Administrators stay optimistic amid round of budget slashes

By Sam Adams

Last June’s Lobster Bake, an annual celebration held at the end of the school year for faculty, staff and their families, had a problem: the lobsters were made of bread.

Placed at every table at the request of Vice President John Amato, the faux lobsters served as a reminder of high times past that will return, hopefully, once the economy recovers. Until then, the partygoers would have to do without the crustaceans, instead being served hamburgers and hot dogs.

The Lobster Bake was not alone. The annual faculty Holiday Party got the axe altogether, spouses were not invited to the year-opening banquet last week, and catering duties were switched from swanky restaurant Patina to the school’s own cafeteria staff.

The cutbacks in staff parties, a two-thirds reduction from last year, were just some of the money-saving steps taken by the administration to keep finances afloat amid one of the worst financial crises in the past century.

Belt-tightening

In a presentation to the faculty last year, Chief Financial Officer Robert Levin announced an initiative to cut $1 million from the school budget. Everybody would be involved, he said, in the search of items that could be cut, under the maxim that “all of us are smarter than any of us.”

“We did some belt-tightening with respect to salaries for our most highly compensated employees,” Hudnut said, continuing that the athletic and facilities budget were also cut.

The outcome of the search was a total of $1.4 million deemed not wholly necessary. The eagerness to help with the reductions led to a result that Levin considers “better than we could’ve dreamed.”

The largest reduction came from the physical plant and maintenance, and several projects that were either deferred or cancelled, among them the annual repaving of school driveways.

“You know what? We can deal with gray driveways for a year,” Levin said.

To further cut costs, the administration reduced the annual increase of faculty salaries from an average 5 percent to 3 percent. Some administrators, including Hudnut, requested that their salaries be frozen for the year.

Financial raid

When the economic crisis hit last fall, the school was inundated by financial aid requests. In a normal year, Director of Financial Aid Geoffery Bird estimated, about five returning students request aid. This past year, that number increased almost six-fold.

“If you run into trouble, your parents run into trouble paying, we’re going to help you even if you’re a C student,” he said.

The financial aid budget was expanded to take in these new requests. However, its budget was spread so thin that the school admitted fewer financial aid applicants into the class of 2015, cutting the number by a quarter from years past.

“No school can just take anybody they want,” Bird said. “Need-blind admission is BS. You can’t just take a bunch of penniless people because they’re smart and talented. We’ve got more money than almost all day schools, and we look very hard at these candidates; they’re real stars.”

Director of Admission Elizabeth Gregory thinks this year will be low on aid as well, but that it could then return to regular levels. An emphasis on financial aid is something that almost everyone in the school community believes in, Bird said. The past three senior class gifts have been donations to the fund, and there have been more endowed scholarships.

“There are fewer people around now that want to build a fancy building with their name on it,” Bird said. “This is bringing out a different class of donor, the kind of people who say this is crucial now that my school steps up to the plate and is reflective of the community and respond.”

Signs of hope

After receiving what Levin believes to be an American day school record – $6.6 million in the 2007-8 year – Annual Giving managed to take in over $6 million despite the faltering economy, a feat that Levin described as “unbelievable, otherworldly and astonishing.”

The number was lower than pre-recession estimates; the school had expected $6.8 million in donations.

“Secretly we were thinking $7 mil could happen,” Levin said. “Then we get into last fall and the world basically melts down.”

Administrators hope that Annual Giving will return to previous levels as the stock market begins to stabilize.

“Numbers of people are both psychologically and financially affected by the vicissitudes of the stock market,” Hudnut said. “The stock market had a nice run up in the last few months, so if the fall doesn’t bring any nasty surprises the way it did a year ago, I’m optimistic about this year’s fundraising and the climate surrounding it.”

If Hudnut’s predictions do not pan out, Levin believes that the school will be able to hold out.

“We had a series of good years that were ridiculously good,” he said. “Everything that could bounce right did, and all at the same time. We put our acorns away for a rainy day.”

“We take a longer view of things,” Levin said. “We don’t get happy in the morning because the world’s getting lighter and upset in the night because it’s getting darker.”

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