Tensions in a Rockland County public school district ratcheted up another notch last week after the state appointed a fiscal monitor to oversee a school board composed primarily of Orthodox Jews that manages a public school system where nearly all the students are black or Latino.
Education Commissioner John King said he took the rare step in East Ramapo because of a “history of and continued signs of fiscal distress” in the district. Two days later, the school board’s president, Yehuda Weissmandl, fired back, calling the move a “shameful and profoundly offensive” capitulation that legitimizes the “libelous accusations” of “bigots.”
“They assume — based upon our religion alone — that we have stolen from the very children we have been elected to serve. This is nothing but hateful bigotry. And no evidence of any such malfeasance by anyone associated with our Board has been produced,” he wrote.
Located 30 miles north of New York City, the East Ramapo Central School District includes the haredi enclaves of Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square. The nine-member board has seven fervently Orthodox members overseeing a district of about 20,000 yeshiva students and 9,000 public school students, about 90 percent of whom are from families of Caribbean and Latin America immigrants and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In recent years the school board has been accused repeatedly of misconduct and is currently under investigation for fiscal irregularities that include diverting public funds to private yeshivas.
In 2010, the board’s sale of a public school building to a yeshiva was annulled by the state for being millions of dollars under market value, and the appraiser was indicted.
In addition, the state Education Department has cited the school for paying for special needs students to go to yeshivas without demonstrating why they couldn’t be served in public schools, an accusation that the board steadfastly denies and is currently appealing.
The board has also been criticized for spending millions on legal fees to fight several lawsuits including one charging it with using taxpayer money to subsidize religious education in yeshivas.
In 2005, candidates from the growing haredi and Orthodox communities began winning seats on East Ramapo’s school board on a platform of bringing more district resources to yeshivas and of keeping taxes low by cutting wasteful spending. Since then, the board has slashed academic offerings, extracurricular programs and more than 400 staff positions. Between 2009 and 2012, elementary school class size has risen from an average of 20 to 25.
The reductions have not only stripped the extras from the school district, they have also made it difficult for students to fit the electives that remain into their schedules, said Steve White, a Spring Valley nutritionist whose son graduated from East Ramapo High School in 2012.
White’s son, for example, tested into AP English but couldn’t take it because it conflicted with the only open section of a health class he needed to graduate.
Anthony Luciano, a retired NYPD lieutenant who lives in Chestnut Ridge, also witnessed the cuts.
“Sports programs have been dropped, music in the elementary schools has been eliminated, guidance counselors, elementary assistant principals — every support system that a school system needs they have dropped,” said Luciano, whose son graduated in 2011.
“He took violin beginning in fourth grade. Music was introduced to him beginning in kindergarten,” said Luciano. “He was in gifted and talented, that’s been eliminated. He started playing baseball in middle school, that’s been eliminated, he played on the [now eliminated] freshman baseball team in high school.”
Weissmandl declined an interview, but staunchly defended the cuts in a Jewish Week Opinion piece last month.
“Our district has 9,000 public students, and more than 21,000 private students,” he wrote. “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.”
In his letter to Commissioner King he further argues that state officials not only knew about the cuts but ordered them, telling the board in December of 2012 to "take dramatic actions to reduce the budget deficit" while protecting its academic programs.
Oscar Cohen, education committee chairman of the Spring Valley NAACP, which is part of a coalition trying to restore services to the schools, says blaming the cuts entirely on a lack of state funding is misguided.
“The reductions and elimination of educational services in this district far exceeds other districts,” said Cohen, who is a former superintendent of the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City; he said that although a state-mandated limit on property tax increases has squeezed all school districts, that doesn’t explain the extent of the cuts in East Ramapo.
“Every district has experienced the 2 percent cap, but no district has come close to having those cuts,” he said.
Rabbi Ari Hart, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization that is part of a coalition of clergy pushing for state intervention, agreed, pointing out that if a lack of money was the only reason for the cuts, the board would have accepted a $3.5 million advance of state aid instead of rejecting it because it came with additional oversight.
“The state pledged $3.5 million designated to go towards programs that had been cut, but the board has refused to take the money. That is proof that this is not just about money, this is about oversight,” he said.
Activists have been lobbying the state to intervene in the district for years without success. In April, they tried a new tack, organizing the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, a coalition of about 90 Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy members, about a third of whom lobbied lawmakers in Albany on April 30.
Laura Barbieri, an attorney with the Advocates for Justice Legal Foundation, said she thinks the trip was a major factor in King’s decision because the coalition represented “a consensus of opinion of the clergy” that something needed to be done.
“I think the governor heard this message,” said Barbieri, who is representing a coalition of district residents in a lawsuit against the board.
Although the commissioner is appointed by the Board of Regents, which is independent of the governor, the fact that King chose for the post Hank Greenberg, who was counsel to Cuomo when he was attorney general, suggests that the governor may have had a hand in the decision.
White, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2008, agreed that the clergy's lobbying efforts might have made the difference, “That’s what made it clear that it was going to be more of a problem to do nothing than to do something.”
White called the appointment a positive “first step,” while Luciano, who ran twice for school board, losing in 2011 by a vote of 8,000 to 7,700, said he’s only “cautiously optimistic.”
“I realize that for the past four years [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo has ignored the pleas from parents, and I recognize it’s an election year he has greater aspirations,” Luciano said. He added that Cuomo’s suspension of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission makes him skeptical of the potential impact of the move.
“I want to take a ‘wait and see’ approach to see what the monitor can and can’t do,” he said.
In fact, the newly appointed monitor has only been given “advisory” powers.
But Barbieri said she thinks the appointment of Greenberg, in particular, shows that the is more than an attempt to relieve political pressure.
“From all that I’ve heard about Hank Greenberg, I believe that he is a solid lawyer,” she said. “I think the governor is sincerely trying to do something. He would have put somebody else, a do-nothing or political hack, if he wanted to just put window dressing on the situation.”
And Uri L’Tzedek’s Rabbi Hart said he thinks even a monitor with only advisory powers can have a real effect by bringing “openness and transparency,” to the workings of the board.
“I think this is an opportunity for everyone to turn a new page and to begin working collaboratively and openly with each other.”