Strategic Planning is Crucial but Proceed with Caution!

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Strategic Planning is Crucial but Proceed with Caution!

Everyone loves strategic planning:  it sounds important; it sounds “generative” AND it can be dangerous.

Recently, a School used the broad brush, democratic, approach to strategic planning.  Never mind the bad luck that the planning process was launched just as the pandemic struck and schools were closing. This School attempted to keep the process going since they had paid a firm to initiate it and the parents were expecting to be heard.

Shortly after the planning process began with surveys to all parents and staff, the School announced that it would go to online learning, would not cut salaries or furlough staff and would keep the 2% tuition increase that had been announced previously. There were sound arguments put forward by the Board Chair and Head who signed the letter.

Now the interesting part began. A small group of Board Members, disgruntled and not entirely happy with the decisions to close School and not cut staff, began to reach out to community leaders who were also parents.  These Board Members formed small discussion groups, unbeknownst to the Head and Chair in order to influence the planning process. The groups maintained that the survey results indicated that a crisis, i.e., the pandemic, required much more transparency and much more parent input in the strategic planning process. They reasoned that all the parents are stakeholders and that the mission of the School, and thus of the planning process, was to represent parent interests. But was it? Is it?

What is the mission of most schools? This Consultant has always held that the mission of a school must represent the past, present and future, i.e. alumni, past parents, current parents, staff and students, and future parents, students and staff. The mission does NOT represent only the interests of present parents.

But now the story above becomes dangerous.  Behind the scenes, the parents organized themselves into task forces and told the Board and Head that they wished to be a part of four committees that would examine:

  1. Financial sustainability and specifically the need to cut staff, staff salaries, review the audit, and review the head’s compensation;
  2. The academic program to ascertain if parents were really getting their money’s worth in terms of quality;
  3. Capital expenditures to determine whether new projects and proposed projects could be put on hold, bought more cheaply, or shelved entirely; and
  4. The Board’s bylaws, structure, make up and function to study whether or not accreditation agencies really do require the kinds of governance protocols that the Head and Board had been espousing.

Now the roller coaster began.

What had started as a broad based, highly participatory strategic planning process that included a lengthy on line survey of stakeholder groups, deteriorated into an all-out attack on the Board, the School leadership, and the faculty and program. Times are tough, parents are worried, some jobs are insecure, and parents were concerned about the cost/benefit ratio. They felt that rather than hiring more staff and increasing tuition, the School should have been retrenching even before enrollment patterns might indicate a need to do so.

The disgruntled Board members saw the planning process during the pandemic as an opportunity to change the fundamental makeup, structure, leadership and format of the Board. In fact, the Chair resigned under pressure as she was accused of being overly supportive of the Head and of not being sufficiently critical of the Head’s performance.

Clearly, the Board is now split into two factions, one of which is now responding positively to the parent initiatives and pushing the other half of the Board to allow these task forces to interact with the teachers, Board and Administration. The hope is to win over the disgruntled parents or at least blunt their most radical demands.

How did strategic planning play into all of this? Yes, the timing was unfortunate.  Yes, the ideological desire to hear from everyone through a survey provided a tool to unhappy parents.  However, strategic planning became inadvertently a tool to attack good governance, good people, strong programs and a strong school. What prompted the parents to do this?

Anxiety? Opposition to a tuition increase? A disgruntled subset of Board members who used this planning tool as a way to mobilize parents? A Head and Board who may have been too blasé about sticking with the original budget, tuition, staff size? Whatever prompted the firefight that exists now and grew from a spark, has consumed the School.

Strategic planning, in order to be healthy and productive, must be timed properly and based on the school culture, history, traditions and needs. It also must be structured to be led by the board and guided by the head and administrative team. Boundaries, rules, and channels must be in place in order to listen to the community input but not be driven by it. In the end, the board agrees to and approves the strategic plan. Ultimately, the head and leadership team need to carry it out. The mission of the school, what that has meant in the past and what it will mean in the future, is the ultimate compass for healthy strategic planning.