A Cautionary Tale
By Stan Beiner
This past December, another Jewish day school closed its doors for the last time. It was beloved by the community and left behind many mourners. It closed with dignity surrounded by founders, community leaders, parents, faculty, students, and alumni all of whom spoke of the great sense of loss. People asked how this could happen to such a vibrant school filled with the promise of a bright future.
Allow me to share this cautionary tale as the person who was brought in to help grow this school but instead helped shut it down all within a few short months.
The school had been located in a synagogue that provided space without charging rent for fourteen years. Issues had arisen, and it was decided that the school needed to find a new home. They were fortunate to find a prime location, but it came with a financial challenge. The cost of rent and utilities would amount to $400,000 which could not be covered by a student population of 54 children, two thirds of whom were on financial aid. When I came out for a visit in late spring, I expressed this concern but was assured that a campaign was underway to raise $450,000 a year for three years. In that span of time, the vision was to have a fully enrolled new preschool, increase enrollment in K-5, and begin changing the financial demographics of the population. The campaign had gotten off to a great start and I was told that by the time I arrived, commitments would be in. The school felt like it had a new lease on life with a beautiful facility and community support. That was the vision.
Unfortunately, the campaign stalled though leaders were still confident that once people returned from summer travels, things would pick up. By August, the business manager and I had sorted out the financial records and reported to the board a $600,000 deficit was projected by the end of the school year. While a few of the leaders were getting nervous, the board was not moved to action feeling that money would come in. It did not.
Meanwhile, the school was flourishing. Though the preschool got off to a late start, it was picking up children at the same time that more students were coming into the elementary school. The projection was that at the start of the second semester, the student population would have increased from 54 to 70. The school’s reputation was growing as we focused on messaging and technology.
At the November board meeting, I reported that if we did not raise at least $200,000 by year end, we would not be able to make payroll in January. An action plan had been created to close the school if funds did not become available by early December. Semester break was the logical time to close so that we could assist in transitioning students into other day schools. Major efforts were made at that point by several but not all the board members to no avail. And, on December 31, the school closed its doors after serving the community for almost 15 years.
It was a heartbreaking situation, but it is a story that is sadly being played out across the country as day schools cope with the realities of remaining fiscally sound. And so, I offer a few observations based on my experience, one which I cherished for the time I served.
- Before engaging in an ambitious project, make sure that at least 70% of the funds are on hand. “If you build it, they will come,” makes for a great movie but rarely plays out that way in the real world. Moving ahead without the necessary funding in hand is a recipe for disaster. In our case, the school moved too quickly without considering a PLAN B.
- You cannot rely on the organized Jewish community to come to the rescue. As well meaning as Federations might be, they are struggling to meet existing needs. In addition, fundraising has become so fragmented that every donor seems to have his/her one or two favorite causes. They will not come to the rescue. We reached out to every wealthy patron in the city. One of the people we turned to shared, “I’ve been asked to bail out three different day schools that my grandchildren attend. I can’t do any more.” The local federation was supportive but in the process of having to regroup from its own loss of support. Desperation is not the best environment in which to develop a well thought out plan. In the end, we were just throwing Hail Mary’s.
- Every member of a board has to be committed to fundraise and/or give. Gone are the days when a well-intentioned board member can say, “I am too uncomfortable to ask for money.” If a board member is not committed to bringing in funds, they can’t have a seat at the table. This is a new reality that schools must face. It does not matter how fundraising is defined as long as each board member understands this critical function.
- A culture of giving has to be engrained into the minds and hearts of the parent body. Not everyone can give significant gifts, but everyone can give something. As it says in Talmud Gittin “Even a beggar is obligated to give.” Parents who feel that paying tuition should be enough have not been given the proper understanding of what it takes to provide the services needed for their children. Tuition rarely pays the full cost. Creating such a culture takes time but it is essential for a school to survive.
- Our school had two thirds of its students on financial support. While we want our hearts to always be open to any family committed to a day school education, there is a point where such a financial model becomes unsustainable. It is not practical for a majority of scholarship dollars to be embedded in the operational budget. That’s what endowment funds and special fundraising events are for. It requires a discipline that is hard to come by.
We want to run our schools with heart because we are serving a higher mission. But we must lead with our minds and become comfortable with new realities.
The leaders of the school were dedicated and hard working. The staff was talented. The parents loved the school and the children felt safe and cared for. But it is gone now. Nothing I have said has not been said before. I offer this in the hope that reality checks become more of the norm and that others might gain insight from this tale.
Stan Beiner has run four Jewish day schools as well as several communal agencies. He is the author of three children’s books on the Torah and is an occasional consultant. Stan currently works at Fulton Academy of Science and Technology and resides in Sandy Springs, Georgia.