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Friday, November 28, 2014

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Parents, schools struggle with day school fees

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Mendel and Shoshi Janowski and three of their four children

TORONTO — Nava Hoffman got married two years ago. She doesn’t have kids yet – though she expects to in the fairly near future – but she’s already worrying about the cost of sending them to Jewish day school.

“[Fees are] crazy now. It’s going to be even crazier in five years,” said the 28-year-old head of printing and production at Ketubah.com.

Tuition fees in Toronto – which range from about $12,000 a year for some preschool programs to more than $23,000 for high school – have consistently risen at rates much higher than the rate of inflation.

At most schools, tuition increased between three and five per cent from 2012 to 2013, while the latest inflation rate from the Bank of Canada (in June) was 1.2 per cent.

Many parents of children at Toronto’s Jewish day schools say tuition is simply too high and represents a heavy burden, particularly for middle-class families.

“People aren’t able to afford other things,” said Mendel Janowski, a 33-year-old health-care consultant who has four children ranging from four months old to seven years old. His three oldest children are enrolled in Jewish day school.

“I’m not even talking about the luxuries of vacations and fully loaded cars. I’m talking about the basics.”

Ed Segalowitz, executive director of the Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said he knows the situation is difficult for many parents.

“Many parents are struggling to be able to pay the tuition fees,” he said. “It’s a lot of money out of a family’s income, especially if you have two or three kids.”

He said that in 2012, 10,600 kids were enrolled at Jewish day schools in Toronto, or 31 per cent of the total Jewish student population. Of the 8,800 students at schools affiliated with the federation, about 25 per cent received subsidies.

Tuition fees in Toronto vary depending on the school, but the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, the city’s Jewish community high school, costs $23,400 per student for the upcoming year, not including expenses such as books.

Elementary school fees are significantly lower, ranging from $11,975 for full-day junior kindergarten at the Toronto Heschel School to $16,975 at the same school for grades 4 to 8.

Tuition at the Reform-affiliated Leo Baeck Day School for the upcoming school year is $13,900. Head of the school, Eric Petersiel, said the biggest factor in tuition fees is staff salaries, which he said rise at a rate higher than inflation.

“Unfortunately the bottom line is that it affects everyone,” he said.

The best way to combat increasing fees is by increasing the number of students at a school, which offsets fixed costs with higher revenues. Having a combined 12 per cent enrolment bump – from 815 to 920 students – at its north and south campuses has allowed Leo Baeck to keep its tuition increase under three per cent.

“We project for the next number of years that we’ll be in a strong financial position and we’ll be able to keep the increase under three per cent for a number of years,” he added.

Parents who are struggling to pay tuition fees can qualify for subsidies.

UJA Federation allocates $10 million each year to assist those families, and some schools engage in additional fundraising in order to help those who find it hard to pay. However, parents and educators alike acknowledge that the middle class is sometimes caught in a quandary: families may not earn enough to pay tuition easily, but they earn too much to qualify for subsidies.

Petersiel said his school addressed this concern last year with its AlephBaeck pilot program, in which middle-class families can apply for a grant of up to $5,000 per student if they commit to spending three years at the school. He said if the program, which is being funded by a one-time gift from an anonymous donor, proves successful, he hopes to expand it to help more middle-class families.

Segalowitz said that although it’s hard to define who exactly qualifies as middle class, “every family who is sincere about wanting to send their kids to Jewish day school should go to the school and tell them, ‘This is the financial situation.’”

If tuition is indeed beyond the family’s means, they would be welcome to apply for a subsidy, he said.

David, a 46-year-old publisher with three kids, one in Jewish day school, who has received subsidies and spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are several problems with the subsidy system.

He said one issue is that in the years he received subsidies, he wasn’t able to put away money for retirement.

“The community would say, ‘How come we’re giving you a $5,000 subsidy but then you went out and bought a $5,000 RRSP?’” he said. “Every year you take subsidies is one less that you can put aside for retirement.”

Segalowitz said he couldn’t comment on individual cases or whether RRSP contributions would definitively disqualify an applicant from receiving a subsidy.

He recognizes that there are concerns about the application process, including the fact it requires applicants to give a detailed account of their income and expenses, but “to be fair to families that are paying, there needs to be some kind of process to be sure that people are being fairly treated.”

Application forms that require personal information are typical for any loan or grant, he added.

Segalowitz said the federation held a tuition summit earlier this year to discuss ways to alleviate the financial burden associated with Jewish day school, including examining how schools in the United States help families afford fees that are often higher than those in Toronto.

“The issues are different, but what we’ve learned is it’s possible to look at a number of different kinds of programs to see if it’s possible to have incentives or supports for families,” he said.

In the meantime, young parents such as Hoffman say they’ll face the “daunting” task of trying to start a family while planning for the future.

Others, meanwhile, choose to forgo day school, including David, who decided to move his children out of the system for high school.

“If tomorrow I win the lottery, I would put my kid in CHAR [TanenbaumCHAT’s Richmond Hill campus], but I’d have to win such an astronomical amount of money,” he said.

“I know the quality is great, but let’s step back. That’s until Grade 12. I still need to put money aside for after that.”

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