By Yaffi Spodek
Issue of July 17, 2009 / 25 Tammuz 5769
Fewer than a quarter of Jewish day schools have a long-range financial plan. That’s the finding of an anonymous survey of the presidents of 70 Jewish schools. In addition, the presidents feel their boards of directors under-perform in the areas of fundraising and strategic planning, two areas they believe have the most impact on overall school performance and affordability.
The Survey of the Governance Practices of Jewish Day Schools was conducted by the Institute for University-Partnership of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. It was designed to document how closely current boards of directors hew to accepted good practice, and to examine whether there was a relationship between these practices and school operational performance.
Close to one third of school board presidents strongly agreed that board members give their schools their top personal philanthropic gifts or that they generated financial support for school events. Only about one quarter felt that board members were actively engaged in identifying and cultivating potential major donors.
School boards can play a pivotal role in addressing the day school affordability crisis, particularly in the areas of financial planning and fundraising, the study suggests, potentially saving millions of dollars each year.
It pinpointed several ways to reduce the growing affordability gaps, said Azrieli doctoral candidate Harry Bloom, director of planning and performance improvement for the Institute, and the study’s designer. He explained the findings at a conference Monday on YU’s Beren campus in Manhattan.
“The affordability challenge is bigger than anyone thinks,” Bloom said. “We need to create vital support for day school educational funding, and help our schools use the board as lever to help generate what we believe is $100 million a year.”
Bloom outlined a four pronged approach designed to address the problem, which included communal fundraising, interschool and inter-communal collaboration, maximizing government support for day schools, and better financial management on the part of the day schools themselves. Once those measures are in place, “we will be able to really start making a dent in the affordability problem,” he said.
The survey is the first ever of day school board presidents and its findings have practical implications for improving the day school system,” Bloom believes.
“What makes this study unique is that it is one of the only ones grounded in a graduate program of Jewish education,” added Dr. David Schnall, the dean at Azrieli. “We are not just focusing on the business and financial aspects, but on the educational components as well... looking at the correlation between the board doing their job and the educators implementing their ideas.”
“In the context of the affordability crisis that day schools are facing, these relatively low ratings represent a source of significant opportunity for improving day schools’ financial pictures, particularly if supported by strong work...to identify prospective Board members ... with wealth or connections to wealthy individuals, federations or foundations,” the study observed. “Board members need to understand that one of their most important responsibilities is ensuring that schools have sufficient resources to fulfill their missions and that this responsibility cannot be relegated to the Development Committee or to staff professionals.”
The focus on school board presidents and their contribution to the success of the school has taken on even greater significance in light of the economic downturn.
“The issues of tuition and affordability are not just a year old, but they now have a particular energy because of the unfortunate circumstances of last year,” noted Bloom. “To improve affordability without quality of education is shortsighted... and we want to document what is going on in different areas of education, so there can be a great synergy between the commitment to affordability and upholding the quality of education.”
Bloom explained that while each school has a fixed cost, and certain components that make it distinct, there are also resources that can be shared, and he believes that now is the time to tap into them.
“We want to preserve the parts of a school that make it distinct, but we also need to figure out what things can we do together to share resources that don’t touch the students,” he said. “It’s incumbent for us to work together to put those issues on the table.
Dr. Scott Goldberg, the director of the Institute, highlighted the ability of the various schools to unite and “come together, across the denominations, in this important initiative.”
“Too often we hear calls for cutting core educational components of schools, from teacher salaries to professional development,” he said. “While schools must find ways to cut spending, this survey suggests that we can help preserve the educational core of the school and maintain school quality by maximizing fundraising and strategic financial planning.”
Other topics the survey explored include committee effectiveness, efforts to educate board members, fulfillment of fiduciary responsibilities, and board-head of school relationships.
Though the survey was conducted anonymously via e-mail, each school was offered the opportunity to receive an individual summary of the results as well as a consultation on how to take advantage of the findings. In addition, the Institute has been providing free ongoing consulting services to several local yeshivas, including HAFTR. TAG, and Yeshiva Ketana, to “look at economic models, and identify opportunities to increase revenue and reduce costs,” Bloom said.
“What’s great about the work we’re doing in the Five Towns is the phenomenal spirit of cooperation between the different schools,” he added, referring to several recent meetings held for heads of 15 local day schools. “The schools keep coming back for follow-up sessions and they are really taking everything to heart and implementing our recommendations for improvement.”
The Institute is also providing consultative services in Bergen County, NJ, and Philadelphia, PA, with plans for expansion in the coming months. “We want to be able to make recommendations for each school to maximize affordability and cooperate with each other to improve,” Bloom said.
This summer Bloom plans to mount a “roadshow” of sorts, traveling to Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities to work with schools and educational agencies to advance the Institute’s message. “We want to take this out there and cause this to be an impetus for change,” he said. “It’s a great time to implement the findings and we view this is as great news and think it can be a huge force of change.”
The complete survey and analysis can be viewed here.