East Ramapo School Board Fires Back Following Scathing Report
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East Ramapo School Board Fires Back Following Scathing Report

Board president Yehudah Weissmandl says there's 'another side to the story.'

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

Following a report recommending state oversight for the embattled East Ramapo Central School District, the board president fires back, arguing that the report made unfair characterizations and omitted relevant information.

In a Nov. 28 letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo aquired by The Jewish Week, East Ramapo board president Yehuda Weissmandl took umbrage at what he called “a series of sharp criticisms” and unfair characterizations and said there is “another side to the story.”

The letter responded to Hank Greenberg’s Nov. 17 report of his investigation of the school board. Greenberg began the investigation in June at the request of Commissioner John King following years of allegations of board misconduct.

Greenberg’s 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, paying “excessive” legal fees, allowing its attorney to “berate parents in an unspeakable way” and responding to criticisms by branding critics as anti-Semitic or bigoted. (See the full report.)

In his letter, 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.”

Correction, Dec. 8, 2014: 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. Exact quotes from Rosa's remarks and Greenberg's response to it were added to our larger story on the report and can be found here.

amyclark@jewishweek.org

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