The East Ramapo school board, controlled by haredim, fired its long-time attorney last year and hired a attorney who specializes in helping haredim cannibalize school districts they take over.
That attorney orderd a second appraisal of the property discussed below, and the board sold the property to hasidim at what appears to be a price far below market rate.
Now non-haredi citizens of east Ramapo want answers, and the school board is covering up:
East Ramapo denies requests for school appraisals in Hillcrest sale
Steve Lieberman • Journal News
East Ramapo school district officials have declined to release the appraisals used in the sale of Hillcrest Elementary School and 12 acres to a New Square congregation, a sale being challenged as improper by a district parent before the state education commissioner.
A second appraisal procured by the district's lawyer — and approved about three weeks later by the Board of Education — estimated the property's value at $3.2 million, nearly matching the $3.1 million sale price for Congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov.
The second appraisal came in considerably lower than what officials have said was an estimated $5 million value assessed by the first appraisal authorized by the Board of Education, and the $10.2 million value estimated by the Clarkstown Assessor's Office.
Resident Steve White's appeal seeking to block the sale argues the district failed to get market value for the Hillcrest school property and the board's ultra-Orthodox Jewish members showed favoritism toward the New Square congregation.
The district clerk has denied a request for copies of all the appraisals sought by The Journal News in a Freedom of Information Law request, which included the names of the companies that did the work. The clerk also denied White's request for the documents, according to his appeal.
"Please be advised that your request for copies of the appraisals for and correspondence between school district officials and attorneys with the appraisers is denied," District Clerk Cathy Russell wrote in an e-mail dated Aug. 9 to The Journal News.
"These records are intra-agency materials or attorney/client communications that are not subject to FOIL," she wrote. "Opinions and recommendations that would, if prepared by agency employees, be exempt from disclosure under (FOIL) as 'intra-agency materials' do not lose their exempt status simply because they are prepared for the agency, at its request, by outside consultant such as the appraisers."
The Journal News has appealed the denial to Schools Superintendent Ira Oustatcher, who has been on vacation and is expected back to work today. Russell approved the release of all other documents sought by The Journal News' Freedom of Information request and provided some of the documents.
The district can legally release the appraisals if it chooses to, but is allowed by law to deny the public access to the documents as intra-agency communications, said Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. Freeman is considered the expert on the state Freedom of Information Law.
Freeman said that in his experience, most government entities release appraisals, if sought by the public, after the sale has been completed when information would no longer jeopardize a sale or negotiations.
"Although FOIL permits an agency to withhold the documents, it's permissive in nature, meaning the school district, in this case, can choose to disclose the information to the public," Freeman said. "After a deal is consummated, there is no particularly good reason to withhold."
All questions on the decision to withhold the appraisals were referred to the school board's lawyer, Albert D'Agostino of the Long Island-based law firm of Minerva and D'Agostino.
D'Agostino, who advises the board, the superintendent and district clerk, didn't return an e-mail asking for comment. He did not return several telephone messages.
Board of Education President Nathan Rothschild said Friday that he couldn't comment, citing White's appeal with the education commissioner seeking to block the sale of Hillcrest Elementary School.
"In this case, there is litigation out there from Steve White," Rothschild said in a follow-up telephone call on Friday, "and I can't answer."
The Journal News also e-mailed questions concerning the appraisals to board Vice President Aron Wieder, and Trustees Stephen Price, Richard Stone and Suzanne Young-Mercer.
Wieder and Young-Mercer didn't respond to the e-mail. Wieder didn't return telephone calls to his personal phone and to his office in Spring Valley Village Hall. Rothschild said he was told Wieder was traveling in Europe.
Stone responded with a "no comment."
Price answered the questions, writing that he likely would vote to release the appraisals to the public if the issue came before the school board.
"However, as I am at this time unaware of any legal reason why the appraisals should not be released and, since there are no pending bids or decisions on these properties, I would be in favor of releasing the appraisals," Price wrote.
It remains unclear who authorized D'Agostino to seek a second appraisal on the Hillcrest school and property on Addison Boyce Drive in New City, just outside the Hasidic village of New Square.
It's also unclear whether school board members received their own copies of the second appraisal before they voted to sell the school.
Price said he didn't recall being given a copy of the first Hillcrest appraisal and he received the second appraisal from a school board member Aug. 4 during a meeting.
"There is some question regarding the distribution of the second Hillcrest appraisal," Price wrote. "I cannot explain why I did not receive a copy of the second Hillcrest appraisal from the district. ... So, I do not know how this appraisal was distributed to the board."
Price said he didn't recall any board discussion authorizing the second appraisal, but he acknowledged he left an executive session early July 13, when the issue might have come up.
The school board voted 6-1 Aug. 4 to approve the authorization given July 13 for D'Agostino to procure a second appraisal to determine the current fair market value of the Hillcrest School for a $3,500 cost.
Price abstained from voting and Young-Mercer voted against it.
Price wrote that he was not informed between July 13 and 28 that a second appraisal was being prepared other than a possible action after executive session.
The board voted July 28 to sell the school to the New Square congregation.
"I do not know why a second appraisal was needed," he said.
Price said he was traveling on business and missed the meeting on July 28, writing, "I was very surprised to learn that Hillcrest had been sold."
Colton sale questions
Price also said he never received the appraisal for the Colton Elementary School, which the school board voted to close in 2009. The school is now being leased to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregation.
Price and Young-Mercer are considered the representatives of the public school families on the nine-member board.
Six Orthodox Jewish men with no family in the public schools hold a majority on the board.
Rothschild also is Orthodox.
Jonathan Burman, a state Board of Education Department spokesman, said appraisals are necessary because a school district has a "fiduciary responsibility to obtain the best possible price for property" owned by taxpayers.
White, an activist and school board critic, contends residents should get to vote on whether they want to sell the school. He noted the district approved the sale even before the education commissioner has ruled on appeals by district parents Peggy Hatton and Antonio Luciano challenging the board's decision to close the school.
White argued in his appeal that the school board "did not make a good-faith attempt to obtain the best price for the school."
His appeal included appraiser Robert Forrest's appraisal that concluded the property's fair market value was $13.2 million. White also noted the district had made $3.5 million in improvements through state funding to the Hillcrest school since 2001.
"The fact that this amount is greater than the sale amount agreed to by the board indicates that the sale amount is wildly lower than the actual value of the property," White wrote.
White's appeal also includes accusations that Hasidic Jewish members of the school board and Richard Stone, who is Orthodox, have ties to New Square and the congregation that purchased the school.
White's appeal included photos of several school board members with New Square leaders and the trustees being referred to as "our candidates from within the community in the village of New Square."
Additional Facts On the Web
Questions about appeals to the state Education Department: http://www.counsel.nysed.gov/appeals/faqs.htm
[Hat Tip: Burich.]