The Top 5 Community Initiatives to Sustain Day Schools
by Harry Bloom
Much of my time is being spent “in the trenches” helping Jewish day schools develop active strategies to increase their sustainability. Our team is immersed in the intense but satisfying and productive work of analyzing nearly 40 schools’ comparative revenue and spending patterns (using financial “benchmarking”) comparing them to their peers, and helping them develop and implement plans to generate more revenue and reduce expenses – without reducing quality of education. This work is generously supported by The AVI CHAI Foundation and local Federations and Foundations in the communities of Bergen County, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. With the schools in question we are working collaboratively towards a $22 million financial improvement and to date have helped schools raise and save millions of dollars toward the goal.
But our equally important agenda is to figure out how to leverage community power in these five communities to increase revenue and efficiencies – in instances where (a) economies of scale can yield extra leverage or (b) where individual schools lack the expertise or staff or financial capacity to fully capitalize on major opportunities. An example of (a) would be joint purchasing or multi institutional outsourcing. An example of (b) would be developing the capacity of a group of schools for a blended (classroom and online learning) program. Such an effort would benefit from funds for curriculum development (e.g., to provide release time and/or stipends for staff), professional development funding to help current faculty develop the skills to master blended learning, and expert consulting support to help guide the transition to the new teaching modality.
Here are 5 hot ideas emerging from our work that we would recommend your community consider:
- Outsource key services for multiple or, better yet, all schools. A prime service example is facilities maintenance (cleaning, lawncare, snow removal, etc.). Among our nearly 40 schools facilities maintenance was an over $8 million cost item. Individual large schools have saved over $100,000 per year outsourcing maintenance – and are very satisfied with the service they are receiving. An entire community of schools’ outsourcing savings potential would almost certainly be higher (and bring with it better service terms due to more negotiating power).
- Purchase services smarter, jointly. A prime example would be to buy Human Resources services including payroll management, benefits management, HR legal advice and benefits through a Professional Employer Organization (PEO). Individual schools have publicly testified in YUSP webinars about their achievement of significant savings and administrative simplification through joining PEO’s. Why do they save money? Chiefly because PEOs offer our high health risk Jewish day schools the potential to be part of very large and diverse, lower cost insurance risk pools. Experts indicate that a community of schools or even multiple communities of schools might well do even better.
- Create and market leading edge STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs to build enrollment. Build in an Israeli connection. Broadbased market research indicates that math and science program quality is a key school choice criterion for parents and that they perceive Jewish day schools as weak in this arena. Individual schools including Kehila Schechter (formerly South Area Schechter) have hired a “name” educator who builds a sizzling experiential program that helps students begin to think and act like scientists – and promoted collaborative programming with Israeli universities like Technion and Weizmann Institute. Such a program can be pursued by a group of schools working together to raise the image of all Jewish day schools in a community. The community can then market the STEM superiority of the Jewish day schools through PR, social media, sciences fairs, and social media. The Israeli connection angle cannot be matched by public or independent schools.
- Launch a grassroots fundraising campaign supported by all schools. Examples: NNJKids in Bergen County, New Jersey or the Chicago Kehillah Jewish Education Fund which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, respectively, by asking every member of the community to make even small regular donations to support Jewish day school education.
- Launch a communal endowment program supported by a Central Agency/Federation (like the MetroWest Day School Campaign or through a national organization such as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education – PEJE’s Generations program, currently in Los Angeles, Baltimore and NYC.
Net, there is a great deal the community can and should do to make day schools sustainable. Pick one of these ideas, focus on it, and good things will follow.
Harry Bloom manages the YU School Partnsership’s division of Planning and Performance Improvement, which is tasked with developing and helping schools implement strategic planning, governance strengthening, financial benchmarking and long term financial planning and process improvement efforts. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.