Trustees wanted Ellis School head to resign
A. Randol Benedict abruptly resigned as headmistress of The Ellis School in September at the urging of school trustees who in June cited dramatic declines in enrollment, budget problems and her frequent absences, according to an internal memo and email messages the Tribune-Review obtained.
Benedict left Ellis, a private girls school in Shadyside, three weeks after the school year started and four years into her tenure. She could not be reached for comment and has declined interview requests.
In a memo to Benedict and members of the school's executive committee, dated June 25, board of trustees President Susan Brownlee said the school was in “crisis.”
“We believe that the consistent, significant decline in enrollment over the last five years — from 486 students in 2008 to an anticipated 400 in the 2013-2014 academic year — is a trend that threatens the nature and, if not reversed, possibly the existence of Ellis,” Brownlee said.
Enrollment declines in the middle school were nearly twice the level of those in higher grade levels, Brownlee said, meaning the lower enrollment could affect the school for years.
Nonprofit tax records show Ellis lost more students than three other regional private K-12 schools between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 school years, dropping nearly 16 percent. Enrollment fell at Shady Side Academy and Sewickley Academy, approximately 2.5 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively. Winchester Thurston School, also in Shadyside, increased enrollment 4.75 percent since 2008.
Addressing goals for the coming year, Brownlee, who could not be reached for comment, urged Benedict to delegate day-to-day tasks more often and reduce her time spent away from Ellis at conferences.
Chief Financial Officer Peggy Conver praised Benedict in an email dated Sept. 22, almost one week after Benedict's departure.
“I believe we made the right decision to look for new leadership,” she wrote, but she questioned the board's lack of transparency.
Personnel issues at a school should be handled differently than in the corporate world, she said.
“To do a ‘pick up your purse and vacate' action in a school should only ever be considered in a case of malfeasance or fraud — neither appropriate here,” Conver wrote. “I sense ... that a seismic shock has been dealt and our inability to respond with a clear statement as to our need to honor our trustee responsibilities in light of continued financial decline has hamstrung the recovery process.”
Annual tuition at Ellis ranges from $9,000 to more than $26,000, depending on the grade level. About 35 percent of students receive financial aid, spokeswoman Kitty Julian said.
Julian, who declined to discuss the memo and emails, said Ellis projects a budget deficit of $773,000. Tax records show Ellis reported a $12.4 million operating budget in 2011.
“Tuition revenues have declined gradually since 2008, while the number of families requesting — and qualifying for — financial aid has increased,” she said.
The school lost roughly $5 million from its endowment when the market declined in 2008, Julian said, and only recently recovered to pre-2008 levels. Administrators project a 10 percent increase in enrollment — roughly 41 students — would put the school back on track.
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.