Monday, November 24, 2008

Employee Benefits and Staff Retention

At a recent budget meeting, our staff came to the realization that our faculty is certainly divided into two camps. Camp one consists of those staff members who have been lifers with twenty to twenty five plus years of service. Camp two are the faculty members with five or fewer years experience. What was staring us right in the face was the lack of the middle group. Where were our faculty in the thirty to fifty year age group with ten to twenty years experience? They seemed to be missing.

We went back and poured over employee records and discovered that a number of faculty seem to disappear in the five to seven years experience range. What we wanted to know was why? As any school or organization knows, to lose top talent and find worthy replacements is a significant obstacle. Faculty with long tenures help shape the culture of the school and contribute to a common experience that graduates remember fondly. These long standing groups often contain seasoned veterans who contribute endless hours towards the school's culture as moderators, coaches, and mentors. Developing their replacements should be of the utmost importance.

We noticed that the exodus of young talented faculty coincided with changes to our benefits plan. Our diocese as many if not all across the country when faced with rising health care costs chose out of necessity to pass a portion of the cost onto employees. Our family monthly premium went from $0 to $467 a month in a matter of three quick years and lead to an exodus of male teachers with young families. Many of these teachers were among the most talented of the staff and filled a large part of our coaching and moderator duties. In addition, our pay sagged to below 70% of the local public school before a diocesan mandated policy to pay 80% of the local public school was enacted. As openings become available each year, our applicant pool continues to consist of newbies right out of college and retiring public school teachers looking for a few more years of employment as they double dip from their public school pension. Some of these retirees are great finds, but many of them are at a place where they have no intention of doing the extra work that goes into running a high school.

As our senior group is set to retire over the next ten years, it is quickly becoming one of our priorities to retain our current crop of young talent and to attract the best of the best from other schools. We are taking for granted that without restructuring our tuition ( a paltry $4,400 a year) we will not be able to reduce health care costs or greatly increase the base pay above the 80% we are required to pay. We are, however, experimenting with a series of "graduated" benefits to push faculty retention that have a smaller impact on the bottom line.

Our plan is basically as follows. To encourage long time faculty retention, the more years someone puts in the better the benefit package becomes. In addition, these benefits are tied to developmental marks in a teacher's career. To clarify, we are just beginning to develop this plan. To encourage families and faculty retention we are exploring the costs of offering on-site greatly discounted child care for the children of our teachers. The average family can expect to pay between $400 to $700 a month in child care at a private day care center. By using our child development class and subsidizing the salary of a full time day care coordinator with the allocation of a significant space for this endeavor, this benefit could greatly increase retention of young faculty. As a young faculty member with a family, paying $100-$200 a month for subsidized high quality on site day care would be a huge advantage especially given the fact that the center's schedule will mirror the schools.

Another factor we have looked at is reducing tuition for our faculty. We currently offer a 50% reduction on our high school tuition. Granted our tuition is already laughably low, but if we can crunch the numbers and offer free tuition for our teachers' children, this benefit would go a long way in stretching the modest salaries and producing goodwill.

For faculty on the older edge, these benefits might not mean that much. For our faculty with 20 to 25 year experience, we are looking at reducing the full course load from six to five sections and adding a higher match to our 403b plan. In addition, we will look at offering free lunch to our faculty. We've also toyed with the idea of adding free babysitting tied to our Christian Service Program.

As with all endeavors there is probably something we are glaringly missing and I am sure our first round of attempts will piss off as many people as it pleases, but thus is the joy of trying something new. A graduated benefits plan while leaving alone the health care and salary issue may at the least increase the quality of life for our faculty and lead to higher retention rates.

Another issue we struggle with is the distinction of who to apply these benefits to. For example, are teachers the ones making the bigger sacrifice? Are our secretaries, bus drivers, and maintenance workers making similar wages to their public school counterparts or not? Should we offer these benefits to them as well? Everyone contributes to the well-being of the school do they not? It takes a village to raise a child.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Attached below is a link to a benefits survey. On the upper left of the web page is a link to the live results as they come in. I am sure many of us face these same issues every day. Maybe collectively we can come up with a world-class plan that minimizes costs and increases happiness. Then again that is pretty idealist but I'd beg to offer that if anyone deserves it our teachers do.

Link to Survey: Faculty Benefit Survey Here

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Reframing Conversations with the Miserable

As principals we all spend a part of each week listening to or hearing from unhappy parents. As long as our schools enroll students we will have the added pleasure of dealing with parents on a consistent basis. Sadly the top jobs at those few high schools meeting the needs of orphans have been filled for years.

To be fair most of us are a little jaded when it comes to interacting with parents. The five percent who are chronically miserable in all areas of their life usually fill up ninety five percent of the parent meetings on our schedule. The truth is that most of our parents are happy well-adjusted individuals with a firm grasp on reality. The Church rightfully declares parents as "the primary educator" and our roll of assisting in their child's development and growth is more often than not a shared blessing. But alas the buck stops with us and so too does the final stop for the unhappy parent.

I'm willing to argue that the large percentage of unhappy parents that make it to your door are usually upset over non-academic or core issues. More likely than not their concerns will have to do with some co-curricular aspect of the school. Little Johnny has been cut from the basketball team, played in the wrong position for the wrong amount of time, or has suffered some other life altering injustice that if uncorrected could ruin his life forever. Some parents just need to be heard and quickly ignored. Others take a little more work to appease.

I'm writing this post to share a concept gained from a recent professional development day that helps reframe these lovely conversations with an eternal lens that honors our rich Catholic heritage.

About a month ago I had the opportunity to sit through a presentation about "happiness" by the Spitzer Center. Our board chair and former fortune 500 exec had arranged for the group to visit our little corner of the midwest and provide a session for local business and civic leaders. I left for the meeting with the usual enthusiasm for a day away from the office during the middle of the school week. The Spitzer Center is the brain child of Father Robert Spitzer S.J. the president of Gonzaga University and mentor for the positive thinking guru Lou Tice.

The session focused on seeking happiness. What was interesting about the session was the retelling of truths that as Catholics we've known for a couple thousand years. Essentially in the end we all want to be happy. As Catholic educators we are drilling this drive for happiness into our children every day mindful of the fact that eternal happiness rests in union with God. There are four levels of happiness. Level one has to do with pleasure. A nice piece of prime rib and a beer on a Friday afternoon are all pleasure giving in their own right but these pleasures are fleeting. Building our life around the accumulation of level one items is doomed for failure if not addiction. Level two has to do with things that are good by comparison. A certain job over another, a house with large square footage, a new car are all good in their own right. But their worth is valued in a large way by being compared to something not as good. To focus on level two items like wealth, power, and position will eventually lead to spiritual emptiness and poverty of soul. Level three happiness has to do with altruism and leaving the world better than we find it and recognizing that our individual gifts are properly expressed in service to others. Level four happiness is the perfect happiness that we are created for which is found eternally with God.

None of the above is new to our faith. Apparently the business world doesn't often grasp the truth of the above statements. Imagine that. But what is potentially exciting and new is reframing parent conversations around these levels. The family concerned about "playing time" or Billy's role in the school play is not helping their child reach level three and level four happiness. They are overvaluing level two and teaching Billy to express his self-worth in ways that will not lead to lasting happiness. Of course getting the conversation to this point is always easier said than done. I like to drop somewhere in the conversation that if, "high school athletics are the highlight of life then life is pretty empty in the end". The timing has to be there of course but usually the sooner I can get it out the better.

I have to believe that the more our students and faculty grasp the meaning and value of the different levels of happiness the more these concerns over perceived injustices will go away. Perhaps a little suffering will lead to a little self growth.

Please share your thoughts below and your own tricks and methods for dealing with difficult conversations.