As with any school, salary and benefits make up the bulk of the budget (usually about 80 percent of total costs). Catholic schools set their staff levels at the school level and usually negotiate salaries, too. Thus, there’s freedom and flexibility. But if a school is struggling to pay bills, sound personnel decisions become paramount. It’s a good idea for any school to “right size” their staff and make sound teaching assignment decisions in order to maximize effective student instruction dollars. The challenge is how to make personnel decisions without killing morale which could lead to an even lower enrollment.
I’m writing this blog to help Catholic school leaders who are confronting persistent or suddenly confounding budget problems. It’s challenging to make sound business decisions in a Catholic school family environment. After all, most teachers and staff members at Catholic schools are working at a discount—usually 80-90 percent of their public school peers. Most have made this a vocation and they have dedicated their lives to this task. So the challenge becomes how to be pragmatic but compassionate all the while being transparent and optimistic so that you can retain and even attract new students.
There are two groups of Catholic school employees and the approach needs to be different. Teachers and staff perform entirely different functions so the approach of “right-sizing” must be altered with each group. If you’re trying to save a school, you need to make sure the staffing levels are appropriate to the enrollment. If a school has 20 employees for an enrollment of 200 students, then if the enrollment were to drop to 100, it reasons that the number of employees should also drop. That’s common sense and it should be communicated from the outset.
I mentioned in my previous post that consistent transparency is crucial to any school leader. In this situation, the magnitude of the problem and the solution (right sizing) should be communicated. And it’s important to communicate that students come first. As much as we try to cultivate the “family” and “community” aspects of our schools, our schools do not exist for our employees. We exist for our students and if we need to make tough decisions for our current and future students, that trumps the feelings of our current employees. Now, some teachers, staff members, and even parents might panic. And morale might suffer and lead to further student defections. I suppose that is why many schools ignore the problem and simply hope for higher enrollments or bigger donations. If you communicate your intentions, the surprise element will be gone later. And if you communicate your process, most people will come to see it as fair and necessary. Some people will not trust the process and will leave. Expect it. Deal with it. But don’t be surprised and don’t beg people to return. Work with the people who stay and work for the people who will be attracted to a transparent, student-centered environment.
With staff members, start with individual meetings. Try to get to know them—find out who they are, how long they’ve been there. Give them your time and attention. Some staff members (janitors, for example) might have never had a meeting of this kind with the principal. Then ask them to review a current job description (if one exists) or to help create one. You could provide a generic job description, for example, and ask them to modify it to their particular job. You should also review with them their contract. You might be surprised to find that some people don’t have a work agreement or are being paid an inaccurate amount. Meet with every staff member. Don’t let anyone off the hook. Some people will dodge your request and use the lack of a meeting to their advantage. Verify the pay amount and verify that people are working the right amount of hours and for the right amounts. If needed, hold people accountable to their contracts. Set a date for the job descriptions to be returned and hold people accountable to those deadlines.
Make sure to communicate this process to everyone (parent newsletters, board reports, staff meetings). People will appreciate that you’re paying attention. And you’ll find out quickly who is rowing in a different direction. Once you do, ask them about it. “Why didn’t you want to meet with me?” is a good question. Or, “Why didn’t you return your job description?” Be specific in your questions. There is little value in saying things like, “It seems like you’re not supporting my vision.” I prefer to let people answer direct questions.
There’s also a hidden benefit. You’ll find out who are your superstars on the staff. You might find, for instance, that your bookkeeper works only 12 hours but gets everything finished. You might find that your janitor is not required to work on weekends but he comes in after special events. You’ll find out that some of your staff members feel appreciated because of this process as they begin to understand that you’re paying attention.
When you complete the process, it’s imperative that you gather information from other schools—namely, their staffing levels and pay scales. When you talk to principals of similar schools, ask how tasks are divided up. Who books deposits? Who invoices tuition? Registers new students? Cleans the classrooms? Tracks volunteers? There are so many combinations of parish employees, parent volunteers, outsourcing, and school staff that it’s imperative you talk to as many fellow principals as possible.
At this point, it’s time to put together the puzzle. But it’s not your puzzle. It’s the school’s puzzle. Find people to help solve the problem. Perhaps the pastor wants to help, maybe finance committee members, even a teacher could help. You need to figure out what is essential, who can do what, and what you can afford. My recommendation is that you assume some new tasks. For example, since we could not afford a bookkeeper, we utilized the parish bookkeeper for writing checks, monthly budget reports, and journal entries. So I took on the task of Accounts Receivable—preparing deposits, counting money, and invoicing tuition. For a school our size, it was an extra 4-6 hours per week. But it saved us money and helped communicate that everyone was pitching in to save our school.
Ultimately, it is inconceivable that your current staff would all keep their present jobs at their present levels. If your school is struggling with enrollment and financial issues, money needs to be saved. So you might need to change the position description of a job so that an employee can carry out two jobs. A secretary, for example, might need to be your Accounts Receivable clerk or your communications director. Your cook might need to begin ordering and budgeting. Or you might find that you don’t need teachers’ aides. Those are tough decisions and they need to be made by a committee willing to make tough decisions. But the final decisions should be communicated by you directly in person with compassion and empathy.
With teachers, it’s also important to start with individual meetings. Job descriptions are less important but it’s important to find out about their current assignment, what they taught in the past, and what they’d like to teach. Then it’s important to get into their classrooms and assess their performance. You never know a teacher until you see him/her teaching. That might sound obvious. However, I have met countless teachers who can wax eloquently about the purpose of teaching, their reasons for teaching, and seem to have answers for every teaching dilemma which comes up at a staff meeting. And then in the classroom they are simply mediocre. And the converse is true as well—teachers who seem to have nothing to contribute at staff meetings are remarkable in the classroom. So it’s important to get into the classrooms and see for yourself.
In bigger school environments, it’s important to formalize your walk-throughs so that teachers know what you’re up to. When I was a high school principal, I used a carbon-copy half sheet form that was simple. The top box was labeled “Kudos” and the bottom box was labeled “Concerns.” This form was a way to communicate my feedback immediately (when I left the room). But at my current school we only had 8 teachers so I implemented an all-day system. I spent the entire day with a teacher. I scheduled those days with the teachers and everyone knew what I was doing—students, parents, school commission members, pastor, etc. Everyone knew that I was paying attention to the teachers.
At the same time, I investigated the most popular method of right-sizing the instructional staff—namely, multi-age classrooms. I called principals who had adopted combined classrooms and went to see their classes. I realized that some schools liked the model so much that even after their enrollments grew, they kept the model. They could have broken up the combined classrooms (they had two classrooms for 3rd and 4th grade, for example) but they kept them. I read the research and found the talking points. Everyone knew what I was doing. I told staff members at our staff meetings. I told parents in newsletters. I invited staff and parents to visit, too.
We had classrooms of 10-12 students with a single teacher. Further complicating the situation was that we had many students on scholarship meaning that we were collecting far less than the cost of a teacher. For example, in a typical class of 10 students we were only collecting around $25,000 in tuition and fees. That teacher was costing approximately $50,000 in salary and benefits. I described the problem to everyone, making sure that everyone knew that the current situation was unsustainable. So there were two options: double our enrollment or cut teachers. There didn’t seem to be any practical strategies for doubling enrollment but there seemed to be a practical strategy for cutting teachers.
The challenge became understanding the multiage model and communicating the advantages of the model. Obviously, the first advantage is that it would keep our school open. But if it looked like a Hail Mary, many people would flee. It would be seen by many as a step backward or desperate. It was therefore important to articulate the advantages to our specific situation. For example, I found that many of the classrooms were quiet and lacking energy. Some had skewed numbers of girls/boys. We were only giving students opportunities to be leaders in 8th grade. The multiage model made for larger, more vibrant classes and gave students more classmates. Our numbers of girls and boys were balanced. And students were given chances to be leaders every other year. With the right amount of professional development, we felt confident that teachers could learn the instructional skills to be successful.
The implementation of the multiage model meant that four of our teachers would lose their jobs. It was important that the right teachers survived the RIF (Reduction in Force). We are fortunate that our Archdiocese adopted a RIF policy that respects the contributions that each teacher could make and removed seniority from the decision. I could return to my original meetings with teachers and my day-long observations to justify decisions. Teacher decisions should not be a committee decision. The principal as instructional leader should make these decisions and be able to justify them.
If the decision were made by finance committee members, for example, all the experienced teachers would be RIF’ed in order to save money. But experience (and thus, salary level) should not enter into these discussions. You should communicate this openly. You should try to keep your best teachers. Study after study show that an effective classroom teacher is the most crucial element to a student’s education, ranking above materials, facilities, programs, parental support, and others. Decisions about teachers must be made with care and with the effect on students measured. And they must be made with compassion and empathy. A teacher should find out they are losing his/her job in a personal meeting with you and you should communicate your promise to help them find another job.
As with the decisions about staffing levels, it’s important to communicate to everyone your desire to provide the best teachers for our students. If you are consistently transparent, the majority of your parents will stick by your tough decisions. They want the school to stay open and will welcome your attempts to save the school by right sizing your staff. And new parents will be attracted to a school which cares enough for its future that it makes tough decisions and has a school culture that puts students first. In our transition to the multiage model, our right-sizing meant we reduced our staff to four members (principal, secretary, cook, and extended care) and our teaching staff to six. We lost students but we also gained new ones. Our overall enrollment went from 115 to 119. Our staff was right-sized, however, and so we were able to make our budget that next year for the first time in 10 years. And for the first time in over a decade, people began to believe that our school didn’t need to close.
After focusing on the budget/operations and personnel, it was time in the second year to focus on our mission. In part three, I’ll explore how mission came to forefront. Some would argue that mission should have come first. I liken our situation to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We needed to take care of the basic needs first and then we could begin to pursue self-actualization. But that’s a topic for next week…