Parents React To FJA Policies With Action

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200px-FJA_Seal_4Color[1]A group of parents of students at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield are working together to counter some decisions, actions and policies of FJA’s board and administration they find problematic.

The group coalesced in support of local Reform rabbis contesting a longstanding hiring policy that requires all who teach Judaic Studies courses or lead minyans to be shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant).

They reviewed the school’s bylaws, finding only that Judaic Studies teachers be hired “regardless of denominational affiliations” and be “models of Jewish commitment in their personal lives.” No mention of being shomer Shabbat. Members of this group — Reform and Conservative — spoke out about the issue they viewed as offensive to non-shomer Shabbat Jews. No movement has been made on this issue.

They also have voiced concerns over the lack of board diversity. Only one of the 21 board members is from the Reform movement, for example.

More recently, they rallied to protest the board’s handling of its most recent election of officers on June 5, 2012, as well as its efforts to change from a parent/member elected board (membership model) to a self-perpetuating board (directorship model) in which current board members select their own replacements.

Members of the parents group claim the board was not transparent in how it went about collecting the necessary 51 percent of consent forms needed to complete the process, and about how six open seats on the board were confirmed.

On June 12, 2013, a legal complaint was filed on behalf of Stephany Freeman (a former FJA member) and two FJA members, Beth Stone and Don Apel, in Oakland Country Circuit Court by Dennis K. Egan of Kotz Sangster Wysocki P.C. in Detroit. The complaint, which at press time had not yet been served, seeks to compel FJA “to produce all information and documents in any way discussing (a) the June 5 Annual Meeting and the subsequent election of officers; (b) the board’s appointment of board members to open board positions; and (c) the October 2012 ‘consent’ vote, and voting process, to change FJA from a membership organization to a directorship organization.”

FJA Board President Bill Newman says that “sometimes criticisms are expected” when action is taken, but that he’s “extremely proud of the 21 members of the FJA board.”

He maintains “the process we conducted was equitable, legal and binding.”

He offers a point-by-point rebuttal to the criticisms, including that the board spent many hours researching governance models and learned that 95 percent of all independent school boards are self-perpetuating. Local examples are Hillel, Cranbrook and Detroit Country Day.

Steve Freedman
Steve Freedman

“It is very much best practice for independent schools to govern themselves within the self-perpetuating board framework,” said Steve Freedman, Hillel Day School’s head of school. “Independent schools have governed themselves this way for years. Hillel has had a self-perpetuating board since 2009. Jewish day schools are finally moving in this direction across the country.”

In regard to the recent legal complaint filed, Newman said, “I am saddened by the plaintiffs’ behavior;” he also said that responding to the complaint is a “remarkably poor use of resources … FJA should be spending money on tuition assistance, not lawyers.”

Very recently, FJA added a non-disparage clause to its enrollment contract. It states: “By enrolling our student, we understand the importance of our being supportive of the school’s mission, core values and education/religious philosophy. We understand that the School may expel or refuse to re-enroll a student if, in its sole discretion, the parent(s) engage in activity which is harmful to the school or undermines its mission, values and philosophy.”

Hannan Lis of Farmington Hills, who is part of the parents group, wrote in an email, “This is a little bit reminiscent of a totalitarian-era policy of punishing children for the political beliefs and alleged infractions of their parents. It’s an amazing policy from a school that is supposed to teach Jewish values. In essence, the school is forcing parents to never criticize or disagree with the school or risk the expulsion of their kids.”

Rabbi Eric Grossman, head of school, explained, “As a condition of enrollment, parents have always been required to sign a statement committing to their support of our school and its mission, core values and philosophy. Every year we update our contracts; this year we incorporated this language as part of our enrollment contract in keeping with best practices of independent schools.”

Hillel Day School has a similar clause in its contract.

“This type of language, holding parents responsible for their behavior and supporting the mission of the school, is quite common,” Hillel’s Freedman said. “Hillel has included similar language for years, and I encouraged Eric to add it to his enrollment contract.

“For the record, independent schools, which FJA is, like Hillel, have the right to expect parents to abide by and respect the mission. After all, they chose the school knowing full well what the mission of the school is and the expectations. When parents undermine or attempt to disrupt the school community, it puts the school and its mission at risk. That is why so many schools have this clause.”

The parents group has started a Facebook page called Frankel Jewish Academy Community Dialogue, where information is posted, such as an upcoming FJA Community Town Hall it is hosting that is open to the public. It’s at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 11, at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.

“We want the school to be successful,” Lis said. “But it is not acting community-minded. It is not an island in an ocean.” 

By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor

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