Faculty layoffs at Moriah

Faculty layoffs at Moriah

More schools means fewer students at Bergen's oldest Jewish day school

The Moriah School in Englewood is laying off 19 faculty and staff members as its leaders focus on “tuition sustainability and sustainable excellence” in the face of declining enrollment.

The school projects its enrollment to shrink slightly next year to 790 students from its current 804. But that is a significant fall from its peak enrollment of 1,000 back in 2000.

The decrease in enrollment comes as newer Orthodox schools, including Yeshivat Noam and Ben Porat Yosef, both in Paramus and both founded in 2001, continue to grow – those two schools have more than 1,000 students between them. Moriah faces more competition than ever before, with the Lubavitch on the Palisades day school now expanded to fourth grade and Yeshivat He’atid, newly open this year, with more than 100 students.

But Moriah’s president, Evan Sohn, doesn’t miss the days when Moriah was one of only three Orthodox day schools in Bergen County, along with the Yavneh Academy in Paramus and the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

“You had kids learning in the hallways,” he said. “This is not a good way to learn. The communities are getting larger and there are more choices to go to. There’s something very good about that.

“We used to have to be all things to all people. Now we get to become more student-centric,” he said.

Looking forward, early childhood enrollment is up 15 percent for next year.

Sohn is himself a graduate of Moriah; he graduated in 1981, the year the school moved into its Englewood campus. (It previously had been at Congregation Ahavath Torah, also in Englewood.) The school opened in September 1964 and was the first day school in Bergen County.

The faculty layoffs were reported last week in the New York Jewish Week. According to a letter sent to the school’s parents after the Jewish Week article, the reductions represent 12 percent of its current staffing. Despite the reductions, two new teaching positions are being added.

Sohn said the staff reduction is part of a top-to-bottom examination of the school’s expenses spurred by a “benchmarking” process in which Moriah – along with several other area day schools – worked with consultants at Yeshiva University to examine their budget, and compare it to those of other schools.

The consultants were funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

The consultants found that Moriah’s faculty were the best paid of the area schools – and had the highest tuition benefit, meaning the percentage of their children’s tuition at the school that was foregone. That benefit was reduced, though Sohn said it remains more than at other schools.

“Part of our mission is to attract and retain the best faculty possible,” he said. “That’s why we’ve always been at that upper limit of our school being compensated more than other schools.”

Sohn said the board posed the challenge to the administrators of designing their team from scratch. “Forget why someone is here. Build a new program for next year,” he said.

In the process, some part-time positions were consolidated, some responsibilities were reassigned, “and some positions that were appropriate when we had 1,000 students were eliminated.”

Sohn said the cuts will not effect the classroom student-teacher ratio.

What the school did not do, he said, was ask for salary reductions from its teachers.

“That’s not the best way to improve morale,” he said. “We don’t believe in paying someone less to do the same job. We would rather reduce someone’s responsibility and her salary than say do the same job next year for less money.”

Sohn said this year’s cuts followed smaller cuts of about 10 staff members over each of the previous two years.

Reducing faculty expenses was only one part of the fiscal savings brought on by the benchmarking process, which also looked at reducing the amount of money owed the school by parents, and at reducing every possible expense.

“We literally read every meter in the school,” to find ways to reduce utility costs, Sohn said. “No stone was unturned in our effort to rebuild the budget from the ground up.”

He said the school succeeded in the 10 percent improvement in its operating budget sought by the benchmarking process.

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