Some of my best teachers have been the teachers my children have had at Perelman Jewish Day School. I have two daughters who graduated from PJDS. My youngest daughter will graduate this year from the Stern Center. In so many ways, Perelman teachers are there for our kids and they are there for our families, too.
Our children learn math and reading, and a whole lot more. They learn a second language, Hebrew, and they learn Jewish history, Israeli song and dance, critical textual analysis (Torah), and, yes, values. Children from varied backgrounds and experiences, with varied learning styles, all learn to be mensches.
There is a very good reason why more than 80 percent of families who visit Perelman decide to send their children here. Our school is a very special place for learning, for nurturing a positive Jewish identity, and for deeply understanding the meaning of community.
All this has so much to do with the wonderful teachers — from recent additions to veteran faculty — at our school.
So why then did the PJDS board vote unanimously to end its relationship with the national teachers’ union? The short answer is that we are determined to continue to put the children first.
With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire this August, I chaired a task force of the board to explore options. We heard informally from teachers and parents. We spoke to our administrators. We consulted with other Jewish day schools around the country.
Through our due diligence, we learned that Perelman is the only accredited, independent elementary school in Pennsylvania that has a teachers’ union. In recent years, we also learned Jewish day schools in Detroit, Chicago and Boston have moved away from a union model to one where administrators and teachers work collaboratively and that they have made that transition with great success.
Last fall, in early discussions with our teachers’ union representatives, we made clear that we would enter negotiations for a new contract but only if tenure and seniority were included in our negotiations. In response, we were told, in no uncertain terms, that the union would not negotiate under those conditions.
Other independent elementary schools in our area and throughout Pennsylvania, as well as other Jewish day schools across the country, have the flexibility to recruit and retain the very best teachers. Other schools have the ability to assign teachers to the most appropriate classrooms based on what is best for the student without regard to seniority. Other schools have performance review systems that involve honest collaboration between teacher and administrator, unburdened by cumbersome, protracted and expensive grievance procedures.
The board considered all of these factors and decided that our administrators need to have all the tools necessary to assure that, in managing our faculty, we always place excellence first and foremost. Tenure, in our particular case, directly conflicts with our commitment to place the needs of our children first.
Although union representatives disagreed with the decision to end tenure, the board’s decision is not meant to be disrespectful to our teachers. After all, our board consists of parents, like me, and grandparents who have made more than just a substantial financial commitment to our school; we have committed our children to the school and to so many wonderful teachers.
One of many indications of just how highly we value and respect our faculty is the contract we offered each teacher to stay with the school. The offer contains a higher salary than the union was seeking on their behalf, and additional benefits that the union wasn’t proposing. While the board is ending its relationship with an outside union, it is strengthening the relationship with our teachers. In fact, an early sign of how direct communication and closer collaboration benefits everyone are the recent meetings we have held with groups of teachers to discuss the transition. We have intently listened and answered questions, reassuring, and, I believe, demonstrating sincere appreciation and respect for our faculty.
It is gratifying that as of this week, all of our teachers have signed on to continue to work at Perelman. We are focused on the future now and on working to continue the tradition of excellence at our school, for the benefit of our children and, I sincerely hope, for the benefit of your children, too.
I encourage you to visit Perelman and see if your child or grandchild might experience what ours have. We have so many fine Jewish institutions in Philadelphia, but our Jewish day schools — with our dedicated teachers leading the way — play a critical role in assuring there is a Jewish future.
Aaron J. Freiwald, a local attorney, is a PJDS parent and board member.