Christian School Funding 101

When it comes to managing a school budget, there are three major levers that we can control: teachers’ salaries, tuition, and teacher-to-student ratio.  If any major move is to be made with school finances, it will impact these three levers.

For example, when Heritage’s six-year strategic plan was established, we wanted to address the fact that we were not paying our teachers well enough.  In 2013-14, starting teachers were only making $25,500.  The average starting pay in Wisconsin that year was $8,000 higher and included much better benefits.  So we decided to move the teacher salary lever.  We picked a benchmark of raising average salaries by about $4,000 which equated to a 3.4% increase annually for six years.

We had other planned increases that would improve educational quality: increased professional development ($9,500/yr), more employee benefits, and implementing new transportation and safety plans, just to name a few examples.

The result of these increases prompted a 4.6% annual rise in tuition – moving one of the other major levers.  There was no way we could plan to move ahead without a tuition increase.  Our hope was that our tuition assistance program or school choice could assist those who could not afford these increases.

Because we have grown in the last two years we have also seen the student-to-teacher ratio increase slightly, but our strategic plan calls for us to find ways to steady or lower that ratio.  We will be addressing this issue as we move forward.

So these factors are all interdependent.  And the good news is that we have seen the increase in quality that we were seeking – test scores have risen, parent satisfaction has increased significantly, and we are purposely becoming a more Christ-centered school!

Creating a Strategic Plan for Our Resource Services

Thirty years ago when I began teaching, educators tended to gear lessons toward the average learner while adding enough difficulty to keep the higher performers engaged.  Those who had learning difficulties were encouraged to work harder, but generally received low or failing grades.

Today we understand that there are many teaching techniques that can be used to better reach the students who are having learning problems in the classroom. Heritage has worked hard to increase its capability to help struggling students through our resource program.  Tanis Huebner, who has been with the school since 1985, currently provides services to students in the elementary.  Patrice Hoban serves students in the MSHS.  Eric Schroeder is a team leader and coordinates Title 1 services.  This year we added our Curriculum Coordinator Liz Hoek as an administrative leader for our resource department.

But even with all of these good people and structures in place, we see the need to take the next steps to improve our services for students with learning needs.  So we will be crafting a strategic plan as a roadmap for future success.

We have hired the Christian Learning Center from Grand Rapids, MI to conduct a site visit on April 6-7.  From the results of that visit they will help us create our strategic plan.  Consultants will hold meetings with administrators, observe our resource teachers, and visit all of our classrooms.  They will schedule times to meet with parents, students, and the board of directors.  Before the end of the year we will have a plan we can execute over the next 5+ years.  We look forward to the increased excellence this will help us develop as we continue to serve the needs of all of our students.

A Psalm for the Season

February is one of the most difficult months of the year.  The excitement of the start of school has faded completely and the rest we enjoyed at Christmas break is no longer tangible.  Apart from a rare day off there is no respite, the weather is often terrible, and even when it warms up a bit the cold and flu season gets even more intense.  Spring break and the end of the year seem too distant to be real, so students, parents, and teachers find themselves plodding through the long winter days.

It is now March, but the snow and sleet have returned.  We need a different perspective.  Even though a Florida beach is outside of our reach, our soul is looking for the soothing warmth of spiritual sunshine.

I found a peaceful park with calming waters when God directed my attention to Psalm 23 – a passage I know well, but a place where I realized I needed to park and absorb all that God is trying to say.  Maybe akin to Aaron Rodgers speaking to the press after some frustrating losses, the Lord calmly says that we need to RELAX.

He is our Shepherd, so He has things completely under control.  He wants us to lay down and be still.  He offers us cool water to drink.  He comforts us as He gently guides us with His staff.  He will restore our soul if we allow it.  He is preparing a table of blessing in the midst of our troubles – but we need to sit down.

I don’t know where this blog finds you today, but I encourage you to take time for a vacation in Psalm 23.  I find it’s a great oasis for this time of the year.

Habits – They Can Make Us or Break Us

All of us have spent a tremendous amount of time performing habits.  Some are harmless, such as which route we drive to work or how we hold our fork.  Good habits add value to our lives, while bad ones slowly hurt us and cause us to lose the respect of others.  How often do we think about the habits that define us?  Do we really believe that we have the power to make choices to end bad habits and start good ones?

Author Charles Duhigg takes a deep look at this topic in his book The Power of Habit.  We may be mystified as to why some habits seem to have such control over us, but science has helped make it clear how habits work.  Understanding habits gives us the ability to change bad ones and form good ones.

Habits have three basic parts: the cue, the behavior, and the reward.  The cue is something that triggers the behavior – it could be a time of day, a person, an emotion, etc.  The behavior might be something good (reading) or bad (chewing fingernails).  The reward is something internal, like a positive feeling or physical stimulation, which makes the behavior worthwhile.

In schools we need to identify good educational habits and teach them to our students.  Homework is a good example.  Some students build habits that fight against getting started and sticking with homework.  Others find cues that propel them into getting the work done without delay which returns a positive reward.

One thing is true – all habits can change.  It might not be easy, but it can be done.  As parents and educators, let’s be sure to change our bad habits even as we encourage our students to adopt good ones.

A Board Member Who Has Made A Difference

This blog is a reprint in honor of Rod Barnett who passed on to eternity on Friday, February 10th.

“Staring at death causes a person to evaluate his life and the lives of his family.

Several decades ago Rod Barnett was a successful entrepreneur who enrolled his son at a prestigious private school in the area.  He then learned about a small Christian school in Oconomowoc.  He and his wife decided to visit the school and their minds were changed.  The school wasn’t fancy, but the teachers reflected Christ in all of their academic activities.  They knew it was the right place for their children.

Rod’s three children attended Lake Country Christian Academy (LCCA) and graduated from Heritage.  All received excellent educations, with two going on to get their doctorate degrees.

Now in hospice care at the end of a long battle with cancer, Rod looks back on the significant leadership role he played at LCCA and Heritage.  For many years he was a board member at LCCA, including eight years as the Chairman.

About seven years ago Rod joined the Heritage board when the financial picture was as bleak as it could be.  Rod personally worked out a deal with the school’s bank to relieve Heritage of millions of dollars of debt, but it also required us to leave our long-time campus on HWY 100.

Then Rod combed the area to find rented facilities that could house our school.  His hard work led us to our campuses at St. Luke Church, WeatherStone Church and Pleasant Hill School on Barker Road.  But as Rod points out, “It’s not about facilities – it’s about teachers imparting Christ to their students!”

Rod calls himself “the repair guy” – called to go into difficult places to find solutions.  Please pray for Rod and his family as he prepares to leave this difficult place to enter a glorious place!”

A Portrait of Being Exceptional: The Patriot Robotics Team

A packed house of spectators waited, along with the top High School robotics teams in the state, to hear who would win awards at the First Tech Challenge State Championship this past Saturday.  There are many awards, and as each one was proclaimed the respective teams would march across the platform.  The ceremony was almost over and our Heritage squad, The Supposable Thumbs, had not been called up.  But we have learned through the years that they save the best for last!

As our team waited they could reflect on the amazing trek they had taken to get to this point.  Back in the fall the team traveled to compete in West Virginia.  They didn’t win that competition, but they learned a lot.  That experience led them to design a totally new robot.  A few weeks ago “The Thumbs” won the state qualifying tournament in Fond du Lac by scorching their competitors in every contest and winning the top prize – The Inspire Award.

This success comes after a decade of the relentless pursuit of excellence.  It starts with robotics director Mark Keup and spreads like wildfire through the teams, including our Middle School team that is also doing very well this year.  Some of our current team members were on the teams that went to the World Championships just a few years ago.

And so late in the day the team waited for the announcement.  Earlier they had won the robotic head-to-head competitions.  Now the question was, who would win the Inspire Award and go on to the Super-Regional competition, and possibly then on to the World Championship?  The announcer said it loud and clear – the Inspire Award winner and State Champion was: The Supposable Thumbs.  Congrats!  Glory to God!

In Pursuit of Excellence

I have a confession: as you read this blog I am in Orlando enjoying the Florida sunshine.  But this is not a vacation – I’m attending the most unique, and arguably the most important, Christian school conference ever held.

In recent years the Association of Christian Schools International has been reaching out to other like-minded Christian school associations to collaborate in ways to make all Christian schools stronger.  So for the first time ever, eight of these associations are coming under one roof for a ground-breaking event.

The 2017 Global Christian School Leadership Summit features keynote speakers like Lee Strobel, best-selling author of The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for Grace, and David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of the bestselling books Good FaithYou Lost Me, and unChristian.  They are being joined by over 60 leading Christian school educators providing breakout sessions on numerous topics that pertain to the advancement of schools like ours.

In addition to the exceptional information that I’m receiving at this summit, there have been opportunities to network with one of the greatest gatherings of Christian school leaders ever.  Interactive polls have been providing attendees opportunities to give their opinions on important topics and then hear the collective responses of the group.

This type of an experience is exciting for me, but in the end the best part will be what I bring back to help Heritage keep moving forward in our pursuit of an exceptional education for our students.  We must keep connecting with the educational community to find the very best ways to train and inspire servant leaders for Christ.

Come Tonight and Be Heard

Tonight we will hold our annual Town Hall Re-enrollment Meeting.  Over the last few years I’ve used this meeting to present many awesome things that God is doing to move the school forward.  And while I’m just as excited about sharing good news tonight, my top goal is to listen more and talk less.

I’ve taken to heart our theme: #Learn2Lead.  One of my goals as the leader of this school is to be a better listener.  I recently read an article entitled: How to Use a Listening Tour to Communicate, Learn What’s Going on, and Earn People’s Trust.  Here is an excerpt:

“Leaders hold all-hands meetings with the best of intentions. And then something takes over and they talk and talk and talk and inundate people with hundreds of slides. Then at the end… they remember to include people, so they ask “Are there any questions?” It’s too little and way too late.”

I confess I’m guilty.  I’m coming to the realization that people want to be heard.  They want to know that their hopes and fears are being addressed.  And I realize that the thing that I need is not just to convey information, but rather to truly communicate – that needs to go two ways.

So you’ll still see a lot of slides and hear important things about Heritage, but we will start with questions.  If time does not allow me to answer them all, I’ll make sure they are answered after the meeting.  If I don’t have the answer, we will find the answer and get back to them.

At the end of the day we are a team of parents, teachers, administrators and volunteers.  We must trust each other and communicate well.  I’m hoping you will be able to join us tonight.

Tax Breaks for You and Opportunities for Heritage

It’s that time of year to start thinking about your taxes.  Some of us wait till April, but all of us realize it is as inevitable as death and… well, taxes!  But there is good news for most of us!

If you paid tuition at all in 2016, you have an opportunity to lower your taxes.  The state of Wisconsin offers a private K-12 school tax deduction.  This benefit comes largely due to advocacy by the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools (WCRIS), of which I am proud to serve as a board member representing schools like ours.  You can find more details at the WCRIS website.

When filing your taxes you will want to access Schedule PS – the form needed to record your tuition payments.  You will be eligible for a deduction of up to $4,000 per child in grades K-8 and up to $10,000 per child in grades 9-12.  This amount will be subtracted from your taxable income, thus lowering the amount of taxes you will be assessed.

Another important tax savings is the deduction for your donations to Heritage in 2016.  Generally, you may deduct up to 50 percent of your adjusted gross income, but 20 percent and 30 percent limitations apply in some cases. Please see this IRS site for more information.

We are so grateful for your support of our mission to train and inspire servant leaders for Christ.  If you did not choose to give to Heritage in 2016, please consider a gift in 2017.  We will have the opportunity to start fundraising for the new MSHS addition which will provide a new full-sized gymnasium along with enough classrooms to make room for the elementary in the existing building.  That’s exciting!

And the Survey Says…

The popular game show Family Feud challenges contestants to predict what others would say about survey questions.  Those who are curious about what the annual Heritage survey says, there’s no need to guess – here are some takeaways:

  • Parent satisfaction at new high – parent satisfaction scores have steadily climbed upward. Our net promoter score, which is hailed as the best way to measure customer loyalty, is 70.  For a point of reference, Amazon has a score of 64. The average Christian school scores between 55 and 60.
  • Areas of strength – out of 24 major factors measured on the survey, 17 were ranked as being done very well at Heritage. Among the top were: Teachers as Christian role models, Traditional values taught, Teachers work well with parents, Safe learning environment, Principal leadership, Qualifications of Teachers, School’s use of resources, and Financial stability of school.
  • What needs work – factors that parents rated as important and which need to keep improving included: High academic standards for students, High behavioral standards for students, Engaging teaching, Educational objectives are clear, Christian character development, and Reasonable tuition.
  • Other findings – our 7th grade had the highest net promoter score in the school, putting us at the 92nd percentile of all such grades nationally. People with Bachelor degrees as their highest level of education gave us scores which ranked us in the 97th percentile. Our high school scores were much higher than most Christian schools, putting us in the 75th percentile.

A major benefit of getting the results of the survey is the comments from parents, alumni, donors, etc.  Each one of these remarks gives us a clue to what we are doing well and what we need to improve.  If you filled out the survey, thank you for telling us what we need to hear!