School News

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.

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12 Responses

  1. Yehoshua D says:

    One of the most popular radio programs in America, This American Life, dedicated a full hour to this issue last week. One should listen to that program as well in order to get a more well-rounded understanding of the topic.

  2. Y. Ben-David says:

    This dispute illustrates a sea-change in the attitude of traditional religious Jews to the non-Jewish governments they live under. One of the major criticisms of those religious Jews who are critical of Zionism and the state of Israel is that they “antagonize the goyim”, while pointing out that the traditional attitude of Jews towards non-Jews should be a low profile and to avoid drawing attention of the non-Jews towards the Jewish community. In this dispute and the policies we see that this has lead to a major change in that traditional religous Jews are now involved in high-profile political maneuvering (e.g. in endorsing political candidates and ensuring a very high voter turnout in his favor among religous Jews) in addition to seeking large-scale government (i.e. taxpayer-funded) budgets for their institutions as well as welfare benefits for low-income religious Jews. They are indeed attracting a lot of attention in the non-Jewish media and people I know who are involved in these matters are saying that it is stirring up a lot of antisemitic responses. I presume those who are advocating this sort of activist political action will say “America is different”. Is it really? Will the long term economic stagnation in addition to the moral, ethical and ultimately spiritual decline the US is facing give the traditional religious community the same ability to maneuver without fanning the flames of antisemitism the earlier generation of leaders warned about in dealing with non-Jewish governments?

  3. Chochom b'mah nishtanah says:


    How can you say that the piece on NPR is “more well rounded”? He did not even speak to the school board members. His story comes from raconteurs who have spewed the most vile hate towards the Board Members specifically because they were Jewish. It is all on publicly available video. His premise that something is wrong is because he thinks the board should have raised the tax levy by 25% even while enrollment was decreasing by over 10% (of course he does not stress the decrease. There needed to be some fiscal responsibility where there was none.

    By law the school board must spend down reserves, they are limited to how much of the annual budget they can be. Yet they were more than double the allowable amounts. The state comptroller has been issuing finding after finding for School Districts that did not spend down reserves and just increase taxes.

    The cuts that are being made to the budget are not unique to ERSCD, similar types of cuts have been made in over 50 school districts in the state. What is unique to the school district is that there are Jewish students who are also part of the district and eligible for services and that there are Jewish board members who are a convenient target. Not at all something new in history.

    When the school district announced over $30 Million to be used for repairs and upgrades to the school facilities, do you think these same so-called activists who are also the commenters on the LOHUD blog (and it the same few over and over again and the same who disrupt school board meetings)were still at the abhorrent “best”. There is nothing the school board can do that is good.

    Those alleged activists (think Al Sharptonesque and Tawana Brawley) are the source for your “well rounded report”. What is was “well round the bend”.

    For shame.

  4. Charles W. says:


    Batya Ungar-Sargon’s article was a whitewash. Read some of the the 118 comments there, the facts on the ground are not with her. (Not all commentators to articles are bad people, I’m not either a bad person). The biggest issue I have with your article is the condescending way you write it, like we’re all supposed to go, “Oooohhhh, I get it now, it was all just a big misunderstanding and right, right, everyone’s an anti-Semite and the Chassidisher Yidden on that board really do care about the non-Jewish children there.” Please. Don’t insult our intelligence, because many yeshivish people like myself are not interested in being spoon-fed news according to your understanding. The biggest mistake you made is that you didn’t read the comments over there at Tablet of Peggy Hatton. She is an advocate for that school board and there are a slew of videos posted on YouTube that show the Yidden there acting in a disgusting and despicable manner. Please don’t give me some line about being melameid zechus those videos, please, again, don’t insult our intelligence. The videos don’t lie and the facts they display are disgusting and what a groisser chillul Hashem it is. There is an investigative radio journalism program, (on the This American Life program entitlted
    “a not so simple majority”)that did a very good piece on this issue and it ain’t pretty. So Batya Ungar-Sargon is by all means not the last word and her piece was a whitewash to anyone who’s honest. Just search on YouTube East Ramapo School Board or Hasidic school board videos and you’ll find a bunch of them, especially when they hired that law firm from Long Island, making multiple votes on VIDEO and passing recommendations against the cries of all the parents there without virtually any discussion or objection. Not properly or appropriately dealing with any of their concerns, and not really listening to them as it displays. And then the previous president Daniel Schwartz giving a whole schmooze to the non-Jewish parents about anti-Semitism and it’s ugly head rearing itself over there. Please. What a crock. I am a good Yid and I thank G-d don’t live over there in Monsey, but that school board on VIDEO (just YouTube it for 15 minutes!) is indicative of everything that is wrong with Yidden in Galus. They are way too comfortable acting like thugs and Italian mafiosos and hustling people out of services, and being content with their block votes then actually realizing that Yidden should not exert that type of political power in Galus. And what if, chas vashalom a million times, one day the goyim there are fed up and violently act against the Yidden, chas v’chalilah, but then what? Isn’t any Rav in Monsey concerned with that? Or are we just too happy with our political power and financial influence because many Yidden, Baruch Hashem, make a good parnossoh. That’s not the frummer form of Judaism I was raised with and I certainly don’t stand for it or accept it, shame on them a million times for acting that way without bushah on video, and shame on you for not knowing the facts and writing this article. Aside from that I wish you a kesiva v’chasimah tovah and a gut g’bentscht yuhr and all the best.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Y. Ben-David made an apt point above. Naturally, everyone wants to exercise his rights to the fullest extent that his political clout permits, but in our ongoing golus all our political rights are shaky.

    Also, the federal system and constitutional government have been mangled a bit lately. The current Justice Department, for example, is not shy about mixing in where certain minority groups are involved in local situations, whether or not there is an actual injustice to be remedied or a valid federal power to be exercised.

  6. Yehoshua D says:

    Chochom b’mah nishtanah: Please read more carefully. I didn’t write that the This American life report was more well rounded. I wrote that if one wants to get a more well rounded understanding, one should listen to that program as well. The pro-school board position is advanced in this column and in the Tablet article it links to; that program gives a different perspective. As ot the specific issues you raise, those who hear all sides of the issue are free to make up their minds as to which version they find more convincing.

  7. brooklyn refugee sheygitz says:

    Just to add to Y. Ben-david’s point – could it be that the very existence of the State of Israel is what allows for this major change in political maneuvering by charedi elements?
    IE as much as they don’t want to admit it, is the existence the State of Israel “insurance policy” what allows Satmar to pursue the contitutional and legislative challenges with respect to teh school district issues?

  8. Chochom b'mah nishtanah says:


    Poor apologetics. You don’t suggest an article by David Duke to get a “well rounded understanding” of the Jews.

    So too, you cannot suggest this story as a basis for a well rounded understanding of the ERCSD situation. He did not even speak to the board members, on the rabble rousers.

    It is as bad or even worse than relying on Sam Heilman for understanding Frum Jews. It is so far off base.

  9. A Simple Jew says:

    Chochom b’mah nishtana
    The NPR program [Google: this american life majority ramapo] does give the “other side”. It is noteworthy that the interviwer did try to speak to board members but was shut out of any interviews or chance to talk to them.
    Even if one would call their story one-sided, the chilling behavior of the board’s legal counsel is a Chilul Shem Shomayim B’Farhesia.

  10. Chochom b'mah nishtanah says:


    There was a good reason why they did not talk to the reporter. It was a decision based on past experience.

    There is no way he presented both sides of the story without having any information from the board.

    As far as the lawyer goes, this was a non Jewish lawyer who lost himself (I am not condoning his act) after being constantly badgered, harassed and worse by a hateful foul mouthed person who eagerly provoked him. The lawyer was removed from working for the district. I don’t even know if he still works for the firm that advises the board and the district.

    The firm is still engaged, but they are almost one of the only firms with the relevant expertise AND they removed the one lawyer from doing any ERSCD cases.

    I fail to see how there is a chilul Hashem here. This was a disagreement between two foul mouthed non Jews.

    Though I believe your tack is informative of your position. And if is similar to Peggy Hateon’s and that of so many “friends” of ours throughout the generations. Blame the Jews for everything that goes wrong. B

    And that’s the Simple truth.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Perhaps, one issue that warrants further discussion and exploration is whether a blank check for public education from universal pre-K to high school without any improvement in such issues as the relationship between single parent families and crime or in graduates capable of going to college has any impact on the population served by the school district in question.

  12. A Simple Jew says:

    Reb Chochom,
    You must have a different set of facts:
    From what I saw/heard:
    1. The board did have a chance to rid themselves of the bully/aggressive/gross attorney, which they only did after the last and most horrible incident. He was clearly a paid pitbull who they kept around as long as they could.
    2. You did not address the fraud issues.
    3. It is simply not true that in the greater NYC area, there is only one form with education law expertise. That is ridiculous. Try google if you need help on this.
    In addition, your email is indeed informative of YOUR position: Hear no evil, assume all is fine. If frum Yidden are involved, there is only L’shem Shomayim and Kiddush Hashem.
    4. All this debate over facts is irrelevant, as an independent investigator now has the case.
    5. The board has so many opportuntirs to show how frum Yidden can act above board at all times, with derech eretz, even when being firm and principled in their decisions. They missed the chance every single time.
    Perhaps we, as a klal, need to start reacting more passionately to fraud, as the newspapers are riddled with Orthodox schemers on their way to Ottisville.
    You can stomp and yell “unfair” all you want. That doesn’t help the situation. You can yell “it is just the few” all you want. That solves nothing.
    We are an AM Kadosh and we need to act like it.
    In the meantime, Hashem’s holy name is desecrated.

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