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December 12, 2012 By:
A Last-Ditch Effort for A Middle School Merger
It’s not over till it’s over. The baseball truism attributed to the legendary Yogi Berra appears equally pertinent to the ongoing efforts to unify the middle schools of Perelman Jewish Day School and Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Two weeks after leaders from both day schools announced they had reached an impasse, the two sides were meeting again this week with a mediator in a last-ditch effort to resolve their outstanding differences.
On the table was a plan not only to merge the middle schools but also to create a long-term unified K-12 day school experience, according to a letter sent to the Perelman community this week.
The resumed negotiations — with a slight change in representation on each side — came on the heels of community pressure, including an outcry by many of the parents whose children would be affected, not to give up on what the majority appears to want: a merged middle school to eliminate competition and better serve the declining number of non-Orthodox day school students in the area.
The latest quest to bring together Perelman’s Saligman Middle School and Barrack’s sixth-to eighth-grade program began in September when three representatives from each school initiated a lengthy process to determine ways they could collaborate. At about the same time, Perelman’s board proposed moving Saligman from Melrose Park to Wynnewood, just five miles from Barrack, to be housed in the same building as its Stern Center elementary school.
Following the initial collapse of those talks late last month, the Perelman board voted to approve the Saligman move to the Western suburbs.
But in the time since that Nov. 29 vote, a flurry of activity 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.
After the collapse of the first talks a few weeks ago, both Barrack and Perelman officials separately reported that the negotiating teams had reached agreement on at least three key issues: a unified school would be based on the Schwartz campus, where Barrack is located; the school would follow a pluralistic religious philosophy; and Saligman’s principal, Susan Friedman, would be in charge.
Several sources said the key issues that still needed to be hammered out with the mediator were primarily economic ones — issues such as endowments and debt, labor contracts, tuition and scholarships.
Norry said on Tuesday that Perelman has still not ruled out moving Saligman to its Stern Center as had been planned but “we are keeping all of our options open while we continue a dialogue with Barrack to find common solutions.”
A letter sent to the Perelman community announcing the new round of mediation said: “We continue to listen to our parents, donors and friends — and we want to reiterate that we too believe that unifying our schools will fortify our entire community.”
The letter also said the agenda would include discussion of a proposal floated last week by Jay Leberman, Perelman’s head of school.
Leberman’s proposal suggested creating a cohesive K-12 system that would serve primarily non-Orthodox day school families in the area.
Acknowledging a change of heart after having vigorously lobbied for years to retain Saligman, which he helped found 11 years ago as a separate entity, Leberman said:
“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” in the area.
Leberman, who will be leaving his position next year to move to Israel, outlined a plan that would involve a merger next year of the middle schools and a full merger of Barrack and Perelman over three years.
Norry said that “a path to an eventual K-12 system is certainly one of the potential solutions” that was to be discussed this week but “I would not characterize it as the sole basis for mediation.”
He did say he would support “financially and vocally” whatever outcome both the Perelman and Barrack boards agreed to.