Associated Hebrew Schools (AHS) will close its northern campus on Atkinson Avenue, which houses its elementary school, in September 2019, and move students south into its middle school building on Finch Avenue, the school announced on Oct. 18.
In May, the school said that declining enrolment and growing operating deficits were forcing it to sell its building in York Region, north of Toronto.
A survey found that parents were about equally split in their preference for moving further north onto the Lebovic Jewish Community Campus, or relocating south to the middle school, Rabbi Mark Smiley, AHS’s head of school, said in an interview.
“We are truly sad that we have to move out of the 905,” Rabbi Smiley said, referring to the area code for the Toronto suburbs.
“It is noticeable that, for the non-Orthodox sector, that day school enrolments have been dropping for over 11 years. The cost of schooling and the ability for families, especially in the middle-income sector, to be able to stay within the system has become more pronounced, especially in York Region.”
AHS is one of several Jewish day schools in York Region that has recently been forced to sell a building, or leave the district altogether.
The Leo Baeck Day School sold its building on Atkinson Avenue and started the school year on the Lebovic campus, in a building formerly occupied by the Kimel branch of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.
TanenbaumCHAT decided in March to merge its two campuses and relocate to Wilmington Avenue.
AHS intends to renovate the building that currently houses the Danilack Middle School, to accommodate the students from junior kindergarten to Grade 5, who will be moving from the Kamin branch on Atkinson Avenue.
The school expects that the Hurwich Education Centre, at Finch Avenue and Bathurst Street, in which Danilack is located, will house between 500 and 550 students when the move takes place in 2019. About 330 students are currently enrolled in the middle school.
AHS also operates an elementary school further south on Neptune Avenue, with about 425 students.
The plans call for the elementary students to occupy the first floor of the building, with the middle school on the second floor. A playground and some preschool classes will be added, and some common spaces, such as the chapel and gym, will be reconfigured.
The Kamin branch has struggled with declining enrolment for several years. In the last five years, enrolment has dropped from 689 students to 305.
Meanwhile, the school has an annual operating deficit of about $1.6 million a year and its debt reached $5.5 million at the end of the last school year.
Four Jewish schools – two centrist-Orthodox and two ultra-Orthodox – “showed interest in the property,” Rabbi Smiley said. A number of private developers have also put bids on the 1.5-hectare parcel of land, he said, but he could not comment further until the deal is finalized.
The proceeds from the sale will be used to pay off the school’s mounting debt. “Getting back to balanced budgets is our first priority,” said Rabbi Smiley.
Tuition assistance for middle-income families, who generally do not qualify for subsidies, is also vital.
“Any school that’s not looking at middle-income relief is not being serious about their long-term viability,” he said. But he also noted that an across-the-board tuition cut for all families, such as the one that TanenbaumCHAT implemented this school year, is not in the cards.
Sidura Ludwig, a parent of three children at AHS, says she was relieved a decision has been made and says that the move to the Finch campus is the “best solution out of a really bad situation.”
She bought her house 10 years ago, because it was within walking distance of the school. She and her family are also active in the synagogue, which is in the same building as the school.
‘It’s no longer a wake-up call, it’s a really loud shaking alarm.’
The school’s difficulties made it obvious that the only situation was to consolidate, “but I don’t think anyone can be happy about this,” she said.
“It’s no longer a wake-up call, it’s a really loud shaking alarm to the greater community and to (UJA) Federation – the system of day school education is not working up here.”
Ludwig heads AHS’s parent ambassadors program and says that it’s difficult to get young families to even look at the school, where tuition is about $16,000 a year for kindergarten students.
Mordechai Ben-Dat, a member of the advocacy group Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education, said AHS’s decision to consolidate is “further evidence that tuition fees are too high.”
AHS was a school that welcomed immigrant children and encompassed the diversity of Toronto Jewish life, he said.
“If Associated can’t manage up there, and Associated to some extent embodies what the Jewish community of Toronto always was, it’s a bit of a sad day,” he said. “I don’t blame Associated, they’re moving heaven and earth. It’s a wider community issue.”