Increased Competition Shakes Up N.J. Schools

Englewood’s Moriah letting teachers go as nearby schools thriving.

04/10/13
Associate Editor
Photo Galleria: 

The mood at the Moriah School this spring could be described as more somber than hopeful.

A few days before the two-week Pesach break, the Englewood, N.J., school — one of the oldest and largest Jewish day schools in Bergen County — is said to have laid off 22 faculty members, many of them believed to be longtime employees who are in their 60s, The Jewish Week has learned. That figure represents nearly 20 percent of the school’s roughly 115 teachers.

Administration officials declined to confirm the precise number of teachers and staff whose contracts have not been renewed for 2013-14. Board President Evan Sohn said in an e-mail to The Jewish Week that “the actual number is still not confirmed as discussions with the head of school are still in process.”

Sohn, along with Principal Elliot Prager and Chairman Jay Goldberg, sent out a letter to parents on Monday saying “there has been a significant degree of speculation relating to faculty and staff changes in the year ahead” and that “most of the information circulating is not correct — specifically relating to faculty terminations.” That letter notes that more information will be provided at “town hall” sessions for the “Moriah community” on April 23 and April 25.

Regardless of the precise number of layoffs, there is no question Moriah is in the midst of scaling back financially as the Modern Orthodox nursery through eighth-grade school contends with sharp enrollment declines.

A March 19 letter to parents from Prager, Sohn and Goldberg noted that the school’s newly adopted budget makes “several strategic changes designed to create efficiencies,” including “[r]e-calibration of faculty compensation packages.”

The letter, which also said that tuition will not change in the coming year and that more school days will be added to the calendar, does not specify enrollment numbers, but explains that the budget cuts are driven by “the school’s changing demographics and census numbers.”

While sources close to the school told The Jewish Week that enrollment there has dropped from approximately 1,000 a few years ago to 780 this year to about 700 projected for next year, Sohn, in an e-mail to The Jewish Week, said that enrollment is currently over 800, and that the early childhood program is increasing 15 percent for next year. He declined to say exactly when employment decisions for next year will be finalized or to answer questions about severance packages.

While the sluggish economy and a growing resistance to tuition increases may be a factor in Moriah’s shrinking student population, several other area Modern/centrist Orthodox schools — including Ben Porat Yosef and Yeshivat Noam, both established in 2001 — are enjoying stable or growing enrollment.

Indeed, several parents and teachers interviewed suggest that the 49-year-old Moriah — once so full it turned away nearby Teaneck students and gave preferential admissions to Englewood families — is struggling to adapt to a climate of increased competition. New options include not just Ben Porat Yosef and Noam, both in Paramus, but also a Chabad school in Tenafly and Yeshivat He’Atid, a school touting lower tuition and “blended“ learning that opened this fall in Bergenfield. Moriah may also be hurting, observers speculate, because while the Orthodox population is growing in Teaneck and Bergenfield, Englewood’s Orthodox community is not increasing; in addition, younger families are believed to tilt to the right ideologically, whereas Moriah, where all classes are co-ed, is on the left wing of Orthodoxy.

With tuition and fees over $17,000 for the higher grades, the Englewood school is comparable to Ben Porat Yosef, Noam and Yavneh Academy — another large and long-established Modern Orthodox school in Bergen County — but is considerably higher than Lubavitch on the Palisades and Yeshivat He’Atid. In addition, until this year Moriah continued to raise tuition, even as other schools were holding tuition flat or even lowering it.

It is not clear if all Moriah’s laid-off teachers will receive severance packages and if the packages are being determined according to a uniform system.

The layoffs come after several years of austerity. One laid-off teacher told The Jewish Week that there have been no raises since 2008 and that the school no longer matches employee contributions to retirement plans.

In addition, a tuition discount for teachers has been decreased. “Morale is definitely low, and it’s been low,” said this teacher. While “at the end of the day, it’s a business and it’s in the red and not sustainable,” this teacher said the budget cuts give faculty “a sense of not being protected or cared for; everyone is walking on eggshells.”

Some of the laid-off teachers are in their 30s or younger, but it is believed that at least 11 are in their 50s and 60s, and many have been at Moriah more than 20 years, according to one source close to the situation.

“Moriah stuck to their old ways too long, and parents who’ve left are just looking for something else,” one mother said, adding that most disgruntled Moriah parents she knows who have pulled children from the school have opted for Ben Porat Yosef or Noam instead.

Asked his opinion about the situation, “Yeshiva Dad,” an anonymous blogger and Yeshivat He’Atid parent who writes about Bergen County yeshivas and day schools on his “Yeshiva Sanity” blog, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview that the layoffs were “inevitable given the reduced enrollment at Moriah and the demand for lower tuition.

“I think Moriah made a big mistake 10 years ago when they gave preference to Englewood students over Teaneck students, causing Teaneck parents to start up other schools, like BPY, Noam and now He’atid,” he added. “The Orthodox population in Teaneck has exploded while Englewood hasn’t changed much and the word in Teaneck is that Moriah is primarily an Englewood school so they mostly aren’t sending there.”

Ruth Roth, Ben Porat Yosef’s admissions director, declined to comment about Moriah, but confirmed that her school is growing.

Enrollment is currently 330, and is expected to be 380 next year. Last year the school had approximately 270 students.

Although founded by a group of Sephardic families frustrated by the Ashkenazi-centric curricula at other Orthodox day schools, Ben Porat Yosef, which teaches customs from both traditions, now has a predominantly Ashkenazi student body.

Roth attributes her school’s success to its “progressive” pedagogy and its relatively intimate environment.

“Our philosophy is to be a small school; we will never grow beyond three classes a grade,” she said, adding, “nobody’s anonymous here.”

However, she emphasized that enrollment trends “are often very cyclical — there’s a trend toward one, then another becomes golden.”

Rabbi Chaim Hagler, Yeshivat Noam’s principal, did not return a Jewish Week e-mail and voice message requesting comment. However, the school is widely believed to be booming, despite the sluggish economy.

Noam’s enrollment this year is 802; in 2010-11 it was 715.

“We never anticipated the school growing at the pace it did,” Rabbi Hagler said in a 2010 interview with The Jewish Week. “By the second year there was a waitlist for the pre-K class.” 

julie.inthemix@gmail.com; @julie_wiener
 

Last Update:

04/18/2013 - 16:54

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

There are a number of issues I have with this article, but I will just point one out since many have already been said. The comparison of enrollments is a very misleading stat. When a school starts at the lower grades and adds a new grade every year as their student body ages - of course their population would grow, they now have mor egrandes. Why doesn't the author try to understand the average grade size for the grades that existed both last year and this year? That would tell you if a school is really growing? This is a blatant attempt to provide a misleading statistic to make a point. In addition, what about the issue of the general cost of yeshiva and what is happening all across the NYC area? What about the fact that many young couples are opting for smaller families - and the cost of yeshiva is a contributing factor? These are alarming items. A school trying to manage its finances is not an alarming item. To me it seems as if this is a biased and not a balanced article that should be more of an op ed than a news story. Shame on the Jewish Week.

Julie,

As a weekly reader of TJW I used to expect its reporters to actually write News not opinions. You chose to rely on sources who claimed they havent received raises in 5 years while the letter to the parent body (also posted in the Yeshiva Sanity Blog) last year told the opposite story. A real journalist would have either (a) discredited their sources once one of their comments is proven to be a lie or (b) asked the Moriah leadership to confirm whether faculty have in fact not received raises in 5 years. I spoke to one of the Moriah leaders and you never asked to confirm raise information, total number of faculty, etc. Shame on you for calling yourself a reporter and shame on TJW for allowing you to publish "news" that better resembles gossip.

Were currently 8th grade girls at Moriah and love everything about the school. It's our 10th year and so far all the teachers we've had helped us grow in different ways. We strongly believe that any decision Moriah makes about their staff will be the right one.

The Jewish Week should be ashamed for publishing such l"h that survives no purpose but to hurt an organization. Julie Weiner is a yellow journalist who is relying on 1 bitter teachers experience.

As an outsider who knows many Moriah graduates, and current Moriah students, I think this is an important wake up call for the school! The most important issue here is that enrollment has drastically dropped, so they cannot afford to pay all of the wonderful teachers (nor do they have enough students to fill all of the classes those teachers taught). Enrollment has dropped, no only because of rising tuition costs, but because students are NOT getting the best education they can possibly get (of all of the graduates I know, not many speak fluent Hebrew unlike graduates from other Jewish day schools, who are fluent). There is also the issue of the administration not always looking out for the best interests of ALL of their students - a school should be helping students equally, not picking favorites. Especially children with special needs, they should not be disregarded as they are! And last but certainly not least, the bullying! I have heard many disturbing stories of what children have said to other children, and even heard parents complaining about other people's children. The children are mean and vicious to each other, and the teachers and administration do nothing to help! This all applies to Frisch too - Moriah is not alone. Would love to know how much Frisch's enrollment has dropped since TABC (who are putting on a huge addition to their building), Ma'ayanot, SAR etc. have taken off!

I am a Moriah graduate and send my children to Moriah. I also do not live in Englewood. I chose Moriah due to its academic excellence and availability of resources for students with all learning abilities. No other yeshiva has a program comparable to Gesher Yehuda. Yes, they made a drastic mistake years ago excluding Teaneck children from enrollment and it hurt them but they have acknowledged it and have gone out of their way to make all children feel comfortable and welcome. In this difficult financial time many institutions are hurting and no one wants to see any teachers fired, but sometimes difficult decisions need to be made. The Moriah Board has been very up front with the parent body about the changes that are necessary to sustain and stregthen our school even though some may be painful. I do not see the purpose of writing a negative article about one of our community Yeshivot. Im sure everyone wants all of our Yeshivot to succeed and thrive for the future of our children and Am Israel.

I have 2 children at Moriah and they love it. As a parent, I feel the school is academically rigourous in both secular and Judaic studies. This is a negatively biased article with no positive counter arguments. This is poor journalism and a mean spirited article. Next week you should write an article on Moriah talking about all the positives to make things right.

Funny how no one ccomplains of "poor journalism" when the article published supports their point of view. The article never said that Moriah is a bad school. It simply said that they made decisions about what kinds of students to enroll which excluded a huge target market (Teaneck), and now they are paying for it. Glad that your children love the school and that it is academically rigurous. Do you think it will be as good of a school with a fifth less faculty? Maybe instead of blaming the Jewish Week, you should do a heshbon nefesh and think of how the Moriah administration got itself into this mess.

Hey buddy. Bug off. Moriah is an excellent school you say " you should do a heshbon nefesh and think of how the Moriah administration got itself into this mess." but yet what mess are you talking about? This year has been one of the most productive years so far. Seriously people like you who talk out of that thing you call a mouth who give our people, the Jewish people a bad name. This is POOR JOURNALISM. NOT ONE FACT IS CORRECT. Even the math is wrong 20% of 115 is not 22. Literally, other than getting Moriah's location correct not one thing in this awful, awful piece of writing is true.

Leave it to the Jewish Week to publish a story that makes it difficult for a Yeshiva Day School. It's so typical the Jewish Week to cause unnecessary trouble. The folks at Moriah need to move ahead and do the right thing- continue educating Jewish kids as best they can. Don't get suckered into this journalistic method of selling papers.

Seems to me that Moriah made a business decision (to ignore Teaneck and to favor Englewood), which has now backfired on them and now they have a real problem on their hands. As for "unnecessary trouble", I'd say that if the school lays off a fifth of its staff (the staff, by the way, which made the school good in the first place), and has a significant drop in enrollment while comparable schools in the same neighborhood are experiencing an increase in enrollment, they are doing something wrong, and again, this is not a case of yellow jurnalism. How is this The Jewish Week's fault for reporting the facts?

The facts reported were incorrect. Moriah sent out a letter this morning that it was 12% and not 20% and that there were 2 new hires for next year. We expect a newspaper to report the facts.

The events reported at Moriah are not unique to modern orthodox yeshivot in the area. Other established schools are doing the same. They appear to use the same strategy - remove the older, more experienced teachers who probably earn a higher salary. The model that is emerging is to remove older teachers who have a relatively high salary irrespective of their talents and competence. Is this what parents want for educating their children - to keep tuition low and to 'compete' with other schools? Is this type of 'business model' the best approach for educating children? I think a new approach is required. Each neighborhood determines what type of school it wants and then a regional program of funding by all neighborhoods is developed to support regional yeshiva education. All schools who belong to the consortium set the same general tuition price so price per se is not the governing factor. Teacher salary is determined by education, quality, experience and the other usual factors. If demographics change requiring a reduction in staff the teachers may be recruited by neighboring schools who are experiencing an increase. Why let strong experienced teachers go?

Isn't what you are proposing essentially a cartel, that would keep competition from driving down prices? Aren't we better off with more choices so someone can choose a lower priced school or a higher priced one that has more experienced teachers or other benefits?

please note that the fireing of teachers and treating them poorly at Moriah began at least five years ago

I live in Teaneck and attended Moriah for 10 years. I have tons of positive Moriah Memories. I am currently in high school and I have to say that Moriah graduates are definitely well prepared. In fact, they are probably the best prepared. Moriah is known to have spectacular Hebrew language teachers and math teachers. The math teachers in my high school expect so much from Moriah children. Yes, it is sad that teachers who have worked in Moriah for 20 years are being laid off, but it is necessary. I am certain that Moriah will thrive. Moriah graduates have succeeded and continue to succeed in high school and beyond.

Bravo

If Moriah students are so well prepared for high school - "in fact, the best prepared" according to you - then on what basis do you assert that "it is necessary" to terminate employment of the very educators who should be credited with their superior education? I have no doubt that the school will continue to sustain itself, but its continued existence will likely be in spite of the actions of its foolhardy and short-sighted Board leadership, rather than because of it.

Sir or mam,

Respectfully,

Are you high, stupid, or just plain ignorant? If you have paid any attention to moriah over the past year then you sir would know that EVERYTHING EVERyTHING EVERYTHING has been done with the long term in mind. This coming year will be the FIRST YEAR in the schools history and the only school to not be raising tuition. And do you seriously believe that the Board A) wants to lay of these teachers B) that teachers who positively contribute to students achievements are being laid off, nuh uh. SO think before you run your mouth. AND HOW THE HELL DO YOU KNOW THAT THE BOARD IS SHORT SIGHTED? Who do you think you are? HAve you ever dealt with the challenges of running a community have you ever contributed and put your time and effort to the community? Grow up and have some respect for those who are trying to help put something broken back together. IT is judgmental Jerks like you who are the problem with the Orthodox Jewish community, not the great people who are focusing on fixing it.

If this is your idea of "respectfully", I hate to think of what you would write when not being respectful. Does it bother you in the least that in your diatribe, you have not cited not one piece of evidence that would contradict the writer that you are attacking (by the way, I have no idea who the person is, except that he or she is a lot more thoughtful and infinately more polite than you are).

Note to the Jewish Week: At the top of this section you write: To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Why then are vicious personal attacks by this "writer", who uses words like "stupid", "hell", "judgemental jerks", allowed on this site. The First Amendment right to free speech and a free press would surely survive even if you were to exclude such vulgar language even if it comes from a self proclaimed community leader. I am not suggesting that you censor points of view, I am suggesting that you adhere to your own standard and exclude language that is derogatory.

I hope the laid-off staff from Moriah is treated better than those of us who've been laid off from Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, NJ. New Jersey allows religious non-profits to opt out of the state unemployment program. So, after choosing to work at a Jewish Day School, and earning much less than the public school system, you are dumped without a safety net. While most unemployed hope the federal government will extend unemployment benefits, we are left with nothing, Of course, the administration is enrolled in the state program. Some Jewish values...

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.