Written by Betsy Abraham, firstname.lastname@example.org Tuesday, 09 July 2013 00:00
In the middle of June, parents at Westbury Friends School got a disappointing letter — the private school would no longer be offering kindergarten to fifth grade classes.
According to Board member Marilyn Hicks, the decision to cut K-5 was due to declining enrollment. Hicks said that the economic downturn had a lot to do with the drop, and that the school wasn’t getting enough to support the tuition assistance students.
“For the good of our educational function, you need enough students in a classroom. It was a very hard decision,” Hicks said.
Overall enrollment at the school has seen a steady decline since 2001, with a drastic drop in 2008, when enrollment went from 111 to 86. It was only this past year that enrollment started going up. There were 27 new students in the 2007-08 school year and 23 this past year.
However, many parents say it was not money, but the board’s recent decision to not renew the contract of Head of School Gerri Faivre, that prompted them to pull their children from the school. Parents found out about the decision not from the board, but from Faivre herself, who sent out an email to parents on March 18.
“I would say the only reason the school is closing is because of Mrs. Faivre’s firing. The Board had been meaningless and unresponsive for years but their decision to rescind their offer of renewal for Mrs. Faivre was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was almost as if the collective parent body said, ‘We can put up with the craziness at the Board level as long as we have Gerri in place making sure our kids get what they need.’ With her gone, the school was done,” Lindsay Boorman said.
Kimberly Araujo clerked on the Parent Teacher Council Board for two years, and says that the school’s enrollment in the beginning of March was 60. But within three months of the board’s announcement on March 18 that they wouldn’t be renewing Faivre’s contract, the K-5 enrollment was down to three students.
“They had no reason to fire Ms. Faivre. She was doing a wonderful job. ” Araujo said.
Araujo says that parents made clear their desire for Faivre’s contract to be renewed. Several letters were sent to the board and parents asked the board of managers to meet with them and address concerns. However, the day of the meeting, the board cancelled the meeting, saying they would meet with groups of parents.
“What you tell one group, you don’t have to tell another,” Araujo said. “We wanted a full meeting so they could address and tell the truth to everyone. Once they said they weren’t going to meet us as a whole, a lot of parents said they were done.”
Araujo went to one of the meetings, but still came away unsatisfied.
“They had no plan. They couldn’t give us a benchmark of how many students would be needed to open the school; they had no financial or educational plan. I came away with nothing,” Araujo said.
When asked about the decision to not renew Faivre’s contract and the parents pulling students out as a result, Board Member Marta Genovese said that there were some parents who were more loyal to the head than to the school.
“We were looking for different leadership going forward given enrollment and challenges we were facing in the future. The problems we were facing were not going away,” Genovese said.
Elizabeth Enloe, clerk for the Board of Friends Seminary, was named Interim Head of School and started her term on Monday, July 1.
The school originally started as an early childhood center when it was founded 56 years ago by members of the Westbury Monthly Meeting. There are currently 21 students enrolled for the fall and Hicks says that the board fully expects the school to attract more students. But right now, their commitment is to “financial grounding.”
“We will grow again and on a sound financial basis. We want to provide the best for the students we have. We’re in good shape for the coming year. We fully expect to go the whole year and continue on to grow,” Hicks said.
Nick Belle was a teacher at Westbury Friends for 13 years and was one of ten teaching positions terminated. He says that in the past five years, the teaching staff and administration endured two pay freezes and three years of 10 percent pay cuts.
“They didn’t raise enough money. The board’s responsibility is the financial health of the school but they didn’t feel like it was their job,” Belle said.
Alex Orloff is a financial analyst and served on the finance committee of the board of managers from June 2012 until resigning in March. He said that the school had been losing money for many years, even when the economy was booming and enrollment at the school was high.
“There was basically no accounts or business office. The key problem that the Board of Managers never understood was how to set tuition rates and how the school makes money,” Orloff said. “We had a lot of half empty classes but the tuition kept going up and up.”
Since 2007, tuition has seen a 30 percent increase. For five full days of kindergarten, tuition is currently $14,100. For grades 1-5, it is $14,500. Orloff said that when the finance committee tried to explain the tuition approach and relationship between price and seats sold, the board would not listen.
“That was the root cause of the financial troubles of why the school was losing money. They were running half empty classes. They refused to understand what tuition rates they should be charging,” Orloff said.
However Board Member Marta Genovese says that the school has only slightly raised tuition, and that parents who were previously enrolled were offered old rates.
“Tuition rates have been stable,” Genovese said.
Orloff said that the school had been operated on a $1.1 million endowment until 2007-08 when the money began to run out.
“The board never had a financial plan. It didn’t exist. They lived one year to another. They were trying to see if accounts added up on a monthly basis and they never did,” he said.
Genovese disagrees, saying that the school is in very stable financial shape. She noted that a major gifts campaign last year raised significant funds.
“The most important thing is that we need to have a balanced budget. We had that last year and this year as well, but we have to be smaller to be balanced,” she said. “What we’ve done is contract the school and prune it back to support the expenses. We’re going forward on a strong basis.”
She says that early childhood programs have been the bread and butter of the school and that the lack of enrollment in the K-5 was causing a financial strain.
“It wasn’t a lack of financial planning. It’s just that to operate a school all the way to fifth grade, the expenses are much more than the tuition revenue was providing," Genovese said.
Genovese said that going forward, the school is hoping to attract more students with advertisements and by outreach to families in the area.
Hicks said that while the board is looking to attract more students, it is too early to say how many more grades they would add in the future.
“If we grow the pre-K strong, we can add kindergarten. And when that grows stronger we’ll see. I don’t know how many grades we’ll add. It’s about making sure we’re financially sound and getting finances in a good place,” Hicks said.
The school was recently accredited by the New York State Association of Independent Schools. And despite not being able to send their older children to the school, many parents still hold Westbury Friends School in high regard. One Carle Place mother of four will be sending her five-year-old daughter to public school in the fall. But she is glad that she can send her other kids to Westbury Friends.
“I love the school,” she said. “I think it’s great they’re keeping part of it open so that my kids can continue to come.”
Another Syosset mother of two echoed the sentiment. Her son graduated from Westbury Friends, and she is planning on sending her daughter to the toddler program.
“I loved the school, loved the kids, it was great. We love this place and would like to see it stay,” she said.
Joann Snapp, a mother of two, was saddened by the decision. She had been planning on sending her daughter to first grade at Westbury Friends.
“It was a fantastic experience. The teachers are wonderful and my daughter is very advanced, so I’ve been pleased with the outcomes,” Snapp said. She will now be home schooling her daughter, but is still planning on sending her younger child to the school. Snapp encourages parents to visit the school.
“I hope parents who are looking at early childhood education would at least consider visiting the school. If you visit the school, you’ll fall in love with it,” she said.