Questions That Boards Should and Should Not Be Asking Right Now

April 13, 2020 Colby Morgan

These are incredibly trying times for our schools. Administrators, teachers, families, and trustees are all feeling varying pressures coming at them both personally and professionally. As humans, we are always seeking structure and routine in our lives, but that has completely dissipated over the last several weeks.

That said, we are still working. We are still getting up every day amidst a confusing cloud of social media work-from-home tips, evolving expectations from our bosses, the news, and deciding what to wear when we’re on a video call. Am I meeting with only peers today or clients? Should I put on my “daytime pajamas” or regular pants?

In all seriousness, we are seeking one thing—clarity. And, naturally, we are seeking it most from those above us on the organizational chart. In the case of schools, we are looking to our heads, administrators, and boards of trustees to answer some of our big questions. However, this equation is often flipped, where the high-level leaders are the ones asking a lot of questions, and in our current climate, we aren’t sure how to answer. There are questions to ask right now, and there are those to avoid.

Are you a head of school, enrollment director, or administrator hoping to help your board ask the right questions? This list is for you.

Questions to NOT ask right now:

  • Where do you expect our attrition rate to be on June 1? Crystal ball questions are challenging to answer right now given how fluid this is.
  • Where are you going to find families right now? This is the hardest question for many schools to answer currently, as there isn’t enough information out there to know. In 6–8 weeks, this may be a better question to ask an enrollment leader or head of school.
  • What has the admission team done to make newly admitted families aware of their philanthropic expectations for next year? It is neither the time or place to be engaging newly enrolled families in fundraising conversations. Save that for a powerful internal marketing plan in fall/winter of next year.
  • Our school is in a highly competitive market position and has only seen increased enrollment during my time on the board. Why on earth would our enrollment office project anything less than our typical enrollment number considering how powerful of a school we are? We are working with a moving target and a fluid situation impacting not only "at-risk" or "vulnerable" schools but every single school in our industry. Boards should not be assuming any level of success in this current climate.
  • Have we over-promised our newly admitted families about the virtual learning program we are moving forward with? Right now, schools, including the boards of trustees at said schools, need to double down around a culture of innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. Anybody second guessing this culture is getting in the way. The work is messy, but when done right, it yields outstanding results.

Questions TO ask right now:

  • Have there been any cases of COVID-19 in our school community and how are we dealing with this? This is the most important and essential question to begin a board-head conversation. The health of the community should come first.
  • What are you doing to make our value proposition clear to newly admitted families? Why? This allows your team to showcase themselves and is open-ended.
  • How has this impacted our fundraising efforts? Another general question to open up a larger, more specific conversation, or a conversation for 2–3 weeks from now.
  • How do we as a board meet remotely? Leverage the strength of your virtual schools for your own board work.
  • Where do you hope to be, from an enrollment perspective, to begin next year? How about the following year? Do we have the capacity to open Fall 2020 in a virtual learning space? These big-picture scenarios can be helpful for heads and enrollment offices to wrap their heads around some strategy work.
  • How are faculty and staff coping with things? We often forget that in addition to students and families going through this, we are also asking our community to keep things going while navigating their own anxiety and family challenges.

Generally speaking, we recommend enrollment directors, CFO's, heads of school, and in tandem, boards develop a three-tiered strategy to project the future. These tiers should be specific to your school and reflect various possibilities ranging from very conservative to highly optimistic. That way, the mutual understanding between boards and their schools will be positive, and you will be more on the same page. Good luck with this work, and please reach out to us if we can be of help to you!

About the Author

Colby Morgan

Associate Director of Business Development and Membership for CT, DE, IL, MA, ON, QC and TN. Prior to joining EMA, Colby served as the dean of students at The Derryfield School (NH) as well as the assistant director of admission. While at Derryfield, Colby taught 7th, 8th, and 9th grade history, served as an advisor, and coached the varsity baseball and middle school soccer teams. Beyond his time in schools, he worked as a professional actor throughout the Northeast, appearing on stage and in films and commercials nationwide. Colby holds a BA in theater and English from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

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