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‘This American Life’ Vs. Tablet On East Ramapo Schools Row

‘This American Life’ Vs. Tablet On East Ramapo Schools Row

Is a chasidic board gutting the public schools? How two investigations came to different conclusions.

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.

The conflict-ridden East Ramapo school board has had plenty of news coverage since chasidic Jews gained a majority and began slashing the budget. Public school parents accuse the board of gutting the district of property, personnel and programs in order to keep taxes low. The board, whose members send their children to private yeshivas, counters that reductions are due to cuts in state funding and that any board — chasidic or not — would be doing the same.

But no media outlet has sifted carefully through the budget numbers to see who is right.

Until now.

Last week two media outlets, one with an audience of about 3 million, published in-depth stories — which came to opposite conclusions. And while neither report is likely to sway those involved in the controversy, they bring to a national audience nuanced analyses of a debate fueled by an explosive mix of race, religion and public school education.

The reporters from both outlets — the public radio program “This American Life” and the online Jewish magazine Tablet — made repeated trips to the suburban community 25 miles north of New York City. Both examined multiple years of tax rolls and budgets and talked to people on both sides. But in the end, Tablet reporter Batya Ungar-Sargon agreed with the board that it was being unfairly blamed for cuts made inevitable by plummeting state and federal aid, cuts that were happening in lots of school districts, while reporter Ben Calhoun of “This American Life” contended that this argument was simply “not supported by the facts.”

Both reporters spent time on the story — Calhoun just over a year and Ungar-Sargon several months over the past spring and summer. So why the different conclusions? That seems to have come from differing approaches to analyzing the budgets and in their access to the chasidic community.

Both reporters pinpointed 2011 as a pivotal date. That was the year New York State imposed a tax cap preventing school districts from raising property by more than 2 percent. To exceed that cap, a school board would have to get approval from 60 percent of the voters. But the “This American Life” piece focused on the period before the cap, while Tablet looked at the period after.

Both approaches make a certain degree of sense. For “This American Life,” Calhoun compared budgets from all the school districts in Rockland County between 2006 (before the chasidic majority on the school board) and when the tax cap was imposed in 2011. He concluded that faced with the same state funding cuts and economy, East Ramapo’s solution was radically different from the rest of the Rockland Country school district.

“During the five years that East Ramapo was making its biggest cuts,” he narrated in the story, “all of the normal neighboring school districts raised their property taxes by an average of more than 25 percent just to get by. During the same five years in East Ramapo, the chasidic-controlled board raised taxes by just 9 percent.”

In Tablet, Ungar-Sargon took a different approach, looking at the time after the tax cap to see is any school district tried to exceed the cap by getting 60 percent of the voters, called a supermajority, to give the OK. She found they didn’t.

“All of these districts could have raised taxes more than 2 percent with a super-majority vote — the state tax cap allows for that exception — but none of them did,” she wrote. “All of them made drastic financial decisions, and none decided to solve their problems with an unusually large tax hike. Not one of 53 school districts in Rockland, Westchester, or Putnam Counties voted to raise taxes above the tax cap.”

So while Calhoun found that the other districts hiked taxes 25 percent in the five years before the cap, Ungar-Sargon found that they failed to continue raising them after the cap was imposed.

The other major divergence in the reports was in terms of access. Both reporters had ample conversations with public school activists, but while Calhoun made repeated attempts — by e-mail, phone and in person — to talk to board members and regular members of the chasidic community, he was only able to speak to a few. The story included a former board member, but no one currently on the board. Ungar-Sargon was able to gain much better access that included extensive interviews with current board members.

Asked about the differing stories, both writers defended their reporting and questioned the other’s credibility.

Ungar-Sargon focused on the fact that the majority of the people quoted in Calhoun’s piece were public school activists.

“I found the board and the chasidic and Orthodox communities of East Ramapo completely open and willing to discuss the district, and was surprised and dismayed that the segment on ‘This American Life’ felt the need to consult neither before reporting on such a contentious issue,” she wrote via e-mail. “Imagine a story about the Middle East that consulted only Palestinians, or only Israelis, and purported to have portrayed a complete assessment of the situation. I hope we would have difficulty taking seriously such a claim.”

Calhoun said in a telephone interview that Ungar-Sargon’s statement just wasn’t true.

“I’m surprised by the fundamental factual inaccuracy at the heart of what she’s saying. I made really thorough efforts to reach out to the people from the chasidic and Orthodox communities and some of them are in the radio story itself, and so her comment makes me wonder if she’s actually heard the piece,” he said, adding that he asked board president Yehudah Weissmandl for an interview multiple times: twice in person after board meetings as well as by e-mail and over the phone. (Board president Yehudah Weissmandl said in an e-mail from abroad that he did call Calhoun back; he said he would not comment on either report before he returned.)

In terms of budget analysis, Calhoun wrote in a follow-up e-mail that he chose the period before the tax cap because it’s “the last period when the East Ramapo school board had the full freedom to express its will when it comes to property taxes and spending.”

“These years start with an Orthodox majority, and transitioned to a hasidic-controlled majority. And during those years, when you compare the ERCSD [East Ramapo Central School District] to the districts around it, East Ramapo is an utter outlier. … For the Tablet piece to not contend with how different East Ramapo is on this front seems a huge oversight for any reporter hoping to make a credible argument,” he wrote.

As expected, Ramapo Schools Superintendent Joel Klein (who is not related to New York City’s former schools chancellor by the same name) praised the Tablet story, writing via e-mail that it was “very well researched and fair.” He declined to comment on the “This American Life” story.

And as expected, activists favored the “This American Life” story.

“I’ve never seen anyone be so thorough,” said activist Steve White, who appeared in both stories. “When I say he spent a year, he really spent a year. And not just the producer … I kept getting calls from the fact checker.”

Public school activists such as White hope that the “This American Life” story, broadcast on some 500 NPR stations across the country, combined with increasing backing from civic groups, such as the newly formed Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, a coalition of Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy that was instrumental in lobbying for the fiscal monitor, will finally lead to the level of state intervention he and his coalition have been fighting for.

“For six years we’ve been contacting state officials," he said, "but they don’t want to touch a hot-button issue like this. … But when folks from Manhattan to Buffalo to Los Angeles know that the state of New York is not doing anything about it, maybe things will change.”

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