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Pinellas County Jewish Day School will close

LARGO — The county's only Jewish day school will close after 30 years in the community.

Low enrollment for next school year made it impossible for the Pinellas County Jewish Day School to stay afloat, officials said Thursday.

"Although we've been able to raise some emergency dollars, the revenue from tuitions was still insufficient to cover some of the operating expenses," said former day school board president Steven Kossoff, who stepped down last month.

About 140 students attend the private school at 1775 S Highland Ave., where annual tuition ranges from $9,500 to $14,500. About half of those students are on scholarship, school spokeswoman Lisa Brock said. And the enrollment commitment for next year fell well short of what was needed to sustain the school.

The private school provides secular as well as Jewish education for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. It also instills character development and values, Kossoff said.

Throughout the country, other Jewish day schools are being forced to close, facing similar predicaments, Kossoff said.

Enrollment is declining because more and more families are unable to handle tuitions. And stock market woes have precluded donors from contributing the amounts they used to give, he said.

"This is definitely one of the most unhappy moments of my life," said Kossoff, 42, who has three children at the school.

And there just aren't any convenient options to replace the day school, he said. The next closest one is the Hillel School of Tampa, which would be about an hour's drive.

Two years ago, with 210 students, the Pinellas school launched plans for a $3 million expansion.

The nonprofit school began in 1980 with 26 students. Its first classes were held at Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. In 1991, the day school opened a satellite campus at the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center. And in 1995, the school combined students from north and south county at its current site.

A recent fundraising campaign gleaned about $1 million in pledges. But that was just enough to satisfy old debt, with the exception of the mortgage, Brock said.

The last day of school is May 28. The eighth-grade class will graduate on June 1.

Parents got the news late last week.

"Unfortunately, this past week when re-enrollment contracts were due, it became apparent that the school was not going to secure the minimum tuition revenue needed to execute a viable financial plan for next year," the board of directors wrote.

"We are all saddened and filled with disbelief as we: the PCJDS Board of Directors must announce that the Pinellas County Jewish Day School will cease operations at the end of the school year."

But despite the news, Pinellas religious leaders are hopeful.

"As a Pinellas Jewish community, we face a major bump on the road," said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. "I know that our community will re-evaluate the consequences of this decision and set forth in meeting the challenges of providing high-quality Jewish education for all of our children."

Rabbi David Weizman, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, said members of the community are committed to keeping a day school in Pinellas.

"There are interested families who want to see that a Jewish day school still exists," he said. "All of these people have a loyalty to the school we've supported for all of these years. But the main loyalty is to the education itself."

And within days of the news, parents were already planning an effort to start another day school.

"We're just grieving. It's a terrible loss on so many levels, to the children, to the community and to the public and the future of Judaism," said parent Janice LeVine, 49, who also teaches music, Spanish and language arts at the school. "We'll come back and we want to come back immediately because we have children in the school."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Pinellas County Jewish Day School will close 05/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 8:22pm]
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