What Does It Take to Be a Board Member? Phil Garrison Shares His Wisdom

Phil Garrison
College: University of Oklahoma 
Occupation: Energy industry 
Current City: Tulska, Oklahoma

In the past two years, the American School of Dubai has been honored with a number of awards and accolades. Some acknowledged the school’s efforts in sustainability, like the prestigious Zayad Sustainability Prize and recognition in the 2018 Sustainability Champions Competition. Others celebrated the quality of education: ASD was named one of Knowledge Review Magazine's 10 Best International Schools in Dubai and schoolscompared.com’s 2019 “Best American Curriculum School of the Year.”

While 300 faculty members and a force of 1900 students from all corners of the globe helped earn these achievements, they are also due to ASD teams who operate behind the scenes.

Phil Garrison, an American career businessman in the energy industry, now based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has served on the ASD board of trustees since 2006, and as the chairman of the board from 2011 to 2017. Garrison recalls that before the opening of the new campus, this more than half-a-century-old institution endured a moment when its leaders wondered if it could survive the massive development and inflation happening around it in a rapidly changing Dubai.

Garrison has served on a number of boards of public organizations including the American Business Council and the boards of private companies, and with a son enrolled at ASD, he was happy to accept the board’s invitation. But being a member of the Board of Trustees for ASD, he says, was a very different experience from his previous board roles: “It was truly a two-way street,” he says. With his experience in business, Garrison has been able to contribute valuable HR perspectives to larger discussions about the school’s present and future, and with his background in finance and accounting, he continued to help keep the budget on track. “Today the school is financially in as good a shape as it could be. That’s certainly not just me, but that’s the type of business skills that board members can bring. But on the other hand, I was able to learn a lot, he says. “The board at the ASD carries such a heavy responsibility, the work so important, board members have a responsibility to learn and to contribute a lot more than just business skills.” 

Part of the new experience for Garrison, despite his decades of experience in business, was the number and importance of all the parties involved in making a school sustainable and successful: “You have to learn about what type of school it is, how education works,” he says, “and you have to know and prioritize the values and needs of different stakeholders including parents, teachers, students, superintendents, and the administration. Every group is critical to what you do, and the board has to be able to incorporate and include all those groups into your thought process. As a result, we used to have some pretty longboard meetings,” he laughs. 

Garrison’s service on the board spanned a time of great transition for ASD. “When I joined the board, we were in a smaller school in Jumeirah,” Garrison recalls. “Everybody loved it. But, the government of Dubai needed to make some urban planning changes to the surrounding housing. A lot of the teachers lived in that housing at that time. We had to move those teachers into different housing, and because Dubai was going through such an upsurge, we had to deal with inflation, causing us to have to raise tuition. It became clear costs wouldn’t be sustainable for much longer, and we had a tremendous waiting list,” Garrison says. 

ASD was in a difficult position. But there was hope: “We had a piece of ground about 10 miles from the original school,” Garrison says. “It was a lot of work to determine whether we could afford to build a new school. But after a lot of discussion and gnashing of teeth, we decided to build.” Garrison’s brought his financial background as a CPA to the conversation and with a great deal of teamwork, the board determined they could build on the new property, relocate the school, and make it financially sustainable while making no compromises on the quality of the facilities.

Logistically, the transition to the new campus was difficult. “There was some emotional toll because everybody loved the campus at Jumeirah,” Garrison says. “It had a great spirit, and community spirit difficult to move.” 

Around the same time, ASD also underwent major changes in the administration. “Between 2011 and 2012, we went through a really rigorous process to find a new superintendent,” Garrison says. “We interviewed people all over the world by Skype, and did a lot of work.” In the end, the board hired Dr. Brent Mutsch from the Singapore American School. “I talked to him before he came and said we really want to take this school to be in the top five in the world in the coming years — because we felt that was achievable — but what we really want is to put the heart and soul back into the school. We want the community to feel like it used to on the previous campus.” 

The new superintendent took Garrison’s and the board’s wish to heart. “He and I used to talk on a weekly basis about how we could get back to that same level of community spirit that made the school so special at the Jumeirah campus,” Garrison says. And it worked: “Today, ASD’s school spirit is as strong as it’s ever been,” Garrison says. “The administration is a really wonderful group of people who work hard to do the right thing for the students and for the teachers.”

After five years at ASD, Mutsch and his family relocated back to the U.S., paving the way for the arrival of the current ASD superintendent in 2017. Dr. Paul Richards came to ASD from the International Schools Group Saudi Arabia and was previously High School Principal of the American School in London and a member of the administration at Needham and Nantucket high schools in Massachusetts. In his two years at ASD, he and his family have helped make the spirit of ASD even stronger, while he exercises thought leadership in areas like the future of schooling.

Meanwhile, Garrison relocated to Tulsa to be closer to family, and his son Braden graduated from ASD in 2017 to attend university at Orange Coast College in Santa Anna, California. From afar, ASD is still close to Garrison’s heart, and he knows it is in good hands, with a thriving community, and behind the scenes, a dedicated board and meticulously selected, exceptional administrators. 

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