Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bais Faiga – The Tip of the Iceberg

It’s happening a lot sooner than I thought it would. This is a sad day for the Torah world which is now experiencing the inevitable. It is unable to sustain its educational structure. I predicted that this would happen in Israel. But it is in fact happening here in the US too.

Bais Faiga, an 1800 student girls elementary day school has shut down. Teachers have walked out.

This is not just any school. If I understand correctly it is one of the most prestigious Charedi girl’s schools in Lakewood.

Many people will point to the economy and blame it for this crisis. They are not entirely wrong. But they are not entirely right either. This was bound to happen eventually. The current economy has just accelerated it.

I have been involved in fundraising for religious schools for most of my married life. I am currently still on the scholarship and tuition committee of Arie Crown Hebrew Day School - the largest day school in Chicago (about 700 students). As parent bodies go this one is pretty affluent. Most of the parent body are middle class income earners. Some are quite wealthy in fact. And as in every school some unfortunately are quite poor.

This year we are experiencing our largest deficit in years. That’s because scholarships are way up. Our shortfall from tuitions is huge. This means that we have had to increase our fundraising efforts. This is in an economic climate with far less dollars available for charitable contributions. And in a fiercely competitive market among religious schools that compete for those dollars.

Parents are already being squeezed for every penny they have. Tuitions are high. Most of our parents are on various levels of scholarship – especially if they have more than one child in the school. Every spare dime of a scholarship parent that is not used for their basic living expenses goes towards the school. To the best of our ability our committee makes sure of this.

In some cases the scholarships are for full tuition. And this year because of the economy it has resulted in joblessness for some of our parents who were just last year working at good jobs - in some cases full tuition payers. Many scholarships amounts have been increased. Our budget requirements may very well not be met this year.

Why are our budget requirements so high? It’s mostly about teachers salary packages. And yet it is fairly common knowledge that religious school teachers are woefully underpaid.

Of course times are better now than when I first got involved in the school. Back in those days teacher’s salaries were so low that a teacher could not survive unless he or she had a second job - even if there was a working spouse!

Today - as I said - things are much better. But the teacher’s salaries are still barely large enough for a typical religious parent to make ends meet. And this is at Arie Crown where most parents earn a middle class income. And where the child parent ratio is much smaller than in a typical Charedi school.

In those schools the financial problems are much greater. There are more children per family. This means a smaller parent body and a larger student body. The more children enrolled per family in the school - the greater the scholarship per child is. That means less money to pay teachers with. Many Charedi fathers are in Kollelim and earn well below the average income. The scholarship amounts granted to their families are much greater. The fundraising requirements in this bad economy are therefore much greater too. This probably describes the situation at Bais Faiga.

Bais Faiga is probably just the tip of the iceberg. The teachers there have reached the end of their rope. There simply is not enough money in the school coffers to pay them what they earned.

It is true that most religious school teachers do not go into Chinuch because of the money. In most cases they do it for the most altruistic of reasons. They are truly dedicated to educating their students. But even altruistic teachers such as these have limits. They cannot eat altruism.

They must have the means to survive and purchase the basic necessities of life. Many of them are maxed out in their credit lines at the grocery stores whose generous and understanding owners give them. Many teachers have been buying groceries on credit and it wouldn’t surprise me if they never fully get out of debt. But if one does not get paid at all, all the generosity in the world is not going to help them in the end. The army of professional Mechanchim with large families must all eat to survive.

And so the good teachers at Bais Faiga have walked out. They have apparently not been paid in a long time. And when I say good teacher, I include the secular studies teachers as well who seem to be just as devoted as the religious studies teachers.

From my perspective there is no villain here. There is not a single person who thinks these underpaid over-worked teachers should not be paid in full what they are owed. There should be no parent in Bais Faiga, no matter how exasperated they are by this - that should begrudge these teachers their pay – or blame them from walking out. And I am sure the Baalei Battim- the board of directors at Bais Faiga feel the same way.

I think I have a sense of how serious this problem is and I’m not sure there is an answer other than a complete re-structuring of the entire system. What this new educational structure would look like is anybody’s guess. But one thing seems certain. The present system has reached a point where it may collapse entirely and this is something nobody who cares about perpetuating Judaism dare ignore.