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Budget Shortfalls Inspire Creative Approaches at Day Schools

Rabbi Samuel Levine has a problem — and it’s echoing throughout the Jewish day school world.

Levine, the head of school at Hillel Day School in Boca Raton, Fla., has seen an increase of more than 20 percent in requests for financial aid from the past year. In 2008-09, the school gave out about $1 million in assistance. This year the figure will be at least $1.25 million.

While the need for aid is rising, the school’s donors are giving less because of the recession, which has hit South Florida especially hard with blows to two of the region’s main industries, real estate and tourism. In addition to the drop in donations, the annual allocation that Hillel receives from the Jewish Federation of South Florida has been cut because its general fund-raising campaign is hurting.

To cope, the 21-year-old Orthodox school, which runs from pre-K through eighth grade, has had to slice $700,000 from its budget. That includes pay cuts of between 2 percent and 6 percent across the board, the elimination of non-essential staff and a cut in maintenance.

“It’s been very, very painful,” Levine told JTA. “We looked at every line in the budget and asked how can we pay less, how can we afford less, without affecting the programs.”

Hillel is not alone. From a story in The Jewish Star of Long Island focused on Orthodox families headlined “Tuition or mortgage: Choosing public school over homelessness” to the announcement that the Solomon Schechter Day School of Palm Beach County in Florida is closing because of budgetary problems, examples abound of day schools struggling at the start of the academic year.

As yet, there is no hard data on how much need is out there in terms of financial assistance. The groups that follow day schools are just gathering the information as schools are reporting it. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the 20 percent or so increase that Hillel in Boca has experienced is about average.

“We saw families already participating in the financial aid program turn to schools for additional assistance,” said Marc Kramer, the executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, a non-denominational umbrella group bringing together community day schools.

“We saw families who were non-financial aid students seek financial aid, families who had been paying tuition and making donations indicate they could make tuition but not donations,” he said. “And there was the most tragic subset of those who needed aid for the first time and did not apply but just dropped out.”

Amid the challenges, according to leaders of several organizations focused on day school development, a silver lining has emerged: Many of the suffering day schools have sought creative solutions to their problems that could help strengthen their economic foundations in the long term.

Kramer said the upsurge in such responses from philanthropists and schools attempting to cut costs has helped stave off a mass exodus of students leaving for financial reasons – a mounting fear since the 2008-09 school year ended, especially in non-Orthodox schools.

For example, in Phoenix, an elementary school (The King David School) and a high school (Jess Schwartz College Prep) decided to merge in order to save on overhead.

In the Cleveland suburb of Beechwood, the Agnon School increased tuition last year by 12 percent with an eye toward an upcoming budget crunch. Still, it had to cut $450,000 from its budget this year – about 10 percent. That included a wage freeze and the temporary suspension of certain programs that Agnon did not view as part of its core mission, such as the Mandarin Chinese course that had become mandatory in the middle school.

Schools across the country are working creatively, according to Rabbi Josh Elkin, the executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an organization that consults with day schools on various issues.

“Along with the anecdotal stories of significant increases in requests for tuition assistance,” Elkin said, “we have heard probably an equal amount of extraordinary stories that significant numbers of schools have taken to find the resources to keep families in school and to bring in new families.”

Some local Jewish federations, including New Jersey’s MetroWest, New York and Chicago, have stepped up with significant multimillion-dollar gifts to help schools cope with their budget problems and growing financial aid needs. Foundations such as the Jim Joseph Foundation in San Francisco, the Helen Bader Foundation in Milwaukee, the Kohelet Foundation in Philadelphia, the Weber Family Foundation in Atlanta and the Legacy Heritage Foundation also have provided significant gifts to help schools, Elkin said.

The schools are looking at ways to raise money.

One approach involves attempting to diversify their donor bases: Instead of asking relatively few families for large donations, schools are reaching out to more families for smaller dollars, Elkin said. His organization is working with four schools in a pilot program to help them learn how to cultivate legacy gifts or bequests to help endow schools after a donor dies.

Northern New Jersey residents have launched an organization called Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools to collect small donations of $40 on average to help local schools. In July, the New Jersey Jewish Standard reported that the organization would distribute $250,000 this year.

There are even signs of schools working together across denominational lines.

Members of RAVSAK, the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools, the Reform movement’s Pardes and the Modern Orthodox Institute for University-School Partnership of Yeshiva University will hold a joint professional development conference in New York in January instead of having separate conferences.

RAVSAK’s Kramer says it adds up to a positive story behind what could be a very negative one.

“This is a vision of collaboration that is at once about being smart with dollars because we have to be,” he said. “But the recession has also given us permission to remember that all of us are ‘klal Yisrael.’ In many ways we perhaps have forgotten this.

“If everyone in the Jewish community puts our oars in the water and rows in same direction, we will get through this.”

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