Can a majority Orthodox school board, whose members send their children to yeshivas, be trusted to safeguard the interests of the public schools?
And in a district where yeshiva students greatly outnumber public school ones and the growing ultra-Orthodox community constitutes a highly disciplined voting bloc, to what extent should the school board consider the needs and concerns of non-public school students as it administers taxpayer dollars?
Those questions lie at the heart of an effort — spearheaded by 14 public school families — to remove five fervently Orthodox board members from Rockland County’s East Ramapo Central School District.
The East Ramapo district includes Spring Valley, Chestnut Ridge, New Hempstead and Monsey, serving approximately 8,000 public school students and approximately 18,000 private school students.
About 85 percent of the public school students are black or Hispanic; the great majority of the private school students attend yeshivas.
There are nine board members in total, seven of them Orthodox Jews. (The two not targeted for removal are more recent additions to the board.)
With the five board members at the heart of the dispute facing charges of serious misconduct over the past few years and the struggling public schools serving a poor, minority population, the case is unique in many ways.
However, it raises issues likely to emerge elsewhere as the fervently Orthodox community continues to grow and to flex its political muscle in other communities, as Jewish organizations increasingly mobilize to secure all legally available government funds for yeshivas and day schools — and as the recession and shrinking tax revenues continue to strain public school budgets.
In East Ramapo and other heavily Orthodox districts where the majority of residents have opted not to enroll in public schools, “you have a tremendous amount of tax money going to serve a minority [the public school students], and those who are contributing receive no benefit for their own children,” observed Rabbi Marty Schloss, director of government relations and general studies in the Day Schools and Yeshivot Department at the Jewish Education Project. “That sets up a scenario that requires Solomonic wisdom.”
In a petition submitted last month to the New York State Department of Education, the East Ramapo board members, including president Daniel Schwartz, are accused of a wide array of misconduct, including: selling public school property at below-market prices to Jewish schools, placing children in private special-education programs (at district expense) without first following state-mandated procedures, purchasing thousands of dollars worth of religious books to loan to Jewish schools and replacing the district’s local attorney with a twice-as-expensive Long Island attorney.
The petition, filed by a New York public-interest law firm on behalf of several public school families and parents groups, notes that these alleged misdeeds coincided with significant budget cuts to the public schools, such as terminating 25 percent of their teachers and eliminating full-day kindergarten.
The five board members “have not only blatantly crossed over the line” separating church and state, but “they have done it in a way which deprives thousands of children of their right to an adequate education,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz (no relation to Daniel Schwartz), president and lead attorney of Advocates for Justice, the firm petitioning for the members’ removal, in a press release announcing the petition.
The Orthodox members see the complaint as untrue and offensive.
The state commissioner of education is not expected to render a decision on the matter for several months, and a spokesperson for the department told The Jewish Week it would be “inappropriate” to comment at this time. However, this spring it withheld state funds from the district for continuing noncompliance, because the district was placing children in private special needs programs without demonstrating why they couldn’t be served in public ones.
Daniel Schwartz did not respond by press time to The Jewish Week’s phone messages.
However, according to The New York Times, he said the petitioners represented the views of “chronic complainers,” and that “any insinuation that Orthodox Jewish board members could not focus on the needs of non-Jewish children was offensive and anti-Semitic.”
For Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law who specializes in church-state issues, the case is fairly straightforward.
“New York State plainly establishes that a school board member has a fiduciary duty to the school as a whole,” she told The Jewish Week noting that by “school” she means “public school system.”
“It’s not an elected representative like the mayor or president; you don’t have general duties to the public, but a specific fiduciary duty to the school.”
She added that “the state has serious conflict-of-interest rules: you may not engage in self-dealings, and you may not favor another organization over the school’s interest.”
In addition to failing to act in the financial best interest of the school system, she said, the five East Ramapo school board members in question appear to have violated the separation of church and state.
But for many in the Jewish community a school board’s responsibilities to public schools versus private ones are more nuanced.
UJA-Federation of New York recently created a new staff position to oversee political advocacy for day schools, and both houses of New York State’s legislature passed a bill this spring making reimbursements for special-education services easier for parochial schools to secure.
Darcy Hirsh, the federation’s director of day school advocacy, was not available for comment.
The Jewish Education Project’s Rabbi Schloss noted that historically many school districts have been less than forthcoming in allocating legally available public funds for special education and transportation to parochial school students, often failing to notify their families of relevant services to which they were entitled.
“Frankly, for a long time, the non-public schools felt they were shortchanged, and with good reason,” he said. “The entitlements were not always meted out period, or if they were, they were done in a way that challenged good educational practice.”
In recent years, resentment on the part of yeshiva and day school families has escalated, particularly because local property taxes — the major source of public school funding — hit even low-income families who may not earn enough to pay income taxes.
The issue raises questions of “who does the community belong to, and who has the responsibility for providing a meaningful education within reasonable cost,” Rabbi Schloss said. “With our society now suffering from financial downturn, there needs to be accountability and reality across the board in education.”
One thing Rabbi Schloss does not believe, however — despite claims made by Daniel Schwartz and many of his defenders in the fervently Orthodox community — is that anti-Semitism is a major factor fueling opposition to the Orthodox school board members.
“I’d be foolish to deny that sometimes this dispute takes on additional pieces — that doesn’t make either side right,” said Rabbi Schloss. “The other side will claim [the Jewish board members are] anti-public school or anti-non-Jew. At the core of this is not anti-people as much as it is an aggressive representation of perceived needs. The public sector perceives its needs and feels this is what should be addressed; the majority of the community perceives its needs.”
In a column last spring, Jonathan Tobin, an editor of Commentary, the conservative monthly, defended the presence of a majority Orthodox school board in East Ramapo, noting, that “however unnatural this situation may seem to those who see public schools as not only essential to the welfare of the entire population but to the fabric of democracy itself, it must be acknowledged that the needs of most of the district’s students should not be a matter of indifference. Indeed, it is only logical that the public-education establishment should be operated on a scale that reflects the smaller number of students in government-run schools.”
One issue, however, is whether ultra-Orthodox Jewish men — many of whom were educated in schools with minimal secular studies offerings — are equipped to make decisions about non-religious schooling.
Naftuli Moster, who recently founded Yaffed, a six-month-old nonprofit pushing fervently Orthodox schools to devote more attention to secular studies, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview that while he has “no problem with ultra-Orthodox and chasidic individuals serving on the board of an education system they don’t use,” in this case “I am not sure of the board members’ qualifications.”