Five Towns See Renewed Tensions Due To School Sale

Five Towns See Renewed Tensions Due To School Sale

Old divide between Orthodox-controlled school board, public school parents reopens; budget moves paint nuanced picture.

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.

A referendum on whether to sell a public school building in a Long Island town to a yeshiva is stirring up a decades-long conflict between the Orthodox families who send their children to private school and the non-Orthodox Jewish, black and Hispanic families who send their kids to public school.

The Board of the Lawrence Union Free School District has accepted an $8.5 million bid from The Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, or HALB, to buy the long-shuttered Number Six School, as long as voters approve the sale in a March 31 referendum.

Supporters of the sale say selling to HALB will preserve the 6.6-acre property’s sports fields and playgrounds for community use and, because the vast majority of HALB’s students live in the Lawrence district, the sale will save the district approximately $700,000 a year in busing and other fees paid to the Long Beach School District for the some 550 Lawrence kids who currently commute there. None of the board members currently have children at HALB, but two of them have kids who are alumni. The youngest in both cases graduated about a decade ago.

See Related: Orthodox Vs. Orthodox in East Ramapo School Fight

The Lawrence Union Free School District includes not only Lawrence but also Atlantic Beach, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Woodsburgh and parts of Woodmere and North Woodmere.

It's likely the referendum will pass: last year voters rejected a $12.5 million bid to put a medical facility on the site due to concerns about traffic and the loss of green space. Since then, there have only been a few bids on the property and area real estate brokers say it’s unlikely the district will get a higher bid than HALB’s.

However, whether or not the sale goes through, this latest conflict stirs up long-standing tensions. Over the past two decades, the district has become incresingly Orthodox as families moved east from Brooklyn and Queens, looking, like most city-to-suburb transplants, for more space, more trees and a slower pace.

Now, the district is well over half Orthodox and only about 3,100 of the district's 7,000 students go to public school. The majority go to one of the half-dozen yeshivas in the area. Currently, 71 percent of the district's public school students are minorities — 41 percent Hispanic, 23 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 29 percent white — and nearly half of the student body qualifes for free or reduced price lunch, according to state records.

Tensions began in earnest in 2001 when Orthodox residents began winning seats on the school board on a platform of reducing wasteful spending. For the next five years, district voters, the majority of whom were now Orthodox, failed to pass the school budget, instead requiring schools to operate on a "contingency budget" that increases no more than 3 percent per year.

In 2006 when yeshiva parents gained the majority of seats and voted to close Number Six School, despite the advice of the they hired to close School Number Four instead, which is designed for young children but has fewer amenities. They decided to close Number Six because it was the most expensive to maintain. In addition, the Woodmere school received the most damage during Hurricane Sandy and would have cost $6 million to rehabilitate, school officials said.

In taking control of the board, Lawrence’s Orthodox community is part of a trend of Orthodox private school parents running for public school boards, including in towns such as Lakewood, N.J., and East Ramapo, N.Y., both of which now have Orthodox majorities. But while the state has validated critiques of East Ramapo’s board, annulling the sale of an elementary school to a yeshiva after deeming the purchase price to be under market and investigating the sale of another public school, Orthodox board members in Lawrence say claims that their board is not acting in the best interest of the public schools do not hold up.

“We’re no Ramapo,” said Lawrence school trustee Murray Forman.

“The bottom line is I’ve been doing this now for close to a decade and every decision that this board has made that has risen to any controversy has been upheld,” he said.

The board has managed to keep taxes stable “through very prudent financial management,” he said. “We had a declining student enrollment so we consolidated buildings, which cut expenses and provided money for capital expenditures.

“We just managed this very well. I would posit to you that every other district on Long Island is looking to us and looking to catch up,” Forman added.

Indeed, financial records, a tour of the schools and interviews with more than two dozen board members, public school parents, teachers, administrators and real estate agents for the most part support Forman’s contention that the board does not appear to be trying to drain the schools of resources. However, it has created a great deal of resentment and mistrust among non-Orthodox residents.

According to area real estate agents, it’s not surprising that the price for Number Six School would drop after the community voted down the medical center’s bid.

“It’s probably more common than not,” said John Hoblin, senior managing director at Hunt Corporate Services, a Long Island-based firm that specializes in commercial real estate.

“Because of the extra land that usually comes with a school property, developers have an initial interest in it, but when a hearing is done [the developer’s plan] is rejected because of concerns of too dense of a population,” he said. “Then the school board needs to go back to the drawing board and say what would be an acceptable use, and often that use will come at a lower price because it won’t be as dense.”

As for the quality of the education, it appears to remain strong, according state and district financial records.

A comparison of the Lawrence Union Free School District’s budgets between 2005-6 before the board had an Orthodox majority and in 2011-12 after six years of private-school parent rule shows that there haven’t been major cuts in instruction or programs.

For example, in 2005-6, general education per pupil “instructional spending,” which excludes such district-wide expenses as special education, transportation and district administration, went up 27 percent, compared to the state average of 25 percent. Elementary school class size went down 9 percent, from an average of 21 students in 2005-6 to 19 students in 2011-12.

The percentage of students who graduate with a regent’s diploma jumped 11 percent (from 78 percent in 2005-6 to 89 percent in 2011-12) and eighth grade math scores also improved, with the percentage of students testing at or above grade level increasing from 56 percent in 2005-6 to 81 percent in 2011-12, according to New York State School District Report Cards (See more data in the photo gallery.)

During a recent visit to the district, this reporter found the schools to be pleasant, spacious and orderly. The students joked with each other as they walked through the wide, light-filled hallways of the middle school and the band and orchestra classes were in full swing.

All of the parents approached outside the Inwood elementary Number Two School said they were quite pleased with the school system, praising in particular the addition of an after school tutoring program and the clear concern showed by schools Superintendent Gary Schall for the needs of the district’s poor and minority students.

“When my kids were little, I remember when they came home with the homework, and I was not even able to help my kids. It was very, very frustrating for me,” said Sandra Orallana, who sent four children through the public schools and is president of the Spanish Association for the Five Towns Community Center.

“Now they have a very nice [tutoring] program. … Parents are so happy because kids come home at 5:30 with their homework finished.

“But the more important thing is that now we have someone we can talk to,” she said referring to Schall. “He really, really worries for the community. For the first time, in 20 years, we had somebody to come and ask, ‘What can I do for you?’”

Alongside the praise, however, there’s no shortage of criticism.

The board did make plenty of cuts. Between 2005-6 and 2011-12, language, summer and reading programs were cut. However new programs were added, such as additional plays and a robotics course.

The board recently switched the high school schedule from nine periods of 42 minutes to eight periods of 48 minutes, which cut out one of the teacher’s two prep periods and increased their time in the classroom by 48 minutes a day.

While schools Superintendent Gary Schall praised the change for shifting “$1.4 million in teacher time from planning to instruction,” Lori Skonberg, president of the Lawrence Teachers Association, said the shift has forced students to cut down on the number of electives they are taking because there are fewer periods in the day.

Blasia Baum, immediate past president and current treasurer of the district’s PTA, said that while she supported the shift to eight periods at the time, she now believes that the change has made Lawrence students’ college applications less competitive than students from the neighboring district of Hewlett-Woodmere.

“Hewlett has 10 periods,” said Baum, who sent all three of her daughters to the public schools. “Those kids, each year they can take so many more classes, and they can take so many more AP classes. It’s just so competitive here.”

The board also eliminated 20 positions last year, including a mixture of part-time and full-time teachers that was the equivalent of 9.2 full-time teachers, a social worker, two secretaries and eight facilities staff, which, Skonberg said, has caused the remaining secretaries to be overworked.

Skonberg has also criticized the elimination of several programs including gifted and talented, summer school, the Quest research program, language instruction in the elementary schools and a social worker.

Another frequent critique of the board is that it used only part of proceeds from the 2007 sale of another elementary school, Number One School, for capital improvements and used the rest to keep taxes from going up.

Of the $31 million the school received, $17 million were used for capital improvements, such as converting the high school athletic field to Astroturf, improving the theatrical lighting system in the high school auditorium and adding new science labs. The remaining $14 million went into a reserve fund “that enabled us to keep taxes low and at the same time enabled us to maintain programs,” said Schall in an e-mail, calling the move “fiscally responsible and ahead of the curve,” and something that other districts are also doing to maintain programs.

However, the “everyone is doing it” argument fails to convince Baum. “It sounds so wonderful that we’re going to save the money, but that money is not going to go to the kids, it’s just going to reduce the budget,” she said.

As to the question of whether the private school-parent board is harming the public schools, Baum says no, but that’s not enough.

“I think they’re doing their best to maintain the schools,” she said. “But all they’re doing is maintaining.”

And the Orthodox-controlled board has only increased tensions in an already divided community. After one school board meeting that Baum attended, one Orthodox man who was not on the board yelled, “Yes, we’re going to close your schools and we won’t stop until they’re all gone,” she said. Another resident who attended that meeting also remembers the incident.

In another episode that irked critics, the yearbook of a girl’s yeshiva ran a photo of the district's prized Lawrence Middle School, which was never considered for sale, with the caption, “Pardon us while we’re under construction,” Baum said.

It was a joke, she said, but it “enraged so many people.”

“It’s such a divided community,” she added. “It’s not a comfortable place to live here — so people are leaving the district, or switching their kids to private school.”

Editor's Note: Additional information was added to this story on March 31, 2014.

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