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January 5, 2011

NCJHS to move to larger, permanent West Hills campus

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/ncjhs_to_move_to_larger_permanent_west_hills_campus_20110105

“We now have a ‘makom’ — a sacred space in which to house our values,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS), shortly after the deal was announced that NCJHS may have finally found a permanent home — at the site of its first home.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles announced Dec. 13 that it has agreed to sell the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills to the school for an undisclosed price. The property, which houses the JCC at Milken, was where NCJHS was founded in 2002.

The deal won’t be finalized until the school receives permits from the city necessary to house a school on the property, but officials said they are confident the bid will go through. “This facility will help us to further the things that we’ve been doing for the last nine years, to enhance the programs that help to build our values,” Powell said.

Moving into the campus will let the school grow its musical theater program, strengthen its science department with state-of-the-art labs and give its 400 students more breathing room than they currently have at the school’s rented quarters at West Hills’ Shomrei Torah Synagogue, said Mike Greenfeld, president of the NCJHS board of trustees.

Plus, the school would no longer have to bus its student athletes to sports practice at the JCC’s gymnasium, where NCHJS has for years been running its 22 sports programs. Making the gym their own would be more convenient and give students a greater sense of ownership, Powell said.

School officials hope to complete renovations to the site and move in by 2012 or 2013.

The school will share space with the JCC, which will continue to operate on the campus.

The JCC won’t have to cut or downsize any programs due to sharing the campus, JCC executive director Paul Frishman said. The center’s pool and swim school will stay open, along with its early childhood programs, sports leagues and activities for seniors. Next summer, the center plans to partner with Malibu’s Camp JCA Shalom to expand its summer camp options, as well.

“We feel there will not be a major impact” upon the JCC’s 1,200 members, Frishman said. “We look at it as a positive thing that will allow the JCC to thrive.”

Having the school on the property could precipitate a membership boost for the JCC, Frishman believes, by exposing more students’ families to JCC programming. It would also alleviate some of the financial pressure the JCC had faced as the primary tenant of the campus.

The Jewish Federation, which OK’d the parcel’s sale, sees the deal as a “win-win-win” situation: The school will acquire more space to grow, the JCC can attract more people to its programs, and The Federation will have an expensive piece of property taken off its hands.

Much of the four-acre Milken campus wasn’t being used as efficiently as possible, according to Richard Sandler, chairman of The Federation’s board. It had been costing the agency more than $100,000 per month to operate the site, he said.

“There’s a lot of space out there that does not get fully utilized,” Sandler said. “The JCC won’t be getting squeezed out. I’m hopeful that the property will be utilized to a higher degree than it is now.”

The property had for years been a weight on The Federation’s books. Bought by the West Valley JCC in 1976 and later deeded to The Federation, the campus cost $15 million to build in 1987 and even more to refurbish after its buildings were damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Tense talks between JCC and Federation officials over sharing the campus’ operating costs led to the JCC’s pool closing in 2007. Those talks ended in early 2009 with an agreement that the JCC would pay a rising percentage of the campus budget, up to 65 percent by 2013. That deal was supposed to guarantee the center’s status as the foremost occupant of the property.

But sharing space with NCJHS would be a boon to the JCC, which has chronically struggled to stay out of the red. The center would benefit from extensive campus renovations the school must make as part of its purchase agreement. And it would renegotiate its rent with the school, from which it would now lease space.

NCJHS leadership had long dreamed of returning to the Milken campus, where the school was founded with 40 students in 2002. The school outgrew its space within two years and moved to Shomrei Torah, but they knew they would eventually need a permanent facility of their own.

School officials first approached The Federation about buying the campus five years ago, but a deal never materialized, said Greenfeld. They made another bid in early 2010 and hammered out the deal in meetings throughout the year.

“We always had this place in the backs of our minds,” Greenfeld said. “It’s the right size, and it’s not out-of-the-way for our student base. We felt it would be the right home for us.”

Now the school must get building permits from the city and reconfigure some of the buildings for classes. Plans are also on the table for new classrooms and a faculty center. Powell, the head of school, said his mind is spinning with ideas for new learning spaces and programs they could create.

Moving to the Milken campus would take the school’s square footage from 35,000 at Shomrei Torah to about 100,000, tripling the amount of space the school has to work with, Powell added.

While officials won’t estimate how much the move will cost, they say it will take a few years to raise all the funds needed. The school has already begun receiving donations from its community, Greenfeld said, and they’re confident they will cover their costs. Tuition will not be affected by the move.

Greenfeld believes having an expansive new campus will allow the school to grow its student base. Rented quarters are “not what people usually envision when they think of a high school,” he said.

“Right now, we have a nice facility, but not a state-of-the-art facility. We’ve done an amazing job with what we’ve got; imagine the possibility of what we can do when we have a place of our own.”

With so much activity slated for the Milken campus, ideas for joint programming are already in the works.

Powell envisions giving NCJHS students community service opportunities at the JCC by having them run after-school arts and crafts for nursery school children, or keeping the seniors company during their activities.

“Our goal is to create programming side by side with the JCC — to make this a real center of community,” he said.

One challenge the site faces is parking. With only 275 spots, competition will heat up for spaces when the school moves in.

But officials said they will work together to see the transition through.

“This allows us all to coordinate our efforts to create a strong Jewish campus, that includes both the school and the JCC,” said Frishman, the JCC director. “The community is coming together to do what’s best for everyone.”

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