'Tyranny of the majority' in East Ramapo

October 7, 2015 Community View in The Journal News
Spring Valley NAACP president says East Ramapo board's lack of understanding, and interest in, public education does irreparable harm to students.

Members of the Spring Valley NAACP recently met with Dennis Walcott, who leads the state-appointed East Ramapo Central School District monitor team. The monitors were named by the state Education Department following a November 2014 report, "East Ramapo: a School District in Crisis," by state-appointed fiscal monitor Hank Greenberg.

The Greenberg Report describes East Ramapo as being "on the edge of disaster." It describes the board as selling district property at below fair market value, misleading the public, lacking in transparency, lacking understanding and empathy for cultural differences, and losing control of board meetings. Greenberg also found that public school parents perceive the board as favoring non-public schools over public schools.

The NAACP continues to be troubled over the irreparable harm East Ramapo public school students have been experiencing for years resulting from a school board that lacks an understanding of, interest in and commitment to the values and purposes of American public schools. East Ramapo is a district where the majority of public school students are children of color and the majority of the board is largely invested in the interests of children attending religious schools composed mostly of Caucasian children.

The monitoring team has been reviewing the poor conditions of school buildings, the district's fiscal practices and professional development of staff. Leaking roofs, broken bleachers and rodent infestations should be addressed. However, these are the effects, not the causes, of East Ramapo's crisis. Neither is lack of state aid the cause. Most New York State school districts have had to endure serious budget cuts due to state tax caps and economic downturns. But they are not in crisis.

The majority of board members represent a community whose beliefs are antithetical to the values and principles of American public schools. When an authority democratically supported by a majority of its subjects makes policies or takes actions benefiting that majority, without regard for the rights or welfare of the rest of its subjects that's known as the "tyranny of the majority." In East Ramapo where most public school students are immigrants and/or poor, the results of this tyranny are poor academic performance, low morale and ongoing erosion of hope and optimism. Tensions, anger and resentment between board and parents are palpable.

We hope the monitors will address board members' behaviors that have led to these tensions such as helping them alter the ways they interact with community members; reducing their time in executive sessions during board meetings; fostering an appreciation among board members for a safe and orderly environment at school buildings including posting "no-trespassing" signs to enable parents to feel their children are safe; and encouraging them to devote substantial time for discussion of educational concerns at board meetings.

We urge the monitors to exercise the will and authority to conduct a thorough, transparent examination of the board's structure, decision-making processes and inherent values concerning decisions that have been made during the past nine years that have led to the dismantling of a public school district. This is necessary lest we become victims of Santayana's admonition "those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it."

We have faith that Mr. Walcott's findings will be consistent and concurrent with those of Mr. Greenberg's. If this is the case, we expect his recommendations would concur with Mr. Greenberg's for the appointment of a state monitor with real-time veto power over board and administrative decisions. If Mr. Walcott's findings and recommendations differ radically from those of Mr. Greenberg's, the differences in themselves between two distinguished, renowned and experienced professionals should all the more justify the appointment of a state monitor with real-time veto power over board and administrative decisions.

The above addresses the short-term crisis in East Ramapo. Given the demographics of East Ramapo, the matter of "the tyranny of the majority" is not easily resolvable. Therefore, for the longterm, the NAACP recommends the formation of a state-sponsored blue ribbon task force of educators, social scientists and finance specialists to address the special complexities of public school governance when those schools fall under the control of a board that does not value public education. Such circumstances were likely unimagined when local control of education was originally conceived and these particular laws and regulations put in place. The task force would be charged with developing a school governance paradigm responsive to the political, social and fiscal realities of a time not envisioned.

We wish Mr. Walcott and his colleagues well in this important endeavor.

The writer is president of the Spring Valley branch of the NAACP.

Willie Trotman, President
Spring Valley Branch NAACP