As state lawmakers craft a bill to address years of simmering tensions that have plagued the East Ramapo school district, the answer might well be found about 100 miles down the Garden State Parkway. There, in the growing black-hat enclave of Lakewood, the Orthodox-controlled school board was eventually forced, by the presence of a state monitor, to relinquish some of its power over the area’s public schools.
Over the last few years, the Orthodox-controlled school board in Ramapo has been hit with similar charges of abuse of power. So it’s no surprise that one of the recommendations in a recent report by the state monitor tasked with finding solutions to the mess in East Ramapo points to Lakewood as a possible model.
The scathing report — which charged the board with Orthodox favoritism and violating several state laws — is the most recent development in the ongoing battle in New York City’s suburbs over who will control local taxes, zoning, and, especially, local public schools.
Located 30 miles north of New York City, the East Ramapo Central School District includes the Orthodox and chasidic enclaves of Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square. In 2005, candidates began winning seats on the school board on a platform of bringing more district resources to yeshivas and of keeping taxes low by cutting spending.
Today, seven of the nine school board members are Orthodox and the school district has roughly 24,000 students who go to yeshivas and about 9,000 public school students, about 90 percent of whom come from Caribbean and Latino families and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
After years of school closures, program cuts and teacher layoffs, public school activists — including the Modern Orthodox social action group Uri L’Tzedek — succeeded in getting the state to intercede. In June, Education Commissioner John King appointed Hank Greenberg to investigate the situation and recommend a solution.
Greenberg’s Nov. 17 report charged the board with a litany of transgressions, including making “draconian spending cuts” to public schools while increasing programs for private school students, systematically violating state open meeting laws, making derogatory statements about public school students (such as that immigrant students want “a free lunch, breakfast and whatever else they can get”), paying “excessive” legal fees and allowing its attorney to “berate parents in an unspeakable way” (in one videotaped incident he shouted expletives at a parent and commented on her weight) and responding to criticisms by branding critics as anti-Semitic or bigoted. (See the full report.)
Greenberg’s recommendation: follow the path of Lakewood.
The Lakewood Model
While New Jersey has a rich history of installing state monitors to oversee errant school boards — nine districts currently have them — the only way for the state to intervene under New York law is to remove board members for illegal activity. In a videotaped discussion with the New York State Board of Regents following the report, Greenberg said that while he’s seen plenty of problems, there “doesn’t seem to be evidence of enough of the kind of illegality” needed to make use of that law. (And even if there were enough evidence, the law’s due process requirements would take too much time, he said.)
So instead he suggested lawmakers model a new law after New Jersey’s fiscal monitor system, which the state uses not only for school boards but also for foundering local governments, including, for example, Hoboken in 2008.
In New Jersey, fiscal monitors don’t only have veto power over board and superintendent decisions. They also fill a leadership role, attending all board meetings — including closed sessions — overseeing strategic planning and implementation and meeting with the board to “discuss past actions” that caused them to be assigned a monitor and providing education and training to set them on the right path.
The Rev. Glenn Wilson, who led a coalition advocating for state intervention in Lakewood, said that district’s fiscal monitor, Mike Azarra, is more like a company’s CEO than its auditor.
“He has the power to overturn any decision he doesn’t agree with and Mike Azzara has done that again and again,” he said.
Azzara’s appointment came in May following years of financial troubles that culminated in a $5 million budget deficit this year. Like East Ramapo, the vast majority of the town’s children, 24,500, go to yeshivas, leaving a public school roster of about 5,500.
Asked whether he would have preferred the state to disband the board — something East Ramapo public school advocates were hoping for — Rev. Wilson said of course he would, “but having a monitor could very well be a step toward replacing the school board.”
So far Lakewood’s school board has cooperated with the fiscal monitor, and East Rampo’s board president released a statement saying he plans to do the same.
A willingness to cooperate doesn’t mean the board agrees with Greenberg’s report. In a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo released Tuesday, East Ramapo board president Yehuda Weissmandl took umbrage at what it called “a series of sharp criticisms” and unfair characterizations and said there is “another side to the story.”
Weissmandl blamed the cuts on voters’ refusal to raise taxes, and said they needed to come from the public school budget because all of the boards’ spending on private schools were either state-mandated or, in the case of its universal busing policy, which doesn’t limit mileage and provides separate buses for boys and girls, is mandated by voter referendums.
The “excessive legal fees,” Weissmandl attributed to state lawsuits against the district. But he doesn’t address the controversial attorney, which, Greenberg notes, it subsequently rehired after promising it would find a new firm.
And as to the systematic violation of state Open Meeting laws, Weissmandl said the closed sessions were at the advice of the board’s attorney and concerned personnel and legal matters.
The letter does acknowledge issues with transparency and legal, writing that “there should be continuing discussion on both points.” Weissmandl also acknowledges that board members have made “antagonistic” and “insensitive comments” to members of the public.
However it does not address Greenberg’s finding that the district violated state and federal special education laws, for example, by placing special education students in private schools when appropriate placements were available in public programs, nor does he address the rehiring of the controversial lawyer.
And it refutes much of the report’s content and points made in the regents’ discussion that followed Greenberg’s presentation.
Weissmandl contests the report’s “broad conclusion” that the board’s cuts ultimately hurt public school students by saying that East Ramapo is a “high-needs, low-wealth district” that, when compared to similar districts, it “holds its own or better.”
He argues that the cry for a fiscal monitor is fueled by something other than need arguing that there are “numerous” districts where “fraud, gross negligence and other serious improprieties” have been found without a call for state oversight.
Weissmandl concludes, however, that, if it takes oversight to bring more state money to the district, the board is “not opposed to the concept” as long as it’s “reasonable and limited.”
Doesn’t Go Far Enough?
Although the board has agreed to work with a state monitor, most of the regents who listened to Greenberg's presentation said that the recommendation doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Regent Betty Rosa asked why, if the board has been found to have paid for textbooks with religious content with public money, that wouldn't be "considered an action that has undertones of criminal actions."
"How could these actions these actions take place and we assume that this is not being done with malice or corruption? Because that would be corruption in other places," she said.
(To which Greenberg replied that the textbook violations were pretty minor compared to other issues and that since the district is now "screening the books one by one" he is "fairly satisfied with respect to that specific issue." )
But Rosa’s comments were just the beginning of the regents’ response to the report.
“I’m not suggesting that we displace the democratic process and I certainly agree that if they [board members and public school advocates ] can all get on the same page that is the way to go. But I haven’t heard anything that gives me comfort that that’s going to happen,” said Regent Lester Young.
Regent Josephine Finn went further, saying that Greenberg’s classification of the board approving public funds for religious textbooks as a “mistake” was an attempt to downplay the board’s actions, which, she said were “outrageous” and showed a lack of respect for the public school community.
“The people who relegated my ancestors to those Jim Crow Schools … had no respect for the people,” she said. “And I smell that here and we need to do something about it.”
Public school activists were also disappointed by the report, which they had hoped would recommend a complete disbandment of the board. But still, they say a fiscal monitor is a step in the right direction.
“We had wished that it would be a state takeover,” said Oscar Cohen, education committee chairman of the Spring Valley NAACP, “but given that it was not a state takeover, this is a step in the right direction and our goal would be to try to make the legislation appointing a monitor as effective as it can possibly be.”
Then he turned philosophical. “Would we have liked more? Yes,” he said.
“You don’t get everything you want, but you get a lot more than you had,” he added. “And then you start working with it.”
Comparison With Lawrence
Anger at the report and the post-report discourse also came from three counties over, at the Lawrence Union Free School District on Long Island.
At the end of the video of the regents’ discussion, someone, who was off camera, said that installing a fiscal monitor will “send a signal” to “all the other districts that are moving in this direction.”
This comment was followed by a report in The Journal News that said that state education department officials said that if “the Legislature succeeds in passing laws specific to East Ramapo, it could be used as a 'template' for other districts in need … citing the Lawrence school district in Nassau County as one example.” (Department of Education officials confirmed the comment but declined to comment further on it.)
Members of Lawrence’s school board have long tried to distance themselves from East Ramapo and a Jewish Week investigation into spending cuts in the district found them to be nowhere near the scale of what’s happening in East Ramapo. While board members in Lawrence declined to comment on the comparison, other officials have spoken out.
Michael Fragin, a trustee of the Village of Lawrence (and a cousin of Jewish Week staff writer Stewart Ain), said via email that suggesting that Lawrence also needed state intervention was “outrageous” since Greenberg's investigation only covered East Ramapo, not Lawrence.
He said the only reason Lawrence was mentioned “is because it seems to be politically expedient in New York to attack the Orthodox community for being less than good citizens.”
Anger at the report is also bubbling in East Ramapo, where an ad in a charedi newspaper appearing two days after the report was released read “Elected officials in Albany are planning to take away your right to vote.”
These responses show that Greenberg’s sixth and final recommendation, that community leaders on both sides of the divide do their utmost to bridge the gap, is a tall order. And it will only get tougher as more Orthodox communities gain majorities in local governments — unless they put more effort into community relations.
“What we’re seeing is the need for a reorientation in how the chasidic community needs to deal with its politics,” said Ryan Karben, a Rockland County-based public affairs consultant and former assemblyman. “What you’re seeing in East Ramapo is that it’s no longer enough to become close to a particular congressperson or legislator — those relationships aren't valuable if you are totally alienated from the public at large.”
Corrections, Dec. 8, 2014: The number of private school students in the district was changed to 24,000 (from 20,000) to reflect the most current count. In addition, quotes from Weissmandl's letter referring to remarks made by Regent Betty Rosa were removed for two reasons: his comment that Rosa said the board should be "led away in handcuffs" exaggerated her statement and his comment that Rosa "repeated misinformed claims that the district is using textbook money for religious materials" was incorrect. The claims were not misinformed, the state comptroller has cited the district for this. Finally, exact quotes from Rosa's remarks and Greenberg's response to it were added.