Rabbis, educators seek solutions to rising day-school costs
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Rabbis, educators seek solutions to rising day-school costs

Representatives of 35 day schools convened at the Orthodox Union’s headquarters in New York Tuesday night to discuss options for stemming rising tuition costs and expenses.

“The economic downturn has been profoundly significant on the day schools,” Rabbi Saul Zucker, the O.U.’s director of day school and educational services, told The Jewish Standard. “Schools are feeling an economic crunch they haven’t felt in decades.”

Rabbi Saul Zucker, the O.U.’s director of day school and education services, says day schools are “feeling a financial crunch they haven’t felt in decades.”

Zucker, who lives in Teaneck, unveiled a series of proposed steps for day schools to take in order to remain financially viable. A new approach must be designed for the schools, he said, focused on cost-saving and revenue-producing measures.

Moshe Bane, chairman of the O.U.’s board of governors, told the assembled educators that “if you wait too long, it becomes too late. When you still have breathing room, there’s a chance to save the enterprise.”

To those who are not feeling the economic pinch, Bane warned it was only a matter of time. In addition to the economic downturn facing the country, Bernard Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme has hit many of the day school system’s big donors.

“We are now in an industry-wide crisis,” he said. “Any institution that relies on [donors’] support has a challenge.”

Bergen County is familiar with the results of a financially failing day school. Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck closed its doors in 2007 after it could not make up a $1.5 million deficit. The Conservative movement’s Schechter system does not fall under the auspices of the O.U. and therefore was not invited to the conference. Once steps are put into place, he added, resources would be available to all day schools, including Schechter.

“The O.U. would not say no to anyone who asks for assistance,” he told the Standard.

The O.U. has scheduled a teleconference for educators for Monday to discuss the suggestions and begin putting some of them in place.

The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey’s Gershon Distenfeld wants to see a communal fund set up to take pressure off families paying tuition.

“This was a good first step,” said Gershon Distenfeld, an executive board member of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done.”

He called the O.U.’s suggestions “baby steps.” “We really have to change the model of how we fund this in the long run to make it more of a communal obligation,” he said.

He pointed to public school funding as a model for the day schools.

“In the long run we have to get away from the model of parents paying the full cost of tuition,” he said. “The American system has it right. Everybody pays property taxes. You pay the same taxes whether you have kids in the school or not.”

Others voiced similar support for a communal fund to take pressure off parents.

“In the Orthodox community it is still considered a family imperative, not a choice, for students to attend yeshiva from kindergarten through 12th grade,” said Sheldon Chanales, a founding president of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. “Our issue is going to be … that we have a destructive system that requires tuition to go up but puts the burden of the cost on the wrong people.”

Reached on Wednesday, Wallace Greene, director of Jewish Educational Services at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, was skeptical about one of the suggestions – to seek funding from area federations. UJA-NNJ’s annual campaigns have hovered around $14 million in recent years, while the area’s day schools distribute $9 million annually in scholarship funds, Greene said. The federation is not in a position to contribute to that number.

“I do not think that additional funding from the federation is realistic because they’re cutting back on their own services,” he said. “Other alternatives to cut costs might be group purchasing or group insurance. We are [also] having some preliminary discussions about putting together a mega-fund, as some other communities have done.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah is spearheading a community group to solutions to the tuition crisis.

Those three ideas were also suggested at the O.U. meeting.

Greene would also like to see tuition tax credits instituted on the state level, as is already available in Pennsylvania and New York. In those states, people with a tax obligation to the state have the option of allocating a portion of that money to a scholarship fund in a private school.

The idea has received a cold shoulder from advocates of church and state separation but Greene said it does not violate that ideal.

Greene has been part of a local movement within the federation and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County that has been meeting with day school leaders about the issue.

“There is a uniformity of opinion that at some fundamental level we have to re-educate the community to the fact that local Jewish education is a community priority and that the entire financial burden cannot rest just on the parents of children in the schools,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah. Goldin has been spearheading those meetings.

All involved, from the O.U. meeting and the local initiative, believe that rising day school costs existed long before the economic downturn pushed it into the spotlight. Now, they say, the tuition problem is threatening the entire day-school system.

“The finances are so onerous now that we’re not only not attracting [new students] but we’re pushing people away,” Goldin said. “And we’re creating tremendous burdens on already committed, affiliated families to the extent that I believe families are actively limiting family size and others are considering alternatives [to the day-school system].”

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