Anger at sudden plans to close Herzlia’s Constantia campus

  • HC1
The Cape Town Jewish community is reeling after an eleventh-hour email on the afternoon of Friday, 19 June, announcing the closure of United Herzlia Schools’ [UHS] Constantia pre-primary and primary school in December 2020.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jun 25, 2020

The email had the subject line, “UHS End of Term Message”, giving no hint of its subject matter. In it, the school’s executive director, Andries van Renssen, wrote, “We are making a very difficult decision to close our campus in Constantia as well as the Kerem Pre-Primary School at the end of December 2020. We are embarking on a broad-based Section 189A consultation process geared at addressing capacity requirements across all our schools.”

This was the first time that parents and staff had any idea that such a decision was in the works.

Van Renssen attributed the move to “continuously declining student numbers, a reduction in the overall size of the Jewish population due to emigration, and ever lower birth numbers [which has an impact on the potential number of students into the future].

“In addition to this, a very poor economic environment has had an equally significant impact,” he wrote. “While not directly linked, this has been exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are deeply aware of the impact on our community, students, and teachers, and while this isn’t easy, it’s very necessary.”

Van Renssen, who joined the school’s management in October 2019 in the newly-created position of executive director, told the SA Jewish Report, “United Herzlia Schools has a R20-million budget deficit. This number is forecast for 2021, and many different factors can influence it, such as inflation, fee increases, and enrolments.

“It remains unsustainable, and requires prudent, if not very hard, decisions to address it. Declining student numbers are a significant driver of this, along with declining levels of fundraising from the broader community. The decision to close at the end of 2020 provides six months for parents and the community to manage the changes that are needed. It’s important to bear in mind that all students will have places at other Herzlia campuses.”

The parents don’t see it so simply. “We have been completely blindsided,” said Professor Amanda Weltman, who has children at the school. She believes that its closure will herald the end of the Cape Town Jewish community. “They are cutting off the streams to preserve the river. But without streams, a river dries up. If you cut off the primary schools, there is no long-term community,” she said.

Another parent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “We are devastated, as we specifically bought a house in walking distance of the school, and now our dreams of raising our kids in the suburbs and giving them a Jewish education are shattered.”

Her sentiments are echoed by many other parents who moved to the area because of proximity to the school. Founded in 1973, the school has about 244 children in total (not all of them Jewish) and also houses the Constantia Hebrew Congregation, a centre-point of the Southern Suburbs community. It’s unclear what will happen to the shul.

Explaining why the announcement was made so suddenly and over email, Van Renssen said, “There is never a ‘right time’ or ‘right way’ to provide news of this nature. The school will continue to be open, transparent, and direct in its communication.”

In a video message to parents on Monday, 22 June, he elaborated that the leadership felt a Friday afternoon at the end of term was best in order to inform staff before the holidays.

The announcement comes after another Herzlia pre-primary school in Milnerton, north of the city, was closed at the end of 2019. United Herzlia Schools marks its 80th anniversary this year.

In response to consternation about the lack of consultation with staff and parents, Van Renssen said, “The school has commenced with this consultation process. It’s important to understand that the legal requirements of a S189 process require the school to adopt a very defined approach. Consultation will continue with all stakeholders over the next 60 days.”

He said consultation with staff has commenced, and options are being discussed regarding the future of the school grounds. Parents are wondering why this most spacious of all Herzlia primary campuses is being sacrificed, especially with the current need for social distancing.

A group of deeply concerned parents have drawn up a petition, asking the UHS for transparency in how it came to this decision and why they were never alerted to the situation or included in the decision-making process. “This announcement came like a bolt out of the blue, at the end of a difficult term and in the midst of a pandemic,” they say.

“This, after the financials at the last annual general meeting (AGM) held on 20 May 2020 as signed off by the chairperson and treasurer stated, ‘The board members have reviewed the school’s cashflow forecast for the year to 31 December 2020 and, in the light of this review and the current financial position, they are satisfied that the school has or has access to adequate resources to continue operations for the foreseeable future.’ This was one month before they announced closure of the Constantia campus.”

Said Van Renssen, “This is a technical accounting discussion. However, it doesn’t in any way address the R20-million budget deficit. Further clarity will be given during consultation meetings.”

The petition against the closure is specific: “We want a clear explanation as to how a dire financial collapse occurred within a matter of four weeks, why there was no consultation with the stakeholders, how this could have been announced when admissions to public schools for 2021 are already closed, and how all of this fits into the UHS constitution,” which calls for stakeholder engagement and ethical leadership.

The petitioners ask that “the decision to close the schools be rescinded until such a time as adequate stakeholder engagement has occurred, answers as to the financial situation are made clear, and that the school remain open until at least 31 December 2021 to allow those parents who choose not to travel to other UHS campuses to find appropriate alternative placements for their children.”

As a parent, Weltman said, “If you are looking to protect something, you need to look two generations forward. You can’t cut back the branches of the tree and then expect to get new seeds. We are a substantial school and have a highly intelligent parent body that could have at least tried to find a creative solution for the school’s sustainability.”

She predicts that with no primary school in the area, this community will either assimilate or emigrate. Crowding more children into Herzlia’s other schools will lead to larger classes – during a pandemic – and these families will also look for greener pastures. “We feel that we have been thrown overboard to save others, and this will have long-lasting ramifications. It affects us all.”

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