It is often said that politics is a rough and tumble game. But once the silly season of politics is over, elected officials are supposed to get down to business and govern – peacefully and respectful of each other. There are many anti-bullying campaigns on television from the Anti-Defamation League and the New York governor’s office but state lawmakers and some education advocates didn’t seem to get the memo that bullying comes in many forms which can be harmful and hurtful to the victim.
Most readers are no doubt familiar with the controversy over whether the state education department should install an independent monitor to oversee and possibly overrule the elected members of the East Ramapo School District, which has a majority of Orthodox Jewish members who send their children to private schools. The sponsor of the measure, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern, Rockland County) says she has been harassed, insulted, characterized in a negative fashion, and humiliated by some of the Orthodox Jewish members she calls colleagues. She also says she was vilified on social media by members of the ultra-Orthodox community in her district.
Emotions often run high in debates about the death penalty, abortion, or rape. But in all my years covering state government, this is the first time I’ve seen such high-pitched emotions over an administrative bill.
The Brooklyn-born Jaffee, 71, was a public-school special education teacher who taught in the East Ramapo school district and sent her two children to the public schools there. So she appears to be invested in the community.
With tears in her eyes, Jaffee told The Jewish View, a television program taped in Albany, that she has been ostracized by her observant Jewish colleagues, Assemblymen Dov Hikind (D-Midwood, Brooklyn), Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side, Manhattan), David Weprin (D-Holliswood, Queens), Michael Simanowitz (D-Electchester, Queens), Phillip Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway, Queens). “They refused to have any conversation at all,” she said on the air.
The negative feelings went beyond Jewish lawmakers. They include non-Jewish lawmakers who represent Jewish constituencies.
“I tried to have a conversation with Assemblyman Walter Mosley (D-Crown Heights, Brooklyn) and he didn’t want to have a conversation with me,” Jaffee said. Mosley had removed his name as a prime sponsor of the bill. Instead, he sat out the vote and was recorded as excused.
“I actually said to Assemblyman Goldfeder, let me show you this letter so that I can show you that this is not about anti-Semitism, that is not what this is,” she recalled. “I showed him the letter from the various rabbis throughout Rockland County who wrote a letter in support of the legislation. He wouldn’t even look at the letter…. I was disappointed in that. I felt at least an honest conversation sharing [about] why you feel that way and why is this necessary, why you disagree with me in a personal way, would have been a much better approach.”
The measure calls for a five-year trial period with an appeals process through the state Education department, which appointed the overseer. The main stumbling block came over whether the non-elected overseer should have veto power over a duly elected board of education and whether that would set a dangerous precedent for other situations.
Jaffee didn’t see the issue of veto power as a big deal. “I actually thought that would be rare,” she said of a veto by the overseer. “I believe there would be the opportunity to work together, provide guidance and protection and maybe that would be an opportunity for the monitor to say, ‘they’re doing things quite appropriately, perhaps they just need more funds and they are moving forward in a manner that is appropriate and they are working with me.’ Why couldn’t we look at it that way instead of the other way? It’s what I’ve been suggesting all along.”
The president of the East Ramapo School Board, Yehuda Weissmandl, told The Jewish Press that his district, which is one-third public school and two-thirds religious school students, is being shortchanged by the state education formula to the tune of $40 million.
“Despite that, for the second year in a row we have been putting back programs, balanced our budget, and recreated a reserve fund to the tune of $2.5 million. Work with us to bring additional funding which will enable us to put back all the programs that were cut, all the extracurriculars and it will bring a lot of peace and calm to the community,” he said.
Weissmandl says there is no need for an overseer because they are getting their house in order and the monitor would exacerbate the problem without healing the wounds within the community. “The school boards’ official position is that we don’t feel this is something that’s going to solve this problem.”
When the vote was taken on Thursday, June 11, half the 22 Jewish lawmakers voted against the measure and 10 supported it with one being excused, Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove, Nassau County), president of the Jewish legislators association. The measure passed by four votes, 80 to 60, with 9 members being excused and one seat vacant. The Senate did not vote on the measure this year. Legislators will try to work out a compromise over the next six months.