Interview by Tara Kosowski
From the September/October 2021 Net Assets magazine
Rose Neubert is chief financial and operating officer at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, New Jersey, an all-girls K–12 school with co-ed early childhood programs. She is also the new chair of the NBOA Board of Directors.
Net Assets: Before coming to Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, you were working in public accounting. What inspired you to switch sectors?
Rose Neubert: My start is linked to people who are still a part of the independent school community. I was working for KPMG with two women who moved into the independent school world in New Jersey. Cindy Stadulis, the current CFO of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, and Margot Brown, now director of development and finance at Hilton Head Preparatory School, both alerted me that Stuart Country Day School was looking for a business manager. I knew nothing about independent schools, but I admired those two women so much that I thought, based on their enthusiasm alone, I should check it out. If it had not been for my two friends, I'm not sure I would have found my way to this industry.
Net Assets: How do you stay connected to your school’s mission?
Neubert: I think it's important to get involved in more than just the business office. For example, the business office staff participates in Stuart’s #LEADLIKEAGIRL program, which allowed us this year to demonstrate our work and leadership to our fourth grade students. This year’s fourth graders launched the school’s flexible spending account (FSA) enrollment, complete with an analysis of the impact on take home pay of participants.
Stuart also launched the Leadership Endorsement in Business and Entrepreneurship program this year, which resulted in the business office mentoring three sophomore year interns. One of the interns wanted to understand school business operations and used NBOA’s “Effective Financial Governance for Independent School Trustees” as her textbook. At the end of the internship, she turned in a PowerPoint that identified the book’s key terms and ideas, as well as questions that she wanted to better understand. Now we’re planning on using that PowerPoint as an orientation tool for our trustees.
Watching our student intern think through the fiscal process, gain agency and communication skills, find her voice and be respected by the adults in the community was inspiring. She was permitted to take on non-confidential tasks related to the budgeting request system, from designing the Google budget request forms to emailing and interacting with budget holders. Now she wants to come back next year to see how the budget is enacted. While she may not become a business officer, she did say that she has an interest in being an entrepreneur in the future and feels these skills will be useful to her.
Net Assets: How have you instilled confidence in your business office over the past year, and do you have any tips for empowering individuals around you?
Neubert: Especially if team members are new, you need to make sure they have opportunities to understand the community and the mission. They need to have informal conversations with you and others to ensure they understand the culture piece.
I think the best combination for us is having standing meetings where we come together in a business office group as well as meeting in a larger group of all the people who report to me. They can hear from each other about what's happening in facilities or technology and enjoy each other's company. I think that helps build trust. In the smaller business office group time, we might have a whiteboard meeting where we share what we have on our plates short-term and long-term and how we intersect with each other and who needs support from whom.
Finally, it’s important to just really keep my door open a lot. I don't have a gatekeeper, and I keep my own calendar. I like folks to feel that they have the fluidity to just say, “I have an idea,” or “What do you think about this?”
Some standing meetings, especially around pandemic response, were invaluable. Even when I was starting to wonder if we needed them every week, the truth is we did. One of the things I learned during the past year is that you shouldn’t get rid of anything too soon. Sometimes that structure is important just to keep the flow going.
Net Assets: What are your school’s priorities this year and next?
Neubert: There is no doubt this year is all about the health and wellness of students. We are just wrapping up our strategic plan, and we intentionally wove in student health and wellness as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Stuart has a history of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, but now the school has hired its first full-time DEI director, who is sensational. She joined us in October, which led to the plan centering around how we will continue to advance that work as a school community. The school’s DEI committee is meeting every month and has expanded to include student representatives from the lower, middle and upper schools. Our DEI director is interacting with not just student issues, but also bringing her work to alumni and parent communities, to human resources, to the earliest steps in recruiting and interviewing job candidates — really advancing the work.
At Stuart, leadership and service are dual priorities. We will provide not only Stuart girls, but also students in the broader community, the opportunity to create a leadership portfolio, including internships and externships. We held our #LEADLIKEAGIRL Conference this year through a virtual format, where we hosted over a thousand K-12 students, parents and educators from around the country. I think there is a niche and a need to provide leadership training for girls in the broader community — and I think Stuart is poised to do it, as it’s been an important part of who we are for the past 60 years.
Net Assets: Why is it important that a school’s finance and operations professional champion diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives?
Neubert: I think it's critical because we are members of the leadership team. I don’t know how you can be absent from this very important work, especially if, like Stuart, you have a diversity mission statement. The more I talk to students and alumni, I understand that DEI is such a key part of being the people we all need to be to ensure that everyone who comes to our school or interacts with us can feel comfortable and included. We are showing, in our Sacred Heart terms, God's love.
To me, if this is important work in your school, then you belong there. You don't have to be the only voice, but you do have to be in the space to work and support it. I think I've been enriched by work in DEI and feel super connected to students and faculty as a result. It’s exciting to be in that space.
Net Assets: You said that you were working on a strategic visioning process at Stuart. Can tell us about the process and outcomes?
Neubert: The process involved all stakeholders including faculty and staff, board members, non-board members, students and alumni. Through surveys, in-person meetings, virtual meetings and lots of board interaction, we received rich input that culminated in a expansive five-year outlook for Stuart.
We are reducing the faculty teaching load so they have the opportunity to interact more with students and to advance priorities within the strategic plan. This will also give them time to advance certain components of the plan, such as DEI, health and wellness, and project-based learning.
As a side effect, it has made us more competitive in the hiring process and allowed us to recruit our top choices. Teachers are excited when they hear they'll have four preps instead of five to allow them to focus on an area of interest. This provided an opportunity for us to get board support, take on a fairly expensive proposition, and put part of the plan into action earlier than anticipated.
Along with the emphasis on health and wellness and DEI, it’s probably the thing I'm most excited to track over time, to see how the students benefit and how it impacts all the other components of the plan.
Net Assets: When it comes to communicating change and vision for the school, what advice would you share with other business officers?
Neubert: I think what I've really enjoyed, and don't want to ever lose, is more voices lifted that really add value to the whole school's experience.
We learned during the pandemic to not stay in our silos — the expertise we need is often right in our community. Sometimes the topic might be health-related, and it's better for the school nurse to be the primary source of information. Maybe the communication is around some component of the pandemic response that is best suited to the director of facilities. I want others to get to that moment where they can share their vision. I want the board to hear about it. I want the parents hear about it.
With our strategic plan, it was a shared responsibility. It's my job to make sure I'm getting the input of my fellow senior leadership team members and that I'm in close conversation with the finance, enrollment and development chairs. This ensures all input to the plan is known, analyzed and presented in a way that the board can feel secure when it votes on the plan. Our goal is to explain the plan to our board in a way that provides the clearest picture and instills confidence that the trajectory is one the board feels it can support as fiduciaries.
Net Assets: NBOA is about to embark on its own strategic planning process. As the new chair of the NBOA Board of Directors, what do you hope this will accomplish?
Neubert: My hope is that the NBOA Board and staff will prepare a strategic plan based on the data that we have from our member needs assessment, the mission of the association and — with the continued emphasis on financial sustainability and the business model — thought leadership, and innovation. Certainly there is a proven track record of success in achieving the goals and objectives of the current and past plans. As board chair, I’m excited for our October strategic planning retreat, where undoubtedly there will be robust discussion and engagement.
Net Assets: Do you have any passions outside the business office?
Neubert: During the pandemic I discovered how beautiful our local walking trails are and this time has brought me a beautiful reconnection with the outdoors. Now I walk the trails and see the change of seasons and really enjoy how much green space is around us. It is a gift back to every single one of us, and I feel lucky to have explored it more fully and want to continue to do that.
Mission & Motivation: Uncomfortable in a Comfortable Place (Jan/Feb 2020)
Students Tackle Operational Issues (web-only, May 2019)
Meet the (Next) Parents (Jan/Feb 2019)
The Well-Connected Campus (Sep/Oct 2020)
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