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Telecom exec went old school

On the wall in Michael Daley’s office is an aerial photograph of Aquinas Institute from decades ago, one with only a passing resemblance to the campus that stands on Dewey Avenue today.

In the picture there is no performing arts center and no athletic complex. The football field is covered in grass, save for a few bare spots, and looks nothing like the $5 million artificial turf stadium that stands there now.

By any measure, it is during the eight years of Daley’s tenure as president that the school’s physical plant has grown the most. His role in planning, building consensus and bringing the necessary people on board to accomplish that growth is undeniable. But Daley will be the first to say that the accomplishments are not due to him or to any one person.

"When I came into the chance for this job, I prayed about it and reflected, and it just felt like a real calling to be here," says Daley, 48. "It’s been wonderful, my vocation."

Now Aquinas is overseeing one of its biggest changes yet, a partnership with Nazareth Schools that will merge the Nazareth high school with Aquinas and create a separate school for prekindergarten through sixth grade as well.

For a president who graduated from Aquinas in 1979-when girls could not attend and the priests who ran the school practiced corporal punishment-the transformation has been extraordinary.

Aquinas today is the area’s largest private school by enrollment, with 888 students. The school has 110 full-time employees, including 65 faculty members, and also 65 to 70 part-time coaches. The school’s budget has grown from less than $7 million when Daley started to more than $8 million today.

Growing Aquinas
Daley came to Aquinas more by happenstance than by design. He left Mpower Communications Corp. in 2002 as executive vice president and chief financial officer. As a member of the Aquinas board of trustees, he had the right skills and availability when the presidency came open that year.

His oldest child, Daniel, had just started at Aquinas at the time, and as president Daley would get to see both of his younger children, Erin and Patrick, attend as well. For a father who had always been involved in their lives and activities-coaching basketball and soccer teams-being there as his children advanced through high school was an important consideration.

The Greece resident did not come with the typical background of an academic leader. But rather than allowing his lack of experience in academia to be a detriment, Daley turned his business-sector experience into a boon for himself and Aquinas.

At Mpower and at ACC Corp. before that, Daley had a role in investor relations, so when it came time to raise funds at Aquinas, he knew how to present the vision for the school in a way that donors wanted.

Once he was able to secure some large donations, others quickly followed.

"Momentum is a big thing in terms of donations," Daley says. "Bob Wegman, who went to Aquinas, was instrumental in helping create that momentum for us. Early on he helped commit $10 million to a number of projects here, and even after they were completed he continued to support Aquinas.

"That allowed other donors to see Aquinas as a viable institution with tremendous opportunity."

Growth came fast as the school raised close to $25 million. It added the football stadium and fine arts center, and last spring it opened a two-story library and renovated auditorium. Aquinas also improved its existing building, renovating the roof, doors, restrooms and locker rooms and adding a new HVAC system.

"There was a joke on the board that he had a construction hat on for the first six years of his presidency," says Robert Porretti, a former chairman and current board member who also is founding partner and chairman of EFP Rotenberg LLP.

After the closure of many of the local Catholic schools in 2008, Aquinas also opened its own junior high school in the same building as the high school.

The junior high has been a great success for Aquinas, helping it to buck a trend of declining enrollment in Catholic schools and maintain the same number of students today that it had 10 years ago. The revenue from nearly 200 students in the junior high also helped Aquinas withstand the effects of the recession and stabilize the financial model for the entire school, Daley says. Aquinas gets 76 percent of its revenue from tuition.

The investments in the school improve the experience for students already at Aquinas and also make the school more competitive for the ever-shrinking pool of potential students in the area.

"The money we invested in facilities has gone a long way to enhancing the well-rounded education of our students," Daley says. "In Rochester the demographics have changed and the number of kids coming through the education system is declining. That’s not unique to Catholic schools; it’s everywhere.

"The opportunity for Aquinas is that while other schools are facing similar financial challenges, our enrollment remains high. The state is cutting support for their schools, and while Aquinas has financial pressures, it’s not as great. We need to get families to see us as a great investment for their child’s education."

Aquinas has boosted its financial assistance to ensure that more families are able to send their children to the school. It provides nearly $1 million each year in aid, three times what it gave out 10 years ago. In all, 45 percent of families receive some level of financial aid.

Daley says there is more room to grow, and he has plans to nearly double the school’s $11.2 million endowment, which will be used to increase financial aid.

Partnership with Nazareth
For the last six years or so, Daley and Aquinas administrators have met with the leadership team at the Nazareth Schools and the Sisters of St. Joseph, the order that operates those schools, to discuss ways to work together.

The timing was never right to move forward on any plans, Daley says, but with Nazareth facing financial pressures because of declining enrollment, the process accelerated over the holidays and came to a head in February with the announcement of the partnership.

The schools agreed on a system that would be known as Aquinas Institute and Nazareth Schools, with a prekindergarten through sixth-grade school at the Nazareth campus on Lake Avenue and grades seven through 12 at Aquinas Institute. The partnership made sense especially because of the schools’ interwoven histories and their proximity within the city of Rochester, says Michael Nuccitelli, president and CEO of Parlec Inc. and chairman of Aquinas.

"If you read the history, beginning in the late 1800s for Nazareth and early 1900s for Aquinas, the initial ties of the institutions show how connected their histories and missions are," Nucitelli says.

When Aquinas opened in 1902, the Sisters of St. Joseph were assigned to the faculty along with priests and nuns from other orders. For the next 50 years, more than 20 Sisters of St. Joseph worked and taught at Aquinas.

Creating the new partnership will have its challenges, Daley says. To assuage the raw feelings of Nazareth parents and students who may feel that the identity of the all-girls academy has been lost, Aquinas will have a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph at the high school and will create a women’s leadership and development program. Many of the programs popular at Nazareth, such as a competitive dance team and an after-school robotics club, will be brought to Aquinas.

Aquinas held a series of town hall meetings to address questions about the merger and also organized events that would bring Nazareth students to Aquinas to become familiar with the school. For those students who decide to go to another school, Aquinas will offer whatever assistance it can, Daley says.

Together, the grade school on Lake Avenue and high school on Dewey Avenue will have a co-branding strategy to let parents know there is collaboration across all grades, Daley says.

"There will be marketing and other plans to promote the whole system, not one school over another," Daley says.

With the facility and infrastructure needs of Aquinas already met, developing a strong partnership with Nazareth will be a major focus for Aquinas over the next few years, Daley says.

His transition
In the telecommunications world, Daley was used to a fast pace with leadership teams that could make decisions and implement them quickly. Consensus building was preferred but not imperative.

Academia, he found, did not operate the same way.

"It’s easier to move fast on relatively small decisions in the corporate world," Daley says. "In academia everyone has an opinion and wants a say, and it’s a process in decision making that I had to become comfortable with. That was one of my learning curves."

Daley says he learned that in an academic setting, teachers are the rulers of their classrooms, and their input is important, especially in decisions that might affect day-to-day learning. It was not without a few missteps that he learned how his role in academia would differ from the one he had in the telecom world.

Early in his tenure as president, a stu-dent’s parent who knew Daley called him at home to talk about a problem the student was having with a teacher. Daley gave the parent the teacher’s home phone number and suggested they work out the problem.

"I learned quickly that was a no-no," Daley said. "You don’t give parents a teacher’s home number to call them. That’s not a good approach."

When Daley took over at Aquinas, the principal-president model of running a school was a fairly new concept. The standard was to have a principal who filled all roles-running the day-to-day operations of the school while also taking care of budgeting and planning.

When religious orders became less involved-as the Congregation of St. Basil did at Aquinas when it left in 1998-more schools turned to a model in which the principal focuses solely on academics while the president takes on strategic planning, fundraising, alumni development and even athletics.

Even though Daley was the second president of Aquinas, he was the first to come directly from the world of business. His predecessor, Patrick Hanley, was a former priest with a background in education.

The trend toward people with business experience leading academic institutions has gained momentum, especially at the post-secondary level. Still, it was a relatively new idea when Daley became president.

"We’re facing financial challenges to run schools independently and keep them viable," Daley says. "What’s been called for in many places is a businessperson who can run the institutions with the experience they take from the business world."

To Daley, Aquinas is the school he and his children attended, a place he loves, but also a business with an $8 million budget and needs for marketing and development. It took time for everyone at Aquinas to be able to see it the same way, Daley says.

"Faculty who have spent their life teaching endear themselves to people who understand the mission of academics," he says. "When you bring a businessperson in for the first time, there’s a little shock to the system."

Some teachers would be upset when he talked about making decisions in the best interests of customers, Daley notes. He stressed to them that these decisions helped increase enrollment, with the revenue this brought in being used to fulfill the academic mission and improve the overall quality of the school.

After eight years in which the school has invested more than $25 million in the campus, the case has been easier to make, Daley says.

Daley’s enthusiasm for the school and deep connections helped as well, Porretti says. While he was president, Daley also was an active alumnus and parent of three students whose activities at the school he cites as his main hobby-along with golf.

"He really demonstrates a passion for the school, and that spills over to the whole administrative staff and teachers," he says. "When you see a leader as passionate as he is, naturally you have the same passion for the school and its success."

For all the similarities to the business world, Aquinas still could never operate in the same way as MPower, Daley says. When Aquinas wanted to add a junior high, it sought the permission of Bishop Matthew Clark, who initially said no. Though Clark leads the Diocese of Rochester, which ultimately has no say over independently run Aquinas, Daley says the school respected his authority and did not move forward at the time.

"We felt it was an important to maintain an appropriate relationship with Bishop Matthew Clark," Daley says. "The partnership with the Sisters of St. Joseph is another where we approached the bishop for his blessing and approval."

Daley has become known as something of a consensus-builder, Nucitelli says. The decade of growth at Aquinas came from the collaboration of donors, administrators and other members of the school community, with Daley helping to keep them all moving in the same direction.

Nucitelli points to the partnership with Nazareth as an example.

"It’s a very emotional time for Nazareth and its 19,000 alumni," Nucitelli says. "There were lots of ways we could have collaborated with Nazareth, and certainly once Nazareth and Aquinas started the discussion on how to do so, he made sure to sit back and listen to everyone, taking the great things Nazareth has and making the whole system stronger."

The entire system at Aquinas continues to operate efficiently in large part because of the capable work of Principal Dennis Sadler, Daley says. Sadler has worked at the school on and off for 35 years and was among Daley’s teachers when he attended Aquinas.

But when Daley is asked what makes the school thrive, what is the focus of its Catholic mission, the answer is clear: the students themselves.

"The students are the lifeblood of this school, the reason we’re in existence," he says. "I’m so impressed with the faithfulness of the community here in our adults, and even more impressed with how our students can share our faith with us. We have crises here in our own school-deaths, diseases, job loss-and to hear how our children grow through it and attribute their faith to God in managing through those difficult times has been extremely rewarding."

3/12/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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