Josh Pruzansky: We Know The Problem – What We Need Are Solutions

josh pruzanskyThe sad news out of Lakewood this week that another Yeshiva might have to close is something that should strike us as somewhat problematic. If this situation were indeed to come true, this would be the second school in Lakewood to close their doors during the past six months.

Unfortunately this problem doesn’t exist only in Lakewood. There is a Day School that is sitting on millions of dollars of debt that had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and I have heard that in Northern New Jersey there are 30 families that have pulled their children out of the local Day School and placed them in Public School due to lack of financial resources to pay their tuition bills.

I don’t know if this has become a crisis or if these are isolated situations, however we must come to the conclusion that continuing as if nothing is happening will not help us figure out solutions to a major problem – how to keep our schools financially solvent and how not to place the entire burden of the ever increasing cost of educating the future of our People solely on the back of parents.

We find the problem is two-fold. The Yeshivos and Day Schools face rising costs and due to the economic recession – a shortfall of tuition dollars. On the other hand due to the rising rate of unemployment and under-employment many families just simply can’t afford to pay both their bills and their tuition obligations.

Here in New Jersey, we live in the highest taxed State in the USA. Over sixty percent of our Property Taxes are used to fund public education and we receive very little in return for our children’s education. All children, regardless of which building they attend school, should be eligible to receive funding for certain items including textbooks, nursing aid, technology, school security and special education. Yes, there are those who constantly shout about the separation of Church and State, however there are ways to help provide funding for children who attend Non-Public Schools without infringing upon any Constitutional violations. All it takes is political willpower to stand up to the Teachers Union and their political allies who oppose any change to the status quo.

Perhaps apathy was a game we could afford to play when times were good, but now that they aren’t I am afraid that what we are witnessing in Lakewood and elsewhere in New Jersey could be the very beginning of more to come, Rachmona Litzlan, and we can ill afford to stand by silently.

I read and hear how it’s the fault of the parents who refuse to make the hard choice between luxuries and tuition. In the majority of families that is not the case. We are living in very hard times and people simply can’t make ends meet. I believe that most parents do the best they can in very trying situations.

The problem is not the salaries of our selfless and dedicated Rebbeim, teachers and other school staff, many who are months behind in receiving their paychecks, which is also far below what they deserve and should be paid.

The problem is not the Yeshiva and Day School Administrators who struggle daily trying their best to keep their schools fiscally afloat.

The problem is that we simply can’t afford to pay for two school systems – the Public and Non-Public Schools.

In a town like Lakewood, families are paying at the very least $6,000 of their tax dollars to fund the Public School System. On top of that they are spending at a minimum $3,000 per child to send their kids to Yeshiva, and unfortunately many cannot even make those payments. (And I need to mention those who live in Northern New Jersey and have at least $12,000 of their property tax dollars earmarked for Public education and their Day School tuition in some schools cost almost $20,000 per child.)

Imagine if the State would pay an additional $500 per student in aid to the Non-Public Schools (above the approximately $130 per child they are currently funding). That would amount to 8 million dollars in additional funding to cover the approximately 16,000 students in grades Primary -12 in Lakewood. Not the ultimate solution, but for a school with a $400,000 deficit this would cut it in half.

You might say how will it happen? Well, there was a Commission, of which I was a member, on funding Non-Public Education in New Jersey, and an increase of State aid for textbooks and Nursing services, restoration of technology funding and even covering the cost of Math Teachers were amongst the many recommendations. Much credit for the report is due to Assemblyman Gary Schaer who Co-Chaired the Commission, and Senator Bob Singer who offered very insightful ideas in how to present its findings. Both Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler endorsed the recommendations in the report.

Another possibility is the Opportunity Scholarship Act. If passed this bill would provide Corporate Tax Scholarships in Failing Public School Districts. Three of those districts are Lakewood, Passaic and Elizabeth. Based on amendments to the bill (many of which I helped craft,) Lakewood Non-Public School children would be eligible for 200 scholarships in year one of the five year pilot program. By year five the amount of scholarships earmarked for Non-Public school students in Lakewood could well number over 1,500 and will bring almost TWENTY FIVE MILLION DOLLARS over the five year pilot program to the families and by extension to the Mosdos in Lakewood and over 30 million in total to the 3 Districts with Yeshivos and Day Schools.

Imagine if the school that is closing had 10 children with scholarships. They would have an additional $60,000 in income. Combined with the above number their annual shortfall would be a (hopefully) manageable $140,000.

Imagine what it will mean to the financially struggling families. In five years almost 25 million dollars of scholarships will be received paying their tuition costs and they will now have millions of dollars that can be spent on other household needs and will help boost the local economy in Lakewood by being spent to purchase groceries, clothes and other necessary items.

Imagine what it will mean to the Baalei Tzedokkah in Lakewood. With the influx of these scholarship monies they will now be able to use funds once earmarked to the Mosdos (who will not need as much since these scholarships which will be used by those families with limited income and therefore a $6,000 scholarship will be in place of a $3,000 tuition payment) to help benefit other worthy causes in the community.

Some individuals with limited knowledge of the Opportunity Scholarship Act say that it would end up costing the community more money as the tax payers would have to foot the bill of the scholarships. Fortunately that is untrue as the funding is covered by the State Treasury (not the local School District) which has not paid anything towards the education of any Yeshiva student outside of the $130 per student we discussed before. The State will end up saving money from the 75% of the allotted scholarships going to current Public School students in order for them to transfer to Non-Public Schools. The difference in the cost of their education will result in savings of almost $10,000 per student. (The same argument can’t be made by those threatening to enroll all the Yeshiva students in the Lakewood Public School System. Aside from the obvious Church-State issues, who will end up paying for all those children? The majority of the tax payers in Lakewood are Frum families. Over seventy-five percent of Elementary and High School Students in Lakewood attend Yeshiva. The community would see their property tax bills skyrocket to far more than what they are paying today.)

Yet, there are other solutions as well that need to be explored. We have to find ways to encourage those in our community that don’t have children in Yeshiva or Day School to help fund these important institutions. We have to find ways for the schools to pool their purchasing power in a consortia to generate better prices from vendors (and a great debt of gratitude is due to all vendors who have extended a great deal of credit and understanding to the schools). We need to explore all options.

So how do we proceed?

I believe that by working together we will make a difference.

We need to think about spending a little bit in order to reap great rewards. For the price of taking your family out for dinner at a Pizza shop or fast food restaurant you can become a member of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and help build a grassroots movement of the Orthodox Jewish community to ensure that these issues are heard loud and clear in Trenton.

Legislators answer to voters and an energized membership base of thousands of families in an organization like Agudath Israel will speak volumes and ensure that our issues are attended to.

There are others in our community also seeking to come up with solutions to this issue. If you are in Bergen County you should reach out to EDPAC, a political action committee chaired by Jerry Gontownik. There are JEFG and NNJKIDS in North Jersey and in Bergen County finding ways to have the community better fund Jewish education. There is the Orthodox Union who has Rabbi Saul Zucker and Rabbi Carey Friedman researching and coming up with new and innovative ideas for Yeshivos and Day Schools to reduce costs from health insurance to online educational opportunities and much more.

Governor Christie understands the pressing needs of the Non-Public Schools, now our Legislators have to know that we are united in finding solutions. The Agudah has been working together with other Faith based and Educational Reform groups such as the Orthodox Union, The Igud HaMosdos of Lakewood, the Catholic Conference, and Educational Excellence for Everyone (E3) in helping find solutions for our children, for our families, for our schools and ultimately for the tax payers of our State.

With years of experience in both New York and Washington, the Agudah has learned the importance of grassroots advocacy and how it can produce great results for the community. We need to bring that same enthusiasm and energy to New Jersey.

These ideas are not the only answers to this vexing problem, but it’s a step in the right direction. People ask what is the next step in this process. Well, you can’t take the second step without taking the first. Join us in helping make the first step happen and then we could look forward to other significant means of funding. Let’s work together and hopefully we will succeed in our efforts for the sake of our children and the fiscal stability of our Yeshivos and Day Schools.

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  1. In Milwaukee the private schoolers dont pay tuition because they have vouchers. they did it by suing the Gov. it went all the way to the supreme court and they won. why cant something like that be done? also why cant we force the gov. to fund our schools by having the whole lakewood register their kids in public schools, everyone i speak to says you can do that for this and that reason but i never heard one good reason yet, if we did that within months we would all have free tuition

  2. on time and full tuition is so important to us that we haven’t payed our property taxes in 1 1/2 years and our mortgage in 6 months to fund our tuition bill, so school administrators that are reading this, know that the ones that are paying some are doing it with huge sacrifice, maybe knowing this will make the emotional part of your job a little easier

  3. “Imagine if the school that is closing had 10 children with scholarships. They would have an additional $60,000 in income. Combined with the above number their annual shortfall would be a (hopefully) manageable $140,000.”

    This sounds like the “scholarship” goes to the school, rather than the parent. If it went to the parent, the parent’s tuition obligation would be reduced, but the school’s debt would remain the same. Which is it?

  4. So parents of private schoolers should get bussing and other perks but not pay taxes for these services because their children don’t use the public schools. But, public school parents should pay for private schoolers bussing out of their tax dollars.

    Doesn’t seem to be quite a fair balance.

  5. If we would all send to public school then your property taxes would skyrocket and jump over 500% overnight. Public school and anything “public” for that matter is almost never the answer as they cost 3 times as much with huge amounts of waste.

  6. While i applaud Rabbi Pruzansky for his efforts he needs to push his National Organization to understand what he is talking about. In NY the major obstacle to government help is the speaker of the assembly yet year after year the Agudah gives this man kovod and allows him to speak at the dinner. It is time for Rabbi Pruzansky to tell the parent organization enough- we cannot honor those who do not care about our concerns and needs

  7. #4 you dont understand if we all apply to public school they will say get out of here stay in your school and we will pay for it because we cant handle the overload

  8. three solutions: a. every yeshiva should have attached to it a business b. more pressure on govt that our taxes go to our tuition c. No more parlor meeting for out of city mosdos until situation here is calmed down . if all the yeshivas would sit with rabbi soloman 50 percent would close as they are all in the same hock if not worse as Bais hatorah

  9. any time you say state and money, I don’t care how or what you call it, IT is tax money, and it is my tax money and I don’t want it to go to non public schools.

  10. the scholarship goes to the parent who uses it to pay his tuition ,which he wasnt paying before because he couldnt afford it . So the parent does NOT have to pay any other tuition and the school gets 6000 dollars Why is that so hard to understand ?

  11. Get ready for ALL schools to close down one by one ALL OVER as Hashem gets us ready for Mashiach & is sending us a sign from Above that its time for EVERYONE to make aliya to eretz yisroel & get ready for the Geula. WATCH IT START HAPPENING

  12. Who is the “they” that will be paying for you to go to yeshivos rather than register in Public School? The “they” is us! We, the frumma, are the ones paying the taxes, which you are threatening to use by registering in Public School! How does that help anything? If you get the township to pay for your kids education, whether in Yeshivos or in Public School, how will they get the money to do that? By raising our taxes!! Where else do you think the money will come from?

  13. wonderful ideas- however nothing that will help the imminent crisis.
    we need cash now to continue.
    go back to all building donors and tell them their yearly fees for their name on the buildings are due to keep them open!!!!

  14. hi Josh, the solution is very simple, we have to change how this town is operating from the top, they spend the peoples money with out any checks and balances, just look on the Patrick Sports Complex that was built a few years ago, for millions $$$ nobody is useing it, the lights are always on, this is just one of them there is much much more, as long as this people are running the show it will be all the same, we need a complete house cleaning.;

  15. Lakewood needs the dozens of mosdos organized into a single school system. Power brokers will never stand for it, but it would capitalize tremendousliy on the economies of scale and would solve the admissions issue as well.

  16. To Ari (#1)
    Milwaukee is having a lot of problems with the State right now, with teacher accredidation (all GS teachers are required to have a Bachelors degree in Education), # of required hours for General Studies (they’ve had to lengthen the school day of Friday, Erev Shabbos, to accomodate), and then some. Before taking money from a secular government, be ready for what they may ask in return.

  17. From what your statement “The problem is that we simply can’t afford to pay for two school systems – the Public and Non-Public Schools.” are you sugesting that you should not pay taxes like everyone else?
    Are you sugesting that there should be no public schools ?
    Do you realize that if there were no public school in this town the impact would also greatly affect the non public schools. That is not a solution .I make these statements because you raised a point that raises concern what your motivation is for that very statement. It is easy to point out problems without recomending workable solutions I have always maintained the the true test of leadership is when things are tough and you have to come up with solutions to the issues ,not just complain about the problem ~ we all see how things are tough for everyone right now ,so not paying taxes is not a SOLUTION nor is doing away with public schools . to even think either will happen show very little leadership qualities

  18. I found this article and the comments most interesting.

    While it is against the Halacha to withhold the Rabbeim’s salaries, the reality is the parents cannot afford to support the budgets of schools that are paying and (almost) living wage to Rabbeim with large families.

    Second, the problem of schools not paying Rabbeim will not go away, the rules of capitalism are working against it. There is a far larger syupply of those that would like to be Mechanchim than the number of available slots and those that are Mechanchim are unqualified to do much else so they hang on in hope of getting paid.

    Finally, the US Supreme court has failed to support any Vouchers which smell of Religious education and more important, the NJEA, the most powerful union in the State will not allow it to happen.

    Therefore, even as R’ Josh has a great idea, it is not realistic. We must figure out how to solve the school funding issues with the tools that are available to us and not depend on direct intervention from Hashem.

  19. It is not being suggested that only Public Schools or only private schools be in existence. It is simply saying that education taxes that we are paying should be returned, just like they are in any district, to educate ALL of the children of that district. If education taxes would fund the education of ALL children in our town, 9preferably in some semblence to the percentage of those paying them) then parents would not be choking on paying once for the education of Public School children through taxes, and again for the education of THEIR children through unmanageable bills.

  20. To Dear My Voice says
    it is understandable that this a finacial problem ,however we cannot start making exceptions for who pays taxes to support the town and who does’t , How about senoirs who never had or no longer have children in the school system , in our system of government everyone needs to handle the burden of the cost public expenses `Schools, police ,fire etc. you cannot make exceptions . The real problem lies with the mentality to “entitlement” . When you get services “free” from the government they are not really free so the more we fall into this trap the more there is a burden on the taxpayer.
    As for private schools ,well thats why they are private those who choose to have their children atten thats their choice you cannot expect someone else to pick up the tab for that . I’m sure without crossing the line of seperation of church & state there is a solution to these issues with placing the burden on those who have not created the financial problem on these families

  21. No one is asking for an exemption from paying taxes. they are just trying to get funding for their childrens education just like every else who pays taxes does. If these children would be registered in Public school, their education would be funded, from the taxes paid by you and me, to the tune of $16,000 per child. How is it a deficit to you that they are enrolled in Private school, and are requesting assistance of a fraction of that amount?

  22. responding to Dear My Voice says:
    “How is it a deficit to you that they are enrolled in Private school, and are requesting assistance of a fraction of that amount?”
    If it comes from “Public’ money ~ taxes it is a deficit to all tax payers
    private should be private thats my oppinion and I realize that obviously you disagree with that

  23. If you believe in and support vouchers to solve the tuition crisis, then there is no reason to sit around waiting. A perfectly good substitute for vouchers already exists and is easily obtainable.

    The type of vouchers that everyone is lobbying for are “revenue based” vouchers, i.e. the government will give money to the school to cover a student’s tuition. The additional source of revenue should help balance the budget. This is not very likely to happen soon enough. But there is another way to balance the budget – by reducing or subsidizing expenses. If we could get the government to subsidize the expenses of yeshivos, we would effectively have an “expense subsidy” voucher. Wouldn’t that be just as good? It would. Well, the good news is that it is already available, no lobbying required.

    The biggest expense of any school is its teachers’ salaries and benefits. If we reduce the salaries to the levels at which government benefits kick in (EITC, free healthcare, etc), the schools will see a significant reduction in their expenses – but the Rebbeim and teachers will NOT see a loss in income!!! As many a kollel man has discovered, the value of government benefits – when income is carefully managed – can often equal or be more than the actual income one can earn. The value of free health insurance for large families is enormous, as is the value of free or heavily discounted tuition for Rebbeim. If we look at the complete package (an optimized salary, plus EITC, plus free tuition for kids, plus gov’t heath insurance, plus many other gov’t benefits), the pay under this model is FAR better than Rebbeim get under the current model – and will cost the schools THOUSANDS LESS PER PAYROLL!!!!!

    The only thing you need is a savvy tax accountant or attorney to reverse engineer the proper salary level for each individual employee. If anyone says that they want vouchers, but doesn’t look into the “expense subsidy” vouchers, they are just full of hot air.

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