A Response To Rabbi Avi Shafran

More than funding formula changes are needed to fix a school board plagued by acrimony and dysfunction.

Thu, 05/01/2014
Rabbi Ari Hart
Rabbi Ari Hart

Rabbi Avi Shafran recently offered a passionate defense of the actions of the Charedi dominated East Ramapo Public School Board. I trust that that Rabbi Shafran’s intentions are honorable – to strengthen the Jewish people and create a fairer education system, and I welcome the debate. For too long this issue has been whispered about or ignored in our community.

Rabbi Shafran’s position has been that the school board has done nothing but act in a “responsible and fair manner.” Uri L’Tzedek’s position is that the board has not been fair or responsible, has failed to serve the best interests of the public school children it governs and has created a chillul hashem, or desecration of God’s name.

But before getting into the many errors in his arguments, I propose the following thought experiment for Rabbi Shafran.

Imagine if the yeshiva where Rabbi Shafran sent his children had a board where seven of nine members had never went to yeshiva and would never send their kids to yeshiva. Then imagine that this board gutted math, science, full day kindergarten and language classes, cut social workers and teaching aides, and also cut all elementary school art, sports and music. Then imagine that this board hired attorneys who verbally assaulted children and parents, and a president of the yeshiva board calling the yeshiva children and parents “miscreants” and “errant children.” Then throw in the board selling one of the yeshiva school buildings to a public school for millions of dollars less than it was worth. How would Rabbi Shafran feel about this board? Would he feel like they had represented the needs of the yeshiva they were caring for? Would Rabbi Shafran really feel that this yeshiva board had acted “responsibly and fairly” to his children?

Now on to his actual arguments.

Rabbi Shafran begins by stating that Uri L’Tzedek “is among the critics of the board.” But he failed to mention who those other critics are. The following is a list of the groups who are currently in legal proceedings against the East Ramapo School Board:

U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights
New York State Attorney General
New York State Comptroller’s Office
New York State Education Department
New York Civil Liberties Union

These groups are all deeply troubled by the mismanagement and scandal that have surrounded this board.

One of the most egregious examples of the school board’s mismanagement was the closing and sale of a public school to a yeshiva at millions of dollars below assessment levels. Rabbi Shafran calls this a “red herring” and blames the affair on the assessor. Rabbi Shafran failed to mention that New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner stated the East Ramapo board “abused its discretion by hastily approving the sale.” The 12-acre campus, assessed at $10.2 million market value, was given only a $3.2 million appraisal by the school board's attorney.

Next, Rabbi Shafran makes an egregious error. He writes that Uri L’Tzedek “apparently didn’t speak to any of the members of the school board.”

This is simply not true. Uri L’Tzedek spoke at length with both the past and current presidents of the school board to learn and understand their perspectives, and we continue to welcome dialogue. It undermines Rabbi Shafran’s arguments to have blatant errors that border on motzi shem ra, defamation, in his article. This brings us to the crux of Rabbi Shafran’s argument.

During my conversations with former board members, several times the board made a claim that State funding is the only problem, and that not fault lies with the board. In Rabbi Shafran’s words: “The district is thus funded, pursuant to the statutory formula, as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state – when it is in fact one of the poorest.”

Rabbi Shafran is wrong.

East Ramapo is in the top 5 percent  of New York School districts in total state aid received. Per student, the range in state aid to public school districts is from $1,750 per pupil for the wealthiest to $6,586 for the poorest. East Ramapo receives $5,800 per public school student. That places East Ramapo on the high end of per student state aid, and well above other Rockland County districts. Clearly, East Ramapo is not anywhere near being treated as a wealthy district.

Rabbi Shafran and members of the school board claim that the aid, even though it is high, does not truly reflect the district, since there are thousands of children in yeshiva day schools. They call for revisions in the state formulas to provide more money to districts like East Ramapo that have a high number of private school students.

Here’s where Rabbi Shafran again made an egregious error. I expressed explicit support for the Agudah’s efforts to change the formula in the article. New York states school funding regulations need to be revisited in light of some of these issues.

But changes in the formula alone will not solve the problem. Money alone will not solve the problem. There are other school districts in New York state where the formula puts undue pressure on school districts - not one of them have seen the level of acrimony, dysfunction, and investigations of East Ramapo. That is why Rockland Clergy for Social Justice is calling for state oversight and transparency.

And for the record, we are not asking for a State takeover.

This debate is so important. It touches on so many key issues: public and private education, church and state, race, class, religion and more. Closest to both my and Rabbi Shafran’s heart though is the fundamental issue of the future of Orthodoxy. Will we be a community that is a light to the nations? Will we fulfill our mandate to be guardians of the path of God, to do righteousness and justice [Genesis 18:19]? I’m sure that both Rabbi Shafran and I would agree that we must. But in order to do so, we must allow ourselves to have a full and honest command of the facts involved, even when the reality those facts show is a painful one.

Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of Uri L'Tzedek. 

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Comments

i find it very telling that the majority of comments are coming from anonymous sources. Are people really afraid of taking a stand? Or is shouting from the dark cover of the Internet what democracy has become?I

This article demonstrates how off base and ill informed Hart is. There are so many inaccuracies and hateful biases that pointing each one out would be longer than the drivel above.

A generous description of Ari Hart would be that he is an uninformed little "pisher" who is a publicity hound for who fact s make no difference.

He asks why non public parents should be on the board, well the BOE is not just the public school board of education, it provides, as required by law, services to all school aged children in the district. And yet this arrogant little fool pokes his nose in from Riverdale? He is just an arrogant rabble rouser who has yet against displayed his obnoxious biases.

Unfortunately, this case is not unique. We've seen this dynamic
in other parts of the NY area, where public school boards have also been taken over by more sectarian minded Orthodox Jews who then gut it and divert funds from it to local yeshivot.

It's common knowledge that when there is a crime and the government agencies investigate they act! Early morning raids! Perfect walks! 6 plus years of investigation and not even one such incident. .... except one appraiser that has nothing to do with the Board of education.... so draw your conclusions if this is innuendo or there is truthfulness to ari Hart's accusations. .. This is a bunch of whiney people that can't win a seat on ERSD!
There are a total of 54000 voters in ER they can remove the board by turning out and voting .... sounds to me they don't want to I guess 10 and 11 % tax increases yearly didn't sit well with them
Ari hart you fail to understand East Ramapo issues!

The sale of the building is a valid issue but the main complaint seems to be that public school programs were gutted. The defense seems to be that they were gutted because there was not enough money to pay for them. Well, is there money left over in the budget that could have been used to fund these programs? If not was it misdirected? To whom? I think that a critic of the board should be more specific.

Hart just can't stand that goyim don't like what Jews are doing. Basically, any time the outside world comes into conflict with Jewish values, he topples over. Witness his prior articles.

More to the point, he conflates two issues, the school sale and the cost cutting. The school sale is being investigated, and I would hope (but doubt) that Hart would accept the results of the investigation. If it turns out that there were improprieties, then people need to be held accountable. But if it was in keeping with state law, Hart will have to learn to pipe down about it.

As far as "gutting" math, science, and football, well, too bad. State laws and standards are there for a reason. You have to meet them, but you don't have to exceed them. You can't blame a school district for trying to keep costs down in ways the law permits. Well, unless you're Hart. This school district should be held out as a shining example of democracy in action: the majority running the district as it sees fit, in keeping with state law, in a way that minimizes taxpayers' expenses. After all, if a democracy gets to decide that taxpayers have to fund education for everyone, surely the democracy can decided to limit it as much as possible.

Reb Yid - I'm a conservative Jew living in Rockland County and I can tell you that the entire Reformed and Conservative Jewish community of Rockland is appalled by what the Orthodoxy has done to the East Ramapo School District. All of the neighboring towns are fearful that their town is next to be destroyed by the selfishness of the Orthodoxy. This is not a "goyim" issue. It's a "decent neighbor" issue. And the Orthodoxy is failing its neighboring communities, and creating resentment unlike ever before. Fortunately, most people in Rockland know the difference between Jews like me and Jews like you.

Do you accept the many rebukes the board has received for improper conduct? Instead of guessing what Rabbi Hart will do you should answer that.

Rabbi Hart, I feel like you are Moses leading the children out of bondage. My children graduated from East Ramapo before this bloc took over and my kids both got full athletic and academic scholarships to great schools. Now, the board cut foreign languages, science, math and a host of other classes so that most kids sit in study halls. As a leader, you are giving a voice to these forgotten children and it's difficult to believe more of us aren't concerned about the chillul hashem this board is causing for ALL Jews.

Against the discrimination and anti-minorities policy of East Ramapo Central School District, I am planning to hold peaceful rallies and demonstration every Friday starting on May 9, 2014 at 2:30 Pm to 3:30 Pm. The rallies starting point will be the corner of Church Street and N Myrtle Ave and ending point will be in front of the Central Administration Building of East Ramapo Central School District located at 105 South Madison Ave Spring Valley New York 10977. You participation is requested and please let me know whether you and the people in your circle of influence will be participating for the sake of liberty and justice for all but not only for selected people from the selected races and religions.
To listen to and see evidence to discrimination please visit https://sites.google.com/site/discriminatedteacher1/audio-evidence-to-discrimination

I am so proud of Rabbi Hart for his outstanding response. He was clear and acurate in defining the full picture. We must not blindly take sides. I truly hope that those who read the Jewish Week will look closer at the issues and understand the great injustices that are being done. Our faith reminds us that human beingss are imperfect and we can easily fall from the righteous path. I, therefore, ask the East Ramapo School Board to take a step back, respectfully strive to see the other points of view rather than go into stubborn defense mode and provide "justice for all" to quote our Pledge of Alligence.

Great article. Your response is beautiful, polite, respectful.

Your "thought experiment" is missing one key fact, thereby making it a faulty comparison. The comparable case would be where the seven board members of the yeshiva were elected/appointed by a substantial segment of the population who are forced to pay tuition to the yeshiva against their will (on top of the tuition that they pay to the actual schools to which they send their children). In that scenario, the problem isn't the make-up of the board - it's the unfair payment system, for which the make-up of the board is a (slight) tilt towards making it a bit more fair.

The "thought experiment" is logically correct. It is meant to give you the opportunity to feel the experience of the public school parent. Taxes for all PUBLIC education is required according to the New York State Constitution. Everyone with property that is not tax exempt pays those taxes. Single people, married without children, retirees as well as families, with whose children attend or not attend public school, all pay these taxes. I realize that people who choose to have their children attend either a Yeshiva or other Religious school feel that this is not a choice but a requirement. That is why the State Education Law provides some accommodation in relation to Books, Transportation and Special Education. What is happening is that the ERSCD Board is seeking to impose a Yeshiva concept of what education provides on a public school population.
I only see one long term solution to this Education Problem. Public School Education should not be funded through the 19th century method of property taxes. It should be funded by the New York State General Fund. In no case is it permissible under either the New York State or United States Constitution to have religious aspect of Education paid for by tax dollars. All schools that meet the requirements of providing secular education whether they provide religious education or not should be able to be paid the same. Of course all schools require children to be tested, graduate, take annual exams to make sure that basic education is provided to all.

I guess I should be allowed to opt out of all the taxes I am "forced" to pay that go to social services received by the Hasidic community? I wouldn't vote to not feed your children I guess that's where our sense of morality parts ways. Glad Rabbi Hart doesn't feel that way

Among the many many many things that Ari Hart knows nothing about, are the difference between an "assesed market value" = a number that a government employee churns out - which in theory is supposed to relate to market value, but despite the name (often/usually) does not & an appraisal, which is an assesment of what a property would sell for on the market.

A school building may have a low appraised value due to the lack of a strong market of interested buyers, which in no way stops the assesor from collecting a higher tax bill, based on the assesor's "market" = what the assesor can claim is the value of the property to the user (so that the valuation will hold up to a tax appeal.)

But hey, why would Hart need to know anything - as a YCT grad, being a rabbi is about trying to get in the paper and preferably being arrested wearing a tallis and blowing a shofer

This is not the case. The appraiser was indicted and will be going to jail because he took money from the Yeshiva and also from the school board. Two other people are involved according to the attorney general. Cash was paid to the indicted appraiser by one of the school board members. Do your research...Rabbi Hart certainly is!

Your points are irrelevant. A simple reading of the article clearly demonstrates that Hart does not understand what the words appraised value & assessed value mean.

Thank you Rabbi Hart. I was fortunate to get my children out of this failing school district but I truly appreciate your efforts. For those of us who have been insulted by the board, told if we don't like it we can move, paid high taxes with no services, saw our home prices plunge, it is sometimes hard not to start to lump everyone of the faith together. You remind us there is good everywhere.

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