Social Injustice

The following essay currently appears on the New York Jewish Week website.. (My regular weekly essays appear in the Wednesday edition of Hamodia.)

It was Albert Camus’ insight that bad things often result from ignorance, and that “good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

He could have been writing of the good souls whose desire for social justice has impelled them to smear members of the East Ramapo School District board for increased public school class size and cuts in school programs and extracurricular activities like sports and music.

A Jewish group, Uri L’Tzedek, is among the critics of the board, and contends that the majority “fervently Orthodox” members of the school board have been unfair to the primarily African-American, Haitian and Hispanic public school student population. In the pages of the New York Jewish Week, a founder of the group, Rabbi Ari Hart, amplified its objections in passionate terms (“East Ramapo’s Children Are Suffering”). Unfortunately, passion is no replacement for understanding.

Rabbi Hart claims to have conducted a “careful review of the facts” and to have spoken to “leaders from the Jewish and non-Jewish community.” But he apparently didn’t speak to any of the members of the school board. Had he done so, he would have encountered the critical fact that undermines the slander he has accepted and promoted.

State funding to all school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers. Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.

For most school districts, where the large majority of students attend public schools, the state aid formula accurately identifies districts that are poor and require more aid, and those that are wealthy and require less aid.

East Ramapo, however, has an odd demographic: approximately 20,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about half that number in public schools – and relatively high property values, resulting in a totally skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth. The district is thus funded, pursuant to the statutory formula, as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state – when it is in fact one of the poorest.

The bottom line result is that the state provides the district with insufficient funds for meeting anything beyond the bare-bone requirements of the law.

Some of those requirements, like per-student book allocations and bus transportation, apply not only to public school children but to their nonpublic school counterparts (who also need textbooks and a way to get to school). The district would be in stark violation of the law were it to direct resources to the public schools that would entail neglecting its legal obligations to the nonpublic schools.

No evidence has been produced that the East Ramapo School Board’s members have dispersed the state and other funds entrusted to them in anything but a responsible manner, meeting the state’s mandated requirements before budgeting other programs.

East Ramapo Superintendent Joel M. Klein (who is not an Orthodox Jew) has noted that program cuts were due to $10 million worth of cuts in state funding and $960,000 worth of cuts to federal funding.

“You can blame it on Jews, you can blame it on yeshivas,” said Mr. Klein, but the flawed state aid formula and funding cutbacks are the real culprit.

“When you lose $10 million on a $200 million budget,” he explained, “you have to make cuts. One year it’s arts and music, the next year it’s full-day kindergarten. We had to cut over 400 staff positions. No matter who was on the board, they would have made the same decisions.”

To insinuate, as Rabbi Hart and other crusaders against imagined charedi villains have done here, that East Ramapo school board members have somehow favored yeshivos over public schools is unjustified, irresponsible and dangerous, as it fosters anti-Semitism, which in fact is reported to have increased in recent weeks.

A malodorous red herring thrown into the mix by Rabbi Hart involves a sale of an unused public school building to a yeshiva. An appraiser was accused of having assigned a value to the structure less than its market value.

Superintendent Klein, however, notes that the school board was not aware of the undervaluation. And, in any event, it was not part of any pattern, and has no pertinence to the board’s allocations of the funds entrusted to it, which have treated public and nonpublic school students equitably and responsibly.

In his quest to portray East Ramapo school board members as Shylocks, Rabbi Hart invokes the celebrated halachic decisor Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who unequivocally forbade yeshivos from taking government funds for which they do not qualify.

Rabbi Feinstein’s responsum is indeed important and binding – and irrelevant to the problems in the East Ramapo school district. Be that as it may, using it to tar good people who are endeavoring to do exactly what it instructs is uncouth, indeed odious. A more basic text that Uri L’tzedek would do better to ponder is Leviticus, specifically the verse “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger among your people.”

And all the vocal critics of the East Ramapo school board would do better to focus their passions on advocating for an intelligent state funding formula for the district – the lack of which is the real problem here.

© 2014 New York Jewish Week

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