School suffers financial, enrollment woes
TEANECK Metropolitan Schechter High School will remain open for another year if it can meet today’s deadline for a minimum ‘007-‘008 enrollment of 10 freshmen and a total enrollment of at least 70, its board decided on Monday. The current enrollment is 143, with a graduating class of 43, and tuition is between $10,000 and $11,000.
Board members agreed to put forward $1 million of their own money to keep the school running through the next year, with the additional condition that the community raise an additional $500,000 by September. The decision came after an open session Monday night at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, where the school is based, to discuss the school’s recently revealed deteriorating financial situation with parents and students.
Board members looked positively to next year, though, on Wednesday.
"We don’t guarantee that this won’t happen again," said treasurer Alan Tannenbaum. "These institutions, broadly speaking, have significant fund-raising needs on an annual basis and we don’t expect to be any different."
Tannenbaum expects the board to meet early next week to assess the school’s progress in meeting the enrollment benchmarks.
As of Monday, Metro Schechter faced a $1.5 million operating loss for the ‘007-08 school year, while between 40 and 50 students had returned contracts for next year, including an incoming freshman class of fewer than 10.
In response to a memo from the board that it would consider closing the one-year-old school, more than 100 parents, students, teachers, and rabbis showed up to plead with the board for keeping the school open.
Board president Eli Ungar began by apologizing before he explained that the board had floated the idea of closing as early as last year, when Schechter Regional High School in this township began plans to merge with Solomon Schechter High School of New York. The merger resulted in the Metropolitan Schechter High School. The schools had a combined $10 million operating loss.
"We never anticipated we’d be in this position," Tannenbaum said at the Monday night meeting. "Responses have not been what we wanted from large donors."
Despite the glum outlook from the board, students came forward to tell how the school had changed them.
"By closing this school, a lot of potential Harvard and Yale graduates are in danger of not having as much potential as they could have," said 1’th-grader Abbey Warner.
"The reason you’re closing my school is you don’t have enough money," said 1’th-grader Gabe Schoenberg. "It takes a lot to sit here and say, ‘We just don’t have the money.’"
Rabbi Paul Resnick, director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, told the board that he and other parents raised $50,000 for the school in one day. While that is far from the amount needed, he said, the ability to raise it in ‘4 hours showed the willingness of the parents to help.
"Having a Conservative Jewish high school is an imperative," he said. "All of the work is ahavat kodesh," love of holiness.
The timing of events frustrated parents, some said after Monday’s meeting. Many only learned of the financial troubles when the emergency meeting was called on Sunday. While the school may be saved for the next school year, it still needs to raise enough operating funds to continue beyond that year.
"When you don’t have a culture of transparency, this is what happens," said Abe Kempler of Teaneck, who has a daughter in ninth grade. "Who’s going to risk entering this school? That’s not a commitment to our daughter. We can’t do it a year at a time."
"We understand why people would be hesitant in view of the situation we had and the uncertainty," board member Sy Sadinoff told the Standard Wednesday. "The way we’ll convince them to do it is by getting things back on an even keel and be open with them and operate in a normal fashion."
The school went through an unusual year with the merger, Sadinoff added, and that is at the root of many of the problems the school faces.
"To a significant degree it took people’s eyes off the ball of running things in a normal fashion," he said. "That’s behind us now and we will move forward in a way you would expect a successful school to run."
He expected that getting the required 70 students for overall enrollment by today’s deadline would be simple, as many parents had merely not yet returned their contracts. The incoming freshman class is now the main concern, he said.
"We don’t have [commitments from all the] students who have expressed a desire to come to the school," he said. "We expect to do that."
The school will undertake a fund-raising campaign, Tannenbaum said. The scope of the campaign has not yet been determined but he believes the school will be able to continue from the unplanned campaign based on the show of commitment at Monday’s meeting.
Schechter’s board intends to hire a full time development director to lead fund-raising efforts, Tannenbaum said. It has also been in contact with UJA Federation of North Jersey, encouraged by a $50 million campaign launched last week by United Jewish Communities of Metrowest to aid three of its area day schools, including Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union. The discussions are in their early stages but the board is encouraged by the UJA-NNJ’s engagement, Tannenbaum said.
The North Jersey Board of Rabbis promised on Monday to play a role in recruiting new students and in fundraising. In a meeting with Schechter board president Ungar and board member David Brown, the rabbis asked to be partners with Schechter.
Rabbi Kenneth Berger of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom, who represented the rabbinical board Monday night with Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein told the Standard that he was happy the board listened carefully at Monday night’s meeting and looked forward to helping it succeed.
"The rabbis can help shape a vision for the school," he said. "I was touched by the testimonies of the families and the students about what the school’s meant to them. It made me feel even more committed to seeing the school go on."
Those testimonies changed the minds of board members, as well, said Tannenbaum. Many came to Monday’s meeting expecting to announce the school’s closing at the end because it lacked a viable financial future.
The school board’s silence before the public meeting was understandable, Berger said.
"They were afraid if they were more open that people would flee from the school, and nobody likes to jump on a sinking ship," he said. "But they did it with the best of intentions and hoped that the decision they were making would save the school."