East Ramapo Schools Under State Supervision

Chasidic school board president calls appointment of fiscal monitor 'hateful bigotry'; activists hope for transparency.

06/18/14
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 
From left, East Ramapo school activists Steve White, Carole Anderson and Antonio Luciano. Michael Datikash/JW
From left, East Ramapo school activists Steve White, Carole Anderson and Antonio Luciano. Michael Datikash/JW

Tensions in a Rockland County public school district ratcheted up another notch last week after the state appointed a fiscal monitor to oversee a school board composed primarily of Orthodox Jews that manages a public school system where nearly all the students are black or Latino. 

Education Commissioner John King said he took the rare step in East Ramapo because of a “history of and continued signs of fiscal distress” in the district. Two days later, the school board’s president, Yehuda Weissmandl, fired back, calling the move a “shameful and profoundly offensive” capitulation that legitimizes the “libelous accusations” of  “bigots.”

“They assume — based upon our religion alone — that we have stolen from the very children we have been elected to serve. This is nothing but hateful bigotry. And no evidence of any such malfeasance by anyone associated with our Board has been produced,” he wrote. 

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 20,000 yeshiva students and 9,000 public school students, about 90 percent of whom are from families of Caribbean and Latin America immigrants and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

In recent years the school board has been accused repeatedly of misconduct and is currently under investigation for fiscal irregularities that include 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 has cited the school for paying for special needs students to go to yeshivas without demonstrating why they couldn’t be served in public schools, an accusation that the board steadfastly denies and is currently appealing. 

The board has also been criticized for spending millions on legal fees to fight several lawsuits including one charging it with using taxpayer money to subsidize religious education in yeshivas.

In 2005, candidates from the growing haredi and Orthodox communities began winning seats on East Ramapo’s school board on a platform of bringing more district resources to yeshivas and of keeping taxes low by cutting wasteful spending. Since then, the board has slashed academic offerings, extracurricular programs and more than 400 staff positions. Between 2009 and 2012, elementary school class size has risen from an average of 20 to 25.

The reductions have not only stripped the extras from the school district, they have also made it difficult for students to fit the electives that remain into their schedules, said Steve White, a Spring Valley nutritionist whose son graduated from East Ramapo High School in 2012.

White’s son, for example, tested into AP English but couldn’t take it because it conflicted with the only open section of a health class he needed to graduate.

Anthony Luciano, a retired NYPD lieutenant who lives in Chestnut Ridge, also witnessed the cuts.

“Sports programs have been dropped, music in the elementary schools has been eliminated, guidance counselors, elementary assistant principals — every support system that a school system needs they have dropped,” said Luciano, whose son graduated in 2011. 

“He took violin beginning in fourth grade. Music was introduced to him beginning in kindergarten,” said Luciano. “He was in gifted and talented, that’s been eliminated. He started playing baseball in middle school, that’s been eliminated, he played on the [now eliminated] freshman baseball team in high school.”

Weissmandl declined an interview, but staunchly defended the cuts in a Jewish Week Opinion piece last month.

“Our district has 9,000 public students, and more than 21,000 private students,” he wrote. “The math is simple. Any aid calculation that looks only to the number of public school students — recognizing that funding must be used to serve both public and private students — is profoundly unfair and inadequate for our unique demographic.”

In his letter to Commissioner King he further argues that state officials not only knew about the cuts but ordered them, telling the board in December of 2012 to "take dramatic actions to reduce the budget deficit" while protecting its academic programs.

Oscar Cohen, education committee chairman of the Spring Valley NAACP, which is part of a coalition trying to restore services to the schools, says blaming the cuts entirely on a lack of state funding is misguided.

“The reductions and elimination of educational services in this district far exceeds other districts,” said Cohen, who is a former superintendent of the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City; he said that although a state-mandated limit on property tax increases has squeezed all school districts, that doesn’t explain the extent of the cuts in East Ramapo.

“Every district has experienced the 2 percent cap, but no district has come close to having those cuts,” he said.

Rabbi Ari Hart, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization that is part of a coalition of clergy pushing for state intervention, agreed, pointing out that if a lack of money was the only reason for the cuts, the board would have accepted a $3.5 million advance of state aid instead of rejecting it because it came with additional oversight.

“The state pledged $3.5 million designated to go towards programs that had been cut, but the board has refused to take the money. That is proof that this is not just about money, this is about oversight,” he said.

Activists have been lobbying the state to intervene in the district for years without success. In April, they tried a new tack, organizing the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, a coalition of about 90 Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy members, about a third of whom lobbied lawmakers in Albany on April 30.

Laura Barbieri, an attorney with the Advocates for Justice Legal Foundation, said she thinks the trip was a major factor in King’s decision because the coalition represented “a consensus of opinion of the clergy” that something needed to be done.

“I think the governor heard this message,” said Barbieri, who is representing a coalition of district residents in a lawsuit against the board.

Although the commissioner is appointed by the Board of Regents, which is independent of the governor, the fact that King chose for the post Hank Greenberg, who was counsel to Cuomo when he was attorney general, suggests that the governor may have had a hand in the decision. 

White, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2008, agreed that the clergy's lobbying efforts might have made the difference, “That’s what made it clear that it was going to be more of a problem to do nothing than to do something.”

White called the appointment a positive “first step,” while Luciano, who ran twice for school board, losing in 2011 by a vote of 8,000 to 7,700, said he’s only “cautiously optimistic.”

“I realize that for the past four years [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo has ignored the pleas from parents, and I recognize it’s an election year he has greater aspirations,” Luciano said. He added that Cuomo’s suspension of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission makes him skeptical of the potential impact of the move.

“I want to take a ‘wait and see’ approach to see what the monitor can and can’t do,” he said.

In fact, the newly appointed monitor has only been given “advisory” powers.

But Barbieri said she thinks the appointment of Greenberg, in particular, shows that the is more than an attempt to relieve political pressure.

“From all that I’ve heard about Hank Greenberg, I believe that he is a solid lawyer,” she said. “I think the governor is sincerely trying to do something. He would have put somebody else, a do-nothing or political hack, if he wanted to just put window dressing on the situation.”

And Uri L’Tzedek’s Rabbi Hart said he thinks even a monitor with only advisory powers can have a real effect by bringing “openness and transparency,” to the workings of the board.

“I think this is an opportunity for everyone to turn a new page and to begin working collaboratively and openly with each other.”

Amy.jewishweek@gmail.com

Last Update:

06/24/2014 - 10:32

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People who rent pay real estate taxes in their rent to the landlords. They also pay sales tax on anything bought in the stores.

The total amount paid by the district to private schools is less than 1/2% of the budget. And the costs per child in that program is 40% less per child. But that makes no difference to the complainers. The problem is that a religious Jew is getting help.

Hateful animals all of them.

Declined the $3.5 Million? What stupidity. All it was a few months advance, not new money. It was meant to offset the challenge to the flawed state funding formula,. Does it make sense to take an advance in lieu of getting 8 times that as additional new annual funding? Talk about who needs fiscal monitoring.

If these so called Clergy were really interested in helping the children of the district, they would b in Albany trying to get the additional funding instead of try to tie op the Board and incurring significant additional unfunded expenses to the district, which will just require additional cuts in unfunded non mandated services.

The cut in programs are no different that what has been occurring in districts throughout the state, including a number of other districts in Rockland. It is not unique to this district. What is unique, and what these so called activists have glommed onto, is that there are Jews in the district who they can now blame the problems on. Sounds suspiciously like what had occurred in the not to distant past, where the Jews were blamed for all of society's ills.

You can find Mr. Luciano's vile comments on line, where he compared the Jews to Nazis and call them Judas'. By Ari Hart has no issue with that, The NAACOP has no issue with that, because it was directed against Hasidic Jews.

What a bunch of phonies. It is the United Clergy group and the Rockland NAACP who really should be investigated. Investigated for violating exempt organization laws and the Internal Revenue Code. Investigated for civil right violations.

Hank Greenberg is not neutral since he is in Cuomo's pocket and Cuomo cannot afford to lose the bloc vote. This monitor has no power other than to advise. Cuomo thinks he is fooling the public school parents and NY tax payers. Whatever Greenberg finds will be disputed by the $650.00/hour attorneys (who were supposed to be fired) due to one of their calling a parent a negative female body part.

Let's see if we can enumerate how many lies you can jam into one small paragraph.

1) The lawyer is not getting $450.00 an hour and you know that.

2) The lawyer who got so frustrated by the constant hackling and inappropriately responded to the nag/hag no longer represents the district.

3) Hank Greenberg is a partner at Greenberg Trauig a large NY law firm, what do you think he is going to charge?

Rabbi Hart says, “I think this is an opportunity for everyone to turn a new page and to begin working collaboratively and openly with each other.”

Do you really believe that is the intent of the people with whom you have aligned yourself? To work collaboratively with the board? Are you encouraging them to drop their lawsuits and appeals? Your associating with them smells and sounds more like Neturei Karta associating with the Palestinian Authority and the Iranians. They have no desire to work collaboratively - they want the legally elected board gone. Period.

Mahara"t Hart is an uniformed interloper who, when interviewed showed himself for the attention mongering fool he is. He showed that he knew absolutely nothing about the reality. However, he got himself on television so he was happy.

I believe he is ashamed to be at any prayer vigil for these poor kidnapped students. He writes for the same paper as Rana Baker of EI, who was loudly celebrating the kidnapping of the those poor students. Perhaps Ari can wear his tallit when conferring with Rana.

Personally, I would rather see a fiscal monitor in Albany to oversee all of these backroom deals that never see the day of light. And soon, we won't even have ANY checks and balances as the entire legislature will be Democrat controlled.

I voted for this board and they do a good job in an impossible situation. There is no theft taking place. They have been investigated ad nauseum. I did not vote for a monitor - I voted for these representatives. In democracy, if you don't like what your elected officials are doing you vote them out of office, not usurp their powers. This is what people do when they can't win at the election polls because a majority of the population (not just Orthodox) does not agree with them or else they would vote.

Rabbi Hart - will you be at Provident Park for the tehillim tomorrow? Oh yeah - you don't live in the community, why would you even know?

Mr. Weissmandl refers to bigotry. Is he talking about the Pastors, Rabbis and Iman who requested the financial monitor? Perhaps he should look in the mirror. It is the board's allocation of resources to the detriment of the public school community that is the root of the problem. It is the bigotry of people who care only for their insular community at the expense of everyone else. Years ago, I offered to work with the public school community speaking with a Board Member. At that time I was told by him, " Why. We have the power now. " Unfortunately, it is all about power. Not once did I hear the Board seek to address the education of Public School children at any Board Meeting I attended. It is very sad. It does not reflect my understanding of Judaism and education as a Jewish member of the community for 28 years.

Ms. Fox - which mandated services for the private school kids would you like to illegally cut? The transportation? The special ed? Specifically, which allocation of resources? Don't just throw around allegations and accusations in generalities.

Choosing to put your child in private school should be your cost! I chose private school for my son and my neighbors don't pay for it, I do! The hasidics perfectly fit the definition of a parasite. Parasitism is a non-mutual symbiotic relationship between species, where one species, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host. They take and take and contribute NOTHING! They breed hatred and call us bigots. This has nothing to do with religion. They are not disliked because of religion, they are hated because their behavior directly affects the people around them in a negative way. They should try relying on themselves and their own resources. They want to be separated and only live by their rules? Then they should support that life on their own. They should live off their taxes not their neighbors.

You are talking about blacks or Hispanics? Or is racist and bigoted to even suggest that, but your vulgar hateful comments are ok because they are about Jews. Entirely appropriate for the Jewish Weak.

Yes, there are 21,000 students in private schools whose tuition is borne by those parents and not by you. However, that does not explain why the children are not entitled to the mandated services, those services are not being provided to the schools, they are being provided to the children.

I know that this will come as a shock to your small mind, however, the board of education is not just for the public schools, that is only but part of its responsibilities.

It actually is responsible to all children in the district. Keeping that fact in mind, it would seem that the majority of children should receive the majority of funding, yet in ERCSD, almost 72% of students are actually only responsible for a miniscule part of the overall budget. I do not think it is more than 13%. If that much. (Jewish children who are in public schools are still public school students, even though they are Jews. You are your ilk like to include those costs as monies used by the board for non public school students.)

Either way, the number of children represented by the board is about is about 72% non public school students, so the make up of the board is very much in line with that percentage.

The second part of your hateful screed belies your inane claim that your are not a vile racist. I find it amusing how you would try to claim not to a bigoted pig, when you are spouting the most vile of bigoted hate in the very same sentence.

They should support their own? There are thousands of homes in the districted paying the overwhelming majority of the tax rolls in ERCSD that are supporting the public school children's education, which according to the blurbs by the "Clergy" are primarily poor minorities, in other words, people who are not home owners and are not paying real estate taxes nor income taxes. Talk about lies and stupidity.

How many special ed kids have been placed in private schools by the district? Fewer than 2% of over 2,200 kids. You can argue over 40 kids but your exaggerations say more about you than the district.

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