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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Montreal schools shelve merger plans

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David Cape

MONTREAL — The plan to merge the two largest Jewish schools in Montreal has been officially abandoned, less than a year after it was announced with high hopes of creating an improved educational system suited to the community’s changing demographics.

The decision was made by the boards of the schools: the Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools/Bialik High School (JPPS/B) and United Talmud Torahs/Herzliah High School (UTT/H).

The plan, which had the backing of Federation CJA and was recommended by the schools’ boards, will not be revived for the foreseeable future, even though all parties recognize that sustaining two separate mainstream school systems may not be feasible over the long term. Population decline and the attraction of other non-Jewish private schools are the main reasons.

Federation president David Cape said the schools, as independent institutions, are “ultimately responsible for making the decisions that they believe best serve their students and parent bodies.

“We trust that they have done so in this instance.”

JPPS/B and UTT/H were to become one affordable, bilingual “community” school, with the elementary school at what is now the UTT/H Snowdon campus, a middle school to be built next to the nearby YM-YWHA, Bialik in Côte St. Luc to be the senior high school, and a new full high school to be built on the West Island.

Although the schools say they will try to co-operate more with each other, there will be no administrative merger at any level, school officials said.

“The consultation process highlighted the importance of the schools working together, rather than treating each other as competitors,” Neil Creme, co-president of JPPS/Bialik with David Shapiro, told the CJN.

“But there is absolutely no plan for merger, either physically or administratively.”

Both schools say they are going to concentrate on improving their own pedagogy and governance. UTT/H closed its St. Laurent campus and consolidated at Snowdon this August, which has improved its financial picture, and JPPS/Bialik has made major changes in its senior staff and is reviewing its French section.

Both schools are seeking heads of school, a senior-most professional position recommended by Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), a St. Catharines, Ont.-based organization seeking to set best practices for private schools across Canada.

The federation is urging all Jewish schools to be accredited by CAIS (formerly CESI).

The merger plan had been opposed or questioned by many parents and teachers. Most were taken by surprise when the school leaders, along with the federation, announced the plan in January.

By that point, a detailed course of action, including architectural drawings and a mission statement, had been drawn up. Parents were told that “tens of millions of dollars” from philanthropists who support a major overhaul to Montreal Jewish education hung in the balance.

“While the concept of the merger has much merit and deserved to be explored, after much consultation, feedback and consideration and listening to your views, we have determined that our singular focus at this juncture should be on strengthening our own school to ensure we continue to thrive,” Creme and Shapiro wrote to parents Nov. 8.

They urge more “arrangements and relationships” with other Jewish schools, not only UTT/H, “while fully maintaining our own distinct identity.”

In a Nov. 8 letter to parents, UTT/H president Charles Leibovich wrote: “Although we are, of course, disappointed [about the end of merger discussions], we have been aware since the outset that this was a potential outcome and have simultaneously been heavily engaged in our own institutional strengthening process…

 “Unfortunately, we were unable to find the common ground that would have enabled us to move forward with this [merger] project. We did, however, succeed in sparking renewed interest in Jewish education throughout the community and underscoring the relevance of our own institutional strengthening.”

Leibovich declined to be interviewed for this article.

As for the fate of the federation’s “superfund,” JPPS/Bialik told parents – in an apparent reference to the philanthropic support for the merger – that “the initiative is aimed at raising donations from the community on an unprecedented level to provide tuition assistance support for families of all mainstream Jewish day schools. This initiative is independent of the merger talks” between JPPS/B and UTT/H.

In a prepared statement, Cape said, “Federation’s role is to ensure accessibility to and excellence in Jewish education in Montreal, and to strive to ensure the long-term viability of the day school system.

“In this regard, we remain committed to working with our schools to explore all options that would increase accessibility, improve standards of excellence and strengthen their long-term financial sustainability. We will continue to work with our partners to develop innovative ideas for the future of Jewish education in Montreal.”

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