More important than you may think. If your school is conducting a head search, then be aware at the front end of the importance of understanding the needs of the spouse or partner and of the children if they are still living at home.
Search firms and search committees say that they consider family dynamics and family needs, but Littleford & Associates’ experience in conducting head searches and head compensation reviews for boards has seen it differently. The head’s spouse or partner has important insights and opinions that often are not taken very seriously about whether the school and its culture are user friendly to a head joining the community.
1. How important is housing to the head of school and family?
Housing is much more important than most boards understand, and this is often a make-or-break deal in hiring a new head or frankly in keeping a valued one. We had one recent experience where the Head with a large family suffered for nine years in a school-owned home that needed constant repairs. The Board did not see maintaining the home as a priority, partly because the Head Support and Evaluation Committee of the Board was dormant, and no one asked the Head. The Head was reluctant to complain because the home is not her asset. The issue only came to the attention of the Committee in a head compensation review. This Head’s exhaustion is in part the result of living in a poorly maintained home.
2. How important is it to have a school owned house on or near campus?
This is crucial because heads being hired from elsewhere do not want to worry about selling their current home (if they own one) or moving to an area with which they are unfamiliar. Many heads do not want to buy a home in the area to which they are moving when they do not know how long this contract will last and how supportive this new community will be.
It is also important that the head’s family have some designated privacy from the campus, i.e., some areas “off limits” to visitors and entertainment. (Remember entertaining in a school-owned home is a condition of employment and one of the factors that determine whether living in the home is a tax-free benefit to the head.) Ultimately these heads will want to own a home of their own to relax and decompress BUT having that school owned home is “ace” in the deck in the hiring process.
3. How important is it to be able to help a head buy their own home if they live in a school owned home?
After a few years in a school owned home, heads will want to buy a home of their own, as a permanent retirement home. Heads may ask boards for help in buying these homes or making a down payment. This practice, most common for long-term, valued heads, is happening less often now. More boards are realizing that getting into the “loan” business raises questions about what interest rate to charge or about whether the head may expect at some point to have the loan forgiven. This may complicate the relationship needlessly, and it may be better to pay the head more competitively to enable the head to come up with the down payment.
4. How important is it to provide for the specific needs of the children?
It is imperative that the board ensure that the educational needs of the head’s children are met. Most schools provide 100% remission for the head’s children at the head’s own school, but if circumstances warrant it, boards need to be willing to help a head send a child to another area independent school by covering a tuition equal or comparable to tuition remission at the employing school. In other words, if the head leads a single sex school where do his/her children of the opposite sex go if the local public school is not a good fit? If a child has special needs and the new school placement cannot accommodate the heads’ children, what does the board do?
However, expecting the head’s school to pay for the tuition at another independent school simply because the child might get a better sports or extracurricular experience there may be expecting too much from the employer. Being accommodating is important but so is being reasonable.
5. How important is the length of the contract to an arriving head of school?
Most new heads independent schools in the US receive initially a three year “evergreen” contract meaning that there is always at least 18 months’ notice of the intention of either party not to renew the agreement. That 18 months gives both sides time to find what they need: a new school for the head and a new head for the school. Longer terms heads often receive five-year contracts. Contracts of greater length are rare and a bit risky as the longer the contract, the more it can be perceived that the head rules the board rather than the other way around.
6. How important is the Head Support and Transition Committee?
This Committee is crucial, and in the head’s first year, its focus should be on the family’s physical transition and overall happiness, where the “bodies are buried”, and whom to cultivate and whom not to offend. But after the first year, the Transition Committee should morph into the Head Support Committee which oversees the head’s contract, annual evaluation and annual compensation review and changes. This Committee is normally made up of the chair and two or three board members chosen by the chair.
7. How important is a strong professional development budget and club membership for the family?
It is very important to budget enough funds for the head to attend at least 3 major appropriate conferences, and in some cases to have the head’s spouse or partner accompany at the school’s expense.
A club membership for the family is useful and important for the school as well as the family. Some clubs may be expensive, but a club in the school’s name for a head who is potentially a strong fundraiser may provide unique opportunities for relationship building for future capital campaigns. In this case, penny wise is pound foolish.
8. How important is it for the spouse or partner to be able to travel with and support the head on school related visits and conferences?
It is moderately important. To some heads it is not a key benefit, but to others and to some spouses and partners, it is an indication of the true partnership of the family working on behalf of the school. This former Head had a full year, fully paid sabbatical after 8 years with the requirement to return for at least 3 years after the sabbatical. At that time, a full-year sabbatical away was rare, but it is now more common, although the time frames are more likely to be six months or a month of extra time away taken every year, especially for long-term heads.
9. Final Thoughts
When making an offer to an external candidate or promoting an internal candidate to head of school, it is always a good idea to offer a little bit more in compensation or benefits than the new head is seeking, if the school can afford it. This gets the relationship off to a good start and represents an extra measure of goodwill that can reap benefits down the road.