Whether you’re an enrollment leader, CFO, or Head of School, you’ve likely been involved in a board meeting (or 20) during your time working at a private school. Board meetings can be stress-inducing, but with the right tools and tips from board meeting veterans, you can knock your next meeting out of the park while sharing your data and story with confidence.
We sat down with three private school leaders who play different roles in their board meetings to help you conquer your next one no matter what your job.
Meet Our Panelists
Sumant Bhat is the Head of School at Stanley British Primary School. Previously he spent five years as the Head of Middle School at St. Anne’s Episcopal School in Denver. He has also been a middle school dean, math teacher, and basketball coach.
Margaret Randazzo is a senior-level executive and CPA with over 25 years of progressive management and financial experience. She is currently CFO at Hillbrook School and has also served as CEO and CFO of a public solar company, President & Publisher of a newspaper and media company, VP/Controller of a public media company, and Audit Manager at a public accounting firm.
Rohan Arjun has been the Director of Admission at George School since 2017. Previously, he worked as an Associate Director of Admission & Financial Aid at St. Mark’s School. He has also served as an Admission/Global Service & Scholarship/Multicultural Affairs Fellow at The Taft School. Rohan is a founding member of the National Diversity Practitioners Institute (NDPI) and also serves as the Chair of the Faculty Search Committee for the annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC).
How Covid Has Impacted Schools
How has COVID impacted your school so far this year and what are some things that you’ve done differently as a result?
Sumant: We had the ability to return to school this fall but our class structure has changed. We’ve embraced a Colorado college-style block system for our middle schoolers where kids take two classes for four weeks. That way we can limit the number of different teachers who come into the school and reduce exposure. We use every single possible room including the cafeteria and gym as classrooms. We’ve tried to innovate in this pandemic and so far it’s been really positive. I’ve really seen our school step up and find a way to provide great experiences for our kids.
Rohan: We’re observing a hybrid model. We have some students on campus as day students, some boarding students, and 25% of our population is fully remote. Our athletic teams are not competing against other schools, but we do have practices in the evenings. We’ve been keeping day and boarding students separate thus far to try to limit the interactions and exposure. For our classes, we’ve adopted a block model where students take four classes for four weeks. We’ve divided them up into even and odd arrangements so they can alternate.
Margaret: We’re starting our sixth week back in person. About 50 of our 350 students elected to do distance learning leaving around 300 on campus. Our teachers are doing synchronous learning in real-time meaning they’re teaching the in-person students and the remote learners are learning alongside them. We have everything spread out with outdoor classrooms and tents and tables. Everything is a little bit more structured right now. All of us have about 300% more duties than we did in the past. We have staggered starts and staggered dismissals. It’s fun for someone like me that hasn’t had as much student interaction to be more involved.
Board Meeting Roles & Preparation
How long have each of you been attending board meetings and what role have you historically played in those meetings?
Margaret: As CFO I’ve been involved from day one. I attend every board meeting. All of our leadership team does. I’m presenting for about half of the meetings when the board is tuition setting or approving the budget. There are lots of times I’m in front of the board.
Rohan: Our senior administrative team is involved in all of the board meetings. Even if we are not presenting, questions still pop up from time to time and the Head of School might turn to me and ask me to take it or pass it off to me. So you always need to be over-prepared. When you’re able to rattle off important numbers at the drop of a dime, it increases your board’s confidence in you.
Sumant: Part of my job responsibility as the Head of School is to be at every single board meeting. I’ve been involved in those meetings and play an active role in presenting and listening and also bringing people to the meeting who have an active stake in the focus of the meeting. Before I was a Head of School, I was always grateful for other heads of school who invested in me and allowed me to be involved in certain board meetings and committee meetings as appropriate. I think it’s helped me prepare for my role today.
What does the preparation process look like for your board meetings? How do you collaborate with other people at your school to prepare?
Rohan: Data, data, data, data. Make sure if you’re the admissions leader at the table that you have your enrollment numbers ready and the funnel numbers that are important to your school. Know your yield ratios, revenue, financial aid figures, legacy numbers, and diversity numbers, whether it’s race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. Collaborate with your senior team, especially your Head of School.
I’m in the camp of no surprises. Talk to your Head of School because they know what kind of information the board may be expecting. Get that information ahead of time so you can prepare. Set time with your CFO to check your numbers and date benchmarks so that you both are speaking and reporting in sync. Go over everything with your team for a cohesive presentation and to make sure it’s digestible. Doing this will help you be more prepared and confident.
How do you prepare for meetings that happen outside of the board meeting, like finance committee meetings, and how do those interplay with the greater board meeting?
Margaret: We have a consistent cadence for our meetings. I typically meet with the finance committee chair right after the executive committee of the board meets to make sure I’m presenting on all of the different things the board is thinking about. After that finance committee meeting, which is a subset of the board, we typically have our board meeting the next week.
There’s a lot of engagement and discussion about the topics that will be discussed. The materials, particularly now that we’re in a virtual world, are sent out two or three days before the meeting so you can review and come prepared. We have a dashboard in our portal that I always take a look at to make sure it’s up to date. It covers everything from enrollment trends to advancement, and where we are with employees, overall financial position, budget, variance to budget and, diversity, equity, and inclusion stats.
What does your team do to support you as you go into board meetings and how do you help prepare them?
Sumant: I want to make sure the right voices are sharing information. It’s my job to give those people a seat at the table and then provide my lens on the work. Sometimes I play a larger role in preparing and other times I show up to learn from others. You don’t need to pretend to be an expert in every area. One way to support your team is to sit down with whoever’s sharing information at the meeting, like the admissions director or CFO, to make sure you’re both comfortable. I’ll also talk to my board chair and gather any thoughts or questions they think we should anticipate. Data is also really important. Know what data you have and remember that not all of your board members are current parents and that some of them aren’t involved or privy to the day-to-day.
This year there’s also a virtual component to board meetings. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to design virtual board meetings in a way that keeps the user experience in mind. When you have three-hour board meetings on zoom you have to balance discussion to keep engagement really high. I want to design our meetings to keep people engaged so it isn’t just something they could watch via a webinar or a one-way stream.
Who attends the board meetings at your school? Who presents on a regular basis?
Sumant: We have our director of admissions to talk about enrollment, share numbers, and give regular updates. We don’t have our senior admin show up for every meeting unless it’s budget-related, then the CFO’s going to be there. We have our division heads do an update, usually at our retreat at the start of the year.
Margaret: It depends on the strategic initiative that you’re focused on. We always have our senior leadership team present and then they are excused for the executive session. Normally we have some board members and then the committee. Sometimes we have a few more people like a few parents and teachers. We also have our secondary school counselor give an update of where our students are getting into high schools and related trends.
Rohan: We have a very similar model. The entire senior administrative team will be present for the general board sessions. But when it comes to the finance committee or the campus sustainability committee we have different administrators that need to be present and others that are not necessary.
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Using Finalsite & Other Tips for Your Board Meetings
What tools do you use in SchoolAdmin to pull data for board meetings? How do you use data from SchoolAdmin in your preparation for meetings?
Margaret: I use Finalsite every single day because I always look at the dashboard. I look at billing, talk with my director of enrollment management, and make sure we’re in sync. SchoolAdmin is super useful when I prepare updated dashboards and for updating information for finance committee meetings or board meetings. I can see things like what enrollment is by grade or diversity stats. SchoolAdmin has made everything easy, visible, and transparent. As the Head of School, it’s been a terrific tool for enrollment management to all be looking at the same numbers in real-time.
Sumant: I’m very fortunate that my team uses Finalsite and they bring all the information from it that we need for the meetings and help me look good. There’s a lot of really good reports that come out of it.
Rohan: We’re using Finalsite to manage who is on campus as a boarding student, day student, and those that are fully remote so we can be in close communication with the business office to make sure that families are being billed correctly. We changed our tuition rates specifically for the fully remote students.
As soon as you open up SchoolAdmin, there’s a dashboard with data. Being able to look at the rates and have it all at your fingertips is beyond helpful. We also have a long list of saved searches and reports to refer to. Everything from prospect lists to a report that allows our athletic department to see who is an athlete and get a recruit list. We can also create inquiry reports, financial aid reports, you name it. The saved reports make life more effective and efficient for us.
Do you have any helpful tips or reminders for approaching board meetings?
Rohan: Board members are busy people. It’s important to make sure that you’re helping them understand the information that they need. Give them the latest info on the admission season, both at your school, and in comparison to the larger independent school community. Give them the big picture and context with enrollment data, demographics, economics, and geography so they can concentrate on long term enrollment.
There’s also the budget piece. They need to know certain information so that they can make a decision on the budget for the following year and, and discern between trade-offs, staffing, financial leave, raises, campus initiatives, and projects. They’ll want to know how much it costs to bring a student all the way through the funnel and the ROI from marketing. You should be able to answer the questions with data and numbers and be over-prepared.
Margaret: When you’re presenting, remember that you’re telling a story with the slides. There’s not a lot of time, they’re busy, you want it simple, but you want it strategic. Graphs are good, but make sure you tell a story both historically and projecting data. Also, share your targets and how your results stack up against the targets. You can also show comparisons of your school versus others around you.
Sumant: It’s really about the storytelling. If people ask for different data points, make sure you approach things with curiosity. Try to understand what’s really behind their questions and what they’re interested in so you can provide them with information that answers the question they’re really wondering about.
We appreciate the insight, tips, and advice each of our panelists shared on how to knock your next board meeting out of the park. It’s always helpful to come together to learn more every day. Huge thank you to our panelists for joining us. For a full recap of their insights, check out the full webinar recording.