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Jewish school crisis could be just the shake-up community needs

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Twenty years ago, when our first daughter reached school age, our family had to make some serious life decisions. Our instincts told us that Jewish education would guarantee us a common identity, culture and heritage with our children. But this decision came with a major financial commitment that would ultimately cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even so, we ultimately chose to live a modest lifestyle so that we could afford to pay full day school tuition for 13 years for each of our two daughters.

Our passion and devotion for the Jewish education system here in Toronto never waned. We watched with joy as our children developed strong Jewish identities, made connections in the Jewish community and fell in love with Israel. And just as we had hoped, our daughters grew into adults who share our heritage, culture and values, thereby ensuring a stronger relationship with us and our family life.

We never questioned our decision to send the girls to Jewish school. And now that our daughters have graduated from the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, we are able to look back and know that sending both of them to Jewish school was essential.

READ: WITHOUT JEWISH EDUCATION, WHAT JEWISH FUTURE?

Many other parents like us have made similar decisions to sacrifice a higher standard of living in order to pay for Jewish education. That’s why the recent news regarding the decision to close TanenbaumCHAT’s northern campus in York Region has affected parents so deeply. The school’s closure has brought to light the fact that parents like us, who are key stakeholders in the school – in any school – have been left in the dark about the events that led to this tragic moment. They deserve to know what led to this crisis, and whether the decision to close the school was fully weighed against all other alternatives. These young families, along with the school’s students and teachers, are not willing to give up on Jewish education for the next generation. They have a lot of good questions, and they demand answers.

Perhaps a crisis was needed to shake up the community. Over the span of 17 years in the Jewish education system in northern Toronto, the community did not realize that we were living in the midst of a golden era. New schools opened, enrolment was up and everybody was happy. But with the increased prosperity, the Jewish day school system may have become complacent and wasteful.

Tuition started to creep higher. Over a 10-year period, tuition at TanenbaumCHAT swelled 60 per cent (to nearly $28,000), six times the increase in average income and general inflation during the same period. This created a vicious cycle of lower enrolment and further tuition hikes. And while there were plenty of voices in the community raising concerns about the need to control costs and questioning the management and overblown administration at many of our schools, no real action took place.

There has long been an air of secrecy surrounding the issue of Toronto’s Jewish school system. The board and management of TanenbaumCHAT has not shared significant information about the school’s cost structure, or provided a comprehensive list of its efforts to stop the vicious cycle, leaving its most important stakeholders without a real voice during all these years. Then a bomb was dropped on the community north of Steeles Avenue, when the TanenbaumCHAT board announced the closure of its north campus. In the wake of the decision, it has become apparent that the community has lost its confidence in the leadership at TanenbaumCHAT.

This recent announcement has also triggered a troubling animosity and divisiveness between Toronto’s two Jewish communities, south and north. It’s not hard to see why. Lack of information and transparency tends to foster misconceptions and conspiracy theories, and pit one group of people against the other. The school’s leadership needs to understand that their insistence on not sharing information is not only shutting down a community but also creating a rift between those in the 416 and 905 area codes. I worry that this could ultimately lead to community disintegration.

The community, including the parents who pay the salaries of the TanenbaumCHAT administration, and the teachers who have dedicated themselves to educating our next generation, have the right to see the school’s numbers, its bylaws and the assumptions behind the crucial decisions that were made. The community no longer trusts the school’s board, whose  enrolment and fundraising projections were off by 35 and 45 per cent, respectively, last year.

READ: TANENBAUMCHAT TUITION CUT GREAT FIRST STEP

Families want to understand how and why the school reached this crisis. They wonder why nobody engaged parents and students, despite multiple offers to help the school avoid precisely this kind of crisis.

What needs to happen now?  Here are some ideas:

1. The current leadership of the school should consider giving way to more business-oriented, transparent and accountable leaders.

2. Going forward, the board should include people with significant business skills, as well as members of the community at large, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and teachers.

3. Full transparency should be instituted. The community is entitled to at least the same scope of information received by shareholders of any public company.

The announcement of the closing of TanenbaumCHAT should be a wake-up call for the community at large, specifically in the north. Now that we realize the future of our community is in grave jeopardy, perhaps this sad moment can be a blessing in disguise that will uncover dormant resources and create opportunities for partnerships that will help strengthen our schools and create momentum for donors and leaders. Because without Jewish education, the future of our community is at risk. n

Sara Dobner is a former member of the board at TanenbaumCHAT