In the forthcoming Association Extra General Meeting (EGM on 19 October) we will present the draft budget for 2024 and hope to explain some of the complexities of what makes MECS a financially viable and sustainable school. One key issue that all parents are keenly interested in is: What are the school fees for next year?
Here’s the 2024 fee schedule that the Board approved at its meeting on Tuesday.
You will notice in the table a new fee call an IT Levy. As we have now reached the point of the full roll out of our Personal Learning Device (PLD) program through the Secondary School we have realised that the implementation costs have been higher than the original pilot program anticipated. These costs are not so much in the devices themselves, but rather in the support personnel and the cybersecurity measures that must be implemented. To make the PLD program financially sustainable we have implemented this IT Levy. The fee represents about half the cost of the actual hardware, so we are confident that this is an accessible way to provide the PLD for secondary students.
The tuition fees shown in the table have risen 5% above the 2023 fees. It is an uncomfortable reality that this rise is impacted by our high inflation environment. It was easy to understand in previous years that lower increases were sustainable when the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was low, but with inflation up over 6% the challenging reality is that fees need to increase to keep pace with costs. Thankfully, we have been able to keep the increase somewhat lower than CPI. I want to share a few of our considerations when setting fees.
Education cost increases are lower than CPI
Whilst the CPI rate is high, school business managers and education departments also use a Bureau of Statistics measure called the Education Price Index (EPI). Often this is above the CPI rate. However, in the year up to June 2023 the EPI was 5.2%.
Fees at other local independent schools
A look at the fee rates of other local independent schools will show that the MECS fees are still relatively affordable. It would be convenient if we could do a simple comparison of fees between schools but it’s not quite ‘apples and apples’. Scholarships at other schools; discounts for 2nd and 3rd children and the family fee ceiling here at MECS don’t always lead to easy comparisons. Other than some Catholic providers, we believe we are the least expensive provider of independent education in our immediate region.
Government grants have a huge influence on our budget
Each time we budget we have to make estimates of what we’ll be receiving through government funding. We have been able to keep fees reasonably low because we receive government funding and we run a ‘tight ship’. Government funding is based on a system called the Direct Measure of Income (DMI) model. Governments calculate what our parents’ “capacity to contribute” is based on their incomes (they crossmatch ATO data with parents’ addresses). This results in a DMI score. From this score they calculate a notional entitlement to funding and we receive 80% of that from the Commonwealth government. There is also an additional set of calculations to provide funding to enable us to support students with disabilities. All in all, MECS receives from the Commonwealth government around 60% of our income, and from the State government we receive about 12.5% of our income. You the parent community, in your partnership with the school, contribute the balance.
2024 is the second year that kindergarten will be free. This is a result of the State government’s so-called “Best Start, Best Life” program. The MECS Kindergarten will be participating in this funding program because not only does it assist families directly by eliminating fees, but the State government has heard our voice and is implementing more equitable funding for low fee Independent School Kindergartens. As a result our Kinder will be more financially sustainable in 2024.
Viable financial planning
The Board requires the Finance Committee to always plan for a modest surplus, a practice in keeping with a ‘not for profit’ organisation that seeks to be financially sound and viable for the long run. A modest surplus for us entails that the earnings before interest, depreciation, and amortisation is over 10% of income (some school economic advisors recommend 12.5%). This allows for the ongoing investment in essential IT systems and IT equipment for students, maintenance and development of our campus (preventing the run down school scenario so often seen on the news), and, providing there are no costly ‘unforeseens’, enables us to pay off debt. In a real sense then it is not a surplus but our investment in the school’s ongoing development.
The Finance Committee and Board are very conscious of the MECS mission – “We provide Parent-governed, Christ-centred schooling … at a price affordable to those who are committed”. In order to make sure that Christian education is ‘affordable’, firstly, fees need to be kept as low as possible, and secondly, a mechanism needs to exist where some help can be provided to those who are committed but who can’t afford it. Where the fee rate is beyond those who are committed, the school helps out. We do not use the allocated help to offer academic scholarships (as it can be a self-serving practice that we think has no place in Christian education). Rather, once families have shown they are committed they can apply for assistance through a confidential fee assistance mechanism that assesses need.
We appreciate that each of you is making a financial sacrifice to include your children in our learning community. We know it is not easy. We hope that we have struck the right balance between keeping the school affordable and keeping it viable. Thank you for partnering with us.