At the conclusion of a long, tense — even dramatic — meeting Thursday night, the board of the Perelman Jewish Day School approved a controversial plan to move its Saligman Middle School from Melrose Park to Wynnewood.
The school's leaders said the move, which will situate the school in the same building as its elementary Stern Center, will enable it to attract more students. The move is expected to happen in time for the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
The cost of making the Wynnewood space fit to host a middle school on its third floor is expected to run close to $3 million, which the school's leaders have said its donors will provide.
Perelman’s president, Elliot Norry, said the change in address will, in the long run, erase the deficit the school currently carries. That’s because Saligman would not have to pay rent in Wynnewood. whereas now it pays more than $100,000 a year to Gratz College, which shares part of its building with the middle school.
The relocation will put the 11-year-old school with fewer than 100 students just 5.5 miles from the middle school run by the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and will undoubtedly intensify the already stiff competition for enrollment.
Perelman’s board approved the plan after 12 weeks of talks between Perelman and Barrack leaders collapsed. The goal of the talks was to create a single middle school.
The two sides had agreed on creating a pluralistic middle school on the Schwartz Campus in Bryn Mawr, which has been Barrack’s home since 2008, but couldn't agree on who would own and run the school.
In an interview with the Jewish Exponent, Norry said that moving to the Main Line is “a terrific option for us.”
Throughout the merger talks, both sides emphasized the idea of blending the best of both schools. Saligman's leaders and parents have long taken pride in the school's unique identity.
"By seizing the opportunity to create a school de novo and by putting in place a leadership cadre that has worked cooperatively, the school has been able to create a unique culture that sets it apart even from its own lower school," he wrote. "Saligman thereby models a form of Jewish religious purposefulness consistent with its commitments to the ideology of Conservative Judaism and the polarities that movement strives to hold in tension."
Saligman’s principal Susan Friedman — who apparently would have been the leader of the joint middle school — told the Perelman board minutes before it voted that “if we do not move, Saligman will close.”
Tracy Specter, a Perelman board member who was one of the six individuals involved in the Perelman-Barrack joint talks, said at the Nov. 29 meeting: “We really cannot afford to wait any longer. There is not going to be any change between tonight and a week from tonight. We just need to make a decision. It is not an easy decision.”
With this vote, Saligman will become the second Jewish school in four years to move west across the Schuylkill River to the Main Line, which now has established itself as the region’s wealthiest and most concentrated Jewish community.
In 2010, an Orthodox day school now known as Kohelet Yeshivah High School relocated from Northeast Philadelphia to Merion Station.
Saligman’s move will certainly be seen as a blow to what’s called the Old York Road corridor, a major suburban center of Jewry for decades that has experienced a declining Jewish population in recent years.
Saligman's struggles, and its departure from the neighborhood, underscores the reality that non-Orthodox day schools in the area are struggling to attract students because of the economy, high tuition costs and a relative lack of interest on the part of Jewish families.
More than 100 parents and community members attended the Nov. 29 board meeting, held in the gymnasium of Perelman’s Forman Center elementary school in Melrose Park It was the same room where, in March 2009, hundreds of parents attended a meeting when the board was set to vote to close Saligman and merge it with Barrack’s middle school.
The suspense of that night four years ago, along with the fury of parents, evaporated quickly when Perelman's head of school, Jay Leberman, told the crowd that, bowing to parents’ wishes to keep the school in Melrose Park, the school's leadership would redouble its efforts to boost student population. Most people who have followed the developments since then now agree that that particular effort came up short.
This week, the meeting lasted for hours and, for a short period, it looked as if the board might also decide to hold off on a vote, which would have meant keeping the school in Melrose Park for at least for another year. But, after breaking for executive session around 11 p.m., the board returned to the gymnasium less than a half hour later, having voted to approve the relocation plan.
Prior to the vote, board members publicly debated the issues and allocated time to hear from other community members who had come to voice their concerns and views. Of some 20 non-board members who spoke, virtually all of them urged the postponement of a vote so school leaders could go back to the negotiating table with Barrack. A few parents dissented from the majority view. One asked whether it was possible to have the school remain in Melrose Park. Another parent talked about competition being good for both schools.
But most of even the Old York Road parents — including some who opposed the merger four years ago — seemed resigned to the fact that the school would move but preferred a merger with Barrack over Saligman remaining on its own.
Glen Feinberg, a teacher at Perelman with children at both Perelman and Barrack who lives in Horsham, told the board: “To have failed twice in four years is almost unbelievable.”
Speaking in favor of a merger, he told school leaders to “return to the discussion table” and “find a way to save this.”
Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, who leads Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, told the board that “day school education is falling off a cliff in this country.” He added that there aren’t enough interested families to support two middle schools and competition could run both of them into the ground.
A day after the vote, he wrote in an email that “creating a second middle school on the Main Line does not serve the best interests of the Philadelphia Jewish community.”
Even with the vote completed, he urged both schools “to try to find resolution both on the issue of a unified middle school, and, in the long-term, a joint K-12 integrated day school system.”
Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who has two children in the Perelman system, said that Perelman and Barrack walked away from their talks in the “fifth inning of a nine-inning game” and that voting to move without a merger showed a lack of vision.
Norry and others on the board said that the leaders of both schools wanted different things. He said the school needed to act in its own best interest and move forward.
Perelman board member Rachel Wachs, the parent of a fifth grader at the Stern Center, said the whole process “is ripping our hearts out. Please don’t suspect that we haven’t heard your pain.”
But she said the school has no choice but to go ahead. Alluding to the fact that Perelman feeds into Barrack's high school, she said: “A strong Perelman will only make a strong Barrack high school.”