After calling off merger, Allendale Columbia finds new financial footing

Allendale Columbia students compete in robotics. (Provided photo)
Allendale Columbia students compete in robotics. (Provided photo)

The last time Allendale Columbia School held a fundraising campaign, it reached its goal of $4 million in three years.

But when the private school announced last spring that it was contemplating a merger with The Harley School, parents reacted by spearheading another campaign to keep Allendale Columbia independent.

They raised $3.3 million in a mere five months and expect to meet their goal of $4 million by the end of the school year without a problem.

The two schools announced last July that they wouldn’t merge after all and School Head Mick Gee said then that Allendale Columbia had some work to do to figure out the way forward.

Now it appears the school community has done just that.

“We did have a groundswell of parent and community support who came out very loud and clear … we wanted to remain independent,” said Shannon Baudo, director of enrollment and assistant head of school. She’s also the incoming interim head of school.

Gee said, “Some of those parents have looked at the program at Harley and looked at the program at AC and they picked AC.” They wanted to be in the best STEM school in Rochester, he said.

Parents and alumni took the merger announcement as a call to action, Gee said, offering to help out more than they had in the past.

The resulting support included $1.5 million from Ursula Burns, the former president and CEO of Xerox, and a former AC parent and trustee. Another $1 million came from a current AC family that wishes to remain anonymous.

Burns, in a prepared statement, said her donation “represents my admiration for the school’s history and its commitment to providing an outstanding education to a diverse student body. It is my hope that this gift inspires others to give to the school and support its drive towards sustainability.”

At the time that an intended merger was announced, both schools noted that Harley was in the stronger position financially, and that school would take the leadership of the joined schools. Indeed, since the merger was called off, Harley announced it has successfully completed a campaign of its own.

AC meanwhile, had to do more than raise money.

“As a school, we also had to do some right-sizing,” Baudo said. Since the economic crisis of 2008, the school is down about 80 students; enrollment is now 339. Harley has approximately 500 students.

Head of School Mick Gee and Assistant Head of School Shannon Baudo. (Provided photo)
Head of School Mick Gee and Assistant Head of School Shannon Baudo. (Provided photo)

As part of its right-sizing, AC cut the equivalent of 14 full-time employees, though no teacher lost a job. Some positions were vacated through normal attrition and aren’t going to be replaced, the school heads said. In all, the school cut its spending by $1.5 million.

As a result of the changes, the school expects to end this fiscal year with a surplus for the first time in 11 years, and is projecting balanced budgets for the next three years.

Both Gee and Baudo participated in a nationwide research project at the National Association of Independent Schools on financial sustainability that they said had been instructive.

In January, Baudo said, the school plans to start a marketing campaign to recruit more students — some were lost over the uncertainty about the merger — and let people know AC has come through its financial worries well.

“With all the uncertainty in the spring around the merger, we didn’t have one faculty or staff leave,” Gee said. “We lost no one.”

But there is one person who will be lost — Gee. Due to the length of time it takes to complete a school head search, Gee accepted a job for 2020-21 during the period when it looked like his job at AC would be phased out in the merger. In June he’ll complete his eighth year at Allendale Columbia and then become the school head at Rowland Hall, a private school in Salt Lake City. His family is already there so his daughter could complete both junior and senior years at the same school.

Perhaps most valuable in going through the process of considering and rejecting a merger is the strength of feeling supporters realized they had for AC. And the school affirmed that its unique programs — including centers for entrepreneurship, global engagement, and STEM and Innovation — are a big draw.

“People came here for those programs, so they wanted to make sure that those programs and the opportunities those programs afforded for kids would be maintained through the merger as well,” Gee said.

Wendy Dworkin, parent of a junior at AC, said her son switched to that school from Harley after sixth grade because his learning style really leaned more toward STEM and business subjects, but he wanted to be able to satisfy his interests in history, too.

“He didn’t have to give up his love of history to be in a STEM school,” she said. “During May term they may be involved in actually running a TedX conference. They can have internships with businesses. There are some amazing businesses and out-of-the box thinking they can have access to.”

Dworkin wasn’t one of the parents who led the charge on the campaign, she said, but she was concerned that her son would lose faculty members or access to programs in the merger. As he started looking at colleges, it was uncertain whether the teachers who knew him best would still be around to write him letters of recommendation, she said.

AC students harvest honey from the bee hives they built and bees they raised as part of an ongoing multifaceted science project. (Provided photo)
AC students harvest honey from the bee hives they built and bees they raised as part of an ongoing multifaceted science project. (Provided photo)

In addition, there was conflicting information about what would happen in the merger, or lack of answers to some questions because decisions hadn’t been made on some things, which frustrated parents, Dworkin said.

Indeed, Gee said there are still misunderstandings today, even about whether the schools are merging.

“Everyone took it as a done deal, but it wasn’t a done deal,” Gee said. AC from the beginning had a group working on a contingency plan for how to keep going if the merger didn’t work out.

Though the two schools had signed letters of intent to merge in the spring, before their respective boards actually voted on merging in July, the schools planned to first invest several months in research about what a merger would mean.

The period of research led to Allendale Columbia deciding to go it alone.

“It was clear if cuts were to be made — they would be on the AC side,” Gee said.

Baudo and Gee said financial aid at AC is more generous than at other private schools in the area, and parents were concerned about whether AC’s levels of financial aid would continue for students who need it.

Alumni weighed in, too, asking whether they’d have a campus to return to — the question of two campuses was never resolved. Baudo said the school even heard from some Columbia alumnae who had been through the merger of the then-all-girls school with the all-boys Allendale that was completed in 1972.

Dworkin said she feels better now about the way things have settled out. “They do send the parents regular updates from the chairs of the board. (They are) basically restructuring how they conduct their business on a daily basis so they are more sustainable, without affecting the actual teaching,” she said.

Gee said he’s glad to leave the school on more solid financial footing.

“If I have to leave, that’s a good place to leave,” he said.

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Merger of The Harley School and Allendale Columbia School will take time

The historic merger of two private and independent preparatory schools is taking place to expand opportunities for the 900 students who attend them, the heads of  The Harley School and the Allendale Columbia School said this week.

But many details, including the name of the future school, are yet to be decided. 

Announcements were made Tuesday of the intended merger of the more-than-century-old schools. Mick Gee, Head of School at Allendale Columbia, said the schools’ respective boards of trustees voted on April 25 and Monday to sign a letter of intent to merge, and announcements to their communities were made at the same time on Tuesday. The heads met with members of the media Wednesday morning to talk about the decision. 

Harley Head of School Larry Frye said students will notice little change for the rest of this school year and next year. Students now in 11th and 12th grades will graduate from their individual schools, but there will be more collaboration starting with the coming school year.

Harley Head of School Larry Frye, left, and Allendale Columbia Head of School Mick Gee answer questions about the two school's impending merger. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter
Harley Head of School Larry Frye, left, and Allendale Columbia Head of School Mick Gee answer questions about the two schools’ impending merger. RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter

The merger will take place over the course of at least two years, with Harley taking the lead because it’s a larger school—500 students—with more assets. In addition, according to Harley’s announcement, that school will take “operational responsibility” of the merger process starting June 30. Allendale Columbia has 386 students, a number that represents a 30 percent increase over recent years when the school age population dipped, Gee said.

“What we haven’t figured out yet… is what’s going to go where and how,” Frye said.  The joint school will operate at least for some time with two campuses.   Neither campus is set up to take an increase of more than about 50 additional students right now, the heads said. 

Frye said task forces would be set up, with plenty of input from faculty, students, parents, and alumni to consider how to merge special aspects of the schools, such as their unique cultures and traditions, their math programs and others.

Both heads expressed excitement about the prospects of creating what Frye described as a “naturally exemplary school” as a result of the merger. Harley has created programs allowing students to study and work in sustainability and hospices, while Allendale has three special interest centers focusing on entrepreneurship, global engagement and STEM, design and innovation.

Despite those differences the schools’ approaches to education math, science, foreign languages, and the arts are quite similar, the heads agreed. harley-logo

“Harley and Allendale Columbia are already intertwined communities, and we enter into this opportunity with a deep mutual respect and appreciation for the extraordinary history, traditions, and programs of each school,” Frye said. “Combining the distinctive strengths of our storied institutions will create a truly extraordinary school.”

The schools lie a little more than a half a mile apart, with Harley on Clover Street in Brighton and Allendale Columbia on Allen’s Creek Road in Pittsford. Both schools serve students in nursery school through 12th grades, drawn from a wide area, including at least 14 countries and 50 zip codes. 

Currently, as they have for nearly 50 years, the schools field athletic teams together, which Frye said has led some outsiders to think the schools already have merged. They also have a combined middle school competitive math team, a shared homecoming and proms, and additional social events in common. A shuttle runs between them for sports. 

allendale-columbia-logo“Given the promise of combining the strengths of Allendale Columbia with those of The Harley School, we expect more families will seize the opportunity for an independent education,” Gee said. “We are currently focused on this affiliation—beyond that comes growth and continued strength, all harnessed for our students’ success.”

Employment numbers going forward will be dictated by enrollment, the schools’ joint announcement said. Harley now employs 120 staff and Allendale Columbia employs 98. 

The schools’ history began in 1890 when the precursor to the all-girls Columbia School was formed. Harley followed in 1917, and the all-boys Allendale was created in 1926. The Great Depression led Columbia and Allendale to merge for three years in the 1930s, but they separated for several decades after that. A fire that consumed the Allendale campus in 1966 eventually led to another merger and Columbia joined the Allendale students on the Pittsford campus in 1972. That fall, Harley and Allendale Columbia began fielding sports teams together.

Scott Frame, president of the Harley board of trustees, said conversations about merging the two schools have gone on for decades. Frye and Gee agreed that conversations have come up for many years, but said the decision to merge was driven by the boards of trustees without the typical community-wide discussion. Frye said in a video shared with alumni and other members of the Harley community, that a merger didn’t come up two years ago when he was a candidate for the job he holds now. Reaction to the announcement has been mostly positive, school leaders said, included a faculty member who dropped by Frye’s office Tuesday with a one-word exclamation: “gobsmacked.” 

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