Wednesday, December 16th, 2009
There is no more important factor in preserving Jewish identity than full-time education in yeshivas or day schools. But private schools are an expensive business, especially when the costs of both mandatory secular studies and religious instruction are factored in. As parents face layoffs, salary cuts or declining business revenues, their ability to pay tens of thousands of dollars in private tuition is fading, and schools are feeling the crunch. More than ever they are being forced to assess how to cut costs to lower or at least freeze tuition.
I’m no efficiency expert or accountant, and I’m sure much of what follows is already being implemented or considered. But the debate on making Jewish schools more viable needs all the stoking it can get.
Consolidate: As memberships dwindle, shuls across the country of similar observance and ideology have been forced to merge, eliminating the building costs of one group and infusing the other with cash, members, energy and ideas. Religious schools should also consider the advantages of merging entire institutions or simply their management, which would allow for more streamlined operations, consolidation of staff and centralized purchasing to save money on everything from textbooks to cleaning supplies.
Rethink The Leadership Structure: A principal or headmaster commands a (well-deserved) high salary because of all the various hats he or she wears, from overseer of the budget and curriculum to liaison with parents, local authorities and faculty. These administrators are hired because of their extensive prior experience, often in public school systems. Why not decentralize those responsibilities, delegating to other staff – and to parents who can offer their own expertise in various work fields? When administrators retire, their boards should consider recently accredited, younger people, with their education fresh in their minds, bursting with ideas and energy — and at lower salaries. Fresh perspectives can be just as valuable as experience. At top-heavy schools with multiple administrators, attrition through retirement is an opportunity to phase out positions and redistribute their responsibilities. It’s cheaper to give current staff raises for added work than to replace open spots.
More Bartering: Rather than grant blank-check awards for scholarship applications, schools should routinely get something in return, whether it’s a service (book-keeping or legal advice) or simply volunteer time (answering phones or stuffing envelopes). Often many parents volunteer their help but are never taken up on it. Many schools ask but don’t insist on this, recognizing that a volunteering parent may feel shamed. But when schools are fighting to stay open and parents are considering public school, it’s time for everyone to buckle up and swallow their pride. There is no shame in giving service rather than money.
Localize Extra-Curricular Costs: Very few people make the basketball team, but everyone pays for the coach and perhaps the uniforms and other supplies. If there is not enough interest to sustain a club, put it on hold. For the popular ones, let those involved pay the cost, with scholarships available as necessary.
Share Facilities: Having a brand new, million-dollar gym or pool may be great to put in your brochure, but bad news will travel much faster than good when the school overextends itself. Schools in the same area can share the maintenance costs of one facility, or arrange to use public facilities, rather than compete.
Share Teachers: If the hours are staggered properly, a math, biology or English teacher or even a rebbe can teach morning classes at one school and afternoon classes at another, reasonably close school, with the salary and benefits divided between the two.
Hire More Parents: It makes little difference to a parent if tuition money comes out of their bank account or straight off their paycheck. But for overtaxed schools, fewer tuition dollars are less of a net loss than real dollars on the payroll, especially with payroll taxes considered. A qualified teacher with several children in the school, if given an employee discount, will cost the school less and in some cases prevent enrollment loss from families that can no longer afford the full tuition.
Inclusion classes: Special education for kids with learning issues is extremely expensive because it requires a very low student to teacher ratio. Inclusion classes allow learning-disabled and other kids to learn alongside fully capable kids, sharing teachers and with special-education trained aides. An inclusion class is cost effective because only one room is occupied, and faculty resources are maximized.
Buy used textbooks: Books are extremely expensive and, to the delight of publishers, they are constantly being updated. Outside of works of classic literature, there are very few books that it makes sense to hold onto permanently. There are numerous online textbook exchanges that buy and sell used books, and cooperating schools can even arrange their own exchanges, or work out creative ways to share books from classes that may not meet every day.
Lose The Dinners: Lavish fundraising dinners are good for morale and offer an opportunity to honor devoted parents and faculties. But when you consider the amount of work-hours spent planning them, and their diminishing profitability in this economy, more creative ways to fundraise have to be considered. How about an arrangement with local restaurants in which parents are encouraged to dine there on a specific weeknight (perhaps the slowest for that establishment) in exchange for a percentage of the check. Proprietors can not only feel good about helping out, but have the chance to earn regular customers. In these austere times, many organizations are now having Dinners Without Food, which can either be an event or a concept in which people donate what they would ordinarily spend on a lavish dinner. No waiters, no prime rib and no centerpieces means a profit of almost 100 percent, minus some administrative costs. As for honoring the alumni-, parent- and teacher-of-the-year, what could be a better tribute than a donation to the school that is free of overhead?