How do you solve a problem like making day schools more affordable?
For the experts from Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, the answer is by tuning one budget line at a time.
Over the past few years, consultants from the YU institute have been working with leaders of local day schools to review budget lines and see how each school can best reduce its expenses and increase its income.
Now the schools are implementing a customized plan for each school, the final phase in the process that began with “benchmarking” – gathering data from the schools and allowing them to measure how their expenses and revenues compare with those of their peers.
This process has been funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which has allocated $85,000 over the last three years for the benchmarking process.
Of the seven schools that began the process, five have continued with it: Ben Porat Yosef, Yavneh Academy, and Yeshivat Noam, all in Paramus, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. Schechter is Conservative; the other schools are Orthodox.
For parents, the results so far have been most visible in tuition rates that have stayed flat this past year at most of those schools. The benchmarking process, which aimed to improve each school’s finances by 10 percent, helped make that possible.
The process is changing the way the schools do business, raise money, and plan for the future.
At the Yavneh Academy one result has been a focus on fundraising, according to the school’s principal, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp. The study reinvigorated the board’s development committee, and last summer the school hired a part-time director of development, the school’s first.
“That initiative has already proved very successful,” Knapp said.
The northern New Jersey schools have been at the forefront of this benchmarking process, which now is being carried out in Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The local schools’ avant-garde role is due in part to the formation of Jewish Education for Generations, a coalition, formed in 2008, that includes day schools across the denominational divide as well as area rabbis and lay leaders. The coalition sponsors the Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools fundraising program, and it also is helping to fund the YU consultations.
At the federation, Minna Heilpern, who heads the organization’s Jewish Educational Services, said that “our support of this project is an expression of our deep interest in helping our schools.”
Ruth Gafni, Solomon Schechter’s head of school, said the benchmarking experience “has been beyond positive.”
“It was the first time that we were brought to the table with all the other schools to think collaboratively about the various aspects of our schools,” she said. “We shared real data, which was a shift of thinking among our schools in Bergen County. We were able to reflect upon our own practices and the practices of the group,” while examining such data as student-faculty ratios and expenses.
“We came closer than we expected to the 10 percent improvement in the budget, that at the outset seemed to be a very heady goal,” Gafni said. With help from webinars and support services provided by YU School Partnership, Solomon Schechter was able to improve its fundraising, marketing, and enrollment.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity to reflect on your program, to look for inefficiencies, and recognize a lot of the efficiencies you have in the school,” said Rabbi Daniel Price, head of school of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.
At RYNJ, the benchmarking process has led the school to adopt a new fundraising program that has already yielded results – a new campaign that targets grandparents of students.