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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Day school tuition not yet ‘a crisis,’ officials say

Tags: Jewish learning Canada
Eric Petersiel

TORONTO — Sending children to Jewish day school represents “a huge choice in parents’ lives in terms of their discretionary income,” says Eric Petersiel, head of school of the Leo Baeck Day School. However, he doesn’t believe there’s a tuition crisis per se.

“I think parents expect the very best education, and that costs a lot of money,” Petersiel told The CJN.

Tuition this year at Leo Baeck, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, is $13,500, and will rise to $13,900 for the 2013-14 year.

This the first time in about five or six years that the increase is less than three per cent, Petersiel said. By comparison, the rate of inflation in Canada was .4 per cent in April, according to Statistics Canada. A year ago, it was 3.1 per cent.

Petersiel credits a relatively lower tuition increase at his school to the growth of its new south campus, housed in the former Arlington Middle School. Leo Baeck purchased the school two years ago, and moved in last September after 19 years in rented premises at Holy Blossom Temple.

The school grew by more than 100 students this year, from a total of 815 students at its two campuses, to 920.

However, Petersiel noted, requests for tuition subsidies have risen about 20 per cent a year, to about 18 per cent of students this year. He attributes that in part to the fact that Leo Baeck is one of only two local schools to offer subsidies for preschool, he said. Bialik Hebrew Day School is the other one.

Earlier this month, Ed Segalowitz, executive director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Education, told The CJN that addressing the cost of Jewish day school tuition is one of the centre’s priorities. It recently held a “tuition summit” for lay and professional leaders of Jewish day schools to address affordability issues.

The federation allocates $10 million annually for tuition assistance.

At Associated Hebrew Schools, tuition is rising from $13,500 to $14,100 for grades 1 to 6, and from $14,100 to $14,800 for grades 7 and 8, representing increases of 4.3 and five per cent respectively. Almost 40 per cent of students receive tuition subsidies, said Elliott Brodkin, the school’s executive director. That number has been steady for several years, he noted.

“It’s hard to contain the [tuition] increases,” Brodkin said. Classroom costs, particularly teachers’ salaries, “have to be passed along.”

The school, which has a total of 1,697 students at four campuses – including its new preschool campus at Beth Sholom Synagogue, with 49 students – expects a slightly smaller enrolment next year, probably 1,670 or 1,680.

“We’re down a preschool class in the north,” he said, adding that one reason could be that some children who might have gone to Associated have instead enrolled at Bialik’s new second campus for preschool and Grade 1, which will open in September on the Lebovic Jewish Campus in Vaughan.

Brodkin, like Petersiel and other colleagues, stopped short of using the word “crisis,” but Jewish day school is “affordable to less people than it was,” he said.

“I think all the schools are doing as much cost containment as they can… We did reduce costs outside of the classroom where we could,” he said, referring to administration and overhead.

Another measure is to pursue “non-tuition revenue streams,” he said. For example, AHS rents one of its campuses to a summer camp.

Rhona Birenbaum, CFO/executive director and interim director of education at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto – which bills itself as the Diaspora’s largest Jewish community high school – said the simple answer to rising tuition costs is that “we need more people to be generous… and contribute more so that schools can allocate greater amounts.

“I don’t believe that our school or any other school is spending money in ways that are irresponsible.”

She said that rising tuition “definitely” has an impact on enrolment. “I think there are those people who opt not to apply in the first place.”

But she’s also not convinced there is a tuition “crisis.”

“I think we won’t know when we reach the crisis point until we pass it,” Birenbaum said. “I would say we’re approaching a tuition level that makes it somewhat inaccessible for, certainly, the middle class – in other words, those who are least likely to get the kind of subsidies that would really make a difference to them when they make their decision to send their kids to day school.”

At TanenbaumCHAT, tuition has risen from $22,650 this year to $23, 400 for the coming year, an increase of 3.3 per cent. The student population will decrease only slightly from 1,306 this year to an expected 1,290 students for the 2013-14 year.

Birenbaum told The CJN that after the recession hit in 2008, the school population began to decrease. However, she noted, there was a “demographic bulge” from the late 1990s through the 2000s which she doesn’t expect to see repeated until those students become parents themselves.

Educating kids in Jewish day schools is “what we believe is the most important element of Jewish continuity,” she said.

“We think that the impact on teenagers of a Jewish education is really the most influential factor in determining whether they’re going to lead a life fully as a Jew through adulthood, and so we think it’s really important that parents consider the options available to them for tuition assistance and not decide against a Jewish day school education before they actually knock on our door.”

At Bnei Akiva Schools – the religious Zionist high school system with a combined total of 210 students at Yeshivat Or Chaim (for boys) and Ulpanat Orot (for girls) – tuition is $21,900 this year, and $22,200 for the coming year, with additional charges of more than $1,000.

“More families are in need of scholarships, and greater sums of scholarships,” said the religious Zionist high school’s rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yair Spitz.

But from what he hears, Bnei Akiva’s demographic doesn’t consider opting out, he said.

At Bialik, which has roots in the Labour Zionist movement, children who are already in the school are not leaving for financial reasons, but the cost of tuition is an issue for families considering day school versus other schools, said Sonia Shron, the school’s executive director.

Tuition at the school has risen to $14,025 for the coming year from $13,375 this year, a 4.9 per cent increase. There is also a capital levy of more than $1,000, which was first added in 1999, when the school began its renovation and expansion plan.

Bialik, which has 826 students, is anticipating “a stable enrolment,” in addition to 65 children at its new second branch, according to head of school Shana Harris.

Reuven Stern, head of school at Netivot HaTorah Day School, said that enrolment has dropped “somewhat” at the Orthodox Zionist school. It has a total of more than 500 students on two campuses, and tuition is up to about $14,000 for the coming year, an increase of just over three per cent.

Stern believes one of the factors in decreasing enrolment may be free government-funded early childhood education.

More than 45 per cent of Netivot students receive subsidies, he said. “We do not turn away children due to money.”

Like other colleagues, he does not talk of a tuition crisis. “I would call it a matter of concern. It’s something the whole community is concerned about.

“We’re still hoping that our government sees the light and recognizes the quality of education being offered by Jewish schools, and the need being met for over 10,000 Ontario children. Were our schools to close, God forbid, they would then need to be transferred to the government body at tremendous expense.”

Gail Baker, head of school at the Toronto Heschel School, which has about 220 students, said that tuition is “not the only determinant of whether children go to day school, [but] it’s certainly a consideration.”

At Heschel, tuition varies by grade level, and has increased by up to 2.5 per cent, Baker said. For the coming year, tuition ranges from $11,975 for junior kindergarten to $16,975 for grades 4 to 8. This year, tuition ran from $11,200 for junior kindergarten to $16,900 for grades 6 to 8.

Mark Abramsohn, the school’s director of business operations, noted that a larger enrolment enables a school to maintain tuition fees or even lower them.

Baker has noted an increase in tuition subsidy requests, and would like more people – both donors and parents – to understand the importance of a Jewish day school education.

“It’s all about Jewish creativity, Jewish continuity, and it’s all about raising future leaders in the Jewish community, keeping Judaism relevant and alive for future generations.”

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