The Perelman Jewish Day School board approved a controversial plan late Thursday night to move its Saligman Middle School from Melrose Park to Wynnewood.
The 18-5 vote came after talks between Perelman and Barrack Hebrew Academy to merge their middle schools reached an impasse.
The vote capped an emotional meeting during which the majority of those in attendance expressed support for a merger of the schools.
Cecily Carel, the president of Barrack, sent an email to Barrack families on Thursday confirming the failed talks.
"The parties have, to date, failed to reach agreement. It was our hope that by coming together in a truly joint fashion we could satisfy the community's strong desire for a unified middle school that combined the best of what each school offers and could create a springboard for a broader collaboration in the future," she wrote. "We share our community’s deep disappointment that, for now, it does not seem that this will occur.
Among several parents concerned about the outcome, Jared Gordon, who has children at Perelman’s Stern Center and at Barrack’s middle school, sent two email blasts this week to fellow parents urging them to contact Perelman’s president, Elliot Norry, to express concern that a vote would be premature.
In September, the Perelman board announced a $3 million plan to move its 11-year-old Saligman Middle School in Melrose Park to the third floor of its elementary school building at the Stern Center in Wynnewood. School leaders have said that Saligman operates at a substantial deficit and that such a move is critical for its financial survival.
At that time, each school appointed three people to a joint committee to discuss a potential merger and other collaborative options. The six had been meeting in closed-door sessions.
Carel, the Barrack president who was on the committee, placed the blame for the impasse on Perelman. "Unfortunately, in the end, the two sides remain far apart on issues necessary to achieve this goal. The Perelman team rejected each of our approaches. We want a shared, jointly run middle school but Perelman required that Barrack close its middle school and that Saligman open on the Schwartz campus.
"In our view, closing is not collaboration, and that approach does not allow us to achieve the best combination for our community," she wrote.
Elliot Norry, president of Perelman, said in a lengthy interview with the Exponent that it was futile to lay blame but that despite the best efforts on both sides, they couldn't reach an agreement.
"We worked very hard at trying to find a single middle school solution. What we proposed they rejected and what they proposed, we rejected. The characterization that it was a series of Barrack proposals and Perelman rejections is simply not true. Both sides made proposals with some merits in each and certain issues we could agree on and others we couldn’t."
He said Perelman went "more than half-way" in agreeing to locate the unified middle school on the Schwartz campus where Barrack is located, rather than at the Stern Center, and also agreed to make it a pluralistic institution, giving up its Conservative orientation.
The major sticking point was ownership of the school, he said, with Perelman wanting to retain ownership, which he said would mean less expensive tuition and a more financially viable long-term solution. He said that while Perelman 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 school management team from both schools to address such issues as curriculum and religious affairs.
In an email to his board this week, Jay Leberman, head of the Perelman school, urged his board members and others in the community to preserve Saligman as its own entity and to consider “what are the non-negotiables in our school that relate to our unique and noteworthy Judaics program and religious ideology.”
He touted a new study by Professor Jack Wertheimer, a noted Jewish historian and expert on Jewish education,
that hails Saligman as a “model” school for day schools across the country.
Leberman, who is planning to move to Israel next year, said in his letter: “I depart for Israel at the conclusion of this school year, but you, the board members of Perelman Jewish Day School, need to decide what will be the nature of the Jewish inheritance that we bequeath to the future generations of Perelman students.”
Many day school parents and community leaders have expressed intense concern that the competition for middle school students, which already exists between the two schools, would be exacerbated if both schools were located within five miles of each other on the Main Line.
Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, who has brought together stakeholders for public discussion on the issue, took issue with Leberman’s perspective, which was also circulated to some Conservative rabbis in the area.
The question is not, “How great is Barrack/Saligman?” Cooper wrote in an email obtained by the Jewish Exponent. “The question is, 'How can we create one school from two?'
“This is the question, not because I or anyone else thinks that their school is the best and, therefore, should subsume the other. This is the question because our community cannot afford two schools of this sort. From my perspective, we have a charge and a mandate to take the strengths and commitments of each school and figure out how to maximize our opportunity here. I am saddened by those who contend that there is no way to compromise.”