RJA, Schechter take first step towards potential merger

Kindergarten parents surround their children and reflect on the milestone they are about to embark on at SMDS-RJA during their Simchat Gan.Photo: Yana Hotter

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR © ST. LOUIS JEWISH LIGHT, 2011. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Hoping to bolster Jewish day school education in St. Louis, Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis (SSDS) and the Saul Mirowitz Day School- Reform Jewish Academy (RJA) have tentatively agreed to merge in the 2012-2013 school year, the Jewish Light has learned. 

The chairs of the two schools have signed a letter of intent authorizing their boards to “conduct due diligence” and develop a definitive merger agreement, hopefully in the next couple of months or so. For the integration to take effect, each school’s board will need to approve a formal agreement by a two-thirds majority.

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Cheryl Maayan, head of school at RJA, would be the head of school at the new facility, which would be housed at the SSDS building at 324 South Mason Road in Creve Coeur. The merger would create a school with a projected student population of about 175 students in grades kindergarten through 8. Currently, RJA ends after fifth grade while SSDS goes through eighth grade.

“We are seeking to explore whether our schools could better fulfill our mission of creating a new robust generation of ethical and moral leaders for the future if we are serving our students together,” said Maayan, who would have authority over hiring, curriculum and other matters at the proposed combined school. “By having a larger school with more students, we’d have a stronger infrastructure and more resources and more social options for students.”

William C. Rowe, interim head of school at SSDS, would not have a position at the new school once his one-year contract expires June 30, 2012.

Parents at each school were to receive letters Tuesday informing them of the “non-binding intent” to merge the two schools. The letter also invites them to private, small group meetings hosted by Maayan and Rowe at their respective schools to learn more about the plan. (Go to stljewishlight.com for parent reaction as this story continues to unfold.)

If the proposed merger does go through, Jewish Federation of St. Louis will provide up to $250,000 to help manage the transition costs, and will support a capital/endowment campaign that, it is anticipated, will follow its formation.

“This merger promises to ignite a virtuous cycle of sustainable excellence in Jewish day-school education in St. Louis,” said Todd Siwak, co-chair of the day school task force of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. “The Federation offers its full support.”

Governance of the proposed new school would be provided by a board made up of half and half from the two existing schools, with the first chair to come from RJA. Currently, RJA has 20 voting board members while SSDS has 29.

Although RJA was begun as largely a Reform Jewish day school and SSDS is affiliated as Conservative, both Rowe and Maayan said that spectrum is too narrow given the student population at each school. “We have a few families that are Orthodox, a number that are Conservative and some of Reform backgrounds. The balance may be slightly more toward Reform at RJA but there is still a similar spectrum,” said Rowe.

“That’s true,” added Maayan. “Though we have a majority of students who are affiliated with Reform congregations or are unaffiliated, we have quite a significant number of Conservative and Orthodox families that have been very attracted to the program we offer. So we are already serving children who are Conservative and Orthodox within the (Reform) day school environment.”

Maayan added that there are models around the country serving both Reform and Conservative populations in the “same pluralistic day school.” Several of these schools exist around the country, but none appears to be the result of a merger.

Maayan said that while people assume RJA provides less of a Jewish education than SSDS because RJA is a Reform day school, that is not the case. “We have different systems for teaching Judaic studies, but both yield knowledgeable and educated Jews. We will look further into models of Jewish education and accommodate everybody’s needs if this merger should come to fruition.”

Rowe noted that curriculum is “one of the great many topics that will have to be discussed over the next year” to be ready for the following year. “Both schools teach a Hebrew language curriculum and Jewish studies curriculum and both seem to do it well,” he added.

As for the next steps, both Rowe and Maayan said the boards at each school will inspect the by-laws and finances of each other’s school to make sure there are no lawsuits pending or other litigation. Parent input will also be taken into consideration.

“A formal agreement has to satisfy both boards that this is the right move as well as conform to the template that will satisfy the state of Missouri about merged institutions,” said Rowe. “So there is a lot of material for the lawyers to work on.”

Chairs of the boards at each school issued statements through Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm handling communications and press inquiries regarding the tentative merger.

“This is the right move for us and more importantly, for our kids,” said Galia and Milton Movitz, co-chairs of SSDS. “We’re confident that under Cheryl’s leadership, we’re going to have a school that welcomes Jewish students in all their diversity, and that offers them a superb education, integrating academic excellence with social responsibility and Jewish knowledge. And by emphasizing respect for all Jewish backgrounds, the school will build more and stronger connections among our children – thereby strengthening our community in both the short and long terms. “

Added Michael D. Rubin, RJA board chairman: “This move will bring us an exciting new era in liberal Jewish day-school education in St. Louis. Among other benefits, it will bring us even greater long-term financial strength, ensuring that we can provide the best in Jewish day school education for many years into the future.”

Maayan said any merged school would honor the Saul Mirowitz legacy as part of its name. However, the Solomon Schechter name would no longer be reflected since it wouldn’t be part of that network anymore.

Currently, SSDS has a student population of 94 while RJA has 77. If class size at RJA exceeds 15 students, a part-time assistant is provided during literary lessons, said Maayan. Class size at SSDS “is variable,” said Rowe, adding that there are 17 children in the sixth grade but they break into smaller groups for classes, and two classrooms of eight students each in the fourth grade.

SSDS and RJA are located 4.5 miles from each other. RJA currently rents space at B’nai El Congregation at 114111 North Forty Drive. Maayan said the school, founded in 2000, had already planned to look at other spaces as its student population continues to grow. SSDS was founded in St. Louis in 1981.

Tuition for the 2011-12 academic year at the two schools is similar, with RJA costing $11,950 and SSDS $12,950.

Maayan said that the proposed new school would continue RJA’s educational philosophy known as constructivism, which emphasizes the importance of children learning by experience and having a voice in their learning.

She and Rowe said merger discussions have been percolating for a while, but serious negotiations began in the spring. In 2009, the two schools forged a working relationship when they were awarded a collaborative AVI CHAI Foundation grant to purchase school management software and receive joint training. “Since then, we started to build trust and about year and a half ago, our boards began to engage in discussions about a potential merger,” added Maayan.