Five Towns See Renewed Tensions Due To School Sale

Old divide between Orthodox-controlled school board, public school parents reopens; budget moves paint nuanced picture.

03/26/14
Staff Writer
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A referendum on whether to sell a public school building in a Long Island town to a yeshiva is stirring up a decades-long conflict between the Orthodox families who send their children to private school and the non-Orthodox Jewish, black and Hispanic families who send their kids to public school.

The Board of the Lawrence Union Free School District  has accepted an $8.5 million bid from The Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, or HALB, to buy the long-shuttered Number Six School, as long as voters approve the sale in a March 31 referendum.

Supporters of the sale say selling to HALB will preserve the 6.6-acre property’s sports fields and playgrounds for community use and, because the vast majority of HALB’s students live in the Lawrence district, the sale will save the district approximately $700,000 a year in busing and other fees paid to the Long Beach School District for the some 550 Lawrence kids who currently commute there. None of the board members currently have children at HALB, but two of them have kids who are alumni. The youngest in both cases graduated about a decade ago.

See Related: Orthodox Vs. Orthodox in East Ramapo School Fight

The Lawrence Union Free School District includes not only Lawrence but also Atlantic Beach, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Woodsburgh and parts of Woodmere and North Woodmere. 

It's likely the referendum will pass: last year voters rejected a $12.5 million bid to put a medical facility on the site due to concerns about traffic and the loss of green space. Since then, there have only been a few bids on the property and area real estate brokers say it’s unlikely the district will get a higher bid than HALB’s. 

However, whether or not the sale goes through, this latest conflict stirs up long-standing tensions. Over the past two decades, the district has become incresingly Orthodox as families moved east from Brooklyn and Queens, looking, like most city-to-suburb transplants, for more space, more trees and a slower pace. 

Now, the district is well over half Orthodox and only about 3,100 of the district's 7,000 students go to public school. The majority go to one of the half-dozen yeshivas in the area. Currently, 71 percent of the district's public school students are minorities — 41 percent Hispanic, 23 percent black, 7 percent Asian and 29 percent white — and nearly half of the student body qualifes for free or reduced price lunch, according to state records.

Tensions began in earnest in 2001 when Orthodox residents began winning seats on the school board on a platform of reducing wasteful spending. For the next five years, district voters, the majority of whom were now Orthodox, failed to pass the school budget, instead requiring schools to operate on a "contingency budget" that increases no more than 3 percent per year.

In 2006 when yeshiva parents gained the majority of seats and voted to close Number Six School, despite the advice of the they hired to close School Number Four instead, which is designed for young children but has fewer amenities. They decided to close Number Six because it was the most expensive to maintain. In addition, the Woodmere school received the most damage during Hurricane Sandy and would have cost $6 million to rehabilitate, school officials said. 

In taking control of the board, Lawrence’s Orthodox community is part of a trend of Orthodox private school parents running for public school boards, including in towns such as Lakewood, N.J., and East Ramapo, N.Y., both of which now have Orthodox majorities. But while the state has validated critiques of East Ramapo’s board, annulling the sale of an elementary school to a yeshiva after deeming the purchase price to be under market and investigating the sale of another public school, Orthodox board members in Lawrence say claims that their board is not acting in the best interest of the public schools do not hold up. 

“We’re no Ramapo,” said Lawrence school trustee Murray Forman. 

“The bottom line is I’ve been doing this now for close to a decade and every decision that this board has made that has risen to any controversy has been upheld,” he said.

The board has managed to keep taxes stable “through very prudent financial management,” he said. “We had a declining student enrollment so we consolidated buildings, which cut expenses and provided money for capital expenditures.

“We just managed this very well. I would posit to you that every other district on Long Island is looking to us and looking to catch up,” Forman added.

Indeed, financial records, a tour of the schools and interviews with more than two dozen board members, public school parents, teachers, administrators and real estate agents for the most part support Forman’s contention that the board does not appear to be trying to drain the schools of resources. However, it has created a great deal of resentment and mistrust among non-Orthodox residents.

According to area real estate agents, it’s not surprising that the price for Number Six School would drop after the community voted down the medical center’s bid.

“It’s probably more common than not,” said John Hoblin, senior managing director at Hunt Corporate Services, a Long Island-based firm that specializes in commercial real estate.

“Because of the extra land that usually comes with a school property, developers have an initial interest in it, but when a hearing is done [the developer’s plan] is rejected because of concerns of too dense of a population,” he said. “Then the school board needs to go back to the drawing board and say what would be an acceptable use, and often that use will come at a lower price because it won’t be as dense.”

As for the quality of the education, it appears to remain strong, according state and district financial records.

A comparison of the Lawrence Union Free School District’s budgets between 2005-6 before the board had an Orthodox majority and in 2011-12 after six years of private-school parent rule shows that there haven’t been major cuts in instruction or programs. 

For example, in 2005-6, general education per pupil “instructional spending,” which excludes such district-wide expenses as special education, transportation and district administration, went up 27 percent, compared to the state average of 25 percent. Elementary school class size went down 9 percent, from an average of 21 students in 2005-6 to 19 students in 2011-12.

The percentage of students who graduate with a regent’s diploma jumped 11 percent (from 78 percent in 2005-6 to 89 percent in 2011-12) and eighth grade math scores also improved, with the percentage of students testing at or above grade level increasing from 56 percent in 2005-6 to 81 percent in 2011-12, according to New York State School District Report Cards (See more data in the photo gallery.)

During a recent visit to the district, this reporter found the schools to be pleasant, spacious and orderly. The students joked with each other as they walked through the wide, light-filled hallways of the middle school and the band and orchestra classes were in full swing.

All of the parents approached outside the Inwood elementary Number Two School said they were quite pleased with the school system, praising in particular the addition of an after school tutoring program and the clear concern showed by schools Superintendent Gary Schall for the needs of the district’s poor and minority students.

“When my kids were little, I remember when they came home with the homework, and I was not even able to help my kids. It was very, very frustrating for me,” said Sandra Orallana, who sent four children through the public schools and is president of the Spanish Association for the Five Towns Community Center.

“Now they have a very nice [tutoring] program. … Parents are so happy because kids come home at 5:30 with their homework finished.

“But the more important thing is that now we have someone we can talk to,” she said referring to Schall. “He really, really worries for the community. For the first time, in 20 years, we had somebody to come and ask, ‘What can I do for you?’”

Alongside the praise, however, there’s no shortage of criticism.

The board did make plenty of cuts. Between 2005-6 and 2011-12, language, summer and reading programs were cut. However new programs were added, such as additional plays and a robotics course.

The board recently switched the high school schedule from nine periods of 42 minutes to eight periods of 48 minutes, which cut out one of the teacher’s two prep periods and increased their time in the classroom by 48 minutes a day.

While schools Superintendent Gary Schall praised the change for shifting “$1.4 million in teacher time from planning to instruction,” Lori Skonberg, president of the Lawrence Teachers Association, said the shift has forced students to cut down on the number of electives they are taking because there are fewer periods in the day.

Blasia Baum, immediate past president and current treasurer of the district’s PTA, said that while she supported the shift to eight periods at the time, she now believes that the change has made Lawrence students’ college applications less competitive than students from the neighboring district of Hewlett-Woodmere.

“Hewlett has 10 periods,” said Baum, who sent all three of her daughters to the public schools. “Those kids, each year they can take so many more classes, and they can take so many more AP classes. It’s just so competitive here.”

The board also eliminated 20 positions last year, including a mixture of part-time and full-time teachers that was the equivalent of 9.2 full-time teachers, a social worker, two secretaries and eight facilities staff, which, Skonberg said, has caused the remaining secretaries to be overworked.

Skonberg has also criticized the elimination of several programs including gifted and talented, summer school, the Quest research program, language instruction in the elementary schools and a social worker.

Another frequent critique of the board is that it used only part of proceeds from the 2007 sale of another elementary school, Number One School, for capital improvements and used the rest to keep taxes from going up.

Of the $31 million the school received, $17 million were used for capital improvements, such as converting the high school athletic field to Astroturf, improving the theatrical lighting system in the high school auditorium and adding new science labs. The remaining $14 million went into a reserve fund “that enabled us to keep taxes low and at the same time enabled us to maintain programs,” said Schall in an e-mail, calling the move “fiscally responsible and ahead of the curve,” and something that other districts are also doing to maintain programs.

However, the “everyone is doing it” argument fails to convince Baum. “It sounds so wonderful that we’re going to save the money, but that money is not going to go to the kids, it’s just going to reduce the budget,” she said.

As to the question of whether the private school-parent board is harming the public schools, Baum says no, but that’s not enough.

“I think they’re doing their best to maintain the schools,” she said. “But all they’re doing is maintaining.”

And the Orthodox-controlled board has only increased tensions in an already divided community. After one school board meeting that Baum attended, one Orthodox man who was not on the board yelled, “Yes, we’re going to close your schools and we won’t stop until they’re all gone,” she said. Another resident who attended that meeting also remembers the incident.

In another episode that irked critics, the yearbook of a girl’s yeshiva ran a photo of the district's prized Lawrence Middle School, which was never considered for sale, with the caption, “Pardon us while we’re under construction,” Baum said.

It was a joke, she said, but it “enraged so many people.”

“It’s such a divided community,” she added. “It’s not a comfortable place to live here — so people are leaving the district, or switching their kids to private school.” 

amy.jewishweek@gmail.com

Editor's Note: Additional information was added to this story on March 31, 2014.

Last Update:

08/25/2014 - 17:27

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The division and tension in the community is just an embarrassment.

The cost per student is probably very, very wrong. The student cost if taken from NYSED documents takes the total number of public school students, divides it by the total budget. That means that cost for private school students are not deducted. There are millions and millions that need to be taken out for transportation, special Ed services, out of district private school tuition, administrative costs, CSE, and the list goes on.

If not East Ramapo yet, give it a few years. Their lawyer, uncle Al will do his same magic in Lawrence. One major difference is that Lawrence still have a wealthier student body and diversity. In ERCSD the stats are considerably less well of. 94%?children of children and 76% poor.

The spending per student only includes "instructional spending," not transportation and the other costs you listed. This is the NYSED's description of what's included: "Instructional Expenditures for General Education are K-12 expenditures for classroom instruction (excluding Special Education) plus a proration of building level administrative and instructional support expenditures. These expenditures include amounts for instruction of students with disabilities in a general-education setting. District expenditures, such as transportation, debt service and district-wide administration are not included.”

https://reportcards.nysed.gov/files/2011-12/FIS-2012-280215030000.pdf

This article is fiction at best. First Lawrence was listed Nuer 8 in the state for districts in financial distress
Second class size is at an all time high. Third the middle school
Is on it's third year of not making adequate yearly progress. The state after another year can step in. There are tutoring programs because they HAVE TO. Mandated by state. The graduation rate is not one of the lowest on Long Island and 89% is at 5 years not 4. I could go on but...

Hi Esthet,

Thanks for your comments. The facts I've found differ with yours in some respects:

- For 2013-14 Lawrence is listed at No, 13, "moderate financial stress" : http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/01/new_york_state_school_district_financial_ratings_look_up_compare_school_district.html?appSession=450445959118950

- Class sizes are not at an all time high. Elementary school class size for 2011-12, the most recent figures the state has released, is 19. In 2005-6 it was 21. I looked at elementary school class size because it is most important that it be low. In high grades average class size has varied between 15 and 25 depending on the year and subject. In some classes it's lower now than in 2005-6, in others, it's higher. For example, in 2005-6 average class size for 10th grade science was 15, while it was 18 in 2011-12. However, in 2005-6 10th grade math was 21, while in 2011-12 it was 19. (see links below for the full NYSED report cards. Class size is on p. 2)

https://reportcards.nysed.gov/files/2011-12/RC-2012-280215030000.pdf

https://reportcards.nysed.gov/files/2011-12/RC-2012-280215030008.pdf

- I don't have information for yearly progress. Please let me know the link to the info you're looking at. However, the NYSED report card does have figures for students scoring at grade level and for 2011-12, middle school students scored below the state average in everything but 6th grade math.

- I don't have information about whether they were mandated to set up the tutoring programs, but I will ask.

- The graduation rate at Lawrence was 98%. The 89% was graduation with a regents diploma, 94% if you take out the special ed students. I don't have any info about how many years it took. 

2005-6, p. 7  https://reportcards.nysed.gov/files/2005-06/CIR-2006-280215030000.pdf

2011-12 p. 27 https://reportcards.nysed.gov/files/2011-12/RC-2012-280215030000.pdf

 

 

As a secular member of the community, I do not begrudge the orthodox community for democratically acting in their own interests. But lets all be honest, any improvements to programs in the district were done so because the district state mandated, the orthodox board does the minimum necessary to comply with state obligations and clearly has no interest in a quality education for public school.

Where are the informational flyers telling residents of District 15 that there is a referendum on March 31, 2014 re the sale of Number 6 School? Regardless of who the school and land is being sold to it would be prudent to inform the residents (especially those who no longer have school age students) of this vote. This article is the first time I am seeing anything regarding the vote- shame on the Board for not advertising this vote in a more timely manner.

The flyer was in my mailbox. You should talk to your postman.

Seems like quality of education is strong, schools are well run, kids are thriving, and parents are generally pleased. I would think that speaks a lot louder than Ms. Baum's disparagement and her unnamed sources.

There are many reasons why there is no comparison between Lawrence and East Ramapo. The quote cited: "Baum remembers, one Orthodox man who was not on the board yelled, 'Yes, we’re going to close your schools and we won’t stop until they’re all gone.'” apparently is not the case in Lawrence, but is certainly the attitude in East Ramapo; there is no quality of education in East Ramapo, it isn't even minimalistic; and, in spite of the lawyers demonstrated low level behavior of angry outbursts directed at speakers pleading for the children, when the School Board lawyers were finally reduced to documented public cursing at parents and students, the School Board agreed, last summer, to hire other lawyers, but, we still have D"Agostino and his demonstrated rude, arrogance. Our tax dollar is not going to educating the public school students, millions are spent defending and redefending legal actions that the School Board loses. Lawrence appears to be fiscally sound, East Ramapo is not. Sell your school to a Yeshiva and the investor makes millions. The School footprint acreage requirements don't exist for private schools, so the land is used for housing development.

Wow, this article is so off base. My kids go to the public school, and can only tell you things are better now that it was 8 years ago. I pay taxes here, and if there are less students, it is only logical that my taxes and school spending should go down. Regarding the supposed decisiveness this article is trying to create, it simply does not exist. These issues are over, done with. The only people who have a problem with the board are the Lawrence teachers unions, who feel the district should have teachers for empty class rooms. If this district was all catholic, and enrollment was down, their would be no controversy about buildings closing like they have all over long island for the past 30 years. Time to move on Jewish week, this is a non issue, there is nothing worth talking about here, the past is the past.

Typical Jewish week, always looking to make problems for the orthodox community, where their is simply no issues. No wonder your subscriptions are going down, and no one reads your rag. Have you people even been to the five towns? You try to invent animosity where there is none? Even you have to admit that the students are doing well, so you quote some crazy remark that probably didn't happen about closing schools till they are all gone? What nonsense! Shame on you Jewish Week. You have long since jumped the shark, as a valid source of news for the jewish community.

If all the students who are currently attending private day schools and yeshivot were to register and attend the local public schools, they would flounder and sink. The parents of the public school students should be grateful especially when looking at the improved academic achievement and test scores.

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