Jewish Power Takes A Tragically Wrong Turn In Rockland County, New York
Rockland County, just northwest of NYC, has had some big demographic changes in the past decade, including relatively large emigrations of Romanians and Dominicans. And Hasids-- kind of Amish, but Jewish. Now two out of three children in the school district are Hasidic.
The county has been a Democratic bastion for some time. In 2008 Obama beat McCain, 65,134 (52%) to 58,199 (47%), and four years later he beat Romney, 60,446 (52.8%) to 52,936 (46.2%). Nita Lowey (D) is the congressmember, and both state Assemblymembers are Democrats. One state Senator is a Democrat and one is a Republican. Of the 17 members of the county legislature, 12 are Democrats (including Majority Leader Aron Wieder from Monsey). All 5 Rockland County Town Supervisors are Democrats, including Christopher Lawrence from Ramapo, the most populous town in the county-- and the one we're going to look at today. If you listened to the September 12, 2014 This American Life broadcast above, you know exactly why.
There's a scandalous division in the community between public schools and Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic schools (yeshivas). There are only 2 Catholic schools, and yeshivas outnumber Christian private schools about thirty to one. There are also four nonreligious private schools. When the Hasids were first building their community in the area there was some discontent that they were paying property taxes to fund public schools that their kids don't attend-- at the same time they were funding the yeshivas for their own kids. They started taking over the school board.
Harvey Katz, an Orthodox Jew who served as a school board member, said, "Just because my children are not in the public schools doesn't mean I don't care about all the children. Children are our future, wherever they may be." The district was one of five districts in New York State where more students were enrolled in private school than in public school due to religious reasons. But events didn't indicate that the religious extremists did care about the future of non-Orthodox/Hasidic children. By 2005, when they took over the school board, they began reducing the budget and lowering taxes, much to the chagrin of the non-Hasidic members of the community.
The reduced budgets, in fact, were draconian, forcing students to take five- and six-year graduation plans instead of four-year plans, and in 2010 the school board of the East Ramapo Central School District voted to sell its Hillcrest Elementary School, which they had forced it close with massive budget cuts, to the Hasidic Jewish congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov of New Square. In an official response to an investigation of the sale, New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner stated that the East Ramapo board "abused its discretion by hastily approving the sale." The 12-acre campus, assessed at $10.2 million (market value) by the Assessor’s Office of Clarkstown, was given only a $3.2 million appraisal by the school board's own attorney, Albert D’Agostino. A year later, the State Education Commissioner halted the sale of the building, saying the board failed its fiduciary responsibility to the district when it approved the $3.2 million deal.
Also in 2011, the vice president of the East Ramapo school board, Aron Wieder, now as noted the County Legislature Majority Leader, was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor violation of state election law after blocking the entrance to the Hillcrest Elementary polling place during the school district budget vote. Wieder was witnessed photographing voters entering the Hillcrest polling station and accused of intimidating voters and blocking the entrance to the site.
A month after that arrest, Nathan Rothschild, former president of the school board and Fire Commissioner of Monsey, pled guilty to a mail fraud scheme where he was attempting to sell public land to eliminate his own private debt. The scheme involved selling public land to his creditors, then buying the land back at a higher price. The scheme was suspiciously similar to the attempt to sell Hillcrest Elementary School.
And that brings us to Wednesday's op-ed in the New York Times, "When A School Board Victimizes Kids." The editorial accuses the board of denying students their state constitutional right to a sound basic education by grossly mismanaging the district’s finances and educational programs. It demands that the state act to correct the injustice in East Ramapo.
East Ramapo is a divided community. Of the roughly 32,000 school-age children enrolled in schools in the district, about 24,000 attend private schools, nearly all of them Orthodox Jewish yeshivas. Of the more than 8,000 children in the public schools, 43 percent are African-American and 46 percent are Latino; 83 percent are poor and 27 percent are English-language learners.The Hasids may be screaming anti-Semitism, but I didn't run across the word "racism" or "racist" even once in the reporting in the NY Times or anywhere else... although the report Tuesday from the Jewish Daily Forward, "An Immoral Use of Jewish Power in Upstate New York," certainly implies that that is the root of the problem in East Ramapo, calling the situation "the test case for the moral future of Jewish life in New York, perhaps even the whole country."
The East Ramapo school board, dominated by private-school parents since 2005, has utterly failed them. Faced with a fiscal and educational crisis, the State Education Department last June appointed a former federal prosecutor, Henry M. Greenberg, to investigate the district’s finances.
Mr. Greenberg’s report, released in November, documented the impact of the board’s gross mismanagement and neglect. Since 2009, the board has eliminated hundreds of staff members, including over 100 teachers, dozens of teaching assistants, guidance counselors and social workers, and many key administrators. Full-day kindergarten, and high-school electives have been eliminated or scaled back. Music, athletics, professional development and extracurricular activities were cut.
The Greenberg report also detailed dismal outcomes for East Ramapo students. In 2013-14, only 14 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in English Language Arts, and only 15 percent were proficient in math, according to the most recent statistics from the State Education Department. The graduation rate, 64 percent, is far below the state average of 76 percent.
While slashing resources in its public schools, the school board vastly increased public spending on private schools. The cost of transporting children, including gender-segregated busing, rose to $27.3 million in 2013-14 from $22 million in 2009-10, a 24 percent increase. Public spending on private school placement for special education students grew by 33 percent between 2010-11 and 2013-14, and the district placed students in private schools when appropriate spaces were available in public ones.
The report also exposed disturbing practices by board members. The board conducts 60 to 70 percent of its meetings in closed-door executive session. It does not tolerate, and is overtly hostile to, the complaints of public school parents, students and community members. Public protests against the board are now commonplace.
The report proposed the appointment of a state fiscal monitor, who would oversee all of the board’s financial and educational decisions and have the authority to override the board, when necessary, to protect the interests of the public-school community and improve education outcomes for public-school students. The report also recommended additional state funding to restore essential staff and services, but only if a monitor was in place to make certain the money was used effectively and efficiently to benefit all of the students.
A bill in Albany-- introduced in the Assembly by Ellen C. Jaffee and Kenneth P. Zebrowski and in the Senate by David Carlucci, who all represent parts of the school district-- would implement a fiscal monitor for at least five years. It is a crucial step toward reversing the district’s disastrous decline and repairing the deep rifts in the community. The New York State School Boards Association has found that the measure “respects the democratic electoral process by leaving the elected board of education in place.”
The bill would not go as far as the Legislature went in 2002, when the school district in Roosevelt, on Long Island, was put under state control because of poor management. It is similar to what occurred in Lakewood, N.J., a district with circumstances similar to East Ramapo’s.
In recent weeks, in response to a lobbying campaign by the school board, momentum for the bill appears to have slowed. Advocates for the local school board and some leaders in the Orthodox community have accused supporters of state oversight of having anti-Semitic motives.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The legislation is not about punishing one group because of its religious beliefs; it is about acting to make sure that the civil rights of a community of overwhelmingly low-income minority children are not denied and that their constitutional right to a sound basic education is enforced.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has endorsed the need for action in East Ramapo. Lawmakers should join him, reject the false attacks and act in the interests of the students, who have been failed terribly and must not be made to wait any longer.
The board has drastically increased the funding going to yeshivas, but it has cut public school classes and extracurricular activities, attempting to sell public school assets at below market prices to private yeshivas, and more. These ethically and at times legally dubious actions have been documented by everyone from newspapers like this one to the New York City Bar Association to the New York State Supreme Court.
Frustrated by the school board’s intransigence, local students, parents, teachers, religious leaders and activists appealed to the state for help. Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed an independent fiscal monitor, Hank Greenberg, last year to investigate the district. From a removed, balanced perspective, Greenberg confirmed what thousands of public school students and parents had known for years: The board is responsible for “recklessly depleting the district’s reserves” and favoring “the private school community over the East Ramapo public schools.”
As Orthodox Jews grow in number, the question of how to flex our political muscle becomes more critical. The Jewish community has needs as well. We live in a golden era where we have can express those needs through the democratic process with pride. The question is not whether to use political power, but how.
One way is to use our power to get what our community needs, even if it means skirting the rules and steamrolling over the needs of other communities. That’s been the case in the East Ramapo School District. Those who support the actions of the school board say that this is democracy, this is the American way.
They are wrong. America is not an absolute, direct democracy where the will of the numerical majority is the law of the land. We live in a republic, a republic that seeks to protect the interests and welfare of all its citizens, including the minority, the disenfranchised and the vulnerable.
As an Orthodox Jew, when I first learned about what was happening in East Ramapo and about the attitudes of the board, I was shocked and disgusted. The Talmud teaches, “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.” The public actions of this school board over the years have been in flagrant violation of that and so many other Jewish values and teachings. The Torah we share demands over and over again we never trample the stranger, the immigrant and the poor-- apt descriptions of many in the public school district. They have also caused a massive Chillul Hashem-- desecration of God’s name. The leadership of the school board to date has grossly violated both American and Jewish values. This is not the way to use Jewish power in America.
Instead, we need to find a way to both advance our interests and needs while taking the needs of our fellow citizens into account; rather than just grabbing more and more slices of the pie and leaving those around us hungry, we work together to grow the pie so there is enough for all. This would be a moral use of Jewish power, using it to call out those who are acting unjustly, even when they are from our own community. That is why thousands and thousands of Jewish New Yorkers are lobbying their legislators to pass these bills, which will provide needed oversight. Ultimately, this is about those school children in East Ramapo, and it’s about the very legacy that Jewish New Yorkers will leave on this great state.
|School board meeting-- but not in Compton|