The article quoted State Education Commissioner John King as saying the move was necessary “to ensure the district is able to provide an appropriate educational program while properly managing state and federal aid.”
Many see the move in a very different light. They view it as capitulating to the demands of community activists who have accused the East Ramapo School Board – comprised of a majority of Orthodox and Hasidic members – of “starving public schools of funding while stealing state and federal aid for Rockland County’s yeshivos.”
The county has seven other school districts, critics note, several of which are plagued with financial scandals, allegations of school staff altering student test scores and other glaring problems. Despite these ills, “no one has sounded a call for oversight and intervention in any of these districts,” a member of East Ramapo’s School Board told Yated.
Why then has East Ramapo been singled out?
At its core, local Rockland County papers and community activists make very clear, the targeting of the East Ramapo School District comes from religious and ethnic prejudice. Dozens of articles and op-eds contend that a Jewish and Chasidic-majority school board presiding over a school district of predominantly black and Hispanic families is patently wrong and unethical. This is despite the fact that all school board members are democratically elected.
But community activistsare unhappy and indignant about the results of those elections. They say the majority constituency of the school population demands more representation on the school board. They accuse the Board’s members of being indifferent to the needs of the children they were elected to serve.
“These critics and political opponents of the Board – including several candidates for the Board who couldn’t get elected – have seized upon the District’s financial difficulties as ‘evidence’ of incompetence, malfeasance, and even fraud by the elected members of the Board,” a letter from School Board president Yehuda Weissmandl to Commissioner King stated.
These allegations – without a shred of evidence to support them – have been blown up by the press. They’ve been the subject of intense lobbying of state representatives and Governor Cuomo. The unrelenting pressure of these libels have poisoned the atmosphere and led to the appointment of a Fiscal Monitor, Weissmandl wrote.
The letter minced no words in laying bare the unreasonableness and bigotry behind holding the Board’s actions suspect “merely because a majority of our members are elected from the District’s Orthodox and Hasidic communities.”
“Assuming – based upon our religion alone – that we have stolen from the very children we have been elected to serve is nothing but hateful bigotry. By acceding to the demands of bigots, you lend official sanction to their prejudice. This is shameful and profoundly offensive,” the letter to Commissioner King said.
LOCAL PAPERS FUELING TENSIONS
Others point to bigotry in local papers hiding behind a call for social cohesion, as driving the call for government intervention in East Ramapo’s fiscal affairs. The following slur is illustrative:
“Overdevelopment, illegal conversion of single-family homes into multifamily homes have created slum conditions, and the lopsided Orthodox/Hasidic influence on the East Ramapo school board has led to increased social segregation,” the Lower Hudson website powered by the Journal News charged.
“These board members don’t send their own children to our schools,” one public school parent complained in another local paper. “Why should we trust them to care about our public schools when their own children go to private schools?
But school board members reject claims that a predominantly Jewish school board can’t represent public school interests.
“Men can legislate for women, women can legislate for men, white people can legislate for black people and black people can legislate for white people,” a former school board president said. He said in large measure the board’s makeup is due to the drastically changing demographics in Rockland County as well as the power of democracy.
The East Ramapo neighborhoods of this county have been transformed in the past two decades. They’ve filled up with tens of thousands of Jews relocating from Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Brooklyn.
The new residents quickly forged themselves into a high-functioning social and political entity in neighborhoods like East Ramapo. They built a network of yeshivos and new housing and took advantage of the blessings of democracy to win a strong political voice.
Though not a majority of the population by far, they have organized to vote down school budgets that hike up taxes. They’ve elected members of their own communities to the school board.
By contrast, “the public-school community is less organized; many of its members are believed to be non-citizens who don’t vote,” the Huffington Post wrote. “And the area’s older residents have also tended to vote against school budget increases.”
STATE FUNDING ABYSMALLY LOW
With the district so deeply in the red, the board has been forced to cut non-mandated and extra-curricular programs in public schools, angering parents who believe the libel that public school resources are being diverted to the yeshiva community.
School board members argue that the district is officially one of the poorest in the state and receives so little government funding, it can’t support more than the minimum services, and has been forced to cut art and music classes as well as other non-mandated services.
“Because of the financial strain caused by the funding reductions, and ever-mounting mandated services resulting from our demographic reality, our Board was forced to make substantial cuts to non-mandated programs in order to balance its budget,” Weissmandl reminded Commissioner King in his letter.
“This should come as no surprise to you,” he added, citing a 2012 Education Department order to the East Ramapo school board to “take dramatic actions to reduce the budget deficit” while keeping the academic programs intact.
“This is precisely what we have done, with the full knowledge and assent of your education Department,” the Weissmandel letter said.
“While we strongly disagree with your decision, we respect your authority and will cooperate fully with the Fiscal Monitor, the school board president concluded, noting that the monitor appointed by the Commissioner could serve only in an advisory capacity, since by law, he has no power to override the Board’s decisions.
THE REAL CULPRIT: OUTDATED STATE AID FORMULA
Experts say the real culprit behind East Ramapo’s woes is an outdated state aid formula in urgent need of change.
The district has about 9,000 public school children and an estimated 20,000 to 22,000 in private schools, almost all of them Jewish. That means only one third of the district’s children receive a public school education.
With state educational funding corresponding to the number of children in public school, the monies allocated to the district are abysmally low.
That “inaccurate NY State funding formula” is key to understanding why the East Ramapo Central School District is so underfunded, Rockland County legislator Ahron Wieder told Yated in a phone interview.
This formula continues to undermine public school education, causing intercommunity tension and strife, he said. Wieder, the majority leader of the state legislature, has written to the State Education Department and to the governor’s office, advocating for the state aid formula to be changed.
Although he’s received no answer from Governor Cuomo, the deputy commissioner of the State Education Department in a written response did acknowledge “the formula is troubling,” Wieder told Yated.
A current petition to change the state aid formula has garnered thousands of signatures.
“As a result of our unique public/nonpublic student ratio, the State aid formula is not equitable for East Ramapo,” the petition states. “The formula is faulty in that it does not take into account East Ramapo’s 23,000 nonpublic school students for whom the District must provide numerous mandated services, such as transportation, textbooks, computer hardware and software, and special education services.
“We are appealing to our legislators and Governor to enact legislation to change the formula to include our nonpublic school students in our student count so that East Ramapo gets its fair share of State aid,” the petition states.
“More funding from the state in correct proportion to the numbers” is the only solution to East Ramapo School District’s problems, Wieder said, adding that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the newly appointed fiscal monitor will contribute to that understanding and “bring relief to both public and private school students.”