Right and Wrong

An open letter to State Senator John Flanagan

May 6, 2015

Dear Senator Flanagan:

          I find it disturbing that you, as chairman of the state senate Education Committee, and other “members” of the state senate are “circumspect” about passing legislation allowing the state education commissioner to appoint a monitor to oversee the East Ramapo School Board and develop a five-year plan for that school district.  According to news reports, you raised concerns that the legislation could set a dangerous “precedent.”

          Speaking of precedents, what precedent is being set by allowing thousands of children to be deprived a quality education?  You claim that you recognize that East Ramapo is unique.  If that is the case, any precedent set by passing the bill would be strictly limited.  If there are any other school districts in the state where representatives of a religious community have taken over the school board and then diverted massive resources to private religious schools, at the same time they gut public school programs and resources, then by all means the proposed legislation should serve as a positive precedent for intervention. 

          If other school districts have different kinds of financial or management issues that require state intervention or legislation, those unique circumstances can be considered by the state legislature as they arise.  The senate should not shirk its responsibilities by raising the lame excuse of setting a supposedly bad precedent.

          I would hate to think your coolness to the reform bill is based on a lack of understanding of what has taken place in East Ramapo, or political considerations relating to the bloc vote. Temporary state-appointed monitor Hank Greenberg’s report, while informative and reaches an appropriate recommendation, does not do justice to the full extent of the mismanagement—in some residents’ minds looting—of the public schools.

          For example, the school board attempted to sell the only air-conditioned school in the district, the Hillcrest School, to a private Yeshiva for a fraction of its true market value.  The sale of the school was not properly advertised and an appraiser, improperly (and secretly) retained by both the Yeshiva and the school district, has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for producing a conflicted appraisal that greatly underestimated the fair market value of the school.  This low-ball appraisal just happened to come close to the Yeshiva’s initial $3.1 million bid, which was $2.66 million less than an earlier appraisal from the district’s first firm. The state education commissioner halted this initial sale (theft?) of the school, but the board later approved the sale to the same Yeshiva for more money ($4.9 million), a tacit admission that the first sale price of approximately $3.2 million was way too low.  By the way, the $4.9 million price tag is too low.

          Perhaps you are unaware that the Board sold a second school, the Colton School, to its tenants, the favored Bais Malka Congregation and the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, for $6.6 million.  However, the board agreed to give the purchasers a $1.5 million credit for rent paid even after a judge sided with the board in its opposition to awarding rent credit because the tenants were in arrears in rent.  Incredibly, the board was so intent on selling the Colton School to the religious community-connected purchasers that they forfeited the $1.5 million.

           Perhaps you are unaware that approximately $2.4 million in textbooks are unaccounted for; or that personnel, programs and courses have been cut to the bone; or that mandatory art and music classes have been eliminated.

          Perhaps you are unaware that an overpaid law firm, which had one of its attorneys viciously verbally abuse a parent, is still employed even though the board promised that a new firm would be retained.

          Greenberg’s report summarizes the situation perfectly:  the board has, at a minimum, severely mismanaged the district and a monitor is needed to reverse bad board decisions.  The report ominously warned that the board had recklessly depleted district reserves, placing the district on the “precipice of fiscal disaster.”  More telling, Greenberg added that while he did not believe the school board acted “out of base or venal motives,” they were so “deeply influenced and informed by the community from which they’ve come—so concerned about the children of that community that it has blinded them to the needs of the entire community.”

          In other words, the public school students in East Ramapo have been victimized by unprecedented (there’s that word again) group selfishness.  It is the legislature’s responsibility and obligation to guarantee a quality education to all students and to see that precious taxpayer dollars are not squandered, wasted or stolen.  That’s why Greenberg emphasized that while the legislature needed to provide additional state funding to the district, it was “unthinkable” that the state would provide more resources without being able to ensure that they would be delivered fairly.  That’s why a monitor is so critically needed!

          I was especially disturbed by your flippant comment to parents that, “If you don’t like the way things are going, run your own slate of candidates.”  The public school community has consistently run opposition slates, but the demographics of East Ramapo make overcoming the religious bloc vote virtually impossible.  For example, many parents are not citizens and are ineligible to vote.  This makes their children especially vulnerable.

          Regardless, under our republican form of government the majority cannot take away the rights of the minority, or use the tyranny of the majority to undermine basic government responsibilities. Under the New York State Constitution the government is required to provide an adequate public school education, and no self-interested and myopic school board can deny that right by proclaiming to the victor belong the spoils. The board has repeatedly ignored the needs and complaints of the public school community, and without state intervention they will continue to do so.

          Rockland’s legislators, who know the situation best, all support the bill – and are to be applauded for doing so.  Senator David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski have placed the interests of their constituents above their political interests by bucking the religious bloc vote.  Public school students have suffered for years; now it is time for you and your legislative colleagues to do the right thing and pass this law.  Everything else—elections, dialogue, lawsuits, protests, and media attention—has been tried and failed because the board and its “community advisors” will not change their course.

P.S.:   While I have your attention, let me add I am deeply upset by the endemic corruption in the state legislature.  Like you, I am a Republican, and I am especially troubled by the recent FBI arrest (for conspiracy, extortion and soliciting bribes) of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County) for allegedly using his position to enrich his son, and the federal indictment of Deputy Majority Leader. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton), who is accused of lying to federal investigators who questioned him about using his position to advance the financial interest of his son. Since you claim to be so concerned about “precedent,” perhaps you can do something to put an end to the endless flow of precedents where state legislators have been investigated, indicted and convicted for stealing taxpayer dollars, enriching their families or committing all manner of other corrupt acts.

Michael Bongiorno
Former District Attorney for Rockland County