The same week that Mishpacha published a panel discussion with four Orthodox members of public school boards (“In the Hot Seat”), Tablet Magazine carried a 15-page article (“The Blame Game”) by Batya Ungar-Sargon on the communal tensions arising from the election of a majority chareidi school board in the East Ramapo School District, which covers Monsey and Spring Valley. The Tablet piece fully confirmed, and even supplemented, the Mishpacha panel’s presentation of their interest in serving all segments of the larger community, not just the Orthodox population.
In an interview, Ungar-Sargon described the standard portrayal of the controversies in East Ramapo: Chassidim take over public school board in order to siphon off public monies from disadvantaged kids to pay for the schooling of their own special needs children. The New York Times, for instance, accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” And Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools.”
Admittedly, the visuals were terrible: The election of a majority Orthodox board in 2005 was followed in 2009 by dramatic cuts in the public school services, including the firing of teachers, with an attendant increase in class size, and the termination of almost all extra-curricular activities – e.g., sports and band. (Most of the extra-curricular activities have since been returned, after the school district obtained a grant from a private foundation.) And one appraiser was convicted of undervaluing a school building sold to a yeshiva.
But consanguinity does not establish causation. After months of scouring school budgets and tax rolls, Ungar-Sargon concluded that the cuts the education budget had been necessitated by the slashing of the state education budgets that cost East Ramapo $45,000,000 over a five-year period. Ungar-Sargon found that other nearby school districts had also dropped activities and fired teachers in response to similar cuts in state aid.
Ungar-Sargon also notes that the state formula for determining school aid rather dramatically disadvantages East Ramapo, and played a significant role in the reduced school spending. In establishing the district’s eligibility for supplemental funding, New York State relies on a formula that divides property tax revenues by the total number of students in the public schools. That formula makes East Ramapo look like a wealthy district when it is anything but. The public school population is heavily made up of African Americans and Haitian and Latino immigrants: 78% qualify for free or reduced lunches. The formula ignores that over two-third of the districts school children attend private schools, but nevertheless are entitled to costly services such as school busing and special education. (Ungar-Sargon calculated that the property taxes paid by private school parents comfortably cover the services they receive.)
Under state law, property taxes, from which the public schools are primarily funded, can only be raised 2% per annum, without a super-majority vote of taxpayers. In 2010, the well-organized Orthodox community easily voted down a proposed 10% property tax hike, and was accused of “depleting the resources of the already-strapped East Ramapo schools” for doing so. Yet not one of the 53 other school districts in Rockland County and adjacent Putnam and Westchester Counties voted to raise property taxes above the statutory limits, despite having to impose their own educational cutbacks.
UNQUESTIONABLY, ONE OF THE MAJOR REASONS that the Orthodox communities in East Ramapo and elsewhere have chosen to participate in local school boards is to ensure that the community receives the special education assistance to which it is entitled under federal and state law. Though Orthodox children constitute a large majority of those in the East Ramapo district, they make up only one-third of the special needs population. Yet the sums involved run into the millions of dollars, and are currently the subject of a federal lawsuit against the school board.
The lawsuit charges that the school board has failed to fulfill the mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to place children in the most mainstreamed option, which would be the public schools special education classes. Among other things, the Board is accused of not litigating against parents who prefer a private school option for their special needs children.
The issue is not one of costs. School Superintendant Joel Klein points out that even the most expensive alternative to public schooling in the district – busing children to the public special education school in the Kiryas Joel School district – costs less than per student than would special education in the district. And the Board is on strong grounds in arguing that it is saving money by generally avoiding litigation with parents because it would be likely to lose the litigation and be saddled with paying plaintiff’s considerable legal costs. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that IDEA’s mainstreaming mandate was designed to prevent schools from segregating special needs children, not to preclude parents from opting out of mainstreaming.
Still the lead attorney in the lawsuit accuses the school board of having accommodated Orthodox parents desire to “segregate” their kids. As an example, she cites the fact the kids in the Yiddish-speaking class recently instituted in one of the public schools do not eat in the school lunchroom. Neither the fact that many of the special needs kids Orthodox kids are fed through feeding tubes connected directly to their stomachs nor the requirements of kashrus that prevent the Orthodox children from eating in the school cafeteria mollified her.
The principal of the school, Nancy Kavanaugh, told Ungar-Sargon that the Yiddish-speaking program had “been a terrific experience in more ways than we had anticipated.” Some of the teachers, she admits, were initially wary of bringing in Orthodox teachers, but everyone had come to have great respect for Orthodox culture. “The teachers are absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “They are so loving.” But the thing that impressed her most: “They don’t gossip. It is a sin. So if you ask any of the teachers down there about a situation, they are very reluctant to speak ill of anybody. If they have an issue, they find a gentle, nice way to say it.”
Meanwhile Albany has appointed attorney Hank Greenberg as a “fiscal monitor” of the East Ramapo School. To which Superintendant Klein responds, “I welcome it because we have nothing to hide.”
On the evidence of the Tablet article, not only is there nothing to hide: The school board deserves kudos not brickbats, for the long hours dedicated free of charge to serving the needs of all the children of East Ramapo.