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Middle School Saved as Merger Deal Comes Undone in the 11th Hour

March 5, 2009 By:
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Students from Saligman Middle School came prepared to protest the closing of their school. Photos by Jordan Cassway

After several months of intense negotiations that until the past week had been known to just a few insiders, the executive committee of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School reversed course and nixed what had appeared to be a done deal to close its eight-year-old Robert Saligman Middle School.

The executive committees at both Perelman and the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy had separately approved an agreement that, starting in September, would have created a new unified middle school under Barrack's auspices at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Radnor campus.

The full boards of both institutions were expected to okay the merger Tuesday night, but hours before both meetings, Perelman's executive committee decided to rescind its own approval of the memorandum of understanding, a three-page document that outlined the conditions of the proposed day-school merger.

The reversal came after a public outcry -- including a "Save Saligman Middle School" Facebook page -- from parents, students and a number of Conservative rabbis who decried the process, timing and substance of a decision to close the school that is widely heralded as a pioneering program dedicated to Jewish middle- schoolers.

On Monday night, more than 200 people gathered at Beth Sholom Congregation to determine a strategy to try to sway the board against adopting the recommended proposal. By the next night, parents had solicited about $130,000 in emergency funds.

Several hundred people, including a number of Saligman students, arrived at the open board meeting at Perelman's Elkins Park gym Tuesday expecting a contentious evening.

The announcement at the start of the meeting that the board would not vote on the measure drew muted applause from the crowd, as if the sudden turn of events had not sunk in.

"I apologize and I beg your forgiveness. I'm not in the business of closing schools. I'm in the business of opening them and sustaining them," said the head of school, Jay Leberman, referring to the fact that the process of exploring a merger with Barrack had been carried out in virtual secrecy.

In a half-hour speech, Leberman recounted the history of the school and some of the reasons why the executive committee had felt it was no longer sustainable. He cited the fact that currently the school is operating at a more than $200,000 deficit and is expected to drop from 110 to 100 students next fall. Leberman also cited the grim fund-raising environment as another key factor driving the decision to discuss a merger.

He noted that while most students from Perelman's Forman elementary school matriculated to the adjacent middle school, the number of those coming from its other campus on the Main Line had dropped precipitously in the past few years.

He said that the percentage of students coming from the Stern Center on the Main Line had fallen from a high of 42 percent to 18 percent this year, partly because many of those families were enticed by the brand new facility at Barrack's Radnor site.

He credited the change in heart to the tremendous community response, which made clear that there should continue to be a Conservative middle school in the region.

He and others indicated that some key benefactors wished to keep the school open.

"We still face considerable economic and demographic factors," said Leberman, noting that tuition will be raised by $2,000 to $20,000 starting in September. "We are open for business, re-enrollment is going out. We plan to stay and we need your help."

After he finished speaking, Leberman received a sustained standing ovation.

Betty-Ann Izenman spoke for many Saligman parents when she said that a middle school dedicated to Jewish students was essential for her seventh-grade daughter's growth. She "desperately wants to graduate with her class," said Izenman, expressing the relief and joy among middle-school parents.

Elliot Norry, an executive committee member who just 24 hours earlier stood in front of about 200 angry parents at Beth Sholom Congregation and explained why the board felt it had to close the school, instead told an even larger crowd about the challenges that lie ahead.

"We were concerned about our long-term viability and felt, and I still feel that we had negotiated the very best outcome for all of our stakeholders," said Norry.

In somewhat stark terms, Norry hinted that the board could face a similar decision in two or three years if the school doesn't improve its financial situation and doesn't attract more students from both sides of the river.

If that happened, he said, Perelman might not be in as strong a position to bargain for some of the things it secured in the Barrack agreement, including a commitment to provide free busing for students and a promise to institute required daily prayer at Barrack, which, as a pluralistic school, does not currently do.

Barrack, for its part, had a muted reaction to the sudden turn of events. After learning that Perelman had essentially backed out of the agreement, the board did not hold its own formal vote.

"Having been approached by the Saligman Middle School and after spending considerable time working with Perelman board members and Federation to partner in the creation of a unified middle school, our board endorsed the unification concept," Barrack's head of school, Steven M. Brown, said in an e-mail statement. "We look forward to a continuing cooperative relationship between our schools and the Federation."

Federation had played a key facilitating role as the schools spent weeks hammering out the merger agreement.

Ira M. Schwartz, Federation CEO, said in response to the sudden change: "It is unfortunate that the schools won't be unified since it appeared that that's what both schools wanted to happen; now, it's incumbent on the community to raise the resources that are going to be needed to keep the Saligman school functioning at the level it ought to be functioning."

He also noted that "the Perelman professional and lay leadership came to the Federation and indicated that they wanted to see a unification of the middle schools and they wanted to see this new school on the Radnor campus. This was not the brain child of the Federation."

At the start of the decade, Perelman was poised to expand it's reach and scope. In 2000, it opened a Bucks County elementary school and then, in 2001, it created the Saligman Middle School alongside the Forman elementary school on the Elkins Park Mandell Educational Campus, which Federation had purchased in the 1980s.

But, after six years, citing lack of enrollment and a troubled financial picture, the board decided to close the Bucks location, a move that left a bad taste in many parents mouths.

Sources familiar with both Perelman and Barrack acknowledge that ever since Saligman was created, there was competition between Saligman and Barrack, formerly known as the Akiba Hebrew Academy.

While both paid lip service to the notion that it is great to have middle schools on each side of the Schuylkill River, privately, they acknowledged that the two schools were competing for a limited pool of potential students and donor dollars.

The high price tag -- $20,000 and above -- coupled with the availability of other top-notch private schools in the area and the reluctance of many families to send their children to Jewish schools have hindered efforts to grow the day-school population, which proponents argue is the best way to ensure Jewish continuity and prevent the escalation of assimilation and intermarriage.

There are about 1,700 students enrolled in the six area day schools supported by Federation.

The onset of the financial crisis only exacerbated the squeeze felt by all Jewish institutions, particularly one like Saligman, which has operated at a deficit since its inception.

Last fall, both Perelman and Barrack unveiled major tuition assistance initiatives aimed at keeping families in the day-school system, as well as potentially attracting new ones, during dismal economic times.

Perelman announced $18,000 in grants over the course of three years for sixth graders starting at its middle school in September. The Kohelet Foundation, founded by Perelman board member David Magerman, financed this initiative, although it had not appeared to boost enrollment for next year's incoming sixth graders.

The Kohelet grant is still available for incoming sixth graders, according to Perelman officials.

Barrack allocated a $3,600 grant for all students entering, regardless of grade level or financial need. Incoming sixth graders are also eligible for rabbi's scholarships, starting at $5,000 for the first year and additional thousands over the next six years.

Some hailed these two initiatives -- as well as a similar one at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley-- as evidence that a major donor was stepping up to help make day schools more affordable. At the same time, the Federation has designated day schools a top priority and is trying to generate more funds for that purpose.

But the flip-side was that the simultaneous initiatives seemed to exacerbate the sense of rivalry that had built up over a decade, and some parents committed to Jewish education said they'd felt caught in the middle of a price war.

At the meeting Tuesday night, while most parents expressed relief, at least one Saligman parent was seeking more answers. "Although encouraged by your words, I'm concerned about a plan," Jill Rosen said. "I'm wondering what the plan is to make up the deficit."

She did not receive a response.

While the future of Saligman is far from certain, parent Beth Sadoff's mood couldn't have been more jubilant. The Richboro resident's two sons both attend Perelman schools.

Three years ago, she had to tell them that their school was closing when the Bucks Country branch shut down. Repeating the experience would have been devastating for them and for her, said Sadoff, the president of Saligman's parent organization who helped mobilize the protest effort. 

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