Politicians and the East Ramapo School District: Profiles in Cowardice

July 11, 2015 In 1957 John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for writing Profiles in Courage, a volume of short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight United State Senators who did the right thing despite criticism and damage to their political careers.  In New York we have the complete opposite:  “Profiles in Cowardice”, where self-serving politicians do the wrong thing and sacrifice the future of thousands of schoolchildren in order to retain the support of the ultra-religious and electorally powerful bloc vote.

          In mid-June the ethically challenged New York State Senate recessed without even bringing to a vote the proposed legislation to install a badly needed monitor for the East Ramapo School District (ERSD).  The politics behind this failure is more than just disturbing, it’s despicable.

          Let’s start with Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, one of the “three men in the room” that make all important decisions in Albany.  He rose to the top of one of the most corrupt institutions in the United States after his predecessor, Dean Skelos, was indicted on federal corruption charges.  Flanagan is the primary reason the monitor legislation never made its way to the Senate floor for a vote.      

          The Republicans hold a thread-thin majority in the state senate, and that thread is frayed and about to tear.  The current count is 32-31 in favor of the Republicans, with the majority rising to 33 because Democrat Simcha Felder, who represents a large swath of bloc voters in Brooklyn, caucuses with the Republicans. Two sitting Republicans, Skelos and Deputy Majority leader Thomas Libous are under federal indictment and could well be out of office by next year’s election.  

          If the Republicans lose control of the Senate, all the power, perks and opportunities for self-enrichment go with it.  Is it any wonder, then, that Flanagan sees the necessity of staying in the good graces of a powerful special interest, the bloc vote?

          How close is Flanagan to the Orthodox community?  While the ERSD monitor legislation was pending in Albany Hamodia, the self-proclaimed Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry, carried an interview of the new Senate leader in which he promised to continue the “special relationship” his predecessor enjoyed with the Orthodox community, a bond that Hamodia claimed helped secure an unprecedented amount of aid for yeshivas.  Sen. Felder added that Flanagan has a proven track record, as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, of supporting the community and helping parents secure special education for their children.

          Translation:  Bloc voters should continue to vote for Flanagan and other Republicans because, among other things, he has eased the way for expensive private special education placements rather than less expensive public school placements.  Of course, one of the biggest Education Department findings about the mismanagement of the ERSD has to do with the board violating state law and often placing Orthodox students in expensive private placements when suitable public school placements were available.  Even worse, the cash-strapped district is denied state reimbursement due to the improper placements.

          Unfortunately, the public school students rolled snake eyes when Skelos handpicked Flanagan.  How about a “special relationship” with East Ramapo students and taxpayers? That will not happen because it’s much easier to sacrifice other people’s children, and spend other people’s money, for political expediency.

          More politics came into play.  According to a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, the “high-powered” lobbying firm hired by the school board, Patricia Lynch Associates, played a critical role in preventing the monitor legislation from succeeding.  This “high-powered” firm – “high-powered” yells out “sleazy” to me – helped promote the feeble “compromise” offered by the Senate leadership that would do next to nothing to ease the suffering in East Ramapo.  What the compromise was designed to do was to free up $5 million in state taxpayer dollars with ineffectual oversight so that the board could continue to mismanage, misspend and misdirect other taxpayers’ dollars – such as retaining expensive PR firms!

          Who is the lobbying firm’s point man on the ERSD?  Darren Dopp, a former political henchman for the disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer, who became Spitzer’s fall guy in the Troopergate scandal where Spitzer and his hacks improperly used the state police to spy on then-Senate Majority leader Joseph Bruno in an effort to politically destroy him.  My advice to legislators in Albany would be to lock the door and jump out the window when Dopp shows up!

          By the way, Patricia Lynch used to work as the communications director for the terminally smarmy former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who, not surprisingly, voted against the bill. Oh, I should add that in 2010 Lynch’s firm was implicated in then-Attorney General’s Andrew Cuomo’s “pay to play” investigation of improprieties involving the state pension fund and fined $500,000. She also was not allowed to appear before the Comptroller’s Office for five years.  (Do you see why the term “sleazy” fits so well?)

          Next, we come to some real cowards, New York’s federal senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Congresswoman Nita Lowey, all of whom have not lifted a finger or spoken one word on behalf of the predominantly black and Latino East Ramapo students.  Schumer should be singled out for special attention since for his entire political career an umbilical cord has tied him to the ultra-religious community, allowing him and the community to feed and feed off each other.  A few well-placed phone calls to community leaders from him would have ameliorated this problem years ago, but he’s too busy scheming to become US Senate majority leader someday (Heaven help us!).

          The Forward also credits the intense “one-man” campaign of County Legislator Aron Wieder, a former school board member and president.  It appears that Flanagan and his associates do not care that Wieder is (and was) part of the problem; he’s certainly not part of the solution.

          Despite the obviously unique issues of the ERSD, these forces promoted the lame excuse that the legislation would set a bad precedent for state intervention in a failing school district.  Evidently in the twisted world of self-serving politicians it is acceptable for “elected officials” to mismanage (and loot?) a school district and to fail to provide a constitutionally mandated adequate education.

          How powerful is the bloc vote?  So powerful that Flanagan ignored the earnest entreaties of all Rockland’s state legislators, Governor Andrew Cuomo, County Executive Ed Day (a fellow Republican), Merryl Tisch  (the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents who recently called for the resignation of ERSD superintendent Joel Klein), most Rockland county legislators, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the New York City Bar Association, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Rockland Business Association, the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice and countless others.

          There’s always a bottom line, and here it is.  Years ago the leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community decided to use their bloc-vote control to take over the school board by electing mainly puppets.   That was the means to an end:  diverting resources to the insular private school community and keeping taxes low, and that required drastic cuts for the public schools.  That insidious process has resulted in cuts to staff, education programs and extracurricular activities. Students now walk the halls in leaky-roofed schools (except for the newly roofed Hillcrest School that was sold to a favored Yeshiva at a cut-rate price) that are crumbling right before their eyes and under their feet.

          That agenda has now taken the form of Orthodox activists (the Forward’s characterization, not mine) using their statewide political clout and connections to block any attempt to legislate an effective monitor. All the resulting pain has been made possible by a handful of pusillanimous and selfish politicians who care more about themselves than they do about children in need.

The writer Michael Bongiorno served for 12 years as Rockland’s District Attorney and four as senior counsel with the New York State Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force.