Finance officers should be on tap, not on top

“School boards have only one employee, and that is the Head of School”.

I first heard this somewhat quirky expression a decade or so ago while I was Head of a large international school in the United States. It doesn’t mean that that the Head of School (or Principal, or Director, or whatever term is used to describe the school’s CEO) is paid from a separate bank account than the rest of the staff.  It means that that the Board directly delegates duties to only one person – the Head – and only one person – the Head – is directly accountable to the Board.  In other words, the Head of School is the only official conduit between the Board and the school.

Why did articulating that quirky sentence become necessary?  Why was it necessary to state the obvious fact that the Head of School (CEO) is the board’s only employee?

The short answer is “finance officers”.

The Finance Officer in a school may also be known as the Bursar, CFO, Financial Controller, and so on.

Finance officers in schools are known by many quaint and idiosyncratic terms – bursar, accountant, CFO, financial controller, and so on.  Because school boards are rightly concerned about financial health, school accountants often find that they have fast access to board members’ ears (and hearts), especially on boards that comprise several professional accountants.  If this line of communication not handled appropriately, it can undermine the Head’s authority.  Some school accountants not only know that this is true, they like it and they cultivate it.  That is why the expression is so important: “School boards have only one employee, and that is the Head of School”.

In any school, finances are a means towards achieving goals.  Finances are not ends in themselves.  The reason any school exists is to fulfil its mission – its enduring purpose – which usually means a focus on educating its students as effectively as possible.

Financial management is one of the important factors in achieving the mission.  Other pivotal factors include the quality of the teaching staff, the facilities, the leadership of the Head, the nature and quality of the curriculum, and so on.  However, if the mission ever becomes secondary to financial outcomes, then the school drifts and will quite possibly fail.

As I have often seen in my work with schools, schools that focus on their mission and educational excellence usually find that the finances take care of themselves, whereas schools that focus primarily on the finances find that their education suffers, which in turn leads to failing finances.  It’s a paradox – focussing on finances leads to poor financial outcomes, whereas focussing on the students and their education leads to strong financial outcomes.

Having said this, it is important to remember that not all Finance Officers are equivalent – the job descriptions of Finance Officers can vary widely from school to school.  Some Finance Officers perform as CFOs, whereas others are more focussed on day-to-day operations:

adapted from the work of David Greenbaum

Irrespective of their specific role, however, it is important for Boards and Heads to ensure that the appropriate lines of authority, delegation and communication are never short-circuited.  Finance officers may have a special relationship with the Board, but this must never undermine the pivotal, unique authority of the Head of School.

Finance officers should be on tap, not on top.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

A fruitful way to clarify the role and effectiveness of the Financial Officer and other members of the Senior and Middle Management is through an externally conducted performance review / appraisal.  Details of our approach to these reviews can be seen at Management Performance Reviews.

Detailed advice on managing the board’s relationship to the school’s senior and middle management is provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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