Taking over the Struggling School: Before You Sign On

Taking over the Struggling School: Before You Sign On
First of a series of articles on managing struggling schools. In this article we discuss what you need to do before you sign on.

Most of us like to start a project and see it through from start to finish. Signing on to run a going concern is a pretty safe bet. But what about tackling something which is going to make enormous demands on your abilities, energy and experience but which has a lot of risk? Such as taking over a struggling private school?

Actually, taking over anything which is struggling entails a lot of risk. Anyway, you have talent and experience. So let's examine what's involved in investigating a head of school position at a struggling school before you sign on. Here are eight keys to a successful business turnaround.

First of all, let's agree to define the struggling school as a school which is having financial difficulties. Once you understand that you are going to have to do some very heavy lifting raising money, that will help you focus on what has to be done. The truth is that most struggling schools didn't arrive in their present condition overnight. This is train wreck which the previous head of school and the board saw coming for several years before now. Things have unfortunately gotten to the point that either the school gets turned around or it closes its doors for good.

Let's look at some of the reasons why a school finds itself facing difficult times.

Its business model is flawed.

A flawed business model usually is the result of the trustees and administration implementing programs and structures which do not meet the needs of potential families and applicants. For example, if the school is clinging to old-fashioned, outmoded ways of teaching and managing staff, it will have a limited appeal in its market area. There could be philosophical reasons why the school has let itself get into this situation. Be alert to those. The solution could be a straight-forward course correction or a more complicated revamping of the school's mission. Assess what is flawed. Determine how you can fix it.

It didn't market itself effectively.

Is the school using social media to get its message out? Is it still marketing itself solely with printed materials and local advertising? If so, insist on hiring a marketing professional. That can be a member of staff or a consultant. Make sure you engage an experienced professional. You will need that professional expertise in order to produce results quickly. The experts give you strategic advice on marketing your school in the following video.

It wasn't managed properly.

Educators are not necessarily good at running a business. They know how to teach. Some even know how to manage a staff of teachers. But that does not mean that they understand finances. Hire a financial professional professional who will have the competence and expertise to alert the head of school and board of trustees to situations before they bankrupt the school.

It didn't invest in the future.

Whether it has deferred maintenance or has put off enhancing curriculum and adding specialist teachers, a school which has not invested in its future is going to present its new head with some major fundraising challenges. Scope out those challenges as part of your due diligence.

These four reasons cover most of the more common situations. But there are others.

Preparing for your interview

When you interview for the position, be sure to ask tough questions of the board. Was it a matter of the previous head of school staying on after his sell by date had long passed? Was their marketing plan solidly rooted in the 90s? These two factors alone can drive away otherwise loyal families and fail to attract new ones.

You must assess the commitment of the board to both the short term and the long term. It is a different kind of interview situation which you will be experiencing. Usually you are trying to sell yourself to a prospective employer. In this case the school really has to sell itself to you. So, don't hold back when it comes to asking the tough questions. Better to know precisely what the challenges are up front before you sign on.

You are realistically looking at a three year plan to stabilize the school and begin to get things pointed in the right direction. Will the board commit to funding a three year short time plan to make that stabilization happen? It will have to spend some serious money on marketing and admissions personnel. These professionals will have to be willing to work harder than they have ever worked in their lives. Just like you are going to have to work harder than you ever imagined you could. Is success and appetite for hard work part of the board's DNA?

The board will have to commit to implementing a new marketing strategy too. That will probably mean recruiting trips both at home and abroad. Review the school's web site carefully. Does it entice prospective parents to send their children there? Does it have dynamic content? Is social media part of the outreach? These are tools any enterprise needs to be successful in the 21st century. Effective marketing - which includes web sites and social media - does not come cheap. Is the board prepared to invest in these modern marketing tools? Do they 'get it'?

Bad management often occurs because the lines of authority and accountability are blurred or non-existent. Compliance and accountability are huge issues in corporate governance these days. Years ago a board could almost be a rubber stamp for whatever the administration wanted as long as everything appeared to be running smoothly. No longer. Does the board have the stomach to repair the damage done by years of bad management which got the school into its present state of affairs?

What about their alums? Have they been enlisted to help preserve and protect their alma mater? Have they been reminded frequently that their school gave them a great start and that they need to step up and ensure that future generations enjoy the same fine education and experiences they received? Was the most recent Annual Fund Drive successful? What about capital gifts? Funds for scholarships and financial aid?

After the interview

After you have been interviewed and it is clear that the school wants you, then consult with a close friend who is a successful business person. Ask for her assessment. She will think of things you as an educator might have overlooked. Explain your take on the situation. Lay out your plans and goals. When the school offers you a contract, have your attorney review that contract carefully. You will need some safeguards built into your contract. If you don't get those, then walk away from the struggling school. It will continue to struggle. But without you. More Reading

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