BY LEGAL LARRY
The recent chronicles of the East Ramapo School District are troubling to say the least. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the East Ramapo School District’s actions involves the callous disregard of the law by the school district and their attorneys.
Services the school district provided are cut to the bone by a huge defection of students attending private schools. Parents of mostly orthodox and Hasidic Jewish children are electing to send their children to private, religious schools rather than public schools within the district. However, whether private or public school, the school district is legally responsible to provide transportation to and from these schools. With all the defections of students, the school district finds itself on the verge of financial collapse.
Not all people are upset regarding the finances of the East Ramapo School District. The school district’s lawyer Albert D’Agostino, Esq. is smiling all the way to the bank. Hired in 2009 to represent the school district, Mr. D’Agostino’s pockets have become lined with money that should be going to the needs of the students.
In its current 2012-2013 budget, the school board approved compensation of $600,000 for its “main” attorney Albert D’Agostino. That is NOT a misprint. $600,000 for legal services to a school board that is involved in litigation with the State Department of Education and makes back-room deals with members of the orthodox community to sell off school property.
In 2011, the school district, with Mr. D’Agostino’s help, contracted to sell the Colton Elementary School located on Grandview Avenue in New Hempstead to Congregation Bais Malka and Hebrew Academy for Special Children, Inc. As a result of the deal, a contract of sale was prepared by the school district to the proposed buyers. However the contents of the contract of sale are indeed puzzling.
The proposed contract of sale provides that the school district issue a Request for Proposal (“RFP”) from the general public in an attempt to get the highest and best value for its surplus property. There is no problem with an RFP. However, the contract of sale allows the buyers Congregation Bais Malka and Hebrew Academy for Special Children, Inc. to “match” the highest price obtained. In other words, the buyers did not have to submit a bid on the property; they simply waited until all other unsuspecting legitimate bidders to submit their bids and were then allowed to match the highest bid. This type of contractual “deal-making” flies in the face of all laws that require competitive bidding on surplus property.
The contract of sale eventually signed between the East Ramapo School District and the buyers proposes a sale price for the 15 acre school of $6.6 million. After concessions made by the school district for work that needed to be performed, the adjusted sales price was $5,332,563. In 2011, the Town of Ramapo assessed the market value of the Colton School at close to $12 million.
Residents of the East Ramapo School District brought a Petition to the New York State Education Commissioner in Albany seeking to invalidate the transfer of Colton School. Last year, the Commissioner of Education halted the sale of the Colton School to proceed with an investigation.
Shocking as the dealings between the school district and the buyers of Colton School were, it was not the district’s first attempt to sell property to a religious group. Last year, the commissioner of the New York State Education Department annulled the sale of Hillcrest elementary school to a New Square Orthodox yeshiva. The Education Department criticized the school board for failing to take steps to get the best price for the property.
The June 6, 2011 annulment of the sale of Hillcrest Elementary School by state education commissioner David Steiner was another sign of trouble in the district, which is also the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The East Ramapo school board agreed to sell the Hillcrest school to Congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov for $3.1 million on July 28, 2010. The property had been appraised at $5.9 million but a second appraisal submitted July 26, 2011 curiously valued the property at $3.1 million.
After much criticism from the State and the failure to answer questions by parents of students within the district, the school district and Albert D’Agostino are at it again by knowingly violating New York State law concerning the Colton School.
Last year, the school district approached the Village of New Hempstead in an attempt to sub-divide the 15-acre Colton parcel. Subdivision would allow the school to sell the portion of the property where the school is located and continue to obtain rental income from an unlawful use of the other buildings on the lot.
After an informal meeting with Village officials, the school district thumbed their nose at the Village of New Hempstead and proceeded to sub-divide their property without following New York State or Village of New Hempstead laws and regulations. In July of this year, the school district, with Mr. D’Agostino’s assistance filed a deed subdividing the property in direct violation of New York State Village Law and the zoning provisions of the Village of New Hempstead. The Village of New Hempstead is considering legal action to reverse the unlawful filing.
In a period when tax dollars are stretched beyond recognition, the school district would be better served by working with parents and trying to provide education to its students. The adversarial relationship the school board and Mr. D’Agostino have created, only raises the suspicions that all objective outsiders possess when looking at the policies this board and this attorney have created. Also, when services such as kindergarten and speech therapy are eliminated in favor of paying a lawyer over half a million dollars per year, the school board’s priorities are questionable.
Tell us what you think. If you or someone you know has a child in the school district or had an encounter with the school board or its attorney, log onto www.rocklandtimes.com and go to the Legal Watch section. Share your thoughts or experience with other readers.