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For school business officers, an ‘incredibly frenzied’ year

Working long hours to deal with financial challenges of COVID

One is a chief financial officer, another is the assistant superintendent of finance and operations and a third is the assistant superintendent of business services. 

But regardless of the title, all three, and their many Kent ISD colleagues, will tell you that working on the business and financial side of things for a school district in the midst of COVID-19 has been the challenge of a lifetime.

Grandville’s Heather Roszkowski said things changed by the hour during the spring months because of COVID-19

Changing by the Hour in Grandville

Heather Roszkowski has been the assistant superintendent of business services for Grandville Public Schools for four years and with the district for 10. Of her work prior to March 2020, she said simply that it was manageable.

“You had a better idea of what funding you were receiving,” she said, “you had time to plan, you had time to work on creating efficiencies.”

Related: Better-than-expected K-12 budget brings relief, unknowns remain

But after schools in the state were shut down in mid-March, and ever since, said Roszkowski, the status quo has been lots of unknowns and little time to prepare and plan.

“Initially, the biggest challenge was communicating updates in a timely way,” she said. “Things changed by the hour. April and May were spent working from home with a lot of online planning meetings. 

“Looking back, I’m amazed at all we accomplished. To say we were busy is an understatement.” 

Chris LaHaie of Cedar Springs did two jobs in the midst of COVID-19

Doing Two Jobs for Cedar Springs, Comstock Park

About 30 miles northeast of Roszkowski’s office, Chris LaHaie can completely empathize with his Grandville colleague.

Indeed, in the early days of the COVID shutdown — and through part of the summer — he was doing the work of two business managers. He accepted the post of chief financial officer for Cedar Springs Public Schools on March 9 and started on March 23, just after the state shutdown. 

But he had also pledged to assist his former district, Comstock Park, with a smooth transition. So in March, April and May, he did all the final 2019-20 budgets and started 2020-21 budgets for both districts. 

LaHaie, a former math and chemistry teacher at Jenison High School, said for a while he was working from 5 or 5:30 a.m. until about 5 p.m. for Cedar Springs, then would go to Comstock Park and put in another two or three hours per day.

With a laugh he said: “In April and May I really just did not enjoy my life that much. In my wildest dreams I didn’t think it would go down the way it did.”

Every week since March has been different for Anthony Morey of East Grand Rapids

In East Grand Rapids, Different Every Week

Meanwhile, in East Grand Rapids Public Schools, Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Anthony Morey had similar stories to tell about his spring and summer months, when he was working 10-plus hour days and 65 or so hours per week.

“Every week has been different since Thursday, March 12,” he said. “Every week.”

Morey has been with the district for almost 20 years but just finished his first year in his new role.

It was, he said, an unexpected baptism by fire.

“Last fall, we didn’t get a (state) budget until Oct. 1, which was a break from recent patterns.” he recalled. “But we got into February, and we were well positioned. And then all that really went out the window.”

Morey, a former district teacher and principal, noted that he was part of planning and presenting at more than 20 Zoom calls describing finances, operations and reopening plans with an average attendance of 300-plus people in East Grand Rapids.

“At one point we did five in a week-and-a-half,” Morey said.

‘Every week has been different since Thursday, March 12.’

— Anthony Morey, East Grand Rapids Public Schools

The district turned a boardroom into a preschool room for social distancing, bought a mixing board and software to be able to stream board meetings and more.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” he said, “and we have to stay resilient.”

An Increasingly Busy and Complex Job

Kevin Philipps, the assistant superintendent of administrative services for Kent ISD, works with all the ISD’s business managers. He said the stories of their work during COVID-19 are all equally harrowing and heroic.

‘The pace of work has accelerated. It seems like the workday never completely stops.’

— Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD

“I worked for East Grand Rapids for 13-plus years,” Philipps said. “The biggest challenge I faced during that time was the funding fallout from the Great Recession of 2008. As a district, we implemented $4 million in budget reductions, which was very painful. COVID-19 has been a different challenge but a challenge all the same.

“For the local district business managers, the last several months have been incredibly frenzied. They had to participate in the reconstruction of education overnight two different times. First, the immediate setup of virtual learning at the beginning of April and second, the process of how to deliver instruction for this school year. Then there is keeping track of costs and staffing; you add in the safety of staff and students with PPE, the strict demands for sanitization and cleaning. I can’t imagine how they survived.”

Philipps noted too that the role of a public school district business manager has become more complex — and busier — in the last decade or so.

“The pace of work has accelerated,” he said. “It seems like the workday never completely stops, and with the flow of information and requests always ongoing, the amount of work continues to increase. 

“That being said, there are peaks and valleys throughout a school year for business managers. In a normal year, the summer is quiet and allows for preparation of the annual financial audit and time to get away or work on special projects.” Once the school year is underway, he added, the pace typically slows down by late fall, only to pick up again in early February with budget-planning into mid-June.  

The Joys of Students and ‘Check-the-box’ Reports

Over at Cedar Springs, Chris LaHaie said Philipps has the rhythm of a normal school year exactly right. He hopes that with a state budget having been recently passed, that things in his world — and the worlds of his Kent ISD colleagues — might continue to settle down towards normal, just a little.

He said he recently did a couple of reports for the state that ordinarily would be pretty pro-forma, perhaps even perfunctory. He described them as “check-the-box type of reports.”

“But this year,” he added with a chuckle, “it was ‘wow, this is really nice to do something that you know and that is familiar and that you have done before.’ It was almost a treat to do those forms.”

More return to normalcy came when students returned in the fall.

‘Looking back, I’m amazed at all we accomplished. To say we were busy is an understatement.’

— Heather Roszkowski, Grandville Public Schools

LaHaie, Morey and Roszkowski are all in districts that have at least some face-to-face, in-person instruction, and all three said it was a thrill when students first came back to buildings in August and September after the March shutdown.

“It was awesome to see students come back,” said Roszkowski. “Seeing them and hearing from them about how excited they are to be back is a great reminder of the importance of what we do.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and also is a general assignment reporter and the point person for the SNN Facebook and Twitter feeds. He hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children.  Read Phil's full bio or email Phil.

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