New York State’s Department of Education has ended the sweetheart lease of the old Hillcrest School and its surrounding grounds in Rockland County to a Skvere hasidic yeshiva. The yeshiva leased Hillcrest from the haredi-controlled school board at 60% below market rate.
State Tells Scandal-Ridden Haredi-Controlled School Board To Evict Haredi Yeshiva, Void Illegal Sweetheart Lease
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
New York State’s Department of Education has ended the lease of the old Hillcrest School and its surrounding grounds to a Skvere hasidic yeshiva.
The ruling came in response to a petition by Robert A. Forrest, who is a parent of a local public school student and a school board candidate.
The petition alleged that the lease of the building and the 12 acres of surrounding land to Yeshiva Avir Yakov for a period of one year at $19,000 per month with an option to extend the lease for as many as four years with only a 2 percent annual increase per year – reportedly 60% below market rate – was signed without making a good-faith effort to rent the property at market rate.
In his decision issued yesterday, Education Commissioner John King, Jr. upheld Forrest’s most of petition. King reportedly found no evidence “that the Board took reasonable steps to ensure that it was getting the best deal possible in this instance.”
King’s order includes a warning to the school board regarding future disposition of that building and its grounds and any others the board may wish to rent or sell.
“Prior to disposing of school district property by either sale or lease, the Board take all necessary steps to ensure that it makes a reasonably informed decision and obtains the best deal possible, including taking any and all reasonable steps to assess the property’s fair market value or fair market rental value,” King wrote.
Forrest, who has been a candidate for the school board, said that the school district’s controversial lead attorney, Albert D’Agostino, negotiated the sweetheart deal that gave Skvere hasidim a lease at 60% below market rate.
“The property was leased to Congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov for approximately $252,000. In comparison, another school in East Ramapo was being leased by the district for approximately $760,000 per year. The Hillcrest lease equates to an economic loss…of $508,000 per year to the children of the East Ramapo Central School District,” Forrest said.
“This ruling by commissioner King substantiates the primary complaint in our civil rights lawsuit: that the school board is illegally diverting resources from public education to support the yeshivas,” activist Steve White, who also is the parent of a public school student, said.
D’Agostino declined to comment, also because, he told the Journal News, he hadn't read king's decision.
Superintendent of Schools Joel Klein and Board of Education President Yehuda Weissmandl did not return messages left by the JN.
Board member Bernard Charles, who headed the haredi-proxy slate in the last board election, declined to comment because, he told the JN, he had not read King’s letter, and because he claimed that he wasn’t familiar with the lease signed two years ago before he joined the board.
The closing of Hillcrest School in 2010 and its subsequent sweetheart lease to the Skvere yeshiva in 2011 have been major issues of public controversy in the district.
In 2010, the haredi-controlled school board tried to sell Hillcrest to Skvere in another sweetheart deal.
But White petitioned the state and asked it to block the sale based on the fact that $3.2 million sale price was less than a third of Hillcrest’s $10.2 million assessed market value.
Then-state Commissioner of Education David Steiner agreed with White and annulled the deal.
“I am constrained to find that the board abused its discretion by hastily approving the sale of Hillcrest to the Congregation and that such sale must be set aside. Further, prior to selling Hillcrest in the future, the board must take reasonable steps, consistent with this decision, to secure the best price obtainable for Hillcrest,” Steiner wrote.
The board evaded that ruling by leasing Hillcrest at well below market rate to Skver.
Forrest’s petition had also asked the state to review all property transactions made by the district, but King denied that request.
[Hat Tip: Devorah.]