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Jewish Journal

Milken JCC board rejects Federation offer

by Jane Ulman

June 14, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The April closure of the Milken campus pool touched off controversy over the JCC's future in the West Hills center. Photo by Jane Ulman

The April closure of the Milken campus pool touched off controversy over the JCC's future in the West Hills center. Photo by Jane Ulman

The future of the The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which serves thousands of Jews in the West Valley, including 125 preschoolers and 700 seniors, is still uncertain.

Despite a debt of $250,000 and the loss of nearly one-third of its members following the closure of its pool by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which owns the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, Milken JCC leaders chose to reject a bailout plan.

The proposal from The Federation would have required the center to surrender its right to be the major tenant on the 4-acre campus.

By a unanimous vote on Sunday, June 10, the New JCC at Milken's executive board rejected a rescue-and-restructure plan proposed by The Federation. The plan would have provided the financially strapped center with a one-time supplemental allocation of $350,000 in return for signing a quitclaim deed relinquishing its historic right to the center.

"Nobody should believe we're fighting for blood here against Federation. They are our brethren," JCC Executive Board President Hal Sandler told a standing-room only crowd of almost 500 JCC members and supporters at an emergency meeting held on the Milken campus.

During the nearly two-hour gathering, members donated $54,000 toward the $250,000 needed to break even and confirmed the board's vote by a near unanimous show of hands.

According to The Federation's plan, the JCC could continue to operate in its present space, except for the now-closed pool and adjacent areas, until July 1, 2008. At that time, its space and budget could be greatly diminished if The Federation, currently "in discussions" with former tenant New Community Jewish High School, rents a substantial portion of the Milken campus to the school, with a possible option to buy.

Sandler and Steve Rheuban, a new center board member and former Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles president, explained that the board had no alternative but to reject the offer when The Federation refused to approve an addendum requesting a guarantee of nine early childhood education classrooms, parking for preschool parents, shared use of the gym and space for senior programs and JCC administration.

Sandler believes that if The Federation had signed the addendum, the JCC would more likely have agreed to the restructuring proposal.

Milken JCC board member Marty Hummel, who supported The Federation's plan to guarantee the center's operation for one more year, changed his mind during the meeting to allow for a unanimous vote. Afterward Hummel abruptly resigned prior to the general meeting, where he spoke out against the vote.

Hummel and his wife, Jill, both cited concerns over their preschool child's ability to attend the center next year. "My greatest concern is my child," Jill Hummel said during the meeting. "If monies don't come in there could be a chance the center might have to close for a few months. Where do these children go?"

Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon and vice president of planning Andrew Cushnir, neither of whom had authorization from The Federation's board to approve the addendum, left the meeting after the JCC board turned down the proposal. In previous interviews, they have consistently reiterated The Federation's support for continued services for seniors and preschoolers in the West Valley.

While the JCC has struggled financially for years, one ongoing stream of funding was cut on April 25 when The Federation closed the pool with little advance notice, citing possible mold problems. But even prior to this date, on April 11, The Federation had already requested and been issued a permit by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety to demolish and fill in the pool, a step taken to cover all possible work scenarios, according to Dragon.

Dragon said the JCC's financial difficulties predate the closing of the pool and the timing was merely coincidental. She and Cushnir maintain that the JCC, which is the third-largest local recipient of Federation funding, receives on average $1.3 million a year, including program funding, occasional supplemental allocations and "rent subvention," which covers maintenance, utilities and security costs. The Federation provides 34 percent of the JCC's budget, Dragon said, while nationally Federation support averages 12 to 15 percent of a JCC's budget.

Up to now, the New JCC at Milken has avoided closure and selling off its property, the fate of many former Los Angeles JCCs, because of its unique history.

Founded in 1969 as the West Valley Jewish Community Center, it bought and moved to its current site, a former horse ranch consisting of a cottage and a converted garage on four and a half acres, in 1976. Unable to afford construction, the JCC parent organization, in a complicated deal signed in 1984 and reaffirmed in 2004, deeded the property to The Jewish Federation, retaining "primary use of the real property."

The Federation purchased an adjoining acre and a half and raised the $15 million needed to build the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, completed in 1987 and refurbished in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake. In 1999, the $4.5 million Ferne Milken Youth & Sports Complex was dedicated, adding a 12,000-square-foot gymnasium, an Olympic-sized pool and a fitness center.

"We're asking you to support us," Sandler told Sunday's audience. "This is your pool, this is your building, this is your center."

Most members supported the JCC during the meeting, but voiced concerns about financial accountability, management, open communication and viability of the services, especially the preschool, summer camps and pool.

"We have a lot of financial problems and some mismanagement. Nobody's denying that," former JCC president Bonnie Rosenthal said.

She and many board members trace the JCC's financial distress to the dissolution of the parent organization. "When JCCGLA broke up, we were left with a lot of debt," she said.

Some, like Maureen Sloan, who joined with her husband for the pool and fitness center, felt betrayed by both the JCC and The Federation. "We believe that Jewish institutions have an obligation to act ethically," she said.

In the meantime, the pool remains closed and a date for demolition, approved by The Federation board on May 17, has not been set. The mold, found primarily in the walls of the sauna and Jacuzzi area and in the men's and women's restrooms and locker rooms, has been removed, but the surfaces have not been repaired.

If the area is restored, three-time Olympic gold medal winner Lenny Krayzelburg, whose swim school served about 400 JCC kids until the April closure, said his company is willing to undertake costs of operating, staffing and providing programming for the pool. Additionally, seniors would have access to the pool.

Meanwhile, the JCC board is busy fundraising, revising budgets, planning additional administrative cuts and forming a governance committee to ensure financial oversight.

"We need to know where we're at all the time," Sandler said.




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