A faculty strike that shut down the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr this week is threatening to turn into a protracted and bitter standoff.
On Monday morning — the first day teachers took to the picket line instead of the classroom — faculty members said they would rather be teaching than at the edge of the school's campus, protesting by holding signs in Hebrew and English.
Yet, less than a week before, the staff of 49 full-time teachers at the pluralistic middle and high school decided to take the dramatic step of walking off the job in the middle of the year.
A union official representing the teachers said that after months of negotiations, the school's latest offer to reduce matching funds for the teachers' retirement plans was the key sticking point.
The administration and the union signaled they were waiting for the other side to take the next step to break the impasse.
The strike — which, according to experts, is rare at day schools — has sparked frustration among parents and raised questions about how the walkout will affect the future of Barrack as it and other such schools nationwide face budgetary woes and declining enrollments.
"It is a shame on both sides to let this come to this point," said Lenard Cohen, an attorney whose son is in the sixth grade at Barrack. If the strike goes on indefinitely, he said he might have to look for another school. "It's bad for the community, bad for the kids and potentially very harmful for the school."
Parents and teachers said the Barrack community is still adjusting to the move last year to its new campus in Bryn Mawr and is dealing with reverberations from a proposed middle school merger that didn't happen.
While students might relish some days off from school, parents, especially ones with younger, middle-school students, have been scrambling to make arrangements for their kids.
Parents have also engaged in an often vitriolic e-mail debate among themselves, with some voicing support for the teachers, others critical of the union. One sent an anonymous note calling for the union to be broken, which itself prompted a fierce reaction.
Barbara Kraus-Blackney, executive director of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, said that Barrack and the Perelman Jewish Day Schools are the only two of 140 member schools that are currently unionized.
Barrack, a pluralistic institution comprised of 310 middle and high school students, which was formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy, was expected to be shut for at least a week.
The strike at the school — whose tuition tops $20,000 — comes after the faculty and administration could not reach agreement on a new contract.
In 2008, administration and faculty agreed on a one-year contract and negotiations took place over the summer.
A deal had not been reached by the start of the school year and, according to teachers, they'd agreed to continue working under the old contract while a new one was hammered out. But negotiations broke down last week.
Jared Freedman, a staff representative of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, said that the central disagreement is over retirement benefits. Under the current contract, the school has matched teachers' contributions to their 403B individual retirement accounts up to 7 percent of their salary. The school's last offer cut the matching contribution to 3 percent, a cut of more than 50 percent, Freedman said.
Rabbi Michael Yondorf, who teaches bible and Judaic studies and is co-president of the teacher's association, which is affiliated with AFT Pennsylvania, said: "We're not looking to increase our salary or get more out of the school. We want to be in our classroom. But there is a limit to what you can give back."
For its part, the school's administration, through e-mails to parents and staff, has sent a clear message that, due to the current economic climate, they do not have any more to give.
Ariele Klausner, the board president, sent a letter to the staff over the weekend outlining the school's budget constraints and urging faculty to reconsider its decision.
"We have stretched our finances as far as is fiscally responsible" and have offered "as generous a package as we could," she wrote. "The economic package we presented is our best and final offer."
She said that the impasse "is strictly a financial one and in no way reflects a lack of respect or appreciation for the exceptional quality of our faculty or the outstanding education you provide our students. We recognize your hard work and the devotion you have for the school and the children and value the excellent working relationship we have with you."
On Nov. 17, responding to parent inquiries, Klausner and Steven Brown, head of school, e-mailed another letter, explaining Barrack's position on the retirement accounts. The letter also stressed that the administration had, early in the negotiating process, promised to maintain its current health care package. "Many institutions are cutting back on the health care benefits they provide their employees because the costs are escalating at an uncontrollable rate," the letter stated.
But Freedman said that the faculty had agreed to a one-year freeze in salaries and that "while we're not arguing with the good medical plan," teachers' contributions to their medical insurance would be going up because of the increased cost in health plans. "The one thing they never thought they would lose is their pension plan," he said.
Working for Less
Several teachers stressed that they knowingly work for a lower salary, but that the retirement plan offered some measure of financial security. Starting salary at Barrack is $31,000.
Both Yondorf and Freedman said that it was now up to the administration to request a return to the bargaining table.
"If they call and want us to come back, we will come," Freedman said. "But they have to understand that they can't just recycle" the last proposal that was rejected, he said, adding that the teachers wouldn't return to work until an agreement was reached.
For their part, Klausner and Brown indicated they were waiting for the teachers to make the next move.
"We remain ready to meet with the association's representatives if they wish to resume discussions," they wrote. They also said they're "trying to resolve this work stoppage as quickly as possible."
Teachers at Barrack have been unionized since 1976, according to Jeanne Schachter, who taught at the school for 44 years and was instrumental in the local union's formation. Schachter, who stopped by the school on Monday to support the picketing faculty, said that before the union, there was no rhyme or reason to teachers' salaries.
Many board members reacted with shock at the time of the union's formation, said Schachter, saying that "we're family." Schachter had replied that families have disputes that need resolving.
Donald Sylvan, who heads JESNA, a New York-based organization devoted to Jewish education, said that only a handful of day schools across the country are unionized. He added that a strike is practically unheard of, but surmised that the recession ultimately led to the standoff.
"There are tremendous economic pressures at day schools in North America right now," said Sylvan.
Last year, Barrack moved from its historic home in Lower Merion to become the anchor tenant on a campus purchased by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Debbie Stein, a parent with three children in the school and another at Perelman, surmised that the increased costs associated with the new facility, as well as fallout from the failed plan to merge with Perelman's Saligman Middle School, have put a strain on the school's finances.
"Something has to give," said Stein. "We really haven't been given the details. I'm not happy about it but I'm not angry that they have gone on strike."
While she sympathizes with the teachers, she said she won't be as patient if it goes more than a week.
Holly Hammer, a 17-year-old senior, came from Princeton, N.J., on Tuesday to show support for teachers who, she said, always go above and beyond to help students.
"One of the Jewish values is to respect your elders. Some of them are working three jobs," said Hammer, one of 10 students who joined the teachers on the picket line on Tuesday.
Hammer added that she thinks students, faculty and administration should be able to move past this dispute.
"I feel like there might be some tension, but people will eventually be able to get over it and move on, as long as everything works out."
Francine Lipstein, the parent of an eighth grader, stressed that she didn't have all the facts, but said that the teachers should be more willing to compromise during difficult economic times, when many others are out of work. "Compromise is the word here. If there is no money, there is no money," Lipstein said, referring to the school's position that it didn't have more to give.
Lipstein, who also has a fifth grader at Perelman's Stern Center who is considering Barrack as an option for next year, said a prolonged strike could jeopardize the future health of Barrack because it would factor into parents' decisions on where to enroll their children.