Bill in State Senate looked at skeptically
BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY – A much-anticipated proposal which would have lent official county legislative support to a pair of state bills authorizing a fiscal monitor for the East Ramapo Central School District failed in committee on Tuesday.
In spite of strong backing from most members of the larger legislature, the memorializing resolution, which would have expressed support for Senate Bill 3821 and Assembly Bill 5355, only gathered half the votes of Multi-Services Committee members. A minimum of a 4-2 majority would have been necessary to advance the bill to the full legislature.
Committee members Aney Paul, Lon Hofstein and Toney Earl voted for the resolution while members Ilan Schoenberger, Aron Wieder and Phillip Soskin voted against it.
The roots of the proposal lie in a report issued last summer by state fiscal monitor Hank Greenberg, who said that fiscal mismanagement and divisive maneuvers by the school board had driven a wedge between the religious community, whose children predominantly attend private schools, and public school parents, many of whom are from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds and felt ignored by the largely ultra-Orthodox Jewish school board.
In response, a coalition of state legislators from Rockland County crafted the state resolutions based upon Greenberg’s recommendations. If passed, the bills would appoint a state fiscal monitor who would work with the school board to craft a five-year plan to stabilize and improve district finances, redirect resources to East Ramapo for position and program restorations, enact changes to improve transparency and community engagement and allow the fiscal monitor to exercise veto power over the board in extreme cases when the board’s decisions are considered at odds with the district’s well-being.
Wieder, who had spearheaded efforts to counter the state bills, came out strongly against the resolution. The Spring Valley legislator has argued in the past that the veto power would disenfranchise school district voters and unfairly targeted East Ramapo at a time when the District’s cuts have begun to see restoration.
“I, for one, and I am only speaking for myself, will stand up for civil and voting rights for citizens of this county,” Wieder said.
Wieder also strongly alluded to the fact that the board was predominantly made up of Orthodox Jews who sent their children to private schools and suggested strong opposition to the board was due to its makeup. Legislator Ilan Schoenberger echoed some of Wieder’s sentiments, but argued the state’s education aid formula, which he characterized as unbalanced and over-simplified, was partly responsible for East Ramapo’s financial strain.
While Schoenberger stated that he did support some limited oversight, he was firm in his position against a reform as far-reaching as the one currently progressing in Albany.
“I will support a law that supports what I believe will do the right thing, not the unconstitutional thing,” Schoenberger stated.
Though many other legislators did not sit on the committee, most expressed support for the resolution. Legislator Nancy Low-Hogan stated that based upon the complete content of the proposals, she believed appropriate checks and balances had been built into the state bills and that the changes seemed reasonable rather than overbearing.
“The monitor is not there to run the district,” Low-Hogan said. “The monitor is there to monitor the district.”
Legislator Harriet Cornell agreed with the assessment, arguing a fiscal monitor would do more to mend divisions within the community than to work against the community’s interests.
Legislator Joseph Meyers took a stronger stance, arguing the school board was facing difficult questions tied to tense racial and religious divisions. Hence, Meyers posited that the board was under an obligation to concede some power in an effort to move the entire community forward.
“The question is, as my father said, who is gonna be the hero here?” Meyers said. “There should be nothing to fear and I think that is the route we have to take to heal this deep division.”
Though the memorializing resolution failed, it reflects only a small contingent of opposition to state oversight within the larger legislature. Last month, 13 legislators signed a joint letter to state representatives which expressed faith in Greenberg’s report and support for state oversight, including a fiscal monitor. The three legislators who voted against the bill on Tuesday also penned their own letter requesting state action in milder forms such as changes to the state aid formula, but stops short of more direct intervention such as veto power.
The discussion and failure of the bill also came on the heels of an announcement by the East Ramapo Central School District that their tentative $218.2 million budget for the next fiscal year would restore $1.2 million in cuts through a 1.26 percent tax levy increase. The new budget is set for a public vote on May 19.
Meanwhile in the state Senate, many lawmakers feared the proposed oversight of East Ramapo would set an undesirable precedent allowing other districts to lose their independence. Senator David Carlucci and Assemblymembers Ellen Jaffe and Ken Zebrowski support the oversight bill, as do many other local politicians including Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack, who traveled to Albany in support of the state oversight maneuver.