Rabbi Avi Shafran recently offered a passionate defense of the actions of the Charedi dominated East Ramapo Public School Board. I trust that that Rabbi Shafran’s intentions are honorable – to strengthen the Jewish people and create a fairer education system, and I welcome the debate. For too long this issue has been whispered about or ignored in our community.
Rabbi Shafran’s position has been that the school board has done nothing but act in a “responsible and fair manner.” Uri L’Tzedek’s position is that the board has not been fair or responsible, has failed to serve the best interests of the public school children it governs and has created a chillul hashem, or desecration of God’s name.
But before getting into the many errors in his arguments, I propose the following thought experiment for Rabbi Shafran.
Imagine if the yeshiva where Rabbi Shafran sent his children had a board where seven of nine members had never went to yeshiva and would never send their kids to yeshiva. Then imagine that this board gutted math, science, full day kindergarten and language classes, cut social workers and teaching aides, and also cut all elementary school art, sports and music. Then imagine that this board hired attorneys who verbally assaulted children and parents, and a president of the yeshiva board calling the yeshiva children and parents “miscreants” and “errant children.” Then throw in the board selling one of the yeshiva school buildings to a public school for millions of dollars less than it was worth. How would Rabbi Shafran feel about this board? Would he feel like they had represented the needs of the yeshiva they were caring for? Would Rabbi Shafran really feel that this yeshiva board had acted “responsibly and fairly” to his children?
Now on to his actual arguments.
Rabbi Shafran begins by stating that Uri L’Tzedek “is among the critics of the board.” But he failed to mention who those other critics are. The following is a list of the groups who are currently in legal proceedings against the East Ramapo School Board:
U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights
New York State Attorney General
New York State Comptroller’s Office
New York State Education Department
New York Civil Liberties Union
These groups are all deeply troubled by the mismanagement and scandal that have surrounded this board.
One of the most egregious examples of the school board’s mismanagement was the closing and sale of a public school to a yeshiva at millions of dollars below assessment levels. Rabbi Shafran calls this a “red herring” and blames the affair on the assessor. Rabbi Shafran failed to mention that New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner stated the East Ramapo board “abused its discretion by hastily approving the sale.” The 12-acre campus, assessed at $10.2 million market value, was given only a $3.2 million appraisal by the school board's attorney.
Next, Rabbi Shafran makes an egregious error. He writes that Uri L’Tzedek “apparently didn’t speak to any of the members of the school board.”
This is simply not true. Uri L’Tzedek spoke at length with both the past and current presidents of the school board to learn and understand their perspectives, and we continue to welcome dialogue. It undermines Rabbi Shafran’s arguments to have blatant errors that border on motzi shem ra, defamation, in his article. This brings us to the crux of Rabbi Shafran’s argument.
During my conversations with former board members, several times the board made a claim that State funding is the only problem, and that not fault lies with the board. In Rabbi Shafran’s words: “The district is thus funded, pursuant to the statutory formula, as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state – when it is in fact one of the poorest.”
Rabbi Shafran is wrong.
East Ramapo is in the top 5 percent of New York School districts in total state aid received. Per student, the range in state aid to public school districts is from $1,750 per pupil for the wealthiest to $6,586 for the poorest. East Ramapo receives $5,800 per public school student. That places East Ramapo on the high end of per student state aid, and well above other Rockland County districts. Clearly, East Ramapo is not anywhere near being treated as a wealthy district.
Rabbi Shafran and members of the school board claim that the aid, even though it is high, does not truly reflect the district, since there are thousands of children in yeshiva day schools. They call for revisions in the state formulas to provide more money to districts like East Ramapo that have a high number of private school students.
Here’s where Rabbi Shafran again made an egregious error. I expressed explicit support for the Agudah’s efforts to change the formula in the article. New York states school funding regulations need to be revisited in light of some of these issues.
But changes in the formula alone will not solve the problem. Money alone will not solve the problem. There are other school districts in New York state where the formula puts undue pressure on school districts – not one of them have seen the level of acrimony, dysfunction, and investigations of East Ramapo. That is why Rockland Clergy for Social Justice is calling for state oversight and transparency.
And for the record, we are not asking for a State takeover.
This debate is so important. It touches on so many key issues: public and private education, church and state, race, class, religion and more. Closest to both my and Rabbi Shafran’s heart though is the fundamental issue of the future of Orthodoxy. Will we be a community that is a light to the nations? Will we fulfill our mandate to be guardians of the path of God, to do righteousness and justice [Genesis 18:19]? I’m sure that both Rabbi Shafran and I would agree that we must. But in order to do so, we must allow ourselves to have a full and honest command of the facts involved, even when the reality those facts show is a painful one.
Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of Uri L'Tzedek.