Photo Credit: cityandstateny.com / Ali Garber
State Education Commissioner Dr. Betty Rosa

A measure signed into law late last month by Governor Andrew Cuomo reflects a long-running dispute over school funding in Ramapo, N.Y. The law removes power from the districts’s school board and gives state monitors the ability to override its decisions. The East Ramapo Central School District includes the greater Spring Valley and Monsey area.

The nine-member school board consists of a majority of Orthodox Jews, headed by Monsey resident Yehuda Weissmandl, whose term expires next year. Other Jewish board members include: Monsey residents Ephraim Weissmandl and Yossi Weiss; New Hempstead resident Harry Grossman; Chestnut Ridge resident Shimon Rose and Pomona resident Mark Berkowitz. There are three non-Jewish members on the board.

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The legislation is borne out of long battle between public-school advocates, who claim the district is failing its minority students, and the Jewish-majority nine-member school board, which also budgets for the district’s 30,000 private school students, most of whom attend yeshivas. Private school enrollment within the district outnumbers public school enrollment by around a three-to-one margin. Most of the district’s 9,000 public school students are Black or Latino.

The bill was sponsored by freshmen Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D – Nyack, Rockland County) and seven-term member Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D – Clarkstown, Rockland County).

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“We do set up a framework where the commissioner would have the ability to insert his or herself should there be a monitor disagreement,” said Zebrowski when questioned during the Assembly debate about the reduction of monitors from three to two oversight officers. “There are other provisions in this too where if the monitors find a violation of a strategic and academic improvement plan they can appeal to the commissioner themselves. Theoretically in a situation like that the commissioner can step in and sort of adjudicate the disagreement between the monitors.”

The head of the state education department supported the move.

“This legislation provides a needed and thoughtful step in the right direction for East Ramapo schools and, most importantly, for students,” wrote State Education Commissioner Dr. Betty Rosa in a prepared statement. “Despite years-long efforts by state monitors, the district continues to have significant governance and long-term fiscal issues. Increasing the powers for those monitors will help to bring equity in education for all students.”

Others, including Yossi Gestetner, consider the move to be a matter of bigotry against the presence of Jews on the school board and the district’s Jewish population. “You already had monitors on the ground, who had direct lines for five years to the Board of Education, the controller and whoever they wanted. Graduation rates for African-American students in the district are 85%, which is higher than the state average. East Ramapo doesn’t have one school that is listed as a failed school. The big issue is that the schools have a huge population of English-language learners, who historically have lower graduation rates,” Gestetner told The Jewish Press.

Meanwhile, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and NAACP Spring Valley president Willie Trotman spoke of “Jim Crow.”

“The East Ramapo school district is a nationally-acknowledged affront to fairness and equity in education,” said Lieberman. “The white majority that has controlled the school district for over a decade has brought Jim Crow into the 21st Century in New York. Black and Latinx public school students deserve a monitor who has more than a front row seat to over a decade of discrimination, mismanagement, and dismantling of a once premier school district….”

Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said that Lieberman should apologize for her remarks.

“While good faith discussion and disagreement is healthy in a democracy, it is never acceptable to descend into inflammatory language,” he said, “falsely accusing the school board – consisting primarily of Orthodox Jewish members – of Jim Crow-style racial animus is especially offensive, especially given the recent rise in antisemitic hate crimes.”

Agudah has long opposed this measure because “it overturns the will of the voters, giving the monitor power to thwart the decisions of a democratically elected school board,” the organization wrote in a prepared statement. “In addition, this will not solve the underlying issues in the East Ramapo school district, as it does not deal with the root causes of the funding inequities fomented by a flawed state formula. It is the hope of Agudath Israel that the divisive rhetoric will end and lawmakers will find a way to address the root of the problem and represent the will of all those in East Ramapo.”

While he supported the measure, freshman Assemblyman Michael Lawler (R-Pearl River, Rockland County) called for a more long-term solution to problems within the system.

“The monitor with veto power will not solve the problems in this district,” he said during the floor debate. “My fear is if we stay on the current trajectory not much will change. In fact, it may only get worse. It has to stop and we all must stop pitting one community against another. The simple truth is every child in this district, regardless of whether they attend a public school or a private school, regardless of their parents’ income, regardless of which community they live in, deserve a quality and fully-funded education.

“This year alone we (Rockland County schools) were shortchanged $11 million in state aid, which included more than $3 million to East Ramapo, because of a broken state school aid formula that does not treat our labor costs as they should. The wealth-to-poverty ratio has long been wrong because the formula does not count private school students in its calculations, thereby shortchanging the students and families once more.”

The measure passed the Assembly, mostly along party lines 105-43, with Republicans in opposition for different reasons.

“Even if both the majority faction and the minority faction happen to agree with something, they could not vote to override the monitor,” noted Assemblyman Doug Smith (R-Holbrook, Suffolk County), a certified middle school teacher. “For that reason I personally can’t support this bill because I’m concerned that with respect to a duly elected school board even if all nine members, admittedly from different factions, wanted to do something for their local community there would be concerns whether they would be able to accomplish that.”

Another member of the Assembly Republican conference thought this measure set a dangerous precedent.

“Local school districts should have primary presumptive control over the running of their schools through their duly elected school boards,” said Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh (R-Burnt Hills, Saratoga County) during the floor debate. “I think exceptions should be rare and when the state steps in to appoint monitors such as here, the case should be few and far between. I’m concerned about the unprecedented expansion of state authority with the monitor having veto power over school board decisions and for four years. I think that sets a dangerous precedent and for those reasons I will also not be able to support this.”

While the members of the Senate did not debate the issue, the bill’s Senate sponsor issued a prepared statement.

“Today is a historic moment for justice and civil rights, as New York state has reaffirmed our commitment to providing a strong public school education to all who want it and to guarantee that the education they receive will set them on the path to a bright future,” wrote Reichlin-Melnick. “Guaranteeing effective state oversight of the district is imperative at a time when the district will soon receive over $200 million from the federal and state government in order to ensure appropriate financial planning is undertaken to ensure all students receive the education they deserve.”

The Senate passed the measure mostly along party lines, 44-19.

From a 2017-18 annual report the district would appear to be doing well. State education officials reported notable accomplishments by the district that includes:

  • Ending the 2017-18 school year with a $245,000 surplus and started 2018-19 with a fund balance equal to 3.6 percent of the general fund. (State law allows 4 percent). Further, the district received an unqualified opinion from its external auditor, an improvement from previous years. Also, the state Comptroller upgraded the district’s stress category to undesignated from moderate, also an improvement from previous years.
  • Starting $58 million in capital improvement projects at 11 schools, on a path to complete the projects by 2020;
  • Strengthening its financial management practices, implemented an improved accounting policy and vigorously monitors expenditures;
  • Restoring full-day kindergarten for all students and elementary arts programming using the $3 million grant from New York state; and
  • Hiring new directors of Special Education and English Language Learners while implementing new systems to identify students needing these services.
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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.