East Ramapo School Board Faces Class Action Lawsuits

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School board members were served/Photo: Eric Grossfeld
School board members were served/Photo: Eric Grossfeld

School board members were served with legal papers Tuesday night in front of a packed audience at Kakiat Elementary School auditorium minutes before the meeting started.

The location was moved to accommodate the larger crowd.

Angry parents and educators carrying protest signs and demanding equal treatment for minority students watched as the board — save for Bernard Charles and Yonah Rothman, who were absent — left their seats as community members served them.

Public interest law firm Advocates for Justice is representing the plaintiffs, who allege the board breached its fiduciary duty “due to hiring excessively expensive attorneys, imposing excessive hourly rates and excessive time charges, and failing to review attorney bills, and agreeing to overcharges” and causing “ongoing and irreparable injury and harm.”

“You have removal of the entire board,” Robert Kurkela said. “The legislature isn’t meeting until January, and it will be a whole year.”

Kurkela notarized the petitioners’ signatures for the lawsuit, and after they were served, he notarized the Affidavits of Service. “The Commissioner of Education has the ability to remove board members if they have broken fiduciary responsibilities, and this board has by overspending $2.2 million,” he said.

Former board members and the district’s former law firms Proskauer Rose, LLP, and Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, LLP, were also named in both this and in a second lawsuit filed Tuesday in State Supreme Court that details how board members overspent federal and state funds, and includes findings from independent fiscal monitor Hank Greenberg’s report.

“They’re appealing (asking) the State Education Department to remove the board members pursuant to Section § 306 of the education law,” Laura Barbieri, counsel for the plaintiffs, explained.

Plaintiffs are also asking the court for reimbursement of legal fees above and beyond the $187,500 stemming from ongoing civil rights lawsuit filed by public school parents against both the largely Orthodox school board and its individual members for allegedly sending public funds to private religious schools.

The district asked for the $2.2 million it spent defending school board members in a class-action civil rights lawsuit between 2012 and 2014. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bucaria ruled that the case did not present any novel challenge to the district’s law firm and thus the exorbitant costs could not be justified.

Several factors are involved, Barbieri said. “There’s the Hank Greenberg report detailing excessive legal fees, and the board just hired a competent law firm at $200 per hour. This demonstrates to the community that a reasonable fee is $200 an hour. Why are they paying a law firm $650 per hour? To spend that much money between August 2012 and mid-2014 it outrageous, and it doesn’t include money spent since then.”

Klein and the board left immediately after the meeting as protestors held signs and asked him to resign his position.

School board president Yehuda Weissmandl released a statement the next day regarding opponents’ legal action.

The progress will continue and expand, Weissmandl said, exuding praise to the school board and “the outstanding people who are our teachers and administrators (and many people in the community) committed to that.”

“There are, however, some in the community who are relentless opponents of the board and district,” he said. These individuals clearly believe in what they are fighting for, but their actions aren’t constructive.”

Weissmandl cited the opposed bond act that would have provided money to repair school facilities, the failed compromise legislation when the oversight monitor bill failed, and the lawsuits served the board because the district incurred significant legal expenses in recent years.

“The common thread in all of these positions is that to make a political point, these individuals are willing to do something that goes against the interests of students,” Weissmandl said. “This lawsuit is a clear example of that. It will only serve to drive up the very legal fees they are complaining about. It will only siphon off resources that could be used for school programs.”

Since the district changed law firms to reduce legal fees and resolve ongoing matters, the new lawsuit negates the process, he said.

“Again, we respect those who disagree with us,” Weissmandl said. “We respect their right to protest and to use the court system. At some point, however, this community, as a whole, must come together. We must overcome our differences and focus on what will help students.”

Betty Carmand, a plaintiff in both lawsuits, said her son will begin 7th grade next month. Carmand is running for Rockland County Legislature in District 8, where all seats are up for grabs in the 2015 general election.

“It’s important “to fight for what is right. We’re angry about the money spent on legal fees, and we’re going to come to every rally until Klein resigns,” she said of the weekly summer protests organized by advocacy group Get Up, Stand Up: East Ramapo.

The group will protest Saturday at noon at Spring Valley Memorial Park. For details visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/getupstanduper/.

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