President of East Ramapo School Board Lays Out Case for Referendum

Residents of the district that encompasses the Torah citadels of Monsey and New Square will be deciding next Tuesday, May 21, whether to vote to approve a school budget that largely benefits the area’s tiny public school community.

The president of the East Ramapo School Board is legally not allowed to push voters either way. But he lays out a case for the budget his committee crafted that will benefit the district’s overwhelming majority of parents who send to private schools, mostly yeshivos. In an interview with the Yated, Harry Grossman said there’s enough in the $241 million budget to like.

Your full name is Harry Grossman?

Harry Grossman, that’s my name. Not Harold. No middle name. I’m named after my grandfather a”h who was called Harry. My Hebrew name is Tzvi Hirsh.

What are your personal feelings about the budget, particularly since last year’s budget was voted down twice? The budget saves money by cutting some services to public schools, while adding some days of free busing for yeshiva parents.

There are multiple constituencies that I represent. You have the public school student, you have the private school student, you have the parent and you have the taxpayer. Sometimes you have overlap, while sometimes a person might fall into one category and not another category.

Now, firstly, under state law, to be under the 2 percent tax cap, we could have gone up to 3.99 percent increase in taxes and still been under the 2 percent cap. I know that sounds crazy, but state law allows certain taxes to be excluded.

We didn’t do that. We went 2 percent flat—a real 2 percent.

Secondly, the tax levy—the percentage we’re talking about—isn’t individual, personal taxes. Rather, it’s the tax levy, in total, that the district is allowed to collect. We’re not allowed to go above 2 percent.

The exact impact on individual homeowners probably won’t be known until August. Our expectation, based on the assessment and other things that come into play, is that it would end up being $2.39 more per $1,000 assessed. So for a home assessed at, say, $60,000—that’s the assessed value, not market value—it would be a $147 increase.

We are not cutting services to the public schools. But we discovered efficiencies in transportation that we believe will yield savings of almost $5 million and net us almost $4 million, after expenses.

Just to put this in context: the average tax bill of a homeowner in Rockland County is about $14,000?

That’s the entire property tax bill, including county and municipal taxes. School taxes is about half of that.

So you’re talking about a $147 increase to a $7,000 tax bill. A tad above a 2 percent increase.

That’s correct.

Now, if we were to have a contingency budget—if the budget is voted down—that would mean a zero percent increase. But if a person went back and compared their 2017 taxes and their 2018 taxes—and in 2018 we had a contingency budget—they might find that in the Town of Ramapo, their tax bill went up. Even under contingency budgets, taxes could go up. That’s because taxes are calculated by the assessment people in the three towns that incorporate into East Ramapo—Clarkstown, Ramapo and Haverstraw.

Do tax bills go up automatically, or is this just tax collectors finding ways to raise taxes when voters vote down the budget?

No, the assessment doesn’t go up automatically; it’s the way the distribution of the tax burden works. But that’s a much longer conversation, beyond the scope of this discussion.

Suffice it to say, for example, that this past year—I live in the town of Ramapo—my tax bill went up almost $80. And that’s with a zero percent increase.

So, the question is, if you think your taxes is going to go down, or going to stay level—that’s not the way the system works. What you should be looking at is, “How can I get the most bang for my buck?” If you’re paying taxes, get services for it. Let’s say I pay $6,000 in taxes but receive $2,000 in services. Would it be better to continue this for another year or pay $6,150 in taxes and get $3,000 in services?  I think most people, when they know the facts, would choose the latter.

You said that even with a zero percent increase, your taxes went up. So if the budget passes, will taxes also go up, aside for the $147 increase?

That $147, you won’t know how much that will be until August, when the tax assessors complete their work.

That being said, we expect that it will be around $147. But I can’t promise you that. It could be $155. It could be $140. I can’t answer that because I don’t have all the data that the assessors have.

But the question is, you know your taxes may be going up. Can you get more services for what you’re paying to make it more worthwhile?

We tried to do three things. We tried to increase the services being provided for all the children in the district, public and nonpublic; we tried to keep the tax increase minimal—which is 2 percent, when we could have gone up to nearly 4 percent; and we tried to balance the needs of all the children, parents and taxpayers.

For example, in previous years, public schools got 178 days of busing every year, but nonpublic schools—depending on the school and their schedules—have been getting as little as 164 days of busing. Which means that on the days that they’re not getting busing, parents are driving.

The dreaded carpool.

Right. It’s carpool craziness. You could have kids in six different schools—one in high school, one in a boys’ elementary school, one in girls’ elementary, and one in playgroup.

And in Monsey, it’s much more difficult to get around.

Correct. You’re driving around all over the place, and the roads are absolutely insane. By the way, it’s amazing that there aren’t more kids injured, quite frankly. It’s chasdei Hashem.

So what we were able to do in this budget is give every single child in the district, regardless of whether they go to private or public school, 178 days of busing.

In other words, you’re offering parity with the public schools. Does this cover every single day that the yeshivos have classes?

No. It’s not going to cover federal holidays, when we’re not allowed to bus. It’s not going to cover Sundays. And then there are some schools that have longer years—they might start in the middle of August and run through July. But it will be worked out with each school that every child will have 178 days of busing. That includes the last week of December, and Presidents’ Week. I expect schools will want those days. It does not include Presidents’ Day, because that’s a federal holiday.

At the same time, we identified significant efficiencies in the transportation department which enabled us to do some of this. Plus, we’re adding to the public schools. We’re adding bilingual teachers and guidance counselors.

There is a degree of animosity by some private school parents. They’re paying some of the highest taxes in the nation, and a good part of it goes to 8,000 public school kids, many of whom don’t speak English and need bilingual teachers. Many come from countries with poor educational opportunities and are therefore under-schooled. The amount of money needed to educate them is much larger than the average public school student.

There’s a lot of truth to that. Educating students that are ELL, English language learners, as well as students who live in poverty, does cost more money. That’s a true statement.

But the crux of the problem that the district has is that it’s not funded properly by the state, because of the funding formula. And that, hopefully, is something that the state will wake up and will fix one day. Right now, we can only work with what we have.

What I will tell you for certain is, regardless of whether a child is Jewish or non-Jewish, public or nonpublic, it’s in everybody’s best interest that that child be educated. An educated and occupied child will become a productive member of the community and won’t turn to mischief or crime. Nobody wants a criminal element in their community. Even for the nonpublic school community, you want an educated public school community.

I assume your budget includes the $3 million chipped in by the state these past few years.

Yes.

How much would the state have to give if the formula would be recalibrated to take into account the uniqueness of the East Ramapo district?

My understanding is that if it were calculated properly, we would be talking somewhere between $10 to $20 million a year. I haven’t seen the calculations, so I won’t put my name on it. But those are the numbers I heard.

I want to mention one more thing. We are putting in GPS devices on all buses where it would be appropriate to do so. And we’ll be providing the parents an app or a website where the parent will be able to locate their child’s—and only their child’s—bus.

For example, if you’re running late in the morning, did the bus already pass my child’s stop, or can you still get them to stop? Or, in the afternoon, where’s your child? Parents do not have to call the bus company. They will now be able to locate their child themselves.

It’s about a year since you became president of the school board. Overall, how long have you been on the school board for?

About three years.

So you came in just when the state started giving extra money and things were settling down from the crisis days. You weren’t there during the years when you had the protests and the anti-Semitism and the hate.

I was there at the tail end of the protests and the hate. And I’d like to think that I helped contribute to calming things down. The main thing is that we’re working collaboratively. Everyone has the same goal—educating our children. We don’t want to pay high taxes. We’re all on the same page. The question is how do we get from point A to point B.

What are you hearing from public school parents and advocates over the past year, since the budget was voted down?

I think they would agree that the district has been moving forward, and that things have been improving. The biggest issue is why there’s still distrust—I’ll say on both sides of the equation. I’m working on building bridges and building trust. It’s a process. And we’ll continue the process.

Are the public school advocates reaching out to the private school community? Are they trying to convince them personally why a greater investment in the public schools is necessary? Why it should be worthwhile?

Unfortunately, there is too little dialogue between the two communities. And that is why I’ve been working on trying to bring them together. We need to be more proactive and build bridges. We all love our children.

Did you grow up in East Ramapo?

I did not. I grew up in eastern Queens, right near the Nassau County border. It was called Floral Park or Glen Oaks.

Which schools did you attend?

I started off in public school, in PS 115. I then went to North Shore Hebrew Academy, and attended Yeshiva High School of Queens and New York University for my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

So you understand both sides of the coin here.

I’ve got a foot in both worlds. That’s why I felt I was able to contribute to bridging the gap.

What was one of your most memorable incidents that happened as president of the board?

There was one person who was a virulent enemy of the nonpublic school community. Really virulent, on social media, etc. At one particular board meeting, I got in a bit early and saw him there. I went over to him, shook his hand, and warmly wished him a good afternoon.

He couldn’t believe that I would shake his hand—he told me afterwards: “We’re now friends.” I was, like, well, why wouldn’t I? There are things we could disagree on, but it doesn’t mean we hate each other. I may yell at my kids; that doesn’t mean I hate them. We could have differences of opinion.

We’ve become friends. And he’s actually become a supporter of the nonpublic school community.

He went from virulent hater to supporter?

You have to treat people with respect. That ends up being the main problem: when people feel they’re not being respected, they’re not being heard. It happens in any relationship, whether with a spouse, children, or friends. When people feel that they’re not being listened to, you end up in a fight. But when people feel like you heard them, you could move forward together.

That’s what I’m attempting to do.

Did you ever have a low point, a feeling that this is getting out of hand?

I am the eternal optimist. And I adhere to the klal that hakol biyedei Shomayim, everything is in Hashem’s hands. I try to make decisions and do things all for the right reasons.

Before joining the board, I asked my rov, “Can I join the board?” Because I thought I could help. And the answer was, “Only if you make a kiddush Hashem.” And that’s what guides me. I want to make sure that whatever I do, I’m making a kiddush Hashem. That nobody should say, “Look at those Jews.”