When a School Board Victimizes Kids
NEW YORK STATE has a proud tradition of local decision making in public education. However, students in the public schools in East Ramapo, about 30 miles north of Manhattan, in Rockland County, are being denied their state constitutional right to a sound basic education by a board that has grossly mismanaged the district’s finances and educational programs.
When there is overwhelming evidence that a local school board has persistently failed to act in the best interests of its public school students, the state must act. The Legislature will adjourn on June 17, so time is running out.
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 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.