MONTREAL — Faced with strong opposition from parents and the St. Laurent Jewish community, the administration of the United Talmud Torahs (UTT) branch in that borough has decided the school won’t close next year after all, and probably not for at least three years.
On Dec. 17, the school’s executive and board of directors reversed a resolution passed in November to close the Beutel UTT because of increasing financial problems and a declining enrolment, and merge it with the other UTT campus in Snowdon.
The administration has now decided to give a parent group’s plan a chance to save the school.
The parents, who said they were surprised at the decision to close and had not been consulted on how to help the school survive, voted 90 per cent against closure. They quickly rallied, with rabbis and other community leaders in the area, as well as alumni, to raise about $160,000 and launch a campaign to encourage more parents to send their children to the school.
Many in the Jewish community at large especially wanted to see the school stay open because it had made a determined effort to rebuild after a hate-motivated firebombing in 2004.
The parent group submitted a proposal on how to gradually increase enrolment and restore the school to financial health over the coming years.
The decision to stay open for now has the support of FEDERATION CJA, which, over the past year, has been working with UTT to try to get the system on a more solid footing, president Marc Gold said.
He said the federation will honour the commitment it made when the school was expected to close, to grant an additional $800,000 to the UTT system over the next four years, with a large portion being allocated immediately to help cover its operating costs.
This amount is above the $1.3 million already earmarked over the same period to subsidize students who do not pay full tuition.
The UTT system, which also includes the Herzliah High Schools on the Beutel and Snowdon campuses, is running a deficit of more than $650,000, Gold said.
The recommendation to close the Beutel UTT was made by a task force set up by the federation and its agency the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre that included the UTT administration and outside experts. It thought demographic trends indicate that there are not enough elementary-age children to keep both UTTs open.
Parents other than those who may be part of the administration were not involved in this process, but have since been invited onto a reactivated task force that will guide UTT through the transition period, Gold said.
The plan sets specific targets and deadlines for fundraising and boosting enrolment, which Gold is confident are achievable with enough effort on the part of the school leadership and parent body. The federation has also promised to became a “partner” with the school to “steward” its direction.
“Our concern at the federation is the viability of the whole [UTT] system. We are open to considering any reasonable scenario that would secure the long-range viability and sustainability of the UTT system as a whole,” said Gold.
He applauded the rapid mobilization of parents, St. Laurent synagogues and community members to save the school.
“I hope there will be a better working relationship among all partners going forward.”
The Beutel UTT, which opened in 1962, has 125 students, which is half its capacity, and Snowdon, which is French, has about the same number, which represents 65 per cent of capacity.
The loss of UTT in St. Laurent was seen as a major blow to its Jewish community, whose numbers have been going down. There is another Jewish elementary school in St. Laurent, an École Maïmonde, but unlike UTT, it does not have an English stream.
“The new plan requires that certain milestones be met regarding system-wide fundraising and increased enrolment for the two elementary schools,” UTT president Arthur Silber and director general Sidney Benudiz said in a statement.
“We are confident that with the co-operation of all partners and stakeholders at the two campuses, these milestones will be met. The new plan incorporates a focused approach to recruitment and retention of students, an intense fundraising campaign and new educational initiatives to make certain that our students continue to receive a rich and meaningful Jewish and secular education.”
A request from The CJN for further elaboration from the school officials had not been returned by time of writing.
Danny Knafo, who has three children in the UTT system, said he was happy with the turn of events, and described it as “the result of everybody getting back on board and looking at the numbers.”