View: Zebrowski explains basics of East Ramapo bill

Ken Zebrowski
Community View in The Journal News  Sunday,
March 8, 2015
 

KENNETH ZEBROWSKI

Recently, Sen. David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and I formally introduced our East Ramapo Oversight Bill (A5355/S3821). Since the bill's introduction, much of the Rockland community has rallied behind our oversight system. However, others have visited Albany, misconstruing the bill and lobbying against its passage.

The following is an outline of our bill and is a factual description of where we are and where we are trying to go:

How we got here

An independent report commissioned by the Board of Regents to study this troubled school district (in addition to other data) found:

The East Ramapo School District is in extreme financial trouble.

East Ramapo is the third most fiscally stressed district in the State.

They have had an unreserved fund balance deficit for the past three fiscal years and the current deficit stands at over $7 million.

The district is failing academically.

This district is designated a "Focus" school district by federal standards, placing them in the bottom 10 percent of academic performance statewide.

Graduation rates are declining while statewide averages are increasing. East Ramapo's graduation rates were 64 percent in 2013 and 60 percent in 2014 while the statewide average is 76 percent.

Public school parents do not have input into their district.

Up to 70 percent of public school board meetings are held behind closed doors in executive session. Oftentimes, parents are left outside until after midnight before the public comment period is opened.

Budget cuts were disproportionately made on the backs of public school students; a student population that is 91 percent minority and 78 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Between 2009 and 2012, the school board made draconian cuts that left students with fewer opportunities. The cuts included: elimination of more than 400 teaching and staff positions; elimination of summer school and elementary music education; and a more than 50 percent cut in athletics, after-school activities and professional development.

Extreme distrust and conflict exists between the board and public school parents.

The board fired the long-time local attorney for the district and hired a more expensive and controversial law firm.

This new firm was involved in a highly publicized fight that was caught on tape where a lawyer made deplorable, personal verbal attacks on a public school parent. Although the district vowed to hire a new firm, the law firm still work for the district, more than 18 months later.

District officials have made insensitive remarks about the immigrant student population, causing an outrage from the community.

Details of the bill

Our State Monitor legislation will bring in an independent, educational expert, appointed by the State Education Commissioner, to dial down the conflict and restore trust in the district.

The monitor's duties include developing a comprehensive five-year plan, with public input, that sets specific goals and benchmarks. These measures include:

Improving fiscal stability.

Improving educational outcomes.

Improving opportunities for English language learners.

Improving opportunities for disabled students.

Issuing annual reports and quarterly updates on the plan's progress.

Developing long-term recommendations for the district.

Supervising the fiscal and operational management of the district, including development of the budget, resource allocation, facility management, educational programs and use of district funds.

The monitor's powers are specifically outlined. They include:

Attending all board meetings, including executive sessions.

Holding public hearings and conducting studies.

If necessary, overruling board actions that are inconsistent with the five-year plan or not in the best interest of students.

An Appeals Process is an integral part of the bill.

If the board believes that the actions of the monitor are contrary to the five-year comprehensive plan or a state law or regulation, the board can appeal to the commissioner of the Department of Education.

Oversight warranted

Some have asked: Is oversight an "unprecedented" step that takes away democratic rights?

The State of New York has stepped in on many occasions to provide oversight to troubled municipalities, including counties where control boards were established and school districts where governance was restructured. Most recently, the County of Rockland received state comptroller oversight on their budget, where the recommendations are binding.

The district is not being taken over by the state, nor will a monitor's presence diminish anyone's rights. Residents will continue to elect their school board members and vote on budgets. This bill seeks to protect students and their constitutionally guaranteed right to an education.

Locally elected school boards are a vital aspect of New York's educational structure. Just as vital is the state's responsibility to provide a sound, basic education to New York students. This bill balances these two goals.

More funding sought

What about the need for increased funds?

The East Ramapo School District has unique demographic characteristics, with more than 70 percent of students attending private school. The disproportionate number of private school students affects the combined wealth ratio calculation which determines the amount of state aid the district receives.

In recognition of these challenges, my colleagues and I are pursuing additional funding for the district through either a direct grant or a school aid formula change.

Policy changes are made through legislation and funding allocations are made in the budget. My colleagues and I are using these two separate vehicles to address both oversight and funding concerns.

The conflict in this district simply cannot continue. This bill will begin to mend the situation and refocus the district's priorities to educating children and away from lawsuits and infighting.

The writer, a New City Democrat, represents the 96th District in the New York State Assembly.

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To read the East Ramapo oversight legislation, go to the New York State Assembly website, assembly.state.ny.us, and type the bill number A5355 or S3821 in the Quick Bill Search window.