post-pandemic budgets

A strategic reset for day school finances

The following essay is based on a forthcoming paper of the same title in The Azrieli Papers: Post COVID Chinuch Vol. 2

In the spring of 2020, school administrators and boards were bracing for a repeat of 2008. Already reeling from the sudden shift of education and school operation from a physical space to a virtual space, many of us found ourselves in the midst of a near total shutdown of our local economies with no end in sight. Looking ahead to the 2020-21 school year, we projected frightening financial scenarios of somewhat lower enrollment, significantly lower fundraising, and substantially higher scholarship needs due to job loss and deflated incomes.

Ironically and most unexpectedly, however, in place of the financial crisis we were expecting, many schools experienced a financial windfall of sorts instead.   

After decades of creating truly robust curricular and extracurricular programs, our schools found themselves forced to scale back their programs in a myriad of ways. Gone were the elaborate open houses replete with food and swag for hundreds of people. Gone were the Shabbatons, the trips and the athletics. There were no more tournaments or performances or interscholastic competitions. Not only were schools saving the program costs associated with in-person programming, but they were able to cut back on the personnel costs of staffing them as well.

Of course, in many cases these unexpected savings didn’t stay in any school’s bank account for very long. In fact, they often never made it there at all. Running a school during a global pandemic brought with it an onslaught of new expenses. From medical staff to furniture; building modifications to PPE; expanded busing services, janitorial services, and teaching staffs; sanitizing, substitute teachers, and paid leave, the additional costs of operating a school in the COVID era often equaled or exceeded the savings that emerged. So while the “windfall” of 2020 may not have done anything more than allow schools to survive, it has created opportunities for strategic thinking about the future. The necessity of running schools in 2020 without elements of our program that we would have considered to be essential in 2019 has opened the door for innovation in 2021 and beyond. And before we let the force of habit or the fear of change lead us to constructing our post-pandemic budgets in exactly the same way we did prior to the pandemic, we may benefit from pressing pause.  

A decade or so ago, much of the rage in the Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School world was the need for “no-frills schools” that would offer a stripped back version of a yeshiva day school that focused only on the basic educational pieces without any of the bells and whistles that enrich and enhance most of our community’s schools. That is not the model I am advocating. I don’t see learning and emotional support, athletics and the arts, technology integration and STEM exploration as luxuries our children can do without. But I do see a moment for reflecting upon how we deploy such resources and for considering how we might do so in a more strategic manner.  

Before we can be strategic, however, we need to define strategy. In a piece for the forthcoming second volume of Azrieli Papers: Post Coronavirus Chinuch, I argue that the guidance of Roger Martin, the former dean of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and one of the world’s leading management thinkers, can be highly instructive in this regard. Suffice it to say here, though, that strategy is about making hard choices. It’s about taking some risk in order to maximize reward. Not any risk. But risk in places that align with an organization’s mission and that have the potential to differentiate it from the competition. As such, the current approach of Jewish day schools to continuously add curricular and extracurricular programs of all types and in all directions in the hope of attracting additional students — the “everything to everyone” model — would fail Martin’s test for a strategic organization. And it may be failing our children as well.

Imagine for a moment that a school makes a bold decision that instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on athletics, it is going to invest that money in its science program. Instead of junior varsity and varsity coaches, trainers and tournaments, it purchases centrifuges and PCR machines, plant environmental chambers and dry convection ovens, and pays lab technicians to assist students with after-school research. What heights might our science student achieve?

Imagine a school that makes a decision not to fund multiple school bands and a choir and an acapella group. A school that passes on the 3D printers and the laser cutters and the CNC routers. Instead, it invests in a proper weight room and hires fitness coaches and dietitians that help our student athletes maximize their potential. What could our athletes become?

And what about the creative souls amongst our community’s students? Imagine the Jewish High School for the Arts; the Yeshiva High School for Engineering and Design.  

What is true on the secular side of our program is equally true on the Judaic side. While some of the all-boys high schools devote more time to Gemara and less time to Tanach than their co-ed counterparts, and a few all-girls high schools offer intensive Gemara while others do not, that’s about as far as the differences in our Judaic curricula go. What about the boy who wants Tanach to be the centerpiece of their education with only a little Gemara on the side? What about the student who wants to study Machshava for one or two periods a day rather than one or two periods a week? Where are the schools for them?

Where is the Jewish vocational high school for the kids who are never going to be Shakespeare scholars but have the potential to thrive as plumbers and restaurateurs? Where is the selective Jewish high school that is truly preparing the next cadre of community leaders?

This vision of Jewish day schools with unique, well-defined foci that allow our students to exceed the limits necessarily imposed upon them by the current everything-to-everybody model would have been impossible two or three decades ago. And, in communities outside of the New York area, Los Angeles, and South Florida, it is likely to remain out of reach for quite some time.  But our biggest communities are thriving today in an unprecedented manner. Our schools are large and numerous. With a bit of communal will and a healthy dose of courage and gumption, it can be done.

It starts with our boards. If they continue to convulse at the thought of even a short-term dip in enrollment numbers, the status quo will prevail — and our kids will lose out as a result. If, however, they can see beyond next year and focus instead on the best interests of our kids and of our community over the long-term, a shifting of the day school landscape is possible.

Even with intrepid boards, however, this vision can’t be actualized overnight. It won’t be the result of one strategic decision but of many, made over multiple years, by multiple schools. But COVID has broken the ice. It has afforded us the opportunity to reassess what is and isn’t essential and how best to spend the communal dollars entrusted to our care. Let’s do it carefully, communally, and strategically.

Rabbi Dr. Gil S. Perl is the Head of School of Kohelet Yeshiva in Lower Merion, PA.  He will be assuming the positions of CEO of the Ades Family Foundation and Founding Head of School of the Jewish Leadership Academy in Miami for the 21-22 school year.