The School Head-Business Manager Partnership

The Board of Trustees holds you, the School Head, ultimately accountable for the prudent fiscal management of the school. You, in turn, rely on your Business Manager to shoulder much of the responsibility for the school’s fiscal affairs, given your plethora of responsibilities. Having a strong, trusted partner in this area makes it possible for you to devote more of your time and attention to other areas of school operation.

Even though the Board holds you accountable for the school’s overall fiscal management, the Business Manager is typically viewed by your Board as having special knowledge or expertise in this area. In addition, the Business Manager is the one member of your Management Team who is in frequent contact with the Treasurer and other members of your Board.

Thus, you and your Business Manager need to collaborate on developing a “fiscal success framework.” This plan of interaction and support is designed to ensure fiscal accountability and is critical to the long-term financial viability of your school. Whether you and your Business Manager have been working together for several years or you have (or are about to hire) a new person in the position, you both must agree on how the fiscal affairs of the school are managed.

Developing the Partnership

To strengthen or initiate a fiscal success framework, you must establish the following four key elements in your partnership.

  1. In delegating authority to the Business Manager, communicate the operating parameters you are establishing. What decisions can the Business Manager make without consulting you, the Head? For example, will you delegate to the Business Manager the responsibility for invoking the terms and conditions of your school’s enrollment contract when a family falls behind in tuition payments? Will the Business Manager have the authority to bar the child from school until the tuition is paid? Does the Business Manager have the authority to place an account with a collection agency when other efforts to collect the tuition have failed?

    Another parameter might address the extent to which the Business Manager may override a particular line item in the budget in order to accommodate an unforeseen expenditure, such as the immediate need to replace two computers in the lower school library.

  2. Set clear expectations about the types of reports you want concerning the fiscal affairs of the school and the deadlines for submitting them. For example, do you want to review with the Business Manager the end-of-month financial report before it goes to the Finance Committee of the Board? Or is it satisfactory just to have a brief memo outlining any concerns the Business Manager may have about the budget on which the financial report is based? Do you want an in-depth report on the variances from budget to actual figures or will a brief oral summary do? The answers to these questions will vary for Heads at different schools and depend on your comfort level with “knowing the numbers.”
  3. Clarify your agreement on the key principles of fiscal responsibility and accountability. Review with your Business Manager how you want the school’s bottom line to be controlled. For example, how do you wish to handle extraordinary expenses for which the school has no budget? Will all Department Heads (and others who oversee specific areas) be held accountable for staying within their budgets—or can there be flexibility within the budget as long as the overall “bottom line” remains intact? Be sure to clear your answer with your Finance Committee.

    Are you comfortable with the Business Manager being in direct communication with the Board Treasurer or Chair of the Finance Committee? Do you want to be informed immediately when such communications have taken place? Do you want all requests the Business Manager receives from members of the Board cleared with you before any action is taken to fulfill or refuse the request?

  4. Communicate how you want to operate fiscally. Will you routinely forward to the Business Manager all questions about budget and finances? Or, are you more comfortable listening to budget questions from faculty and administrators and then turning to your Business Manager for guidance and support in responding? In the former scenario, the Business Manager becomes the “expert”; in the latter scenario, you are perceived to be “guarding the wallet.”

    In another example, will you consult with the Business Manager (and perhaps the Finance Committee) before authorizing non-budgeted expenditures, or will you delegate to him/her the responsibility for handling such expenditures? You may want to wear the “white hat”—and leave the “black hat” for your Business Manager. Or, you may decide to have everyone look to this professional for guidance and support.

Deciding at the beginning of your working partnership on these and similar circumstances will strengthen your relationship with your Business Manager. In an established partnership, reviewing the operating parameters gives you a chance to confirm your comfort level with the way the Business Manager functions.

Your last step is to clearly communicate to your Trustees, faculty, staff, and school constituents what authority you have (and have not) delegated to your Business Manager. Once done, you have formed a solid foundation for a strong partnership that will support you and the school.

Nurturing the Partnership

Once you have established your operating parameters, nurture the partnership regularly. Agree to have a weekly or biweekly meeting. This gives you an opportunity to examine the fiscal affairs that need your attention and to review the actions taken by the Business Manager. You need to be informed, even concerning those actions you’ve agreed to delegate.

As you continue to meet, refine your partnership and perhaps delegate even more responsibility to the Business Manager. You will minimize your involvement in the minutiae that can sometimes drain your energy from other areas that merit your attention.

A typical agenda for your scheduled meeting might cover:

  • some “heads-up” items that keep you informed about the workings of the Business Office (e.g., a review of accounts that are past due) or other areas for which the Business Manager has responsibility (facilities, transportation, etc.);
  • a brief report on communication with Board members on Board agenda items; and
  • a periodic review of the Board’s annual agenda (based on your strategic plan) to be sure that the school is on track.

Consider occasionally including an item on the agenda that normally would not fall on the Business Manager’s plate. Asking his or her advice on a variety of school issues expands your thinking and makes your Business Manager feel more a part of your Management Team and not just the proverbial “bean counter.” He or she may be reluctant to voice an opinion in administrative meetings on topics not related to an area of expertise. However, you and the school are better served over the long run if you periodically discuss long-range or strategic issues in ways that are not the usual dollars-and-cents conversation.

Because you face so many demands on your time and attention, you must delegate responsibility. Your Business Manager can be the trusted partner you need when it comes to oversight and management of the school’s fiscal affairs—handling the day-to-day responsibilities and keeping you informed. Develop this partnership; it will pay you—and your school—big dividends.

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