Hoping for a Jury Trial: Lawsuit against East Ramapo School District continues

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A multitude of allegations against the East Ramapo Central School District are detailed in a lawsuit — Montesa v. Schwartz, 12-cv-06057, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan) — filed on behalf of parents, students and taxpayers by public interest law firm Advocates for Justice on August 8, 2012.

Grievances alleged against the district’s school board include selling school property at below market prices for private school use, special education funding and buying religious textbooks, all of which plaintiff’s contend demonstrate a religious bias by the board’s majority Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish members.

“This is a First Amendment lawsuit; it alleges violations of First Amendment establishment clause; it is not a class action lawsuit,” Laura Barbieri, counsel for the plaintiffs, explained. “It alleges the school board violated the constitutional rights of students in the district in favor of the religious interests of the Hassidic and Orthodox community and is depriving public school children of a sound-basis education and an opportunity for achievement and a quality education.”

The lawsuit seeks at least $10 million jointly and individually from all defendants. If the case goes before a jury, and the defendants are found liable, they may be required to reimburse the district.

“There are people who have timed out by graduating, moved out or left the district schools and those who are tuckered out,” Barbieri said. “They’re understandably unhappy about how long it’s taking and how nothing they can point to is being achieved for the kids still there.”

While waiting is a byproduct of litigation “quite a number of things have been happening,” she said. Following tumultuous and reprehensible behavior, the district’s former law firm Minerva and D’Agostino was replaced by law firm Harris Beach PLLC at the board’s July 7 organizational meeting.

State-appointed fiscal monitor Hank Greenberg reported last November (2014) that “aspects of the district’s special education program are noncompliant with state and federal law” and concluded special education costs “consume an enormous portion of the district’s budget” calling the district’s special education program a “source of controversy, litigation and misunderstanding.”

East Ramapo Underground radio co-host and frequent board critic Peggy Hatton recalled the district was cited three times in less than two years by NYSED for making improper special education ‘settlements’ at the parents’ request.

“White Orthodox and Hasidic students would attend outside (Kiryas Joel) and private schools when there were classes to accommodate these students within the district that could have accommodated the students in the Least Restrictive Environment,” Hatton said.

When the board sued the NYSED it was found not to have standing to bring the case and filed two subsequent appeals that were unsuccessful. NYSED sanctioned the board and instructed the district to submit all settlement requests for prior authorization in order to receive reimbursement.

“However, the district chose to not seek authorization or reimbursement for the ‘settlements’ from NYSED,” she said. “This action caused the ERCSD taxpayers to pay the full tuition for improper placements at a time when public school services were being drastically cut.”

Barbieri said the plaintiffs are pushing for forward motion in the case. “We have to get in front of a jury.”

Two appeals in the Second Circuit must be decided before the federal lawsuit can be concluded. Barbieri said the defendants are costing the taxpayers additional money by appealing. “There’s also a serious issue that funding the defense [with taxpayer monies] has been a breach of fiduciary duty to protect the funding for the district’s public school kids,” Barbieri said.

According to a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last March (2014), the requirement for children to mainstream in the least restrictive environment was intended to prevent schools from segregating disabled students from other students and not to restrict parents’ options when the schools did not comply with Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requirements.

Schools must mainstream kids whenever possible although parents can opt out of mainstreaming. This does not mean kids whose parents keep kosher (and thus are not allowed to eat with other students) are eligible for public funds.

Section 1983, a civil rights law, allows plaintiffs to bring a lawsuit against a school district or official for violation of a federal right, where otherwise there would be no remedy for the violation.

Only current district residents remain eligible for the lawsuit. “It’s understandable that people have moved out and have taken their kids out of school,” Barbieri said. This mean they’re no longer eligible to remain plaintiffs.

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