Community View: Albany must help East Ramapo
The Legislature must support a bill that would place a fiscal monitor in East Ramapo. Public schoolchildren in the working-class district deserve a quality education.
The East Ramapo Central school district in New York and the Lakewood school district in New Jersey have much in common. Each has a school board controlled by a supermajority of members from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community known for their powerful bloc voting. Bloc members neither send their children to public schools nor come from a culture that values public school education. They send their children to yeshivas, private religious schools.
East Ramapo has approximately 9,000 public schoolchildren and 24,000 private schoolchildren. Lakewood's ratio is similar. Those attending public schools in each district are predominantly Latino and black children. The private religious schoolchildren are predominantly white. Each board's primary focus is the well-being of the children attending private religious schools. Both school boards hold budgets to austerity levels to keep property taxes low thereby cutting school services to the bare bone. Student outcomes in both districts are below those of surrounding districts.
In 2014, after considerable community unrest, the New Jersey legislature authorized the education commissioner to appoint a fiscal monitor to oversee the Lakewood district. The monitor has the authority to override board decisions on fiscal and policy matters. While they don't see it as a long-term panacea, parents and other public school advocates have breathed a sigh of relief feeling a semblance of hope has been restored.
In November, former federal prosecutor Hank Greenberg found East Ramapo to be a district in distress and on the verge of financial collapse. Among his conclusions were that East Ramapo's school governance is dysfunctional; its board members appear to favor private religious schools over public schools; excessive legal fees are being expended by the board to counter parent and state complaints of violations of law; and the board and superintendent are insensitive to ethnic, racial and cultural needs of children and families. Greenberg states, "it is unthinkable that additional state funds should be granted to the District absent an enforceable mechanism that would ensure such funds are allocated fairly."
Based on the report's findings, legislation was drafted specifically for East Ramapo modeled on that for Lakewood. The legislation also calls for a strategic plan to provide a roadmap for the long-term effective governance of the district. The East Ramapo board then hired a lobbyist, using district funds to thwart the legislation.
The legislation is supported by the NAACP, Rockland Business Association, Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, Strong East Ramapo, New York State Board Of Regents, the State Education Department, U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey. Also in support are prominent community leaders, including Hazel N. Dukes, president of the New York State Conference NAACP; Joel I. Klein, former New York City chancellor; Wendy Kopp, founder and chairwoman of Teach for America; Norman Atkins, president of Relay Graduate School; Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP Schools; and Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First. A supermajority of the Rockland County Legislature also supports the legislation.
In a few weeks, we will learn whether New York State values education for ALL of its children comparable to that of New Jersey.
Williams is youth pastor of First Baptist Church Spring Valley; Baldachin is rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center. This view was submitted on on behalf of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, with contributors Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of Orangetown Jewish Center and Islamic Center of Rockland Trustee Azeem Farooki.
Read the legislation to provide a state monitor, with oversight powers, for the East Ramapo Central School District. Go to nysenate.gov, click on the "Legislation" bar and type in the bill number – S3821 or A5355 – in the Open Legislation window.