The scandal-plagued haredi-controlled East Ramapo school district got state approval this week to sell the former Colton elementary school, which was closed by the district in 2009 when public school enrollment was falsely projected to be declining. Public school enrollment soared instead, but the district kept the school closed anyway and rented it to a haredi yeshiva. In 2011 it tried to sell the school for less than its true market value to that yeshiva. A court case stopped that sale. But now, three years later the sale to the yeshiva has been completed for the exact same sale price, $6.6 million – less rent credits which bring the actual sale price down to $5.1 million.
State Lets Scandal-Plagued Haredi-Controlled School District Sell School To Haredi Yeshiva At Questionable Price, Governor’s Fiscal Monitor Silent
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
The scandal-plagued haredi-controlled East Ramapo school district got state approval this week to sell the former Colton elementary school, which was closed by the district in 2009 when public school enrollment was falsely projected to be declining. Public school enrollment soared instead, but the district kept the school closed anyway and rented it to a haredi yeshiva. In 2011 it tried to sell the school for less than its true market value to that yeshiva. A court case stopped that sale.
But now, three years later the sale to the yeshiva has been completed for the exact same sale price, $6.6 million – less rent credits – which brings the actual sale price down to $5.1 million, the Journal News reported.
The yeshiva, the Monsey-based Bais Malka Congregation and the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, a Brooklyn-based religious school for children with special needs, got the $1.5 million rent credit even though it had been behind on its rent and even though the school board originally opposed the credit and state judge agreed with that opposition.
According to former local activist and parent Peggy Hatton, the sale price for Colton School is especially low, and pointed out two sales to compare it to.
• The former Rueben Gittlemen school located at 360 New Hempstead Road sold for $6,925,000 in September 2012. It sits on 6.7 acres of land which was included in the sale.
• 70 Highview Road sold for $7,000,000 in August 2012. It sits on 5.43 acres, which was included in the sale.
In contrast, Colton Elementary sold this week for $6,6000,000 less $1.5 million in rent credits for a total sale price of $5.1 million. But it sits on more than 21 acres of land, which was included in sale.
After other givebacks like repaving costs, asbestos removal, and the costs of other repairs, the school district will likely net about $4 million for the sale, Hatton said. But no one outside the board, district managment, the yeshiva, and the state – which reportedly approved the sale – know for sure, because the full contract for the sale has not been made public.
"This long-awaited and extensively reviewed transaction makes sense for the district. It clears the district of a continuing liability for the property and generates sorely needed revenues for public school programs,” Board of Education President Yehuda Weissmandl reportedly said in a statement.
Weissmandl and his board also approved the controversial $4.9 million sale of Hillcrest Elementary School to a Skvere hasidic yeshiva earlier this month; but the sale has not yet closed.
Under pressure from reformers, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a fiscal monitor for the East Ramapo district less than two months ago. But that monitor, Cuomo crony Hank Greenberg, hasn't spoken publicly since being appointed and state education officials didn't return a request for comment on the sales from the Journal News.
Previous attempted sales of the two schools are the focus of an ongoing investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office and hundreds of parents have also challenged the sales as part of a federal lawsuit against the district.
The second school, Hillcrest, is being sold to the same Skvere hasidic organization, Congregation Avir Yakov of New Square, that allegedly bribed the appraiser selected by the school board to handle the previous sale. The appraiser faces felony charges for allegedly accepting a $5,000 bribe from Avir Yakov to under-value the school.
That appraiser, Avi M. Vardi, was arrested in July 2013.
However his case has now disappeared from the New York State Court System’s website and its disposition, if any, is not known.
Local activists say they were told that Vardi's case was sent back to local prosecutors by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and that Vardi was scheduled to appear in a local court on July 28. Although Vardi was originally arrested on a felony charge, activists fear he may be recharged with a misdemeanor count or that the case against him may be dropped entirely.
The Skvere hasidic officials who allegedly bribed Vardi have never been named and have not been arrested or charged.
Much like Brooklyn, Rockland County is widely viewed as a center of corruption.
In March, Governor Cuomo abruptly disbanded the Moreland Commission, the anti-corruption commission he formed in July of last year when he was planning a 2016 run for national office. The commission was stopped from completing its work, and Cuomo was harshly criticized by many for abruptly shutting it down after he reached a weak deal for ethics reform with legislators.
Attorney General Schneiderman had made each commission member a Deputy Attorney General. That gave the commission real law enforcement power – something Cuomo apparently disliked.
Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which includes both Manhattan and Rockland County – and therefore East Ramapo – acquired the Moreland Commission's files and is using them to continue his own investigations into rampant political corruption in the state.