The Haredi-Induced Death Of The East Ramapo School District
For the past five years news reports detailing the destruction of the East Ramapo School District have appeared on a regular, and recently daily, basis. This once-proud and superlative school district has been ravaged by mismanagement and the shortsighted agenda of the ultra-Orthodox majority on the school board.
THE DEATH OF A ONCE-PROUD SCHOOL DISTRICT
Michael Bongiorno • Our Town News
For the past five years news reports detailing the destruction of the East Ramapo School District (“ERSD”) have appeared on a regular, and recently daily, basis. This once-proud and superlative school district, that encompasses a section of Clarkstown, has been ravaged by mismanagement and the shortsighted agenda of the ultra-Orthodox majority on the school board. As a 1974 graduate of Spring Valley High School, I find these events especially disturbing.
The most recent revelation is that despite exorbitant school property taxes, the district faces a $6 million– and growing – budget deficit for the current school year. Part of that deficit stems from the district over-budgeting approximately $2 million in revenue from Medicaid reimbursement. This deficit continues to grow even in the face of layoffs and large cutbacks in student programs. At a minimum, the huge deficit symbolizes the incompetence that grips the ERSD, an incompetence that may have crossed the line into illegal and even criminal conduct.
While most elected officials have ignored the cause of the public school students in East Ramapo, a small but growing group of parents has taken action to protect their children. Showing remarkable courage and fortitude, the district’s critics have filed a petition with the state Educational Commissioner to remove five board members for a “pattern of impropriety” and to appoint a monitor to oversee the district. An even larger group has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against current and past board members, claiming they improperly diverted millions of dollars to private schools.
The lawsuit details a long and troubling record of board actions, most of which have been reported by the press. The lawsuit highlights the attempted sales of the Hillcrest and Colton schools to Yeshivas at bargain-basement prices. After minimal advertising over a very short time span, the board agreed to sell Hillcrest, which is located in Clarkstown and is appraised on the town’s tax rolls for approximately $11 million, for only $3.1 million. The attempted sale took place after the board called for a second appraisal that miraculously appraised Hillcrest at only $3.24 million after an initial appraisal valued the school at $5.9 million. Evidently even the low $5.9 million figure was not low enough for a board intent on selling the school for less. According to the lawsuit, the comparable properties used to reach the final low appraisal were undervalued, and the Town of Ramapo records for one comparable sale property indicate that the sale was for “Land Only”!
The actions of the board were so irresponsible that the state Education Commission, following a petition filed by a parent, took the extraordinary step of invalidating the sale. The Commissioner has also temporarily halted a similar undervalued sale of the Colton school. In a recent interview the former president of the school board, Morris Kohn, admitted that the board did not exercise due diligence, as legally mandated, in seeking the highest possible price for the schools.
In that same interview Kohn made his most revealing --- and upsetting – comment. He admitted that the religious board members listened to and adhered to the advice of a separate board of rabbis, especially when it came to the “larger issues” confronting the school board. Would those larger issues include the sale of schools for one-third their true value? Did the Yeshivas seeking to purchase the public schools have representatives on the enigmatic board of rabbis? If so, was pressure put on board members to sell the schools for a fraction of their true worth? Why would a public school board allow a private cabal to influence or control the decision-making process?
The board’s machinations have caught the attention of the state Attorney General who has initiated a long-term investigation into the attempted sales of the schools. This is not surprising – or perhaps it is -- since the chronology of events has all the hallmarks of a classic bid-rigging scheme. Time will tell if the AG concludes that criminal charges and/or civil action are warranted.
The citizens’ lawsuit also sets forth the case of the missing $2.4 million worth of textbooks, including possibly improperly purchased religious textbooks, loaned to private schools. The books are unaccounted for, and the Comptroller could not ascertain what happened to the books due in large part to a lack of cooperation from the private schools that received the books. How are taxpayers to know that these books have not been stolen or improperly transferred to schools outside East Ramapo? Hopefully the AG’s investigation will come up with an answer to this question.
The silence of New York’s elected officials to the plight of the predominantly black and Latino students of the ERSD is an example of political cowardice in the extreme. Profiles in political courage have been in extremely short supply. This silence is especially deafening since the damage to the district is so severe that Harry Phillips, the Rockland/Westchester/Putnam representative to the State Board of Regents, recently decried that the school district was “shafting the public-school kids.”
Why has it fallen upon private citizens to bring attention to this dire situation and request investigations and intervention? Where are our illustrious senators, publicity-hound Charles Schumer and the sphinxlike Kirsten Gillibrand? Has either of them spoken up on behalf of the thousands of students being shortchanged on their educations? Would they be so silent if Evangelical Christians pulled the same stunts against impoverished students in upstate New York or Tennessee? If you thought the Ramapo town supervisor or members of the town board would be incensed on behalf of their constituents, you would be woefully mistaken. Has Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Congressman Eliot Engel or any county or state legislator (other than Joe Meyers) called for an investigation or shouted out to protect East Ramapo’s disadvantaged children?
No, they have not, and that speaks to the political power and influence of the religious bloc vote, the same vote that elected the school board members in the first place. Fortunately, we have not yet reached the point in America where the voices of average citizens can be totally ignored by political elites. There are profiles in courage in this sordid situation: the East Ramapo parents who have taken it upon themselves to persistently challenge the powers in charge to seek justice and an education for their children.
Michael Bongiorno is a former Rockland County District Attorney.