Talks between representatives of the Perelman Jewish Day School and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy have taken on a sense of urgency as Perelman’s board looks to decide the fate of its struggling Saligman Middle School in the coming months.
It appears that the talks have been substantive enough, or public pressure influential enough, that the idea of merging the middle schools of the two institutions — something that nearly happened in 2009 — is suddenly back on the table.
“It is fair to say a merger and other options are amongst the things being discussed,” Elliot Norry, president of Perelman’s board of directors, said in an interview. “We are asking people to be patient and allow the collaborative discussion to proceed. We are hopeful that we will find collaborative solutions.”
At the same time, he cautioned that a merger or any other forms of collaboration would need to benefit both institutions in order to be viable.
Earlier this month, Perelman announced it was considering moving the Saligman Middle School — which has experienced a steady decline in enrollment and operates at a loss of more than $200,000 annually — from its home on the Old York Road corridor to the Main Line.
Norry, in a series of meetings with parents and other interested parties, has shown fully developed architectural plans to accommodate the middle school at Perelman’s Stern Center in Wynnewood. He also said that the cost of the move and the renovations, estimated between $2 million and $3 million, would be raised in a capital campaign.
The thinking is that, for a variety of reasons, the Main Line is home to more families willing and able to send their children to Jewish day school. By making the Stern facility a K-8 institution, Perelman’s leaders think they would be able to retain more of their students beyond the fifth grade. Last year, of the 40-plus fifth graders, only five opted for Saligman, while 16 went to Barrack and the rest left the day school system altogether.
At a Sept. 12 community meeting held at Saligman’s current home on the Mandel Education Campus in Melrose Park, Norry outlined the projected economic benefits of relocating while downplaying any suggestion that the two middle schools would revisit the merger option.
A 2009 plan that was nearly enacted would have had both schools operate under Barrack’s auspices at its Bryn Mawr campus. An outcry from members of the Old York Road community on the eve of a vote put a stop to that effort.
Perelman is affiliated with the Conservative movement and Barrack is a pluralistic day school, though a majority of its students went through the Perelman system.
“If there is no healthy Perelman, there is no healthy Barrack,” Norry said at meeting Sept. 23 at the Stern Center. “If there is declining enrolment at Perelman, there is going to be declining enrollment five or eight years down the road at Barrack. That is just the way it is.”
Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools locally and nationally have faced difficulty over the past several years. Many have contended with enrollment and fiscal issues.
In the mid-2000s, Saligman had more than 125 students; today, it has 80. A decade ago, roughly 700 students were enrolled in the Perelman system. Currently, that number is closer to 400.
According to Norry, the discussions between Perelman and Barrack were scheduled before it was announced that Perelman was considering moving Saligman to the Main Line — a move that would surely intensify the already heated competition between the two middle schools.
Norry said the Perelman discussion about the Saligman move and the collaboration talks were moving on “parallel” tracks, “not necessarily one pushing the other.”
The Perelman representatives in the joint talks — which are being facilitated by a consultant funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — are Norry, along with board members Tracey Specter and Nancy Black. Barrack’s representatives are school president Cecily Carel and board members George Gordon and Robin Batoff. The members have signed a confidentiality agreement regarding the talks.
Meanwhile, the issue is continuing to engender questions, concerns and passion among parents, many of whom have children at both Perelman and Barrack.
More than 200 parents and community members have signed a petition asking Perelman’s board to delay its vote on moving Saligman until the Perelman-Barrack group has completed its process. The petition calls on the Perelman board to “commit all appropriate and available resources toward a successful outcome of these collaborative discussions.”
The document also asks the board “to insure the continuity of Jewish day school through a unified solution encompassing one well-defined academic path from kindergarten through 12th grade.”
At the Sept. 23 meeting, the last in a series of scheduled public meetings — Norry told the audience that, one way or another, the Perelman board intended to make a decision about Saligman this fall.
“That puts a time pressure on this collaborative effort. We need to communicate what is going to be in the future in a time frame that does not limit parents’ choices to where their kids can go to school,” he said, adding that no date for a vote has been set.
Later that evening, the group of six held another meeting and issued a joint statement that said in part: “Both parties are committed to providing sufficient time for the collaboration discussions to bear fruit. We are
all cognizant of the timing of
the Perelman decision and have made a commitment to meet frequently and proceed both expeditiously and thoroughly through our discussions.”