Unforeseen cuts and expenses
Based on data from Pugh’s study of independent schools during the recession, Biddle said he needed to prepare the school for lower contributions from donors, lower enrollment and higher costs.
“We had no idea what our expenses were going to look like, but we knew they were going to be higher,” he said. “And we anticipated that our revenues would be lower due to lack of fundraising and potentially due to enrollment, because in prior recessions people who are in a position to pay for private school have actually not enrolled their kids in private school, but kept them in public school.”
While the school actually saved substantially on necessities such as food, transportation, heating and electricity after campus shut down last March, the goal was always to reopen safely, as soon as possible. This required major preparation and investments.
Back in the spring, over $1 million from the school’s operating budget was directed towards revamping academic spaces for students’ return. This effort included transforming spaces like Strayer Gym and Doc Wilson Hall into classrooms, upgrading ventilation systems and technology infrastructure, as well as purchasing new furniture and cleaning devices (left).
“People on my team were saying, ‘We have to get this stuff now!’ We couldn’t waste time talking about if we were going to do it or not,” Biddle said. “A good example would be the MERV 13 filters for the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning]. If we had not ordered them in the spring, we would not have been able to get them because they quickly sold out all over the world.”
Biddle added that the initiative taken during the early months prepared the school to confidently reopen when deemed safe by the school’s health advisory team.
“We put measures into place so that we would not be limited by our lack of preparedness. We were able to make a decision that was informed by the Covid situation in the area, rather than our situation,” he said.
By the end of the 2019-2020 fiscal year (which ended June 30), the cuts and additional expenses essentially balanced out, according to Biddle.
Gala, Masters Fund and Student Access Fund
The pandemic forced the cancelation of the April 2020 gala, an event that was in the works for over two years and which Biddle estimated could have raised roughly $1 million for the school.
Because the gala is not an annual event, the school does not depend on the funds for its operating budget, but rather for new projects and initiatives facilitated by the advancement team. For example, the last gala (left), held in 2017, focused on supporting Masters’ sustainability initiatives.
Nevertheless, the school’s Annual Fund (now called the Masters Fund), was impacted because the school planned to ramp up fundraising efforts as the gala neared, and was therefore a “little bit behind” totals from previous years at that time of the shutdown, according to Biddle.
But instead of trying to make up for lost revenue during the spring, the school decided to prioritize students and their families by directing the money raised through the Annual Fund between April and June 2020 to the Student Access Fund.
The Student Access Fund was created to provide financial support to families impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The funds raised through this initiative ensured that all students could continue their Masters education without interruption, according to a description last spring in The Messenger.
Over $550,000 was raised for the Student Access Fund, Associate Director of Institutional Advancement Mary Ryan said, adding that to her knowledge, no families left the school due to affordability in the past year.
Ryan said, “The response was incredible, from college freshmen giving $5 to faculty making gifts, to families who gave $20,000. It was really heartening to see.”
Biddle is proud of how Ryan and others on the advancement team shifted their efforts after the gala cancelation.
“They saw what was happening, and they very quickly pivoted. Rather than feeling bad for us, they rallied the community around raising money for the Student Access Fund, which was very successful," Biddle said.
Ryan said that Masters finished the 2019-2020 fiscal year “pretty close to where they wanted to” with regard to the combined total from the Masters Fund and Student Access Fund.
Photo credit: Isaac Cass