BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY – Like many other locations in Rockland, the County Legislature has become a battleground between supporters and opponents of a fiscal monitor who might soon wield influence over the East Ramapo School District.
However, on Tuesday, supporters of the monitor scored two big wins when the legislature approved a pair resolutions with tremendous symbolic value for public school families critical of the decisions taken by the much-maligned East Ramapo school board.
With a near absence of opposition from a vocal minority of legislators, the legislature almost unanimously passed a memorializing resolution in support of Senate Bill 3821 and Assembly Bill 5355, which would provide state financial support to the beleaguered school district and allow the appointment of a monitor who would coordinate with the school district to form a five-year plan for its fiscal renewal.
According to Legislator Harriet Cornell, the state bills are a prominent county issue, making it critical for the legislature to make a clear statement on the matter.
“It means something,” Cornell said. “It says something to the people in Albany: We care.”
Cornell also stressed that the bills are an important step in the gradual process of mending the rift between public school families, many of whom are minorities and immigrants, and private school families, many of whom are members of the county’s ultra-orthodox community.
Legislator Toney Earl, who represents Spring Valley, echoed Cornell’s sentiments, arguing state intervention might be the last viable option to heal the divided community he serves.
“If we don’t get this monitor, I really don’t know what my community is going to do,” Earl said. “We’re really on life support now.”
The monitor would also wield veto power over the school board if it makes decisions the monitor feels are counterproductive, a facet of the proposal which has proven controversial and led a contingent of legislators to oppose the resolution. During a Multi-Services Committee meeting on April 28, Legislators Aron Wieder, Ilan Schoenberger and Phillip Soskin cast votes against a prior legislative effort to support the monitor, temporarily blocking it from a full legislative approval.
However, with Wieder and Schoenberger absent, only Legislator Philip Soskin was present to cast a vote against the resolution. Soskin, like other critics of the bill, argued the veto provision was anti-Democratic and undermined school board voters’ representation.
Soskin also listed off issues he felt had been ignored including economic rather than educational factors which contribute to climbing dropout rates and a lack of legislative examination of the widely-publicized state report by Hank Greenberg which formed the basis for the state bills. Soskin went as far as to accuse specific but unnamed school board opponents of attempting to unseat members to seize control of the body themselves and argued a significant portion of opposition was not local to Rockland.
Others on the legislature disagreed with Soskin’s assertion that the aid formula was solely to blame. According to Legislative Chairman Alden Wolfe, factors such as the state’s school aid formula undoubtedly contribute to the district’s troubles, but argued the disproportionate number of private school students could not be ignored and that an aid formula fix alone is not sufficient.
“The reality is that the demographics in this district are not going to change,” Wolfe said. “The disparity is not going to change and in all likelihood, the disparity is going to grow.”
Though most opposition came from the other side of the aisle, an absence of Democratic infighting might have also helped Democrat Richard Diaz, a longtime Valley Cottage resident an East Ramapo activist ease into an appointment as a county legislator.
Diaz’s appointment had been rejected at the same Multi-Services session where the first East Ramapo resolution failed to escape committee. His appointment was stalled by opposition from not only Republicans but also the same group of Democratic legislators who defeated the East Ramapo resolution.
With two of the three absent, Diaz’s second effort met with success. Additionally, the voting Democrats were more united in their support for Diaz, with Soskin changing his vote to support Diaz “due to timing and for peace within the legislature.”
According to Soskin, his prior was compelled by unspecified issues which were unresolved at the time. On Tueesday, he stated had the ability and desire to fill the District’s vacant seat.
“I voted as I did as there was a more pressing item on the table,” Soskin said.
Republicans Christopher Carey, Douglas Jobson, Patrick Moroney, Lon Hofstein and GOP-friendly Democrat Joseph Meyers voted against Diaz’s appointment. Though they all supported the East Ramapo oversight and voted for the memorializing resolution, many also expressed reservations about choosing a temporary appointment rather than organizing a special election.
Hofstein was particularly vocal in his support for a fiscal monitor, taking pains to distinguish his preference for an election from partaking in political games or placing partisanship before the welfare of East Ramapo students. According to him, such suggestions were immature and did not reflect on why he decided to vote against Diaz’s appointment.
“That’s adults not telling the truth,” Hofstein said. “Call it politics, but we would not accept this behavior from our children, so why would we accept it from adults?”
The appointment was narrowly approved in spite of Republican opposition due in part to Legislator John Murphy’s decision to dissent. Murphy argued his decision, though politically inconvenient, was consistent with his belief that District 11 residents deserved representation.
Diaz will serve until the general elections in November, when a permanent replacement for the slot once held by Legislator Frank Sparaco will be sought.