East Ramapo’s Public Relations Officer
The East Ramapo board of education (BOE) board is a public relations firm’s worst nightmare. It is also an opportunity for our East Ramapo public school advocates. To understand why, we have to look at the various constituencies that a public relations firm must satisfy.
It’s most important constituency is the BOE itself. If a public relations firms can’t convince its client that it is doing a good job it is not going to be on the job for very long.
Its second constituency is the group of people who are true believers--the people who will believe almost anything they are told by the BOE. Until now these two constituencies have been entirely interdependent. The BOE tells its public what it wants that public (the Hasidic community) to believe and that public in turn tells the BOE what a wonderful job it is doing. This self-referential process goes a long way towards explaining the arrogance that has characterized the BOE since the Hasidic leadership gained control of the school district in 2009.
The third constituency is made up of the public school children and their parents. These are the people who have been the victims of the BOE, and nothing they are told is going to change their understanding of the disaster that has befallen the East Ramapo schools.
The last constituency is composed of the political leaders of New York State and the public at large. This is the constituency that has, in theory, been the principal target of the public relations firm. And here is the conundrum.
The East Ramapo school board’s rejoinder to Hank Greenberg’s devastating analysis of the East Ramapo school board was a transparent attempt to evade its responsibility as rogue board with no respect for the either the public school community or the law.
The board’s public relations firm has a simple choice. It can continue to echo the nonsense that the BOE has been spouting for the last few years and please its sponsor, or it can recommend another course of action, one that is often recommended to clients with serious public relations problems.
Public relations firms often suggest to clients that they admit their failures, promise to do better in the future and move ahead. But in this case such a course of action is impossible. It is impossible because in order to carry it out, the firm would have to convince the BOE that its very conscious course of action was a mistake. It would also have to convince the board that its Hasidic constituents can either by safely ignored or re-educated. Neither is more than a remote possibility.
Here we must acknowledge that the BOE faces real economic and human constraints. Despite it systematic evasion of taxes and the ability of wealthy developers and slumlords to act with virtual impunity, the sad fact is that the Hasidic community is very poor. Every month the rabbis who run religious school are faced with the need to meet their payrolls, and pay for utilities. In order to do this they turn to the “developers” who now control of the East Ramapo schools. While many young people in the Hasidic community resent the wealth and power of the “developers” they know the community is economically dependent upon them. They also know that any challenge to this leadership will be met with harsh criticism, possible physical attacks, ostracism or even ejection from the community.
So where does this leave the public relations firm? It is forced to repeat the very lies that have done so much to create the current crisis in East Ramapo. The obvious question is why would the BOE waste money just to continue on its usual course of action? I think the answer is two-fold. First, the money will come out of the public school budget, not the money given to the Hasidic schools. This is the same attitude that encouraged the BOE to hire outside attorneys for more than $600 an hour. Second, we have here an example of magical thinking. The BOE is finally getting embarrassed enough that it is willing to look for outside help. It has turned to good salesmen in the hope that lipstick can be put on this pig.
Where do we go from here? The East Ramapo community began its struggle with the hope that the obvious and serious violations of law by the BOE would lead to effective action by the NYS Department of Education. Instead it found that the DOE is cautious and its action is limited by state laws with remarkably weak sanctions. It then moved on to appeals to our highly political and indifferent governor. It now understands that only an effective political campaign can force Governor Cuomo and Commissioner King to acknowledge that we are truly a district in crisis and that the crisis was created by the totally self-interested Hasidic leadership of East Ramapo.
If the BOE’s new public relations experts were both competent and independent they would probably have responded to Greenberg’s report with a vague statement such as “we know we have made mistakes and we intend to do better in the future.” Instead it helped school board president Weissmandel write a relatively detailed rejoinder that can only be an embarrassment in the wider community.
The East Ramapo board of education did us a favor. Its response will help us keep attention focused on the Greenberg report. In the future we can expect similarly transparent “rejoinders” to criticism of its blatant favoritism and illegal conduct.
This past November Preserve Ramapo recommended “anybody but Cuomo” for governor of New York. I suspect the leadership of the Working Families Party may finally feel the same way. Meanwhile Governor Cuomo has continued his attack on the public school “monopoly” over public school education. At least in East Ramapo we know what that means. It means the continued diversion of resources from our public schools to the Hasidic community.
Obviously the bloc vote in New York State is more important to Cuomo than the separation of church and state or the education of our students. Our criticism of the East Ramapo school board and its public relations “rejoinders” should be as widely distributed as possible and we must hold Governor Cuomo responsible for his terrible educational leadership.