Jewish Day School Affordability: A Volunteer Leadership Challenge and Opportunity

by Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick

Over the past several years we have witnessed a proliferation of inspiring articles, papers, conferences, seminars and think-tanks – all in response to the Day School “affordability crisis.” This growing phenomenon takes place against a backdrop of concern regarding the future fiscal viability of our Day Schools, exacerbated by today’s economic realities.

As we know, there are no “silver bullets” that will respond effectively to all of the “affordability” or “sustainability” challenges facing our schools. To be sure, not every Day School or community has the capacity, expertise, bandwidth and/or culture necessary to respond effectively to these challenges. At best, what has emerged are a series of very select local triage strategies and tactics which run the gamut from increased fundraising and endowment opportunities to the creation of institutional shared or pooled resources and communal joint purchasing programs. Each community identifies and selects the most viable short, mid and long range approaches best suited to the cultural, demographic and socioeconomic level of its families.

When moving from a “30,000 feet” theoretical construct to a “30 feet” real-time perspective, one is struck by the wide array of “affordability initiatives and projects” which appear at first blush to be logical, doable and realistic “no-brainers.” However, upon closer examination, what quickly emerges is a complex, distracting, burdensome and politically challenging processes.

Over 90% of strategic plans in corporate America fail due to an inability to execute or implement effectively. This reality is anchored in the belief that in order for effective implementation to be realized, there needs to be a realignment of institutional resources (human and material) and expectations, let alone a paradigm shift in institutional culture.

New, innovative, creative and well-intentioned affordability initiatives are only as effective as their long-term sustainability. All too often, flashes in the pan which appear to be effective or that have the potential to save an institution significant dollars, fall short due to the absence of leadership, vision and a well- thought-out implementation plan.

For example, I know of a community that recently convened lay and professional day school leadership in order to enroll their respective schools in a comprehensive umbrella insurance coverage plan which would have saved these schools hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Surveys were conducted, census figures were tabulated and quotes were presented and approved. But, there was one final challenge – signing on the dotted line. Needless to say, several schools dropped out for proprietary reasons and as a result, all of the schools had second thoughts. The initiative which everyone celebrated as the best thing since sliced bread was yesterday’s news.

This “catch 22” reality gets to the core of my post. Many schools possess the motivation, desire and willingness to engage in cost-savings measures. Unfortunately, many do not have the infrastructure, wherewithal, culture or resources necessary to engage in long term affordability projects (underscoring “long-term”). A reduction in tuition (or increased scholarship assistance) may result in either decreased revenue streams and/or increased costs. The normative challenge for a school is no longer “should we” but rather, “how do we.”

In light of these emerging realities, what would our Jewish Day School “system” look like if there were to be a National (volunteer-driven) Jewish Day School Collaborative whose sole purpose would be to help coordinate and manage the design and implementation of select “affordability” initiatives? If we can put a man on the moon, it is equally possible to identify and recruit a cadre of highly skilled volunteer business leaders and entrepreneurs (on a national level) who would be willing to devote their time, energy, expertise and know-how to building a national joint purchasing cooperative for our day school community.

The value proposition or mission of such an entity would be to:

  • initiate and develop competitive joint purchasing contracts for the purchase of group/umbrella health insurance, liability insurance and pension programs;
  • purchase in bulk – school supplies, materials, furniture, computer hardware/software, fuel, textbooks and consumables via a purchasing cooperatives;
  • identify and requisition group contracts for landscaping, security, food service, plant maintenance;
  • guide the feasibility and implementation for the outsourcing of school back-office business functions (including bookkeeping, IT and payroll administration) to highly reputable and credible vendors;
  • negotiate state-wide contracts for pooled legal, marketing, technology and human resources services;
  • launch a national effort to help communities and schools plan and execute cost-efficient school mergers, consolidations and “satellite” operations with high academic standards.

As envisioned, although the creation of a National Jewish Day School Collaborative (as a volunteer-driven corporate purchasing/consulting entity), would operate on a national level, ultimately it would need to forge regional and local corporate/ business/vendor partnerships throughout the United States. Schools, not unlike hospitals that are members of a national medical supply collaborative, would become members of this national collaborative, with specific criteria and requirements for membership.

In order for this vision to be realized, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The function and structure of this entity can be readily integrated into an already existing national or regional communal umbrella. It would be pretentious to suggest which one. However, I am hopeful that if this proposal does resonate, folks with an entrepreneurial spirit will be able to make it happen.

Time is ticking and our day schools are losing thousands of children and families. Now is the time for bold measures. Just think of the possibilities…..

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is Director of Institutional Advancement for the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva Day School in Livingston, New Jersey.