The board of directors at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School voted 20-1 to consolidate its Bucks County branch into its Forman Center branch in Melrose Park effective at the end of the 2005-06 academic year.
"As a school, it's just never hit its target enrollment," said Stuart Appel, president of Perelman's board.
Serving first- to fifth-graders, the school now has 33 students. The average class size is currently less than seven children, and in 2003-04, there were not enough children to warrant an incoming first-grade class.
Head of school Jay Leberman admitted it had consistently fallen short of an initial goal of 15 kids per class - a number set before the branch opened in 2000.
The vote came at the conclusion of an unusual open school-board meeting, during which parents were offered the opportunity to state their opinions about the question of the Bucks branch's future. The result was a heated five-hour debate on March 16 in the gymnasium of the Forman Center in Melrose Park.
With most of the parents and many of the teachers present, advocates of keeping the doors open presented tearful and angry arguments, as well as some elaborate multimedia presentations, including a video tour of the school that contained a plea by students and area rabbis to keep the institution alive.
Parents complained that they were "blindsided" by the timing of the decision, and disputed the scope of the losses the school asserted it had sustained during its six years of operation.
Dr. Jeffrey Gordon - a parent of a fourth-grader at the Bucks branch, and the sole member of the Perelman board to oppose the consolidation - claimed that the educational institution could be kept going if a parents' plan for increased marketing and recruiting were followed.
If the school were closed, he said, "it would have profound consequences for years to come," alienating the county's Jewish population.
But Joe Finkelstein, a past president of Perelman's board of directors who presented a report on the issue to the board, said that the Bucks branch lost a total of $844,100 during its six-year tenure, a figure that could not be sustained indefinitely.
"I hate it," said Finkelstein. "I hate it that I'm the one who has to tell you this. The facts drove me to it."
Leaders of the parents' group claimed that errors in the budget put forward by the board created larger deficits than were actually suffered.
Ari Sadoff, father of a second- and a fourth-grader at the school, stated that information put out by the school over the last four years led him to believe that the losses were only half as great as the board presented. In his opinion, this rendered the vote invalid.
Despite these arguments, the board leadership stood by its figures. Appel, Finkelstein and Leberman all asserted that their concerns were much broader than finances.
"It's in the interest of the system as a whole," said Finkelstein, who said that losses at the Bucks County branch prevented the hiring of more teachers and created larger class sizes at other Perelman branches. He also noted that the pressure of keeping the Bucks school going had resulted in tuitions at the other branches being 2 percent higher than they would have otherwise been.
"The bottom-line is that class sizes are getting higher at other branches," said Leberman. Board members estimated a $113,873 surplus if the Bucks branch was closed.
Board member Sora Landes, who co-founded the Forman school in 1973 - with what she says was a requirement of at least 20 students per grade - said that enrollment at Bucks was just too small.
"Ten students per grade is not viable," said Landes, who voted for the consolidation. "I had great misgivings when we started with that number."
Leberman admitted that he had been advised by community leaders when the project was in its planning stages that the market would not support this venture. He said he persisted, but there came a point when he could no longer go on.
"Six years is beyond pioneering," he asserted.
This is not the first time a day school in the county that has failed. The Rimon Reform Jewish Day School closed in 2001 after three years of operation at Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Richboro.
Remaining in the region is the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, which bills itself as "traditional," though some Perelman parents insisted that the school was not an option for them because of its Orthodox orientation.
Plans for the Future
Perelman's leaders hope that students from Bucks will attend the Forman Center in the fall. They are being offered free busing and a continued discounted tuition through the fifth grade.
Many parents at the meeting, however, were not happy about the idea of putting their children on school buses for long rides each day.
"[My child] can't travel an hour-and-a-half on a bus each way," said Michael Eidel. "He's 7 years old. He wouldn't have a life!"
In response, Appel noted that currently 30 percent - or approximately 150 elementary-school students - already travel 45 to 80 minutes each way to the Stern and Foreman centers.
"Some families believe that even at a distance, it's worth it. The program there has more than Bucks - and at a discount," added Finkelstein.
Identifying herself as the anonymous donor who gave more than $59,000 two years ago - leading to an approximate tuition break of $3,000 for families new to the school - Beth Sadoff tearfully threatened potential legal action if the institution shuts its doors.
"I'm going to get my money back if you close my school," said Sadoff.
The parents told the board they had obtained some $315,000 in pledges from students' families, but Appel remained wary of the idea.
"It's not appropriate to fund the future of a school on pledges," he said. "We have also had recent experiences with people who have made pledges to us, then when the executive board makes policy changes that they don't like, they want their money back."
While the mothers and fathers are assessing their plans for the future, Abby Simkus, president of the parent-teacher organization, said the group is "considering starting an independent Jewish day school" to replace Perelman in Bucks County. They plan to meet soon to consider their options.
After the debate, Eidel said that he would be forced to consider sending his child to some other private school, or perhaps, a public one.
"This was the only liberal Jewish education that was an option for all Jewish families" here, he stated simply. "Now, that's gone."
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