Community View in The
by Lou Grumet
New York leaders once again
ignore problems, just as they did in early days of Kiryas Joel
For over a dozen years, or more than the entire education of an
individual child, the political decision-makers of the State of New
York have failed to find a solution to East Ramapo school district’s
One side talks about not having sufficient resources; the other
talks about discrimination against minority children. Both may be
right. Meanwhile, the state performs periodic investigations, but
does little to resolve the issues, including dwindling education
quality for public schoolchildren, poor management of the district’s
limited resources and a rapid growth of a private-school community
that demands resources.
There is a sad sense of deja vu to those of us who watched a similar
lack of resolve in Kiryas Joel school district, not far away.
Indeed, the connections between the two school districts are more
than coincidence — most of the disabled children in Kiryas Joel were
placed there by East Ramapo, instead of serving them in the home
In the 1980s, the Satmar Hasidic sect that constitutes virtually the
entire population of the Village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County
decided that they could no longer afford to provide adequate special
education services to their large population of disabled youngsters.
The rest of their students were all served in yeshivas, since they
did not want their children to mix in the public schools. The
yeshivas were paid for by the parents. The community reluctantly
sent their disabled youngsters to the Monroe Woodbury school
district, which had an excellent program.
The public school district showed incredible insensitivity to
religious issues, and took the Satmar children who only eat strictly
kosher food to a field trip to McDonald’s. They had one child play
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in a Christmas pageant. The Hasidic
parents made their own missteps, demanding that female school bus
drivers not be allowed to drive boys to school.
The state Education Department, which was aware of these issues, did
nothing to try to help the district work out these issues, which
seemed fairly easy to solve. Tension grew with each incident, and
litigation finally resulted. The courts told the district to resolve
it. There was no resolution.
Finally, then-Assemblyman George Pataki introduced legislation that
established a separate district to only serve the Satmar, and which
was to be carved out of Monroe Woodbury. Both sides supported it,
and it breezed through the state Legislature, almost unanimously.
But this plan had significant constitutional problems. It would have
been the first governmental body in the country that was created
specifically for the use of one religious group.
After trying unsuccessfully to get Gov. Mario Cuomo to veto it, I
filed litigation on behalf of the New York State School Boards
Association. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which
ruled the district unconstitutional. The state Legislature tried to
keep the district alive twice with similar legislation that was
thrown in two New York Court of Appeals decisions.
Finally, the Legislature enacted a broad law that was no longer
based on religious criteria. It would allow other dissident groups
to form their own school districts. A second one, however, has never
State must act, now
What started as a local problem of insensitivity that could have
been easily resolved locally evolved into a decade-long political
battle at the state level, then a constitutional battle at the state
court and Supreme Court levels. This all wasted a decade of energy
that could have been better spent on improving education.
The way it is supposed to work is that majority rules; however
minority rights are protected by the state and the courts. When the
state fails to do its duty, the courts are the only protection left.
The lesson of this exercise? Our strong system of democratic
governance can get fragile when issues don’t get resolved through
Similarly, in East Ramapo, had the state acted strongly, in a timely
fashion, the problems had answers. The commissioner of education
should have intervened with district finances and special education
placements. By neglecting to do so, the state has left these matters
to become further inflamed.
It is well past time to admit that the governance structure is not
working in East Ramapo.
The sometimes discussed solution of a separate district for the
Orthodox is not only unconstitutional — as was Kiryas Joel — it
simply would not work. Unlike the totally contiguous Satmar
population in Kiryas Joel, which had clear boundaries, the Orthodox
community in East Ramapo is spread throughout the wider community.
The school board should have been made accountable or removed. If
that is not thought to be viable because the majority of the
district has chosen to not get involved in elections, then the
regional BOCES superintendent should be ordered to take the district
into receivership. If there is not courage to do that, the state
should consider eliminating the district and dispersing the student
population into surrounding school districts that can handle the
What needs to happen is that governing bodies must do their jobs,
according to state and federal laws. Now.
The writer, a former executive director of the New York
State School Boards Association, was the plaintiff in litigation
against Kiryas Joel, which led to the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case,
Board of Education of Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet. His
forthcoming book, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a
Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church
and State,” coauthored by John Caher, will be released April 1 by
Chicago Review Press. He lives in Manhattan.