Flint Hill school has ‘unique opportunity to reinvent itself, while still sticking to core principles’
Paul F. Larner had every reason not to become the board of trustees chairman of Wakefield Country Day School. Not only did his son, Daniel, graduate from the school in 2012, Larner keeps more than busy in Slate Mills overseeing two investment funds. In fact, he declined to join the board when approached two years ago because he just didn’t have the time.
But in recent weeks it reached a point where he couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore.
“I approached the school,” Larner replies to that question from the Rappahannock News.
For Wakefield, the timing of his entry couldn’t have come at a better time.
Only days before the school’s prior board of trustees had sent a surprising two-page letter to the WCDS community stating that unless a tremendous amount of money could be raised in a few weeks’ time the Flint Hill private school founded in 1972 would likely have to shut its doors at the close of this academic year.
To say the students, parents, faculty, and even the school’s founders were caught off guard is an understatement.
“I think the communication of it was less than stellar,” says Larner, stressing at the same time that he believes issuing such a letter was “a prudent decision.”
“I think that Wakefield kind of needed the crisis that the letter provoked because that produced north of $150,000 in donations, united the alumni and friends base in a way never before seen, instigated changes to the board, produced a friendly patron base of lenders, and without that crisis being provoked the school would have continued down a slow decline, or maybe a rapid decline,” he says.
“Wakefield will be smaller next year than it was this year, but it has a unique opportunity now to reinvent itself, while still sticking to its core principles . . . What we have to do is get the school on a sustainable financial footing.”
The fact that Larner is referring to “next year” is impressive, but he’s confident enough to be discussing the school’s future in “three-to-five year” terms.
“First of all, whenever you’re raising funds, to be taken seriously you have to make a financial commitment yourself, because you’re asking other people to follow your lead,” he answers when asked about the sudden influx of support for the school, both monetary and other. “So I started with that and then I came up with a structure for Wakefield to use its real estate to assure its financial future for several years with loans by patrons of the school.”
Anywhere from “five to ten” patrons, he’s not specific, who between themselves agreed in only a matter of hours to lend the school hundreds of thousands of interest-free dollars — which coupled with other donations has put $1 million-plus in the school’s bank account — so it could remain open.
“I’m not a high profile person within Rappahannock County,” says Larner. “So I had to reach out to other people to help me generate a list of contacts. I had several of the contacts but not all of them. I think all of the patrons were motivated by a deep commitment to Wakefield, but also by a conviction that Wakefield is a core asset to Rappahannock County. I think it important that the public understand that.”
In fact, the school is the 5th largest employer in Rappahannock, so its closure would also have had negative consequences for the county as a whole.
“I’m in the real estate business and I always hate riding by vacant buildings. It’s a sign of creeping decay,” Larner points out. “And hearing about schools closing is not good for the health of the local real estate market and community … And if Wakefield goes vacant they’re a notch on the decline toward rural blight. You see how urban blight can take over. And a lot of the patrons, including myself, did not want this beginning notch.”
Larner, who is 63, grew up in Charlottesville and hiked Rappahannock County as a youngster. He went to Haverford College outside Philadelphia, and went into the Peace Corps for two-plus years working as a land surveyor in Niger in West Africa. He went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of London and a law degree from the University of Virginia. He spent years in the real estate finance field in Washington, D.C., then moved to Rappahannock in 2008 where he now works from his home.
“I only have to commute to the basement,” he says with much satisfaction.
That said, these past few days he’s been spending a great deal of time on WCDS’s campus, making certain that everybody is on the same page when looking to the future needs of the school.
In its letter that went out in late April, the board wrote that for Wakefield to survive it had to enroll “at least 200 students.” The last time enrollment numbers were at that level was in 2014.
“[W]hat we did not expect, and had not planned on, was the significant decline in our international student population beginning in 2017,” said the board of its previous average pool of 22-24 foreign students who “helped to sustain us financially. We never had to recruit these students, for we had agencies and a school in Japan that sent applications our way regularly. It was not even unusual for us to turn some students away.”
Then came early 2017, and Wakefield was told these students would no longer be studying in the United States, rather attending schools in Canada and Australia. China, at the same time, was replacing foreign study for its youth by creating new classrooms on its home turf.
“The desire for higher paying international students is something all private secondary schools share,” acknowledges Larner. “But they’re not our only salvation here and were not relying exclusively on them . . . I don’t want to overemphasize enrollment numbers. I want the school to be judged by the education it delivers. So overfixation on 110, 120, 150, 180 [enrollment] this is not the way we want to be judged. We want to be judged by the education we deliver and the environment we create and sustain for our families.”
To that end, the chairman says Wakefield has “to do more in our local eight-county market” that sends students to Flint Hill.
“We need to find more support within this incredibly unique Rappahannock County,” Larner adds. “We have many people here of great means, with prominent positions of sometimes national stature, who probably don’t know Wakefield. And this is one way in which we have to make our school mission more widely valued within our local market. We would like them to learn about Wakefield and help us in a variety of ways.”
He eyes the room where he’s being interviewed, like much of school setting the bare minimums.
“Wakefield is not going to sell itself on its facilities,” Larner says. “It’s when people walk through the door and feel the devotion and kindness and commitment to education that they come here. In a way our facilities in their current condition are somewhat of a marketing positive for us because it sends the message that where we spend the money is on the quality of the education — teachers, faculty, and the like — and not on building new monumental buildings.”