After years of precipitously declining enrolment, operating deficits averaging $1.6 million a year and dim prospects of a change in those numbers, Associated Hebrew Schools (AHS) has decided to sell its Atkinson Avenue building in Thornhill, according to Rabbi Mark Smiley, AHS’s head of school.
While no date has yet been set for the sale, parents have been informed that the school, known as the Kamin Education Centre, will continue to operate in the 2017-18 school year, and perhaps in 2018-19 as well.
What happens after that remains unclear. Smiley told The CJN that the school is canvassing the input of parents, supporters and community organizations to suggest alternatives for the school, which has operated on Atkinson Avenue for 20 years.
Options include selling the building and renting part of it from the new buyer, renting space in other schools in the same Thornhill neighbourhood, leasing space somewhere else in York Region or relocating to AHS’s Finch Avenue branch, which currently serves as a middle school for children in grades 6 through 8, Rabbi Smiley said.
In a letter sent May 18 to the “AHS community,” Rabbi Smiley and Mayeer Pearl, president of the school’s board of directors, stated, “A new home will now be needed for the Kamin branch and, to the extent possible, the board prefers to maintain a presence in York Region. To do so, the board will require a substantial influx in community philanthropy and a significant increase in enrolment. A time frame of three to four months has been given to engage with our parents and the broader community to try and find a sustainable solution to remain in York Region.”
According to Rabbi Smiley, AHS’s debt now stands at around $4 million, with a forecast to reach $5.5 million by the school’s year-end of June 30, 2017. AHS averaged $1.6 million in operating losses in the last three years including $0.9 million in the year-ended June 30, 2014, $0.6 million in the year-ended June 30, 2015 and $3.4 million in the year-ended June 30, 2016.
AHS is forecasting an operating loss of around $2 million for the year ending June 30, 2017.
“We had paid off the building and we had some surpluses and reserves and we used that to handle some of the years of deficit. We used up the reserves and leveraged the building to be able to handle the debt,” Rabbi Smiley said.
AHS’s two other branches – the Posluns Education Centre at Neptune and Bathurst and the Danilack Middle School at Hurwich Education Centre on Finch, near Bathurst – do not appear to be suffering the same drastic decline in enrolment as experienced at Kamin.
Posluns’ student population has remained stable for the last five years at around 425 while Danilack’s numbers have fallen to 330 from 380 in five years, as a result of the Kamin feeder enrolment declining, Rabbi Smiley said.
But it is the numbers at Kamin that are most telling. In those same five years, enrolment dropped to 305 from 689. The board “understands that you can’t run a school built for 700-800 children with 300 children,” Rabbi Smiley said.
Nevertheless, AHS remains one of North America’s largest Jewish day schools, with enrolment at 1,300 this year, and about 1,150-1,200 expected next year, he added.
Rabbi Smiley said losing 50 to 70 children a year puts significant pressure on the school budget. Another factor is the cost associated with welcoming families who require subsidies – now 30 per cent of AHS families. The costs to accommodate these families goes beyond the school’s ability to raise funds or what is received from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto allocations, he said.
While revenue continues to drop, the school has taken steps to reduce expenses. “More than $2 million was taken out of the budget in the last two years,” he said.
A Q & A on the school’s website states that the number of administrators has been reduced, programs have been streamlined and other costs have been addressed.
Rabbi Smiley said Associated is facing the same kind of long term issues that have caused other schools to shrink. Robbins Hebrew Academy, Leo Baeck and the Kimel branch of CHAT have all had to scale down, he said.
“There is something going on in day school education that needs to be addressed by the community,” Rabbi Smiley said. “Hopefully that can take place.”
Elaine Oziel read about the proposed sale in an email announcement from the school. While it was “sad” to hear the news, there were signs that something was amiss.
You could see the school was much less busy at pick up time and there had been rumours and speculation among parents about the future of the building, she said.
Oziel, who has two young children at the Kamin branch, said she plans to send them back to the school next year and then look at other options, including transferring them to the Posluns campus.
That may not be a viable option for parents who live north of Kamin, she suggested.
Oziel speculated that Kamin’s declining enrolment could be due to several factors, including the cost of tuition, which runs $15,000-$16,000 per student per year.
“For larger families, how much can you stretch yourself to pay the tuition,” she said. “How much can you sacrifice? It’s a huge chunk out of your standard of living.”
Oziel said Thornhill’s public schools are full of Jewish kids and many parents look to other options for a Jewish educational environment, such as supplementary schools and Jewish camps.
“They might feel public schools work for them financially,” she added.
On social media posters reacted quickly to news of the proposed sale.
One poster to the Save JDS (Jewish Day Schools) Facebook page lamented the use of community-raised funds for priorities other than education. “There are such generous donors to our school, there is no doubt, but there has to be another solution for long-term Jewish education for our kids.
“This has become an unaffordable education, and the fact that Thornhill public schools are full of Jewish kids, has made more people drawn to leave the Jewish system,” the poster stated.
In response, another poster stated, “I know of two well intending families that literally been chased away by unaffordable fees recently. This is a downward spiral. The community needs to wake up and understand that Jewish education is a dying thing, and unless it becomes accessible to all, without killing them financially, there is no turning back. Public school is free. For those of us who want to see their kids though the Jewish system, this is a sad day and a wake up call.”
- Correction: Earlier versions of this story said the school was on Atkinson Street, not Atkinson Avenue.