View: Reframe the East Ramapo debate

Community View--The Journal News by Bruce Levine
December 30, 2015

Fix state aid, find more revenue for education, respect freedom of religion issues. But East Ramapo school board still needs a monitor, with veto power

Dennis Walcott, who led an East Ramapo monitor team appointed by the state education commissioner, recently issued a report that, like a previous report by fiscal monitor Hank Greenberg, called for passage of state legislation that would create a strong state monitor for the troubled school district.

Almost immediately, last year's divisive debate re-started. Leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community claimed that their community was "stabbed in the back." Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan stated about the re-introduced legislation: "We're not doing that."

Members of the school board believe that the solution lies entirely in getting more state funding; public school advocates believe that issues of governance and issues of funding must be addressed together.

Both are likely to be disappointed.

This is not to say that the arguments of each side are equal. The federal government determined that some racial discrimination claims about special education placements were founded. The state Education Department noted that, even last year, its regulations for English language learners were not met. The school board refused the extra state approved spin-up funding because it required limited oversight by public school parents. It is true that there were crimes committed (an appraiser hired by the district pleaded to a misdemeanor) and that the former Hillcrest school building sold for less than fair market value. Discretionary decisions led to cuts to public school programs.

While supporters of the school board focus their arguments on the concepts of democracy and home rule similar arguments were employed by segregationists in the Deep South school board governance is a function of state law. Just think about the state granting New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg authority to run the school system, thereby eliminating elected local community school boards.

Change the political dynamic

Stalemate is not a solution. Both sides need to find common ground without demonizing the other. And the political dynamic in East Ramapo and in Albany must change if the interests of public school students are to be advanced this year. Here are my proposals, which address both funding and governance:

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo should change the school foundation aid formula in his Executive Budget to address the special needs of districts with a high proportion of private school students (30 percent or more) and very poor districts whose aid is diminished by rules that create a floor to the level of poverty. There is a legitimate basis for both of these existing rules, so I propose a phased-in change: add 5 percent of the private school students each year, allowing up to 50 percent of the private-school population to be counted and reduce the floor for poverty by a similar phased-in percentage.
  • The Rockland County Legislature should seek home rule legislation to add one-quarter of 1 percent to the county sales tax to be initially shared by the county (to help with its deficit) and all the county school districts for 10 years. Then the entire tax will be dedicated to education. All of our public school districts need additional funding, starting with the full restoration of Gap Elimination Adjustment funding that was lost due to the Great Recession. This permanent non-property tax funding should yield about $15 million a year to help fund our public schools. Recognizing the special needs of East Ramapo, the division of these revenues should be based on the school-age population of each district. Yonkers has a sales tax for education. Why not Rockland County?
  • East Ramapo does need a continuing special state funding line of about $15 million per year. This, however, should only be appropriated after the passage of the strong state monitor legislation that I support.
Respect differences

The language used to argue for a monitor also needs to be sensitive to all communities. To address what I consider a legitimate concern about the strong state monitor legislation, I propose that draft legislation address legitimate fears concerning the monitor's power to end gender-separated busing for private schools. Both Hank Greenberg and Dennis Walcott specifically addressed this as an issue. The issue of separate buses for boys and girls as requested by many Orthodox schools and their parent communities is creating fear among many moderate Orthodox Jews in East Ramapo.

Outsiders think of Rosa Parks and the segregated public transportation that existed in the South and in the North until the Civil Rights movement changed everything. Here, however, legitimate concerns over freedom of religion come into play. The difference is simply this: racial segregation aimed at subjugating an entire group of Americans; gender-separated busing for private schoolchildren is chosen by the parents of the children in keeping with their religious beliefs. Any proposed monitor legislation should remove this issue from the political debate.

There may be other issues of contention that should be carved out as exceptions to the legislation. Perhaps the Commissioner of Education should be involved more directly in working with a strong monitor to negotiate specific courses of action and the hard feelings caused by some very difficult decisions. Discussions about a proposed monitor law should be held openly and respectfully in the spirit of finding a compromise that does not compromise the best interests of the public school children.

Gov. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Flanagan, our local state legislators, the members of the East Ramapo School Board, advocates on both sides of the debate should courageously embrace these ideas for the sake of all of the students of East Ramapo.

The writer, Bruce Levine, is a Montebello resident and former chair of the Rockland County Legislature.