Speaking of costs, and igniting a free-for-all

Speaking of costs, and igniting a free-for-all

Day school leader’s essays on tuition are an education in ‘anger’

Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, associate dean of the JEC, has found himself in the middle of a heated on-line debate about the cost of Jewish day school education.
Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, associate dean of the JEC, has found himself in the middle of a heated on-line debate about the cost of Jewish day school education.

Even in the best of times, school principals work a lot during the summer break, but this year Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz escalated his workload by entering a volatile on-line debate. The topic: the affordability of Jewish day school education.

For Teitz, associate dean of the Jewish Educational Center’s three schools in Elizabeth, the storm began with an essay he wrote headlined “Why does it cost so much to educate a Jewish child?” It first appeared in a closed listserv forum for rabbis and educators and was reposted, with Teitz’s permission, to “Text and Texture,” on the website of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Modern Orthodox rabbis’ association.

In it, he detailed the major expenses of a day school, including staff salaries and fringe benefits, and the balancing act involved in attracting students and quality staff while trying to hold down costs.

“The single largest element of any school budget is compensation,” wrote Teitz. “Salaries and fringe benefits eat up 75-80 percent, and sometimes more, of most school budgets. Reduce that line item and the cost of education falls.

“The only problem is that it’s not so easy to do.”

That essay was eventually linked by the “Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog,” run by a parent who calls himself “200K Chump” — as in someone paying full tuition while others don’t.

So many comments flooded in that Teitz had to turn off the text alert on his cell phone, he told NJ Jewish News late last week, before finally heading out for a brief vacation in Florida.

Many of the comments, nearly all anonymous, were dismissive. One suggested that in the current economy, day schools could “get superstar teachers at a discount.” Another blamed a surplus of “non-teaching and [administrative] staff.”

Others suggested yeshivot should make price, not quality, their priority. “The whole article is permeated with this idea that we have to be the best or we can’t compete,” read one comment.

Teitz asked the blog moderator if he could offer a guest essay in response.

“When I saw the reaction,” he said, “I realized that I’d been describing our expenses without giving the background, describing all the savings we’ve put in place.”

In an essay that ran to nearly 5,000 words, he wrote: “Over the past four years, we have given no salary increases in three of them and a 1 percent increase in the other. While teachers understand that times are tough, their own expenses have gone up…. The executive administration has not had raises in at least six years. No one is happy with this reality.”

There were more than 300 responses.

Too many yeshivot?

At the risk of incurring more argument, Teitz said he believes there are more Orthodox day schools in New Jersey than the Jewish population can sustain.

“Very few classes are filled to optimum capacity,” he said. At the same time, he is watching with interest a new approach, in which on-line teaching of certain subjects allows schools to reduce the number of teachers.

The entire Web exchange reminded Teitz of the “anger” surrounding tuition, both from parents who feel they are not getting the scholarships they deserve and others who said they felt some families were not paying as much as they should.

Teitz has a longer perspective than most, given that his father, Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz, heads the JEC, and his grandfather, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, founded it. He said finances have never been as challenging as they are now. In his second essay, Eliyahu Teitz explained that the top tuition for a single child in a JEC high school is $18,000, and costs might run as high as $38,250 for a family with three children in third, fifth, and eighth grades.

“There’s always been debate about these things,” Teitz said, “but the sustained economic downturn — with no end in sight — has a lot to do with this anger and despair. As long as there’s enough money to go around, parents accept things as they are. But when people don’t know how they’re going to manage, or whether things will be any better five years down the line, they get very upset.”

As money has gotten tighter, expectations have been rising — from the children as well as their parents.

“There’s been a total erosion of authority, and on the flipside, there’s a huge growth in the sense of entitlement,” he said. The children who expect iPads and iPhones at home also expect school to be cool. “We have to compete to attract the students, and if they’re allowed to choose where they go, sometimes they have the most moronic criteria — like which school has the best hoodie. So we got cool hoodies.”

Teitz has a master’s degree in independent school management from what he described as “the gold standard” in the field, the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Not a day goes by without something arising that I can apply it to,” he said.

The response to his posts was also an education for Teitz in Web etiquette, or the lack thereof. “I was effectively a guest in your community, and I was spat upon and derided as an ignoramus or worse, willfully malevolent,” he wrote in the second essay. More recent comments have been more respectful, and Teitz said he received appreciative private responses from people who chose to identify themselves outside of the antagonistic glare of the virtual public square.

While away on vacation, he promised his wife and himself that he would cool it on the blogging, but not entirely. He said, “I still want to see what people are saying, but I’ll wait until late in the evening when things quiet down, and just look to see if there’s anything I need to reply to.”

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