After months of tense, behind-the-scenes negotiations and endless speculation about the final outcome, the boards of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School have voted to merge their middle schools.
The Robert Saligman Middle School, which was formerly run by Perelman and located in Melrose Park, will now be run by Barrack and housed at its Bryn Mawr campus. It will be set in an athletic building that will be renovated in time to open the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, according to officials from both schools.
The plan accomplishes what many communal leaders and parents with children in the non-Orthodox day schools have been seeking: a unified middle school that will eliminate competition and divisiveness amid declining enrollment and tight resources.
“This is a great day for the Jewish community in Philadelphia,” Ira M. Schwartz, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said Wednesday afternoon at a gathering at Barrack to celebrate the merger deal.
By all accounts, Schwartz played a key role in getting the sides to reach an agreement and committing Federation to raise the resources needed to make it happen.
In a joint statement put out by Federation, Barrack and Perelman, the parties said they “all agreed that a unified middle school would not only maximize community resources, but also provide exciting and expanded opportunities for students — educationally, socially and financially.”
The plan, approved by each of the schools respective board meetings Tuesday night, marks a dramatic turn of events. In late November, talks between both schools reached an impasse, with representatives having negotiated for three months with the help of a facilitator and then a mediator.
On Nov. 29, Perelman’s board voted — over the objections of nearly all parents in attendance — to move its struggling middle school from the Old York Road corridor to the Main Line, within a few miles of Barrack’s middle school. Such a move, many parents and community members said, would have intensified the competition between the two schools.
But at the behest of some parents and increased involvement by Federation and the mediator, Abraham Gafni, the two sides kept talking and worked out the merger deal agreed upon this week.
While celebrated by many, as was evident at the hastily arranged event at Barrack on Wednesday, which drew several dozen people, not everyone is happy with the outcome.
The move creates a vacuum for families in the Northern suburbs, many of whom made last-minute pleas to keep Saligman in Melrose Park and now worry that they might lose the adjacent Forman elementary school in the future as well.
Yuval Azulay, a Horsham resident with a son in the sixth grade at Saligman and a daughter in fourth grade at the Forman Center, said he is so angered by the move that he may not send his son to the new school in Bryn Mawr.
“The whole thing doesn’t make sense. There has to be something behind the scenes that we don’t know what is going on,” said Azulay, a dentist, who sent a mass email to other parents lamenting the developments. “Why do you need to build a new school in a new area and destroy the area? Within five or six years the lower school is going to be closed. Then they are going to promise buses to the other side.”
Elliot Norry, the president of Perelman, acknowledged these sentiments in his remarks at the gathering at Barrack on Wednesday.
“We all need to recognize that there are very committed day school families , particularly in the current Forman and Saligman communities, that feel adversely affected by this change. While we certainly deserve to be celebrating as a family, we also need to be healing,” he said.
At the same time, Norry, who had just weeks ago been adamant that Perelman did not want to give up its middle school, said that with this new arrangement, “the Perelman board is certain that we have achieved the best possible outcome for the broader Jewish community.”
As part of the agreement, Federation has pledged to establish a fund to cover the costs involved, including renovation of the athletic building, expanded transportation for students coming from long distances and other costs. Federation also has committed to ensure that Perelman get $500,000 each year for five years from Barrack to help grow its kindergarten to fifth grade enrollments at its Forman and Stern elementary schools through scholarships and tuition incentives. Both Barrack and Perelman are, according to the agreement, also to be involved in the fundraising for these efforts.
The new deal will officially end Perelman’s 11-year history of running a middle school. It also completes the unification that nearly occurred in 2009, when Barrack’s board voted in favor of a merged school and Perelman’s board balked at the last minute after a groundswell of opposition from parents and community members.
The detailed, 24-point agreement signed by the presidents of both schools illustrates that there is much about the Perelman school that Barrack will seek to maintain.
Sharon Levin, Barrack’s head of school, said that “by merging the schools, we will blow every independent and public middle school out of the water. We will be unstoppable.”
For families in the Northern suburbs who might be hesitant to send their children on a long bus ride, Levin said, “We will provide everything and anything necessary to make the transition here as easy and enjoyable as it could and should be.”
The document ensured that several of Saligman's top educators will be in place at the newly unified school.
Susan Friedman, Saligman’s current and founding principal, will be the principal of the new school and is being offered a three-year contract. Rabbi Shawn Hazani, currently Saligman’s school rabbi, will serve as director of Judaic studies and religious life at the Barrack middle school.
At the gathering to mark the merger on Wednesday, Friedman expressed enthusiasm about moving forward. She said she was “happy to be able to do what the community wanted” and to “put all the negative feelings behind us and move forward.”
Acknowledging that it will be a challenge to merge two schools and to work in a different environment, she said she had no doubt she could transplant what she created in Melrose Park and she considers it a privilege that she will be working with Levin.
The agreement left open the possibility that at least some teachers from the schools could lose their jobs and be offered severance as a result of the unification.
The pluralistic school will add a Conservative religious track that will include daily prayer, something that is currently optional at Barrack. There are also already plans to build a chapel for prayer services in the new building.
In addition, Barrack will seek to incorporate Perelman’s commitment to serving a wide range of learning styles and special needs students, and will continue the well-regarded Orot program.
The document also states that Barrack will offer free transportation for five years to Perelman families affected by the move. Barrack has also agreed to set tuition at the current lower, Saligman rate, with a cap of 2 percent increase for the next five years.
Barrack will soon have some Perelman leaders serving on its board and vice versa, according to the document. During the negotiations, the idea was floated that the merger of the middle schools would be a first step toward developing a unified K-12 day school system. The agreement did not directly address such a prospect, though having some joint board members appears to be at least a small step in that direction.
Rena Kopelman, a Perelman board member, noted that “some people categorized this as a buyout or a sellout. But this is a great community solution” that will lead to the best outcome.
Now “the culture of competition can finally be lifted so we can finally work to the same goal,” allowing money to be spent on education and getting more kids to Jewish day school, said Kopelman, who has one child at Perelman's Stern Center and another at Barrack’s current middle school. She also is active in Federation and is a co-chair of its Center for Jewish Life and Learning, which designates considerable funds each year to the day school system.
“Everyone on the board is sad to let go of Saligman,” she said. “We really do feel it’s a special place and a jewel; but a lot of us felt that creating a Barrack school, with Saligman school features, was the best solution.”