Power of Ten Update: Why Senator Flanagan is wrong when he says “We don’t need any new legislation” for East Ramapo

 

December 29, 2015 As Senate Majority leader, Flanagan is blocking legislation that passed the NY State Assembly, and that Governor Cuomo has said he would sign. This legislation is a compromise bill, which instead of removing the board and taking over the district would simply speed up the process of oversight by the State Education Department. Senator Flanagan thinks the history of failure to hold the East Ramapo school board accountable is proof that they don’t need more oversight. I think he is wrong, and I hope he will change his mind.
 


Here is a proof that more oversight is needed:

The East Ramapo school board tried to use the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) as an excuse to use public funds to pay tuition in private religious schools. The NY State Dept. of Education (NYSED) found this was a violation of federal and New York state laws and regulations. The NYSED findings were upheld by the New York State Supreme Court and the NY Court of Appeals. Since the excuse of following the IDEA was invalid, transferring taxpayer funds to private religious schools was a violation of the fiduciary responsibility of the board.

 

It took NYSED five years and two lawsuits to stop the practice.

About the IDEA: Before the IDEA, too often children with special needs were segregated and warehoused. The IDEA says children with disabilities must have an opportunity to be educated along with the rest of the children, in the “least restrictive environment”. If a school district is unable to accommodate a disability in a public school, then they must pay for that student to receive an education in a facility that does.

 

The school board also established a segregated environment within the public schools themselves.

The district used “Yiddish language” as an excuse. Whole wings and floors of buildings were set aside and apart, with different teachers, different schedules, even a different janitor. The NAACP filed a complaint to the Federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Once again, years went by before the district’s practices were found to be outside of the law. The district has now agreed to a plan, but whether and to what extent they will comply has yet to be seen.

 

The veto is not an extra power of the state, just a way for it to exercise its power in real time, before damage is done.

Altogether, there have been almost 10 years of delays in correcting district actions. These actions have cost the district millions of dollars and have contributed to cuts in programs and a decline in the quality of education. Had there been a monitor with veto power, obviously illegal practices would never have happened.

 

The board has engaged in a practice of real estate decisions that have benefited private religious schools and harmed public education.

In 2008, a reorganization review process was flawed by incomplete collection of data on population and housing. The Mayor of the Village of Spring Valley appeared at hearings and testified that a $1 billion urban renewal project was currently underway, and that new housing starts would mean many more new enrollments in the district. He was ignored, and the district’s projections were low by 14%. Instead of declining, enrollment increased by over 1,000 students.

The board used the flawed study as an excuse to close and then sell two school buildings. The sales of the buildings continued even after the enrollment increased.

In July 2010 Hillcrest school was sold for $3.1 million to Yeshiva Avir Yaakov (YAY). An appraisal of $5.9 million had been obtained before receiving bids. A second appraisal for $3.2 million, by Avi Vardi of Appraisal Group International, was done after the bids were opened.

 

Community activists discovered that the second appraisal was a fraud. It misrepresented a “comparable sale” of a school which, in fact, never occurred. That sale was listed as “Comparable Sale #2” of a school building sold for $1.9 million, however, records from the Town of Ramapo indicate “land only”. The property documents indicate that it is a parking lot.

An investigation by the NY State Atty. General revealed that someone associated with YAY arranged for Vardi’s services in preparing the appraisal. Then, on July 16, 2010, a member of the East Ramapo Board emailed Vardi’s private cell number and other contact information to the Board’s attorney. Later that afternoon, that attorney hired Vardi to furnish his appraisal of the Hillcrest School to the District in time for a July 28, 2010, Board meeting.

 

The appraiser was found guilty of felony filing a false instrument. The Atty. General was unable to pursue the investigation into the role of the school board in obtaining the fraudulent appraisal because the school board sued the AG to prevent release of 1,300 documents, claiming attorney-client confidentiality. The case is still open.

The Commissioner of Education annulled the sale. However, the board leased the building to YAY. Commissioner King then annulled the lease. The board then sued the Commissioner, but lost. YAY occupied the building the entire time. An independent valuation of the property concluded it was worth $11.32 million. Its final sale price was $4.85 million.

 

While the Atty. General was still conducting an investigation of the previous sale, and while the financial monitor, Hank Greenberg, was conducting his investigation, they sold the school again to YAY.

The school board continues to claim that because it has gotten away with all of the above, that is proof that a monitor with veto power is not warranted. Senator Flanagan (so far) agrees with them. I believe that any reasonable, unbiased individual with full access to the facts will come to the opposite conclusion. It is exactly because the school board has been so successful in gaming the system that the appointment of a monitor with veto power is necessary.

 

-Steven White, editor Power of Ten
poweroften@npogroups.org