Rabbi Moishe Bak, the headmaster of Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville, is trying hard to focus on the positive: The Orthodox day school is emerging from a financial crisis, having filed for bankruptcy in February and reduced its current budget from $5.5 to $3.7 million. Enrollment is up at the Morganville school and a second campus in East Windsor, he said, and the coming year will see new programs in Hebrew immersion and Israel.
The Morganville site is expanding its middle school day to 4:30 p.m. to allow for a broadened curriculum, and computers, language, and science labs — funded through the Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Life Monument Funds — have been delivered.
Yet for all the positive news, the school is still facing complaints that it has fallen behind on salaries to teachers, and several teachers told NJJN they did not receive paychecks for May and June.
Some of the teachers said they are owed as much as $15,000 in back pay. Court papers obtained by NJJN list dozens of pages of staff members, listed as unsecured creditors, who are owed money.
“There is a very angry group of teachers who are generally very frustrated since we filed Chapter 11,” acknowledged Bak, who took over as headmaster in Morganville in October 2009. “We sent a communication to all the teachers. We plan to pay them [for this year] with one check in July and one in August.”
Bak’s comments about finances applied to both schools, which operate under one board.
Bonnie Lurie, who chose not to come back to the Morganville school this past year because she “felt ridiculous” working without pay, said she loved the school and her job. Lurie, most recently a substitute teacher, said she filed a class action suit with other teachers to get the more than $5,000 she is owed, but it was derailed by the bankruptcy filing.
Under its Chapter 11 filing, the school continues operations but is protected by the court from its creditors as it gets its financial affairs in order. Under the law, unsecured creditors have no special assurance of payment.
However, Bak said, although the law would allow the school to renege on financial obligations to the teachers, it has no intention of doing so.
“Listen, we’re a Jewish school and we take our financial responsibilities very seriously,” said Bak. “There is a hierarchy set by the courts about who gets paid first, and obviously we have to follow the law. However, as we build up our school, we fully intend to pay those people everything we owe them.
“While the law would allow us not to, we’re a Jewish school and answer to a higher authority.”
However, teachers have their doubts.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Richard Boyarsky, whose wife, Anne, is a sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Morganville. “I know for a fact at least a dozen teachers who are not coming back.”
Anne Boyarsky said she received numerous letters promising pay. When some teachers threatened to resign several weeks before the end of the school year, Bak convinced them to stay, she said.
“We’re just very dedicated and want so much to be with the children and see them graduate,” she said. “It’s so hard to walk out the door, but we want so much to be paid. It’s a labor of love for us and Shalom is a very special place, a second home that we love.”
Brian Lynn, who teaches math, science, and social studies in East Windsor, said he is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“I happen to love the staff and I love the kids,” said Lynn, a retired New York City teacher who said he was in a better financial position than some teachers because he collects a pension from New York. “I happen to enjoy what I’m doing, but nobody wants to work for nothing. I know a lot of teachers are very torn because their rabbis on one hand are telling them to stay, but they do need the money.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article indicated Rabbi Moishe Bak is headmaster of the Morganville and East Windsor campuses of the Shalom Torah Academy. He is headmaster of the Morganville campus only. This story has been changed to include the correction.