Disenfranchising a school community

Community View by STEVEN WHITE
(Original Publication: August 1, 2006)

A local board of education is primarily responsible to the school children and indirectly responsible to the community at large, because an educated population is a general benefit to all. It has only limited responsibility to private schools, which have their own boards that are responsible exclusively to the children who attend those schools.

It may be difficult for those who have been responsible only to their own special community to understand the more complex public accountability to people who are not in your own group. This raises a concern that public school board members with ties to a community that does not use the public schools may act on behalf of their own community at the expense of the larger community they have sworn to serve.

Unfortunately, this appears to be the case in the East Ramapo Central school district. The board, with seven of nine members from the private school community, is taking bids on 20 acres of property adjacent to the Lime Kiln School in Wesley Hills. Retention of this property costs the district nothing, and many members of the public, including the PTA president, teachers, parents and local property owners, came to a public hearing to recommend alternative uses. Since the private school community has a strong preference for development, while the public school children's advocates are in favor of preservation, pursuing the sale of this property would seem to indicate that the new board members find their responsibility to their own special community more compelling than their duties to the public board.

Perhaps it may be shocking to the reader to think that a local elected official could abandon his or her responsibilities so quickly. However, there was another surprise at that meeting illuminating their motivation and methods. A letter from a group claiming to be the driving force behind the private community's involvement in school board elections was submitted into the record by board member Mimi Calhoun. The letter threatened to remove her from the board if she failed to cooperate, by offering not to challenge her seat if school board members "work with each other."

The East Ramapo school district truly has its own set of exciting programs and dedicated staff, as well as unique and perplexing challenges, apart from hosting a segregationist community. The parents and the staff continue to celebrate, dispute and make progress for the children and the larger community. It is sad that they must now do so while looking over their shoulder at a board the agenda of which is so different from theirs.

I hope that the current board members will reflect on what it would be like if the boards of the schools where they send their children had a greater alliance to some cause other that of the children who attend those schools.