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Panel weighs ideas for community tuition relief
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Panel weighs ideas for community tuition relief

Confronting the day school “tuition crisis,” a panel of experts weighed various community funding models in hopes of bringing one to Middlesex County.

Speaking March 3 at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison to the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park, the five-person panel addressed the growing number of scholarship requests for students attending day schools, where the annual tuition for an elementary school can cost $15,000.

Panelist Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg said he is heading an initiative that would create a community-wide solution to the rising cost of tuition. The plan is in the early stages, he told NJJN. Options include an annual community campaign or an endowment, possibly run through the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.

“The federation would welcome any initiative that would contribute to a more sustainable future or Jewish educational institutions,” said the organization’s executive director, Gerrie Bamira. “We know other communities have taken a serious look at establishing endowments that could support Jewish education in a meaningful way.”

Schwarzberg, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, said he would be reaching out to the federation as well as the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick.

“I would certainly like to include Schechter if they would like to join us in this initiative,” said Schwarzberg. “That’s what a kehilla means, a community.”

Abe Schwartzbard, an executive board member and former president of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, served as a panelist. Over the last five years, he said, scholarship requests at RPRY have doubled.

At the same time, the 450-student school is striving to remain a “community school,” keeping class size low, and providing amenities like a science lab, art and music education, and sports. “We invest in a resource room, in guidance counselors because we do not want to ignore these issues, but they have costs,” said Schwartzbard. “We do not want to give these things up.”

Schwarzberg, who serves on RPRY’s boards of education and trustees, said he is seeking input from organizers of various tuition programs in the region, including the Jewish Education for Generations collaborative — a pioneering Bergen County association comprising northern NJ day schools, rabbinic leaders, and communal and national organizations — that is addressing the issue of day school affordability.

He is also planning to turn to the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest NJ, whose MetroWest Day School Campaign is a $50 million effort aimed at building long-term support for affordability and academic standards at Jewish day schools in Essex and Morris counties.

Speaking by phone March 20, Schwarzberg said since the March 3 forum he has received a number of offers from community members who want to be involved with the local initiative; he said he expects to begin formalizing ideas after Passover.

“We as a community must find a way to educate our youth and the only way is by collaborating,” he said on March 20. “Young people before they have children, people with young children, middle-aged and older people who have gone through the burden of educating their children” all must be part of the solution.

Among the other panelists was Dr. Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University. The partnership is working with 40 day schools of all denominations in five communities — Bergen County, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland — to help trim costs and improve fund-raising and management. The institute advises schools on staffing decisions, multiyear planning, organizational skills among staff members, and innovations like on-line learning and outsourcing maintenance. He said the participants are on track to improve their financial situations by a collective $22 million.

“We have to be more strategic in our endowment building,” said Goldberg.

Another panelist, Josh Pruzansky, NJ regional director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, said he is working with elected officials and leaders of the Catholic community on legislation and polices that would provide tax or tuition relief to day school parents and supporters.

“One of the major issues we have, especially here in New Jersey, is that we pay very large property taxes,” he said. “More than 60 percent of our taxes go to the public school, which is wonderful, but we get nothing back for our kids.”

Also on the panel was session chair Dr. Jenny Mandelbaum, a Rutgers University communication professor and RPRY board member.

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