In a last-ditch effort to reconcile their differences over how to merge, two Jewish middle schools agree to a new round of mediation.
It's not over until it's over. That appears to be the theme of the efforts to unify the middle schools of Perelman Jewish Day School and Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
The latest quest to merge the two non-Orthodox day schools failed after three months of intense negotiations by a small committee representing both schools. Following the collapse of those talks, the Perelman board voted to move its Saligman Middle School from Melrose Park to Wynnewood to be housed in the same building as its elementary school.
But in the weeks since that Nov. 29 vote, 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.
And now, responding to community pressure, including an outcry by many of the parents whose children would be affected, the two sides agreed to a new round of mediation this week in a last-ditch effort to resolve their outstanding differences.
At the same time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which had funded an outside consultant and 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.
Schwartz 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.
Norry said last week 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."
Meanwhile, Jay Leberman, Perelman’s head of school, floated his own proposal last 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.
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, and eight to a new community school option. The idea of a merger on the Schwartz campus , which Magerman said was outside the confines of his offer, was added as a fourth option at the request of some attendees. That got 15 votes.
“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 he didn't offer the merger on the Schwartz campus as one of his official options because “if a merger was going to happen, it would happen on its own” as a result of the committee talks and they didn't need him for that.
In fact, he was not present at a point during the meeting when a straw poll, with a show of hands, was taken and an overwhelming majority of attendees voted for a merger of the schools.
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 there to be one place, one school, “ he said. “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.”
He did say he would financially support whatever outcome both the Perelman and Barrack boards agree to.
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.)