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End of a 'dream': Losing millions for years, the American Hebrew Academy closes

Sign outside gate of American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC on June 11, 2019. (H. Scott Hoffmann/News & Record)

Students take their kosher meals in the dining room at American Hebrew Academy in 2004.

GREENSBORO After Tuesday’s announcement of the sudden closing of the American Hebrew Academy, an elite international Jewish boarding school off Hobbs Road, Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel spent the morning in prayer and on the phone.

“The academy was a great school,” Guttman said. “Academically superior.”

The luxurious 100-acre campus also enabled the city to attract more Jewish families and professionals, he added.

“But today in our congregation we have seven families, who, when they woke up this morning, thought that this was going to be a good day ... and they had the rug pulled out from them,” Guttman said.

The private school’s board voted to close the campus immediately for financial reasons, according to an email sent Tuesday to staff, students and alumni. The school was losing millions annually.

“The American Hebrew Academy began as a dream,” wrote Glenn Drew, the school’s executive director. “It has been a dream fulfilled for 18 years, and it is a dream that must unfortunately come to an end.”

Most school employees will be unemployed as of today.

The campus opened in 2001 flush with money from businessman and philanthropist Maurice “Chico” Sabbah. BusinessWeek magazine estimated his donations were $100 million at the time.

In a 2002 interview with Forbes, Sabbah said the school had $50 million in the bank, which would cover 10 years of operating expenses.

In the early 2000s, the academy was entangled in a billion-dollar fraud suit that involved Sabbah, his company Fortress Re and a business partner. The school continued to operate, drawing students from around the world.

With Tuesday’s announcement, it’s unclear the number of students and faculty that have been affected or what will happen to the 100-acre property. The academy was home to a lavish boarding school and an $11.6 million athletics center and pool. Every classroom in the science building had a smart board that could function as a conventional blackboard or as a computer connected to the internet.

Built to educate the best and brightest Jewish teenagers from around the world — tuition was roughly $40,000 this school year — the academy lost money every year from 2006 to 2017, according to tax data reviewed by the News & Record.

During the 2016-17 school year, the academy had $5 million in revenue and $18 million in expenses — a $13 million loss.

During the 2015-16 school year, the loss was $9.7 million.

Contributions and grants dropped from almost $3 million in the 2015-16 school year to $404,000 in 2016-17.

As word spread Tuesday through online chat rooms and social media, many were shocked and concerned for students expected to return this fall.

The school’s final class — 34 seniors — graduated from the academy on May 27. Enrollment this year was 134 in a school initially built for 400.

“The school didn’t seem sustainable because it was a huge campus and just a few of us,” said Sofia Sabet, who graduated in May and is headed to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. “But we all thought our kids would be able to go there, that our grandkids would be able to go there.”

Sabet has started a Gofundme account she hopes will attract the attention of big-dollar donors who can help keep the school open or at least provide a financial cushion for staff, some of whom lived on campus with their families.

“I think about my academic adviser. I think about my voice teacher,” said Tali Friedman, a 2016 graduate. “What are they going to do? They devoted their lives to this place.”

The school, interwoven with the Greensboro Jewish community, provided a respite from students away from home and their traditions.

“I came as a depressed 14-year-old who felt disillusioned,” Friedman recalled. “I grew and I left confident, assertive and connected to a community. I left feeling such a sense of optimism. I left with a sense of pride.

“I hate that others will not be able to experience that.”

News & Record file  

Students walk back to the classrooms after lunch at American Hebrew Academy in 2004. The Lab Science Building is in the background.

Guilford County commissioners question sheriff's additional budget request

GREENSBORO — Guilford County’s first-term sheriff ran into questions this week as he sought additional money in next year’s budget for replacement vehicles and a counseling program that helps newly released inmates turn their lives around.

Sheriff Danny Rogers and his staff asked the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to approve more than $243,000 for seven cars to be used by school resource officers.

They also sought board permission to take $189,000 for the counseling program from a county account funded by commissary purchases and phone charges rung up by Guilford County jail inmates.

Commissioners questioned the need for additional vehicle spending at a cost of just less than $35,000 per car and wondered whether proceeds from jail inmates were the right source to pay for the rehabilitation program.

Commissioner Jeff Phillips noted that the county budget under consideration that Rogers and his staff were seeking to augment already included more than $68.5 million for the sheriff’s office.

“Can it not be found, that $400,000, within that $69 million by the sheriff’s team?” Phillips asked of the proposed expenses.

The setting was a Monday afternoon work session in the Old County Courthouse hosted by the board as it prepares the final version of its 2019-20 budget, scheduled to take effect July 1.

A majority of the commissioners want to avoid raising the county property-tax rate while facing increased demands for school improvements and other needs in a local economy where growth in tax revenue is not keeping pace.

The session was an opportunity for department heads whose operations are part of the county budget to request additional money or other changes in the county manager’s recommended spending plan.

Rogers spoke briefly to the board but entrusted much of the ensuing presentation to two aides, Capt. Daryl Loftis and administrator Sharon Harrison-Pope.

Loftis said money for the additional seven vehicles was needed to provide the school officers with a reliable means of transportation that presents a professional image when parked outside a school and that does not cost a prohibitive amount to maintain.

The requested car money would augment $1.35 million that the proposed county budget already provides the sheriff’s office for 38 vehicles — an average of just more than $35,500 per car.

Loftis said the seven cars for the school officers would not be pursuit cars so they would not, for example, need such extra equipment as radar. They would replace the officers’ current, county-owned vehicles that, on average, are 11 years old and have nearly 150,000 miles on their odometers, Loftis said.

The sheriff’s office deploys deputies to school campuses throughout the county to protect students and help maintain order.

Later, Harrison-Pope told commissioners that the inmate reentry program was in the process of transitioning from a pilot initiative paid for by a state grant to one that the county could finance.

The program serves roughly 250 former inmates, has a staff of two case managers and has shown promising results in preventing newly released offenders from getting into fresh trouble with the law, she said.

Harrison-Pope said that after their release, about 48% of people who have been incarcerated run afoul of the law again within three years. In the last year, that has happened to only 7% of participants in the local program, she said.

In his summary of the proposed budget last month, County Manager Marty Lawing said his proposal included $79,000 for the reentry program to use “after (the) grant expires, contingent upon establishing a data collection and program evaluation framework” to show definitively how well it had worked as a pilot program.

Commissioner Hank Henning said that Monday was the first time he had heard of the program’s need for additional county money. He said he was leery of such grant-financed programs because people are hired who then risk losing their jobs when the grant money is gone.

Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said he did not like using money spent by jail inmates, many of whom are being held for trial and are presumed innocent as they await their day in court.

On the car purchases, several commissioners said they did not understand why the sheriff’s office had not replaced them sooner, noting that the county provides money in the sheriff’s budget every year to replace 35 to 38 cars.

“Apparently somewhere along the line the ball has been dropped,” Loftis said. “It was really sickening to see how old some of the vehicles people have been driving are.”

The board did not make a final, formal decision on either proposed expenditure. Alston made a motion to approve using the requested amount from the inmate account for the reentry program.

But he withdrew that motion after Phillips said he could not support it.

“I need some more details,” Phillips said. “I’m not going to approve it on the fly.”

Commissioners agreed they would revisit the sheriff’s spending plan after his office provided more details.

Rogers’ office declined to comment on the situation Tuesday through spokesman Max Benbassat, who said it will respond to the commissioners’ request for more information.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who had seconded Alston’s motion before its withdrawal, said the board was treating Rogers’ request differently than it had previous law enforcement spending requests.

“We as a board have never looked at every dime that was spent in law enforcement,” Coleman said.

The Greensboro Democrat drew chuckles when she recalled that the board had even approved former Republican Sheriff BJ Barnes’ request to buy Segway scooters for official use.

That’s true, but a previous board that included Coleman put Barnes through the wringer before approving the scooters, which also were for the school resource officer program.

In January 2013, Coleman, Henning, current Republican board Chairman Alan Branson and then-Commissioners Bill Bencini and Bruce Davis formed the majority that rejected Barnes’ request to spend $49,655 in drug forfeiture money on scooters to help resource officers get around their campuses more quickly.

It took nearly eight months before the board relented. But on Aug. 15 that year, commissioners approved the school resource Segways in an 8-1 vote: By then, the scooters’ price tag had risen by $3,125.