The $45 Million Question

As soon as word spread about last month’s $45 million gift to Jewish day schools in Boston, one question arose for parents and educators around the city: What about Los Angeles?

While no one is brazen enough to put a definitive number or date on such a godsend in Los Angeles, officials at the highest levels of Jewish communal structures have been incubating a plan for about a year to make day school funding and fundraising more robust.

With tuition as high as $22,000 a year for high school — and that’s not even covering increasing operational expenses — everyone from parents to community leaders recognize that something has to be done to sustain the city’s 36 schools and 10,000 students.

In all national population surveys, having a day school education has been a key factor in creating higher sustained levels of affiliation.

The top executives of the The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) and the Jewish Community Foundation have joined forces to buck the perennial Los Angeles challenges of size and sprawl to lay the foundation for a system where money raised on a communal level will go both toward funding scholarships and toward creating incentives for the schools to develop endowments of their own.

“We have had an ongoing discussion about building a very large community endowment,” L.A. Federation President John Fishel said. “Using monies that we have available through our annual campaign and money available from the Jewish Community Foundation, we want to try to challenge large donors to come on board to help us build a significant endowment that would allow us to generate income for the operational support of schools and to keep tuition costs down.”

Fishel said that he has met with several major givers to begin discussions on what may become lead gifts for a communal pot, but no donor has come forward yet to open the floodgates.

“I think there are some things in place that if they would align themselves properly — and we are trying to push those things to align themselves properly — I think the community in the course of the next decade could develop a $25 [million] to $30 million fund,” said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation.

While the details of how such a fund would function are not yet established — and might very well be driven by a particular donor’s vision — the need for schools to increase income is undeniable.

Currently, only a handful of schools have endowments. In non-Orthodox schools, tuition covers about 85 to 90 percent of costs, with the rest raised through annual dinners, campaigns or major benefactors. Orthodox schools, which give more scholarships, operate with roughly 60 to 65 percent of costs covered by tuition.

The BJE, a Federation agency, distributes $2.25 million to schools annually — about $225 per day school child — a number many critics feel is too low.

In Chicago, a city whose community has deeper roots and whose annual campaign is proportionately much more successful than Los Angeles’, the Federation doles out $500 per child in kindergarten through eighth grade and $1,000 per high school student, in addition to funds from an endowment.

In the last 10 years, annual tuition has nearly doubled at most schools, with kindergarten through eighth-grade tuition reaching about $12,000.

Gil Graff, executive director of the BJE, worries that even comfortable professional families cannot sustain that level of sacrifice. He points to a drop in day school enrollment over the last several years, due mostly to nationwide demographic dips in school-age children, but also, Graff fears, due to the rising costs.

Graff looks toward the model of Chicago as one example of what Los Angeles can do to create new realities. Over the last few years, Chicago has developed two day school endowment programs. One is a communal fund where the income is paid out on a per capita basis to the 14 schools. The other is one where schools themselves raise the money, and the Federation kicks in an additional 10 percent, up to $100,000 per gift.

But raising communal dollars is notoriously difficult in Los Angeles, with its geographic and philosophical sprawl.

“Los Angeles does not have donors who are stepping up to endow the communal pot,” Schotland said. “What kind of individual do you need to find that has the vision, the openness and the understanding so that they are willing to put dollars into a communal pot and understand that on every level, across the board, the community is enhanced by students being educated in a Jewish environment?”

Schotland pointed to other challenges. Education in general has not been a big draw for major donors, he said, and even donors interested in Jewish education might not agree that day schools are the best way to educate future generations.

In addition, Los Angeles schools are still in a state of relative immaturity. The oldest day schools in Los Angeles are around 50 years old, and a good number of them were founded only in the last two decades. Enrollment has gone from 5,500 students in 22 schools in 1985 to nearly 10,000 students in 36 schools today, with much of the growth occurring in non-Orthodox institutions. Those newer schools, and some of the old ones, are still building their infrastructure, so many of the major gifts go to specific schools for specific projects.

Graff hopes the Boston gift will change how people view giving to day schools.

“[The Boston gift] establishes that this cause in fact elicits gifts of high magnitude, and a donor is not being some sort of idiosyncratic pioneer, but is joining others who have undertaken such initiatives,” Graff said.

The $45 million was split four ways, with $15 million going into a community fund for the 2,600 students in 16 day schools, and three schools receiving $10 million each.

Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (the L.A. Federation’s equivalent), said the gift materialized over several years after two donors, both of whom have long-standing connections to Schrage, took the lead in crafting both the vision and the donor pool.

“The day school project is enormously important, but it is imbedded in a broader vision for the creation of a new kind of Jewish community,” Shrage said. “I think it works best in an environment where the Federation is not just about raising money. The Federation is about creating a very broad, shared vision for the entire community. The donors feel comfortable as part of that shared vision.”

Does that atmosphere exist in Los Angeles, which is both bigger and younger than the Boston community?

Fishel still sees enormous challenges to achieving that level of rapport.

“I think we are at a very different level of community development,” he said. “We are grappling here with trying to forge a vision that has broad-based consensus so we can move from our historical patterns of support to something that would address contemporary realities. If I can be brutally honest, I would like to think that we would have moved further along that continuum.”

Still, Fishel vows to keep up the fight for day schools.

“It’s taken a long time for Boston to get to this point, and the challenge in Los Angeles is longer term. But that doesn’t mean you don’t undertake it and don’t try to achieve it.”

Day School Help on the Way

Beginning Dec. 1, Miriam Prum-Hess, the L.A. Federation’s vice president of planning and allocations, will move within the organization to become a consultant for operational issues for day schools through the Bureau of Jewish Education.

Her job will include helping schools identify and implement best practices, streamline their operations and improve marketing and development. She will also look for cost-saving opportunities, such as using the day schools’ collective purchasing powers for everything from supplies to insurance.

Day school principals have already set up meetings with long agendas with her, she said.

“It’s an incredible statement on the part of our Federation to take someone who is senior staff and lend me out for two years to see if there are ways to strengthen these important institutions in our community,” said Prum-Hess, herself a parent of two day school students and a self-described “passionate advocate” for schools.

To contact Miriam Prum-Hess, call (323) 761-8000.