Community Grapples With Barrack Decision

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Since the school board of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy announced it would withdraw recognition of the teachers union, also known as the JBHA Faculty Association, on Dec. 4, there have been a range of reactions from the larger school community, including teachers, alumni and parents.

“We’ve told the board that really what the faculty association wants is to be able to bargain collectively, and we’re open to having negotiations on whatever the issues are that are of concern to the board that perhaps led to their decision,” said Minna Ziskind, union co-president and history teacher.

It seemed as though dialogue about the decision was going to happen at a meeting on March 7.

“As a part of our ongoing discussions with the faculty association leadership, we have offered a meeting … to provide an opportunity for greater dialogue with the faculty as a whole regarding the Board’s decision,” said George Gordon, school board president, in an email to the Exponent on March 5. “We remain committed to moving forward in a manner that is respectful of our teachers and enhances the quality of the educational experience for students.”

The meeting was open to faculty, association members, board members and some administration, Gordon said.

But the union voted against attending the meeting after the board would not give assurances as to how many board members would be present, Ziskind said. The union wanted at least two-thirds of the board members to attend. Gordon declined to comment afterward about the meeting.

In an email in January, Gordon explained the board’s action by saying the decision “best positions the school to continue our unique mission of incorporating deeply-rooted Jewish values in a rigorous intellectual environment.” He has not offered further explication of the decision since then.

“Essentially, what we’re concerned about is how this will impact the kind of education we’re able to offer,” Ziskind said. “Will we have to teach more classes and therefore not be able to give the same level of attention to students? Will our compensation packages change in terms of retirement or in terms of medical care?”

Teachers and some students have begun to wear red on Fridays to express their support for the union and as a nod to the Red for Ed movement, a grassroots campaign that has galvanized teacher activism across the country in states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona.

“We started [wearing red] as a show of our solidarity,” Ziskind said. “These are small gestures that we can make. We can walk around the halls, we can see each other and know that we’re not alone. We’re together. That’s really what we want is this sense of community and collectiveness, and that’s what the union does.”

Last month, the union also started a Facebook page as a place for teachers and their supporters to interact and share information and support. The page has so far garnered more than 270 followers. The page shares photos of teachers wearing red and encourages parents and alumni to share stories of how Barrack teachers have made a difference.

Gary Kaplan, a parent of an alumnus and the spouse of a teacher, said that his daughter got a lot of one-on-one time with Barrack’s teachers. He is concerned that teachers might not be able to keep doing that if they have to teach more classes as a result of this decision.

“I went to a big high school, and I never had any one-on-one,” Kaplan said. “It’s a great thing. Education comes first. I really do love that part of Barrack, and I think that will change.”

Ziskind also wondered how the decision would affect the school’s contributions to teacher’s retirement funds. In 2009, the school attempted to make cuts to the retirement program, which led to a strike.

“I would hate to think that that’s something that would be on the table again,” Ziskind said.

The situation with Barrack’s union isn’t unique. Across the country, the number of Jewish day schools with unions has dropped. Perelman Jewish Day School, located just a few miles from Barrack, withdrew recognition of its own union in 2014.

Susan Miller, a Perelman teacher who retired in 2016 after 25 years at the school, said the decision drew a lot of concern from teachers at the time. She was not too concerned personally because she felt confident in her standing both with the administration and the community.

After the decision went into effect, the school offered senior teachers a buyout, which put the school in a position to hire more teachers with less experience, Miller said. She herself was not in a position to take the buyout, but many of her colleagues did. She said the decision did not impact her benefits.

The school, she noted, encouraged and paid for her to study at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, both when the union was there and when it wasn’t, Miller said.

“My advice to the Barrack faculty is pretty much there’s nothing you can do about it,” Miller said. “It’s not going to change, unfortunately. … Keep your focus on the job that you love and the kids that you love that you teach. Continue on. There is life after loss of a union.”

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