Committee to discuss day school without ‘bells and whistles’

Committee to discuss day school without ‘bells and whistles’

People concerned about rising day-school tuition will meet tomorrow night at a private home in Englewood to discuss the possibility of creating a “bare-bones” day-school curriculum at reduced costs to parents.

Englewood resident Abby Flamholz is part of a 20-person committee that formed in recent months to explore solutions to the tuition problem. They came up with the idea of decreasing staff sizes while increasing class sizes and getting parents to volunteer their services by offering the stripped-down curriculum.

“What we’d like to do is build a model for a low-cost day school option and see if this is something that needs to be and can be built from scratch,” she said, or instituted in existing schools.

Flamholz emphasized that Saturday’s meeting is only to gauge interest in further exploration of the concept.

“We don’t know what the right thing is,” she said. “We want to see if there’s demand for this model, and then if there is demand, how it should be implemented.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, who has been working with a local initiative to create a communal fund for area day schools’ operating costs, has been meeting with this group of parents about the concept. The idea, he said, is still only that and not meant to detract from existing day-school programs.

“I strongly believe that it is appropriate to explore all available options,” Goldin said. “Having said that,” he added, “this has to be done with sensitivity to the existing day schools to make sure that we don’t undermine the high quality of Jewish education that is already being produced and the financial stability of the existing schools.”

Flamholz has four children at The Moriah School in Englewood, a K-8 school where tuition is an average of $15,000 per child. Bergen County has 12 Jewish elementary and high schools, while many area students travel to schools outside the county as well. Tuition varies by school, and can reach $30,000 per student for one year, if not more. For kindergarten through 12th-grade, parents typically look at costs of at least $200,000 per child.

“This committee is exploring this option and we don’t know exactly what the option is,” she said. “We’re not doing it because we’re unhappy with anything in the existing day schools. If there is a percentage of the population that wishes to have a lower-cost option, I don’t see why we can’t make that possible.”

Rabbi Saul Zucker

Area day schools are the Rolls Royces of the system, said Rabbi Saul Zucker, a Teaneck resident who is the Orthodox Union’s director of day school services. When shopping for a car, he said, consumers have three options: the Rolls Royce, the highest class; a Chevrolet, still a good vehicle but not on the same level as a Rolls; or a jalopy, the bare-bones model that will get from point A to point B.

“The automobile buyer has a choice,” he said. “In the world of day-school education, that choice doesn’t really exist. All of the yeshivot and day schools that service our communities across the country either are or purport to be Rolls Royces.”

These schools have cutting-edge technology, staffing, and campuses, and have earned their high distinction, Zucker added. The tuition crisis, however, began because not everybody can afford the Rolls Royce, he said.

“We had this idea that the Rolls Royce serves a great purpose and must be supported, but perhaps there ought to be a choice of a Chevy for parents who can’t afford a Rolls Royce,” he said. “There ought to be choices just like there are in the car market.”

Zucker has consulted with the Englewood parents group, but emphasized that the proposal comes from the community and not the OU.

He noted such differences as increasing class sizes to 23 to 25 students instead of 15 to 18; one rotating aide for lower grades rather than an aide in each class; fewer extracurricular activities; a five-hour volunteer requirement for parents; and cutting back on the latest technology.

“It’s a school without the bells and whistles,” Zucker said. “The core program at the school will be a quality education with a full complement of Torah studies and general studies.”

Like Flamholz, Zucker emphasized that no solid proposals exist yet and everything remains open to debate.

Four issues must be addressed if the concept is to become anything more, Zucker said. How the school would handle tuition assistance, particularly if it charges less than $10,000 per year, and how to address special-needs education, since those costs are higher, are important mechanical issues. In addition, the community would have to figure out how to avoid creating a class system of “the wealthy school and not-wealthy school,” Zucker said. If the proposal can be implemented in an existing school, he said, it would have to translate into a second track within the school, which could create friction between two sets of students. Furthermore, he said, how to create a positive relationship between “the Rolls Royce schools” and any new school, if deemed necessary, would have to be explored.

Goldin presented the concept at a meeting of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County on Tuesday and asked the rabbis there – not a full complement – to support further exploration. Rabbis who agreed include Shalom Baum of Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck, Steven Pruzansky of Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, Yisroel Teichman of Cong. K’hal Adath Jeshurun of Paramus, Pinchas Weinberger of Young Israel of Teaneck, and Michael Taubes of Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck. The statement of support extends only to further exploration of the idea, Goldin said.

Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of Torah Academy of Bergen County, declined to declare his support at Tuesday’s meeting. One of the sticking issues in the model, he said Wednesday, was the call for larger classes.

“From experience, the larger the class the less successful the teacher is at reaching students,” Adler said.

Goldin said that he is not acting as an advocate for the concept. Rather, he wants to support the rights of parents to explore all options.

“There has to be a full study of whether or not Bergen County parents are willing to accept such a model,” he said. “Nobody wants to give up on the fundamentals. [The concept] has to be viewed not as threat to the existing schools but as an additional option within the community.”

The day schools face two crises now, according to Zucker. The first, which the OU has sought to address, is increased operational costs. The second is the tuition burden on families.

Several “Continuing the conversation” opinion columns have appeared lately in The Jewish Standard decrying high tuition and even alleging that the high cost of day school is a form of “Jewish birth control” in traditionally large Orthodox families.

“Every day that issue is on my mind,” Zucker said. “The voices of the unborn children are loud to me and we have to do something in response to the voices of those unborn children. The current system just cannot sustain itself.”

The OU held a summit earlier this year with representatives from day schools around the tri-state area to discuss proposals to stem costs. Plans to create a national insurance program for day-school faculty were among the most noteworthy suggestions.

The OU has scheduled a teleconference for April 22 to discuss the program, as well as a “greening” project that could reduce energy costs by at least 20 percent and a presentation to reconstitute printers’ ink supplies that could save $30,000 a year.

“All these things are going to help the schools manage their operating budgets but they will not turn into anything in terms of reducing tuition for the parents,” Zucker said. “In just the past five years, tuition has increased by approximately double the rate of inflation and salary increases. This system cannot sustain itself for the parents.”

Another suggestion from the summit was to create a communal fund, similar to the one Goldin is working on, which Zucker said he planned to present to the RCBC last night. He made clear that such a fund could only help schools lower operating costs. To affect tuition costs, the community cache would need to collect millions of dollars and parents would have the increased burden of paying into the fund on top of tuition.

“The kehilla fund is wonderful for injecting into the schools much needed funds that will help them not be late on payroll, utilities, mortgage, etc.,” he said. “It’s not equipped to reduce tuition in any serious way for the parents.”

Zucker sees only two ways to solve the tuition crisis. One is government funding, which raises issues of separation of church and state. The OU is lobbying within Congress for school vouchers and other options to avoid the conflict, but that solution is still a long way off.

“And the second thing is to have a Chevrolet,” he said – “affordable alternatives not to replace the Rolls Royces but to be in addition to.”

For more information on Saturday night’s meeting, e-mail

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