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Day schools feel recession pinch


A first-grader opens his Hebrew study workbook at Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit. (Krista Husa/Detroit Jewish News)

A first-grader opens his Hebrew study workbook at Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit. (Krista Husa/Detroit Jewish News)

NEW YORK, March 5 (JTA) — Hillel Day School, a Conservative school in suburban Detroit is raising its tuition by $1,000 for next year — more than twice the usual rate of increase — to make up for shortfalls in its endowment revenues. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph Schools in Staten Island, N.Y. and Edison, N.J., which are Orthodox, are experiencing a 50 percent decline in fund raising since Sept. 11, had to raid their endowment to meet costs and expect to raise their tuition more than usual this year. And the Pardes Jewish Day School in suburban Phoenix, which is Reform, is facing increased requests for financial aid at the same time that fund raising is "very taxed." Whether from slashed fund-raising revenues, heightened requests for financial aid or forced tuition hikes, day schools throughout the United States are feeling the pinch of the recession. At the same time they are facing additional financial burdens from new security requirements in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Tuition increases come as Jewish day schools are already under pressure to keep tuition low in order to attract more families that have opted for public schools to save money. Tuition varies widely, but generally ranges from $5,000 to $15,000. A recent American Jewish Committee study, "The Cost of Jewish Living," estimated that it costs approximately $30,000 a year to belong to synagogue, and send two children to day schools and Jewish summer camp — a bill beyond the reach of the average Jewish family. However, with talk of the economy showing signs of revival, schools are hoping the worst is over. Schools report a variety of cost-saving measures, ranging from "doing without a secretary" to freezing wages to delaying implementation of strategic plans. So far there are no reports that it is affecting day school enrollment, which had boomed nationally in the past decade. Approximately 185,000 American Jewish children — and the vast majority of Orthodox ones — attend day schools. And not all schools are hurting or raising tuition. The Perelman Day School, a Conservative school in suburban Philadelphia, received a record- breaking $20 million gift this fall for its endowment. Two new day high schools — one in the San Francisco area and one in North Carolina — have raised enough money to offer completely free tuition for their first few years. Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, said the recession has "certainly impacted" day schools. "There are families that need tuition assistance that didn´t a year ago," he said. But Elkin is not expecting a long-term impact on the day school movement, which he said is maturing and becoming better at marketing itself to a wider group of students and donors. Founded in 1997, PEJE advocates for Jewish day schools and provides consulting and matching grants. In the past year, it has stepped up training and matching grants to help day schools with fund raising and marketing. Seventy day schools attended a PEJE resource development conference last spring. The recession is hitting day schools in different ways. Detroit´s Hillel, which has approximately $2 million in endowments — an unusually large endowment for a Jewish day school — was hit hard by the stock market plunge. Hillel had few reserve funds and had budgeted for 6 percent to 7 percent returns on its endowment, according to the Detroit Jewish News. "But, lo and behold, the spinoff on that was closer to zero percent," the school´s headmaster, Mark Smiley, recently told the Detroit weekly. The school now needs to "learn the biblical lesson of using the good years to prepare for a downturn in the economy," Smiley said. Few Jewish day schools have sizeable endowments, however, so market declines have had a more indirect effect on them — hurting donors, who in turn are less willing or able to donate to the school. Many schools say fund raising — which supplements tuition revenues — has been especially challenging this year. Rabbi Harvey Well, superintendent of Associated Talmud Torahs, an agency for traditional and Orthodox day schools in the Chicago area, said, "Schools are very nervous, fund-raisers are working very hard and dinners are not producing the same success that they did." Many Chicago area schools are raising tuition more than usual as a result, he said, noting that one suburban school — which he declined to name — has raised tuition from $7,500 to $9,600 for next year. The number of students receiving financial aid has risen to an estimated 45 percent system-wide, up from 35 percent to 40 percent, Well said. Bonnie Morris, head of Pardes and president of the Progressive Association for Reform Day Schools, a North American network, said, "It´s harder to find those angels to give money." "As I´ve approached people who had told us they would give larger gifts, they said had problems with the stock market even prior to Sept. 11, so it´s harder for them to follow through with what they may have given a year or two ago." However, Pardes and other Arizona day schools are having less difficulty meeting financial aid requests than Jewish schools elsewhere in the country, because the state recently implemented a policy enabling donors to receive tax credits for money donated to education. For example, a married couple can donate up to $625 for day school scholarships and have that amount knocked off their tax bill. In the Phoenix area, Jewish day schools are collectively administering a $900,000 scholarship fund with money collected as a result of the new law. The Epstein School, a Conservative day school in Atlanta, has kept fund raising steady, but has faced increased expenses due to a variety of factors. These include heightened security needs, more financial aid requests and more use of the school´s health insurance and pension plans by teachers whose spouses have been laid off. "It´s a very difficult year financially for all the schools I´ve been talking too," said Cheryl Finkel, the school´s head. The economic downturn appears to have one small silver lining. Recruitment of personnel — long a major challenge for day schools, exacerbated by the competition from more lucrative careers in the economic boom — is becoming a little bit easier for some. "It´s very clear that I´m receiving more applicants than ever before and a large number of the applicants are people who are currently not certified teachers — people switching jobs and looking to get into education," said Rabbi Lev Herrnson, head of Temple Beth Am Day School, a Reform school in Miami. "Some appear to be people who have been laid off from other markets. Whether or not they´re credible candidates is a different story." Herrnson has also received "tens if not hundreds" of queries from Argentine Jews seeking to emigrate and work as day school teachers. Atlanta´s Finkel said teacher recruitment for general studies is "a little easier this year" after several years in which "you couldn´t hire anyone to do anything." However, Finkel said, it would be "wrong to be shortsighted" on recruitment and retention. "We´re really facing a shortage over time. "There are large numbers who will be retiring in the coming years and there isn´t as large a group coming behind them," she said. "Even if it´s easier this year, it´s not anything to get relaxed about."