I write in response to the Opinion essay by Rabbi Ari Hart, of Uri L'Tzedek, regarding the Board of Education’s handling of the fiscal crisis and political turmoil within the East Ramapo Central School District. I welcome Rabbi Hart's interest in our District. Unfortunately, his piece is riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations, and seems unlikely to foster the dialogue he purports to seek.
For example, Rabbi Hart suggests that various state and federal agencies are "deeply troubled" by the board's management of the district, and implies that he is privy to their secret findings of wrongdoing. This is untrue. Despite the accusations of fraud and misappropriation leveled at the district's leadership, no investigation has revealed any misconduct or malfeasance by any member of the board. It is deliberately misleading and morally offensive for Rabbi Hart to intimate otherwise.
Rabbi Hart's portrayal of the district's funding is also deeply flawed. Even if it were true that the district receives an average of $5800 in aid per public school student –and it is not — the fact that any aid is distributed on a "per public student" basis is the very crux of the problem. Our district has 9,000 public students, and more than 21,000 private students. The math is simple. Any aid calculation that looks only to the number of public school students — recognizing that funding must be used to serve both public and private students — is profoundly unfair and inadequate for our unique demographic.
Rabbi Hart virtually ignores these issues. Instead, he challenges my board with a remarkably simplistic "thought experiment," in which he asks us to consider how we might feel if members of the "public school" community controlled a private yeshiva. Here, Rabbi Hart crosses the line from masquerading as a concerned community activist and exposes himself to be a biased, agenda-driven ideologue. While he says he is seeking to bridge divides, his patronizing tone and condescension to the district's elected officials belie that claim. And while he claims to serve as an honest broker in a very contentious communal divide, he chooses to make selective references to several unconnected events which are the direct result of ongoing communal tension, but have nothing to do with the board’s educational policies, activities and decisions.
What makes Rabbi Hart’s "thought experiment" so pernicious, however, is his deliberate and calculated perpetuation of the false public community/private community dichotomy, which casts the chasidic and Orthodox communities as unwelcome invaders, with no legitimate interest or right to participate in school district politics. I categorically reject that position. East Ramapo is our home. East Ramapo is our school district. We pay taxes in East Ramapo, and our children are entitled to educational services just like every other child in our district.
The non-paying, public service, volunteer job of a school board member is complex. Running the district's public schools is only one of the board's responsibilities. We also are responsible for providing bussing to the dozens of private schools in the district, providing Title I, Title II, and Title III remedial education services to private school students, purchasing and loaning over 84,0000 textbooks per year for private school students, and for identifying, assessing, and providing appropriate special education services to disabled students from the private school communities. In a district like ours, where more than two-thirds of the students attend private schools, the parents of private school students — who support the system with their tax dollars — have just as much interest in maintaining a fiscally sound, efficiently operated public school system as the parents of children who attend public schools. It is wrong, and undemocratic to argue otherwise.
Frankly, the reason the Orthodox and chasidic communities became engaged in school politics in the first place is that children in the private schools were being denied services to which they were entitled. The then-existing political establishment was happy to tax our growing communities, so long as we didn’t assert our children's rights or challenge their political dominance. But that time is over, and it will not return. Rabbi Hart and those who resent Orthodox and chasidic Jewish participation in democratic politics will just have to get used to
that new reality. And if they want to change things, their remedy, as always, lies at the ballot box, and not by hurling insults and making false accusations.
No one likes to be accused of stealing from children. And we will continue to defend ourselves against such hateful accusations. But I would very much like to lower the temperature in the district, and welcome those who care about all students in our community and who are interested in fostering a more respectful discourse. Unfortunately, I do not believe that Rabbi Hart’s opinion piece from last week is a step in that direction.
Yehuda Weissmandl is president of the East Ramapo Central School District.