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‘This Is A Jewish Cause’

‘This Is A Jewish Cause’

Growing number of Jewish groups back East Ramapo oversight bill; board says funding, not supervision, is needed

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 bill to install a state monitor to oversee the charedi-majority school board in upstate East Ramapo is gaining increasing support among Jewish groups.

The bill, #A5355, gives the monitor the power to override school board and superintendent decisions. The bill follows the recommendation of state-appointed investigator Hank Greenberg, who found that the East Ramapo Central School District favored yeshivas and would benefit from a state-appointed monitor.

The district, located roughly 30 miles north of New York City in Rockland County, includes the black-hat and chasidic enclaves of Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square. The student population includes about 8,500 public school students, the majority of them black and Latino, and some 24,000 yeshiva students. Since 2005, when charedi members gained a majority on the board, the district has made severe cuts, including reducing kindergarten from full- to half-day, slashing more than 400 staff positions and cutting about half of the district’s extracurricular activities. Some of the cuts were restored this year, but most remain.

In his Nov. 17 report recommending a monitor, Greenberg also faulted the board with systematically violating state open meeting laws by holding the majority of its meetings in closed-door executive session, making derogatory statements about public school students, paying “excessive” legal fees and allowing its attorney to “berate parents in an unspeakable way.”

The Orthodox social action group Uri L’Tzedek has long supported the appointment of a state monitor for the district, and recently an increasing number of Jewish organizations have followed suit. The most recent is the Anti-Defamation League, which released a statement last week calling installation of a state monitor “a necessary first step” towards restoring “public confidence in the district” and reducing “tension between members of the community.”

At a news conference last Thursday in front of the West Side Jewish Center in Midtown Manhattan, Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, said the bill was “balanced” — and sorely needed.

“There are all sorts of valid criticisms one can make any time that one supersedes the democratic institution,” Stern said. “In this case the democratic institution is broken. It needs to be fixed. Fixing it is not anti-Semitism even if it happens that the group being limited is Jewish.”

Representatives from the New York ACLU and the New York NAACP also attended the news conference.

Former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger called the bill “the most narrow, but appropriate, remedy that legislators can possibly come up with.”

Noting that she was speaking as an individual and not as president of the American Jewish World Service, which doesn’t take stands on domestic issues, Messinger said the bill was long overdue.

“There have been ongoing problems in East Ramapo for a long time,” Messinger said. “And the remedy is simply to put someone in charge of the district to be sure that fairness and equity are again the guidelines for distribution of scarce public dollars.”

Yehudah Weissmandl, president of East Ramapo’s school board, said the problem comes down to a lack of funding, not how it’s distributed. He said the board would accept oversight only if it comes with an increase in public dollars.

“The school board has been pushing for months at all levels of the government to come up with a compromise that will bring oversight and funding to the district,” he said. “It’ll put money in the district, it’ll put programs back, and it will provide oversight to put people at ease that the money is actually going where it is supposed to go.”

Oversight without an increase in funding will only increase tensions in the community, he said, noting that roughly 6,000 area residents have signed a petition opposing the bill.

“This community needs some calm,” he said. “That will not be accomplished by instituting a controversial piece of legislation that will upset an entire segment of the community.”

It is unclear whether the bill will pass before the legislative session ends on June 17. Assembly speaker Carl E. Heastie has not said how he will vote on the bill, but John Flanagan, majority leader of the Republican-controlled Senate, said he’s concerned the bill would set a precedent for state interference in school districts.

Both sides have been lobbying heavily in Albany.

“It’s not going to be an easy pass, but we’ll be up in Albany again next week and we’ve got hundreds of people calling each day,” said Oscar Cohen, education committee chairman of the Spring Valley NAACP. “It’s not going to be an easy road ahead, but it’s the right thing to do and people know it’s the right thing to do.”

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood, has been a vocal critic of the bill, calling it “extreme.”

“The issue that’s raised that kids in public schools are being deprived of certain educational benefits —it’s just not true,” he said. “They may be deprived of certain extracurricular benefits, but in terms of what they need to succeed in America, to succeed in New York, they’re getting it.”

Assemblyman Walter Mosley, who represents Fort Greene and parts of Crown Heights, recently withdrew support for the bill, saying it had “overtones of anti-Semitism.”

Hikind said the bill itself is not anti-Semitic; he said Rockland County has a broader problem of resentment against the recent influx of Orthodox Jews.

“The community really feels under attack, to be singled out for a monitor,” he said, adding, “I think people who are living there have a problem with Jews who look like the Jews from my community … with beards, who dress differently. … They don’t want these types of Jews in their community.”

Last week, the ADL expressed concern over a campaign video supporting Rockland County sheriff candidate Richard Vasquez that shows the current sheriff surrounded by charedi Jews while the narration claims the sheriff “has refused to enforce illegal housing laws.”

But supporters of the oversight bill say linking it with anti-Semitism is unfair.

Ari Hart, Uri L’Tzedek’s co-founder, said during the news conference that calling the bill anti-Semitic is “both ludicrous and offensive.” Ludicrous, he said, because thousands of Jews support the bill, which was written by Jewish Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, and offensive because it questions his motives and ascribes “a very dangerous and harmful term to the good and holy work being done by legislators to provide protection and oversight for a district that sorely needs it.”

“By being here and expressing our strong support for this, we are expressing our authentic Torah values.” He said. “This is a Jewish cause.” A number of other Jewish groups have gotten behind the bill including the Rockland Board of Rabbis, Bend the Arc, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, the Jewish Labor Committee, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The bill, which was approved by the Assembly Education Committee last week, would install the monitor for at least five years. The monitor’s duties would include submitting a five-year strategic plan for the district, attending all board meetings and executive sessions, submitting annual reports and updates to the commissioner of education and supervising the district’s fiscal and operational management. New City Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski introduced the bill along with Jaffee.

The Education Committee’s passage of the bill comes the same week as The New York Times published and op-ed supporting the bill written by Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. Citing the Greenberg report, Tisch and Sciarra wrote in the June 3 op-ed that East Ramapo public school students “are being denied their state constitutional right to a sound basic education by a board that has grossly mismanaged the district’s finances and educational programs.”

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