not at all.  For example, are there consistent flooring or electrical repairs?  That would indicate that bigger repairs might be lurking.  But if there aren’t any roofing repairs, it might be time to take a look at the condition of the roof.  Find someone with construction expertise—or find a few people and ask them to look at the building and suggest what might be lurking.

Why go looking for problems?  First, it’s good to be transparent with the Pastor and with Board members about challenges lurking ahead.  And you might even find good news.  But it also helps you sell a plan.  If you’ve found some savings in utilities, contracts, and supplies, you can then lay out what repairs might be needed.  And then you’re ready to take your plan to the next level…development.

Once you’ve identified your needs, it’s time to start looking for partners.  Those partners might take the shape of benefactor or company who would like to help.  They might have helped in the past but aren’t aware of what specifically is needed.  So you need to know what is needed so you can seek out support.

  • Many auctions have “Fund-a-Need” directed toward specific projects.  So you must work to identify the most critical projects and then ask your parents and supporters to support that project.  Of course, the scope of the project must be tailored to what you expect to raise.  There’s nothing worse than trying to raise $25k for a project, only raising $7k, and then wondering what to do.  We’ve had success with student desks, field trips, and student scholarships.
  • Some local schools have a “Fund-an-Item” for poorer schools.  If you have identified critical needs, you might be able to convince another school to take up your case.  Affluent parents love to help poorer schools with technology, textbooks, and other “hands-on” projects.  We had one parish “adopt” us one year and pay for a complete IT makeover (approximately $35k) and another has given us a check for operations for two years.
  • There might be local donors who have given in the past but are withholding support because no one wants to invest in the Titanic.  So if you establish hope and trust, donations might increase.  We have seen significant increases in donations as people have come to understand that we have a bright future.
  • Local power companies sometimes have conversion and energy efficiency grants available.  We were able to convert all of our T12 fixtures to more efficient T8 bulbs at a very minimal cost due to local grant projects.
  • There are foundations which are open to giving capital improvement grants.  I can’t offer any secrets.  Just find out which ones like to give capital improvement grants to schools, find out which schools have received grants from those foundations, and call those schools and ask for advice.  Most schools will talk to you; most schools will give you good advice.  Some will even share their successful grant proposals.  But it’s competitive so some schools are not very cooperative toward perceived competition.  We have success with over $200k in donations for capital improvements.  That amount goes a long way in a school as small as ours!
  • If you need to beg the parish, the Catholic Schools Office, or the Archbishop himself, it’s easier to do when you have a grasp of your finances.  I am grateful for working in an Archdiocese where the Archbishop on down are supportive of schools such as ours.

These steps might work to save you some money and bring in more investment to your schools.  But if you’re consistent transparent in communicating what you’re doing you might receive the greatest gift of all—hope.  See, in our school I began to notice in year two that people stopped talking about “when” our school would close and began talking about the real challenges facing us.

Do you know the story of the learned helplessness experiments?  When the subjects realized that nothing could be done to stop the shocks, they just laid down and accepted their shocking fate.  At my school, everyone had learned to be helpless.  When I began examining our operations, I began to see hope rising.  People joined me in trying to identify and solve the problems.

And when people saw all the new installations (computers, floors, doors, windows, Promethean boards, etc.) they began to see that the school had a future.