Despite a failed attempt to merge two Jewish middle schools over the past few months, a flurry of activity in the past week suggests that the effort may not be over yet.
One week after Perelman Jewish Day School voted to relocate its Saligman Middle School to the Western suburbs in the wake of failed efforts to merge with the middle school of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, the status of the two schools remains in limbo.
A flurry of activity has ensued, from high-level conference calls to community meetings to emails to Facebook discussions, all in a renewed attempt to come up with a solution.
At the same time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which had funded an outside facilitator and then a mediator to help the two schools form a plan on their own, is weighing in publicly for the first time.
If the schools don’t succeed in merging, they’re “both going to fail,” Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz said at a community meeting at Barrack's Bryn Mawr campus on Dec. 4.
“We can’t let this fail. It’s time to get back together and be serious about this,” he said in his first public remarks on the issue, noting that Federation has monitored the process from the beginning, offering advice and support when asked.
He acknowledged that tensions have been “pretty high” but said both schools understand the stakes.
Nearly 300 parents and a handful of students packed the Barrack auditorium for the meeting, which was called to discuss why, from Barrack’s perspective, months of talks to achieve a unified school had broken down.
The goal was to dispel some of the myths and misinformation about how they got to where they are now, said George Gordon, one of three Barrack representatives on a six-person committee that had been negotiating the issue for months.
“All of us up here share the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations with the community of our inability to get this thing done," he said, referring to the four Barrack board members and administrators who sat beside him on the stage.
“We remain hopeful that through the efforts of a number of people on the Barrack team that we still may be able to get to our goal of a unified school."
While the latest round of talks about merging the two schools began in the fall, the idea of a merger dates back four years. Just before an agreement was voted on in 2009, members of the Perelman board pulled back, saying they would continue to operate Saligman, which occupies a modest hallway lined with classrooms attached to Gratz College in Melrose Park.
“When we couldn’t put together a unified day school four years ago, in my judgment both schools suffered,” Schwartz said at the Barrack meeting. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out there are fewer and fewer kids coming in at the front end. There are more than enough children out there but we are not reaching them. We don’t have as much time now. We lost four years and we can’t afford to lose another four years.”
Gordon said the negotiating committee had made significant progress in recent weeks: They had settled on having the school at the Schwartz campus, where Barrack is located, come close to agreeing on a pluralistic religious philosophy, and decided that Saligman Principal Susan Friedman would be in charge of a unified school.
The sticking point, he said, came down to who would ultimately run the school and how. Would one institution or the other be responsible, or would they create some kind of committee run by both? And if one took over, who would decide which, if any, teachers would be affected, said Gordon, noting that Barrack negotiators were very protective of their staff and the school's 66-year history of excellence.
Perelman’s president, Elliot Norry, agreed that ownership was the major obstacle, with Perelman wanting to retain ownership. He said that while Perelman board members rejected the idea of joint management as not viable educationally and financially, they proposed several collaborative measures, including hiring a senior Barrack administrator to be a part-time vice principal, giving Barrack representatives three seats on the Perelman board and creating a management team drawing from both schools to address such issues as curriculum and religious affairs.
Last week, after the talks reached an impasse, Perelman board members voted to relocate Saligman to share space with its elementary school in Wynnewood. Norry said Thursday that Perelman was still operating under the assumption that Saligman would move to the Stern Center in time for next fall, as planned.
“We’ve begun to do the things necessary to make it happen,” he said. At the same time, he said, the loud outcry from the community to keep working toward a unified solution “has been heard by all.”
“We’re happy to do that on a parallel track,” he said. “We’re very open to continuing a dialogue with Barrack to find common solutions."
But, he said, referencing the flood of online discussions and community meetings, “this isn’t going to get solved in any other way than the two parties coming back and talking.”
Meanwhile, Jay Leberman, Perelman’s head of school, floated his own proposal this week: creating a cohesive K-12 system that would serve the primarily non-Orthodox day school families.
Acknowledging a change of heart after having vigorously lobbied for years to retain Saligman, which he helped found, as a separate entity, Leberman sent out an email saying:
“While I have previously advocated that communities are stronger when they have school choice, I have come to the realization, having listened to the voices of our community, that unity is the preferred choice,” he wrote. “I, therefore, propose a three-year commitment toward a fully integrated K-12 system that will provide an outstanding, ‘best of the best’ model, more affordable Jewish day school education to Philadelphia-area families.”
Leberman, who will be leaving his position next year to move to Israel, said his detailed plan, which would involve an immediate merger of the middle schools and a full merger of Barrack and Perelman over three years, had been accepted in principle by Perelman’s executive committee.
But Norry disputed that. “The plan was discussed briefly,” Norry said, but “I wouldn’t say it has the acceptance in principle.”
That is one direction to move in and could provide a framework for the two schools to proceed “when we get back together,” he said.
Meanwhile, David Magerman, a local philanthropist who has donated millions of dollars to day school education in the area, expended considerable energy and offered millions more of his personal funds to come up with an alternative solution.
He called a meeting at Gratz College on Wednesday for parents of children in middle school — and wouldn’t let in anyone who didn’t fit that description, including an Exponent reporter — and offered several options for parents to vote on. If there was enough consensus that would lead to 100 students at any of the options, he pledged $5 million to that entity to provide affordable tuition. The options included: Saligman at its current location; Barrack; a newly formed community school at a new location; or a merger on the Schwartz campus. The catch: The decision had to be made on the spot.
In the end, the votes were divided among the various options, according to Jonathan Scott Goldman, a Perelman parent who helped moderate the proceedings. Of 108 votes cast, 42 went to Barrack, 43 to Saligman in Melrose Park, 15 to a merger on the Schwartz campus and eight to a new community school.
“I put $5 million in the hands of prospective middle school parents and gave them control if they could come up with a consensus solution,” Magerman said the next day. “Collectively they failed to do that.”
Magerman said this effort was separate from his Kohelet Foundation, which supports many day schools in the areas, and based solely on his family’s concern about where his two sons would attend middle school next year. One is a seventh grader at Saligman, the other a fifth grader at the Stern Center.
“We want them to go to a good school with a strong social structure. And we want them to be together.”
After this and other proposals got no traction, Magerman said he’s now “going to go dark for a little while.”
“I can sleep at night knowing that I have done everything a person can do to get a good outcome,” he said. ”Now I’m going to rely on the rest of the community to solve the problem.”
While some parents are still advocating for separate schools, the majority seem interested in some kind of merger.
As one parent at the Dec. 4 Barrack meeting put it:
“I don’t think everyone being happy can be the result of a shidduch like the one being recommended and that’s why we have ketubot,” said Bruce Yasgur, who has an 11th grade son at Barrack. “So you draw up your ketubah and hopefully, as the years grow, so will the love.”
(Exponent Staffer Deborah Hirsch contributed to this report.)