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Eitz Chaim Schools looking at ways to cut costs

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Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz

Eitz Chaim Schools in Toronto has begun examining every aspect of school life, to ensure that the Orthodox school remains financially sustainable.

The process was prompted by a problem shared by other day schools in Toronto, said Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, who was hired as head of school 18 months ago.

“The costs of education are outstripping our ability to make up that money through tuition and development,” he said in an interview. “We needed to make sure we look at our entire model from top to bottom to ensure that – whether it’s in areas of academic offerings, or in areas of development, or in areas of our tuition collection – that we are going to be resourcing our school in a way that will keep us strong.”

The school, which runs from nursery to Grade 8, currently operates on three campuses, with two girls’ schools, one in Toronto and one in York Region, and one for boys school in the north end of Toronto. Among the options being discussed are whether it would be prudent to merge the two girls campuses, or combine their middle schools.

Rabbi Schwartz said that when he was being interviewed for the job, he said he would ideally locate the girls to a new campus in the centre of the Jewish community around Wilson Avenue, but an appropriate site has not yet been found.

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Other options being considered, include raising tuition and establishing satellite pre-school programs in different neighbourhoods, if one or more of the existing campuses are closed.

The school used an outside consulting group, the New York-based Prizmah Center for Jewish Education, to conduct focus groups and send a survey to parents about numerous aspects of the school. About 45 parents participated in the focus groups and over 200 responses to the parent survey were submitted.

Eitz Chaim has watched how other Toronto Jewish day schools have handled decisions about merging campuses and changes in tuition, and was inspired by Associated Hebrew Schools, which involved parents and gave them a long timeframe, before deciding to close one of its campuses, Rabbi Schwartz said. “We took that as a very key element of our approach, as well.”

Unlike some of the city’s non-Orthodox schools, Eitz Chaim, which recently celebrated its centennial, is not suffering from declining numbers, with enrolment remaining relatively stable at about 970 students.

However, recent improvements, including upgrading the schools’ computer systems and much-needed maintenance on older buildings, have been expensive.

Teachers deserve fair salaries, but that is one of the things that drives the cost of education.
– Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz

“Our improvements have an associated cost,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “We’re not running a cash-neutral budget from year to year.”

The cost of education has also risen rapidly, with some younger teachers, who start out at lower pay scales, receiving raises of eight to 10 per cent.

“From my perspective, teachers deserve fair salaries, but that is one of the things that drives the cost of education,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “If we want to continue to recruit and retain excellent teachers, we need to do a better job all around of making sure we have the funds to do so.”

About 60 per cent of its students receive a tuition subsidy, which also cuts into the school’s margins. This year, tuition is $14,050 for students in grades 1 to 5 and $14,350 for grades 6 to 8.

Raising tuition is a “delicate dance,” since the school must be careful not to drive more parents into a financial situation in which they need a subsidy, he said.

The school’s strategic planning committee will make its recommendations to Rabbi Schwartz and the board in six to eight weeks.