Rockland, state must rescue the kids of East Ramapo

Community View in The Journal News by Ed Day

Aug. 15, 2013

As a PTA Life Award winner and longtime youth coach, I am keenly aware that our young are our greatest resource. Each of us is responsible for protecting them, improving their lot in life, and preparing them for the future. This is why the situation our children are facing in the East Ramapo school district is so upsetting, and merits our attention.

Reduced pre-K, schools being shuttered and sold off for losses, dropping test scores, half-day kindergarten, cuts to BOCES technical programs, increased class sizes, canceled extracurricular programs, distressingly low graduation rates — these kids are suffering from a series of deprivations that simply cannot be tolerated.

The East Ramapo school board has abandoned their duties. We see criminal charges under their watch, dismissive and insulting behavior towards the kids and parents they are supposed to represent. Decency demands that where they have failed, where they are derelict, others in government must step forward. What these families typically get instead is lip service, political platitudes, or ignored completely. Sadly, politics overrules people as a matter of course.

While county government may not have direct say over school districts, I believe county leadership can advocate and act from the most prominent bully pulpit in Rockland. As a county leader, I will continue the push for a state takeover of the district as is authorized under current law. Recognizing the limitations by which the state can intercede in a school district, I will continue to advocate for the proposed state law, "S4183: An Act to Amend the Education Law, in Relation to Intervention in Chronically Underperforming School Districts," which has been languishing in committee. This law would set up a more flexible and functional system to allow the state to move in and appoint a caretaker school board if the New York state education commissioner determines that the current one is not acting in the district’s best interest, and a caretaker fiscal director to correct budgetary issues. We need to advocate, in Albany, for this legislation. When this law is passed, we must push forward for the state to take action using their new authority. That would provide short-term relief and stability to the district.

Aid, local control needed

We need to fix the systemic problems associated with a district in which a majority of school-aged children do not attend public schools. The current formula for public school tax aid of private schools, particularly in relation to textbooks, busing, and special education, simply cannot be sustained in such an environment. The state must implement a sliding-scale or ceiling-based adjustment to reduce and contain the massive outflows of cash from the public schools, possibly including a new method of collecting school taxes that accounts for areas with high levels of tax-exempt property. Related strategies include a by-parcel review of all tax-exempt property in Rockland County to ensure that those areas claiming exemption do in fact deserve it, whether it is the enhanced STAR exemption, religious exemptions, or veteran status-based exemptions.

Possible options for more balance include establishing single-member school board districts to ensure proportional representation. If such changes are not made, we will soon see a return to the status quo after the period of state takeover has ended — and the goal should be to be able to have true and effective local control in the long run.

The time for action is now. It is my hope that our state representatives put their full weight behind their recent announcements of support for various efforts to rescue the kids of East Ramapo. We cannot stand by as any one level of government buries my fellow Rocklanders with taxes, provides them ineffective services, or mortgages their children’s future.

The writer, a New City resident and Rockland County legislator, is the Preserve Rockland candidate for Rockland County Executive. (Preserve Rockland is the line on which the Preserve Ramapo candidates, local and county, will appear.)