A number of years ago when I was being interviewed to become the Head of my previous school in Bermuda, a teacher on the interview team asked whether I looked at the school as “a learning community” or as a “business”. The answer was, and is, simple - it is both. Independent schools, like ours, are wonderful learning communities. However, they cannot provide a long-term sustainable, positive and productive learning environment for the students in their care unless they are led and managed like a business. The two are not mutually exclusive or even in conflict. They are just the two key dimensions of any successful school.
It is the Head’s job, in partnership with the staff to deliver the best possible educational experience for each and every child. It is the Board of Governors’ job, in partnership with the Head, to ensure that whatever we undertake is financially sustainable in the long-term.
In the case of a school like KGMS/Maplewood, this is no mean feat! Without the large endowments and long list of wealthy alumni that characterize many other independent schools, we have to operate pretty much on a “pay as you go” cash basis. The result is that we have to be creative and frugal at the same time. When you are managing a $5 million budget, over 70 employees, the needs of hundreds of students and the hopes and expectations of their parents - it can be a challenge to say the least!
Each spring we let parents know how deeply they are going to have to dig into their pockets to pay for next year. Although paying for schooling for a child is a bit of an act of faith, it is also critically important that parents know where their valuable dollars are going.
To begin with, it is essential for them to understand the costs of education at a school like ours. With a staff/student ratio of less than 1:3, our projected per pupil expenditure for this year is about $29,000. By comparison, our tuition fees for this year are set at just under $21,000 per student. We endeavour to be lean (but never mean!) in our operations, keeping our overhead as low as possible. But given that tuition doesn’t cover all of our expenses, where does the additional revenue come from? Well, to begin with, in British Columbia, the Ministry gives us significant support – an average of about $7,500 per student. The majority of this funding is due to the fact that our school population is entirely made up of students with identified learning challenges. This combination of tuition and government grants get us about 95% of the way to a balanced budget. In addition, we have other “hard” income as well through rentals, student material charges, and outreach services. These "revenue centres" bring us up to our required operating funds and allow us a small surplus for contingency. In addition, we generate about $200,000 per year in "soft" revenue. This is made up of donation income from our Gala, parent council fundraising and personal and corporate donations. It is these generous contributions which enable us to provide almost $150,000 in bursary support each year and allow us to continuously upgrade technology and acquire additional new resources.
Where does all of this money go? Well, needless to say, education is a “people” business. Consequently about 83% of our revenue goes to salaries and benefits, outside services and professional development. This means that we can offer competitive salaries and benefits and provide timely professional development and training to keep our staff current and on top of the latest trends and best practices in teaching and learning. Other major expenditures out of our budget include: renting the school building and grounds (8%); classroom supplies and resources (4%); transportation (3%); and general office/communications costs (2%).
Public education is subject to the same financial pressures. Although many would argue that the level of government funding should be far higher than it is (no matter what part of the country you live in), there is also a general feeling that the public well is starting to run dry. It has been interesting to me this month to read the on-going debate in both social and traditional media about the Chevron "Fuel your School" programme. The discussion, unfortunately, has been tinged with political overtones (BC is in the middle of school board elections) and has pitted the "purists" who feel that all educational funding should come entirely through tax dollars; and, the "pragmatists" who are happy to received additional funding from outside sources. While there is no question but that the level of corporate involvement in the roll out of the Common Core in the United States has raised many concerns, the reality is that public schools have been dependent on outside sources of money for a long time. How many playgrounds and computer labs have been built and equipped through corporate donations and parent fundraising? How much of the family finances go to field trips, school supplies, and miscellaneous fees and charges? A casual tour of schools in almost any community will show you the disparities between the facilities and extras in affluent communities versus those in areas where families have less disposable income. Although outside corporate funding might not be the answer, it is disingenuous to claim that greater public monies will be made available to fill the gap. Independent schools have been faced with these realities for a long time and their Boards, like those of the public system, know that there is no easy answer.
For us, as a school, the real challenge is to maximize our services while minimizing our costs. We have a hard-working staff and a dedicated Board, but what really tips the balance is the amazing generosity of time and resources provided by our parent community. It would be a betrayal of their trust if we were to squander their financial and volunteer contributions through sloppy management of our finances. And if it means, like it did for my school in Bermuda, that the electronic scoreboard in the gym features an ad for "Harry's Bar", so be it!
School is a business. But it is a business based not on making money, but rather on a collaborative effort to provide a unique and meaningful learning experience for our students. What more profitable a business could you ever ask for!