East Ramapo Schools Fight

Orthodox social action group Uri L’Tzedek joins call for state oversight of haredi-controlled school district.

04/07/14
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 
A 2011 protest against East Ramapo school board's deep budget cuts. Courtesy of The Power of Ten
A 2011 protest against East Ramapo school board's deep budget cuts. Courtesy of The Power of Ten

An Orthodox social justice group has joined the call for state intervention in the East Ramapo school district, where the haredi-controlled board is accused of siphoning taxpayer money to private yeshivas. 

In a petition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo the organization, Uri L’Tzedek, asks for state “fiscal and administrative oversight” of the Rockland County district, where the board has slashed academic offerings, extracurricular programs and more than 400 staff positions over the past five years. Between 2009 and 2012, elementary school class size has risen from an average of 20 to 25.

“It’s a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name,” said Rabbi Ari Hart, Uri L’Tzedek’s co-founder, who began circulating the petition Saturday night. As of Tuesday evening, 605 people had signed.

On Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Hart spoke at an event calling for state intervention organized by the recently formed Rockland Clergy for Social Justice together with the Spring Valley NAACP.

Oscar Cohen, chair of the Spring Valley NAACP’s education committee, said Uri L’Tzedek’s participation could be a turning point in a campaign that so far has been largely ignored in Albany.

“As concerned Jewish citizens,” Uri L’Tzedek’s petition reads, “we appeal to you to respond to the brewing crisis in Rockland County. Efforts to improve the situation from local politicians have not been successful, and now the children of East Ramapo are suffering with school closures, class cancellations, activity cancellations, high teacher to student ratios, and much more with no relief in sight. That is why we are calling for your direct and immediate involvement.”

See Related: Five Towns See Renewed Tensions Due To School Sale

The petition also asks the state to look into revising “the structure, governance and financing” of East Ramapo and “similar school districts, in order to ensure that public school students have access to basic educational opportunities and resources as stipulated in New York State’s Constitution.”

After meeting with a principal and students in the district, officials at Uri L’Tzedek’s decided that despite any flack they may get from Orthodox groups, the organization needed to take a stand.

“Classes are being cut in the middle of the year, teachers are being fired in the middle of the year,” Rabbi Hart said. “I met with a young African-American woman who was hoping to go to college. She was on the volleyball team, but all equipment was in tatters, and then the junior varsity team was cut,” he said. “The computer club was cut, clubs, extracurricular, classes. It’s very demoralizing, very dispiriting and it makes people angry.”

“It’s a pattern of years of neglecting the broader community,” he added. “But there’s been no Jewish voice that has said: This is not OK.”

The petition also cites an “alarming” increase of anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment in the area, which it says stems from “misunderstanding and anger at the situation.”

“As Jews, we cannot stand idly by while children suffer and while anti-Semitic tensions rise. Especially when our Jewish community, with a supermajority of the school board, is so deeply involved in this matter,” the petition reads.

East Ramapo Superintendent Joel M. Klein doesn’t contest the program cuts but says the reductions were due to $10 million worth of cuts in state funding and $960,000 worth of cuts to federal funding due to the 2013 automatic spending cuts, called sequestration.

“You can blame it on Jews , you can blame it on yeshivas, but we got almost $960,000 in cuts due to sequestration,” said Klein, in addition to the state cuts.

“When you lose $10M on a $200M budget, you have to make cuts. One year it’s arts and music, the next year it’s full-day kindergarten. We had to cut over 400 staff positions,” he said.

“No matter who was on the board, they would have made the same decisions,” he added.

Located 30 miles north of New York City, the East Ramapo Central School District includes the haredi enclaves of Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square. The nine-member board has seven fervently Orthodox members overseeing a district of about 9,000 public school students, about 90 percent of whom are black or Latino and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. The district also has roughly 20,000 yeshiva students.

The school board is under investigation for fiscal irregularities, including diverting public funds to private yeshivas. In 2010, the board’s sale of a public school building to a yeshiva was annulled by the state for being millions of dollars under market value and the appraiser was indicted.

In addition, the state Education Department said it violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by paying for special needs students to go to yeshivas without demonstrating why they couldn’t be served in public schools. The school board is appealing. It has also spent millions on legal fees to fight several lawsuits including one charging it with using taxpayer money to subsidize religious education in yeshivas.

Klein said the board wasn’t aware that the 2010 sale price was below market and denied that the district ever paid for special need students to go to yeshivas.

“We are not sending one child to a yeshiva, not a single one,” Klein said. “If they cannot be served in a public school, they’re put in a BOCES (state) program or another approved school.”

The budget gap could be addressed if 60 percent of district votes agreed to override the state-mandated 2 percent cap on school tax increases, but Klein said that in his district, it would never happen.

“We’re lucky to pass the budget let alone pass an override,” he said pointing out that only 12 districts statewide managed to get an override passed.

“Another (non-Orthodox) board may have gone out and tried the 60 percent but they wouldn’t have succeeded,” he said.

Rabbi Hart said he could identify with the desire of yeshiva parents to keep school taxes low.

“I’m a day school graduate and a future day school parent and I know what it’s like to pay day school tuition and taxes at the same time,” said Hart. “That issue needs to be addressed. But Jewish law says we need to address these issues constructively not oppositionally.

“We’re going to get tremendous pushback for this, there’s no doubt," he added. “But we cannot remain silent.”

The event will take place at First Baptist Church, 3 Hoyt St., Spring Valley, N.Y., at noon on Tuesday, April 8. For information contact Oscar Cohen, (917) 596-2927 or oscarpcohen@optonline.net.

Editor's Note: This story was corrected on April 8 to clarify that the event at First Baptist Church was a press conference, not a rally. 

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Last Update:

06/16/2014 - 13:50

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If the Hatian/Latinos/Black community in ERCSD truly love their kids and want the best as far as education and a community, MOVE OUT!

This is a fight that will be lost. You don't have the votes. You don't have the influence. You are letting your egos get in the way of your own children's education.

You can't win them all. This one you will lose once the many kids of the orthodox families are eligible to vote.

If you look at Israel and the Palestinians, you can think of the Hatians/Latinos/Afro Americans as Palestinians.

The fight is futile, The orthodox community has 7 or eight kids per family. In a mere 10 years, the voting bloc will crush the Hatlans/Latinos/Afro Americans.

BEST that these people run away NOW! For the sake of your own children. That's what I did. My children won't have a second chance at elementary and milddle school for me to wait around for NOTHING. It's a nice jesture that this extremly small groups of Orthodox are offering. But it won't help.

So

Where can we sign the petition? I know about 40 people who are looking to sign. Thank you.

You can sign it here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1FiUU5IowEHmI8RAP76ro8MYU2JaKzUFmXONng7OYV94/viewform?utm_source=April+2014+-+Rockland+County&utm_campaign=East+Ramapo&utm_medium=email&fbzx=121976064053310598

if there are 9,000 public school students, 2/3 get free lunches; and 20,000 yeshiva students, no stats on free lunches, then what would happen to the over crowded public schools if all the yeshivas closed down in June? Would there be enough room for them in September?

These people live off social services, their yeshivas computer labs has brand new computers, they like to say people are racist against them, but they are the ones that are racist, they want to control everything and everyone. I have three kids, one in middle school and the other one in elementary school and there is no programs for them, and God help my 3 year old. I hope this group will help with the injustice happening in our school district ( east ramapo )

Public education should be PUBLIC, not theocratic.

Irregardless or why or the history of its development, the fact remains that in the United States, public monies are used to provid education in reading, mathematics etc and such includes (to various degrees in different locations) related services such as meals and transportation. Children should not be denied these services -- and their parents should not pay their full tax bills without receiving these basic govrernment services towards which such a large percentage of their tax dollars are directed - because the parents also want their children to receive a religious education. The government should provide - in a manner similar to charter school funding - funds to yeshivas (and all other forms of non "traditional" public school) to cover the gamut of services that children would receive in public school, and the private institutions will then take care of whatever program they are runnin - whether it be jewish, catholic etc or dedicated to an education highly focused on any other element of culture or society.

The arguement that such funding is a violation of "the seperation of church and state" (a phrase that does not appear in the constitution, as the ammendment forbids the establishment of an official religion, but it does not margenalize religion in society - that came later, mostly from Justice Black (who parenthetically was a klansman) simply does not hold water when examined seriously.....education is a service the government provides, and opposition against reasonable flexibility in how such is carried out is simply rooted in the influence the unions have over the democratic party

The incidents at the school district are troubling and appear to be establishing a religion among other things. At todays meeting their was a diverse coalition of the faithful and a group that is working on a civil suit. My takeaway is that the actions of the yeshiva have invited the scrutiny of the outside world and will foster contempt for the yeshiva specifically and unfortunately Jews in general. Folks this is not a movie, bad decisions have real consequences/repercussions. What happened in Spring Valley shall not stay in Spring Valley.
Uri L"tzedek is spot on!

A big thank you to Rabbi Hart. It is heartwarming for our kids to be embraced by you and the other clergy that have stepped forward. Our kids will see that there are kind, fair minded Rabbis. Maybe the wounds inflicted over the years can begin to heal.

Peggy, you've done a great job trying to help.

However it won't work. It's best that these Hatians/Latinos/Blacks do what I did. I just simply moved out. My children have only ONE chance at any particular grade and I will not stick around and let my ego get between my childrens education.

You solution may sound simple but it is not. If you own selling is almost impossible if you bought at the height of the market. I am fortunate to be able to move but I am still waiting for my property to sell. Plus it is the cheapest area in rockland so just moving May not be an option

I see that two comments that attack Uri L’Tzedek are posted anonymously. What a bunch of cowards!! Thank G-d I am a real Jew who believes in full disclosure and openess rather than fake Jews trying to relive life as it was in the shtete, andl who hide the many visisitudes of the heredi community with the philosophy of "let's not air our dirty laundry." Come on you cowards, sign your names!

Listen to yourself. Every line in your post is bitter meaningless venom.... oh right, you were talking about how those people are haters, while you are obviously a serious diplomat. Ideas are either well though out, or they are not. I have read numerous pieces by Ari Hart - and they are (in my humble opinion) empty fluff, based upon straw man arguements etc etc

"but after following you for a while your agenda is so very obvious"

What agenda would that be - trying to do the morally and ethically right thing, instead of providing blanket cover for the discriminatory practices of other frum Jews?

Uri L’Tzedek is a group that makes me puke, but this time they've got it right. Enough said!

The Jewish Week is very excited to have a headline like "orthodox vs orthodox.
But, no one in the orthodox community cares about uri ltzedek - they are a bunch of ignorant kids.

While there are many questions as to whether funds have been illegally diverted to yeshivas, the bottom line is that yeshiva parents put far more into the system than they take out - imagine if that public school budget sudenly had to cover a full ride for the 20,000 students that are in the yeshivas.

If any board members have done anything wrong, they will get caught. Uri Ltzedek will continue to accomplish nothing

That is not correct more tax dollars are spent out of the orthodox community on busing and special education than is being collected. The Joel Klein, the boards superintendent, appeal to the state citing this fact. Hasidic Jewish people take advantage of every social service on top of that. Your statement is nonsense

You are citing cherry picked statistics. You could say the same about any child in public school who receives special ed services. To spell out what is obvious, yeshiva parents pa a) yeshiva tuition and b) their full load of income/property taxes. The issue is school choice - not only for yeshiva children, but for all children and parents who do not feel that the public school system meets their needs and/or who feel that the public schools in their area have failed.

It is simple to break judaism down to whatever the democratic party supports (as the reform movement, the conservative movement and uri ltzedek and the rest of the neo-conservatives do), but such doesn't allow anyone who combines thorough knowledge of the talmud and intellectual honesty.

I am not "attacking" uri ltzedek. I am simply pointing out that uri ltzedek is an intellectually shallow organization, with no purpose and a shallow vision. All segments of the Jewish community deserve better for leadership, and if I was "attacking" anyone, it is the Jewish Week for its consistent embrace of Uri Ltzedek and anything else fringe and transient that the JW can fantasize as a groundbreaking change. Jews aren't perfect but toras hashem temimah, and it is only through rigorous dedication to the high standards of all aspects of morality as defined by Halacha - and not by superficial social justice community organizing - that we can make the world a better place in the image of god (which by the way, is what tikkun olam is)

What cherry picked statistics? Quoting the superintendent hired by the board. You say the schools don't meet the needs why? Because they aren't segregated? You don't teach your american children English? For your community to complain about taxes is laughable. Have your '"men" pay for their families like actual men do. Why does everyone owe your community a living? I pay taxes for all kinds of social services that go to your community. Can I have that money back since I don't use social services?

Great work! This is what being orthodox should be all about. Social justice and making kiddush hashem.

“We’re going to get tremendous pushback for this, there’s no doubt, “ But the publicity we're gonna get is well worth it.
You might be right, but after following you for a while your agenda is so very obvious.

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