STORY BY JANIE ROSMAN
Within his first five minutes as the new state-appointed monitor in East Ramapo, former New York City schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott knew he had his work cut out for him.
“I’m here to make sure the children of this district receive the best education possible,” Walcott told the packed Rockland Community College auditorium this afternoon, promising to be “relentless on behalf of our students.”
He, NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and NYS Board of Regents Dr. Merryl H. Tisch assured parents and students, “We hear you.”
Walcott will have no veto power, a big disappointment to the crowd.
“If we see anything being done against state or federal law, then we will address it immediately with the board, which is expected to cooperate to address it, and if not, then it goes to the commissioner, who can act if it is determined laws were broken,” Elia said.
Beginning Friday Walcott and his team — Dr. Monica George-Fields, a former principal and a consultant to schools, and Dr. John W. Sipple, a professor at Cornell University — will spend a few variable days a week visiting classrooms, working with administrators, meeting on corners, in barber shops, talking with community.
The team will also study how funding formulas impact the district.
Regarding school board executive session, Elia said, team members will attend those meetings, “and if the board invites them into executive session . . .” her sentence was interrupted by booing and “nooo” from the crowd.
“Mr. Walcott will be involved in many of the things across the district you have identified,” she said, citing the team’s pre-September involvement. “After they’re identified, we will immediately try to take whatever actions possible.”
This reporter asked how students will make up lost time and class work from the past two or three years.
If the monitor found a student didn’t meet the requirements for graduation, then immediate action would be taken to get it addressed, Elia said. “I think it’s important that we have a team in place before school starts to look at those issues.”
Many said the issues are already known and want immediate action. One parent angrily cited the summer camps operating in district schools from the end of June to the end of August that exclude public school students.
“There are currently two active Office of Civil Rights investigations regarding allegations of civil rights abuse in the district,” Get Up, Stand Up: East Ramapo co-founder Eric Grossfeld said. “Following complaints by myself and Robert Kurkela, the Office of Civil Rights is looking into violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, pertaining to segregation at Elmwood Elementary and religious camps that operate on public school property over the summer.”
When asked if Walcott would submit another report like Hank Greenberg’s, Elia said his report “was not done with a lot of involvement from the community” or “involvement with specific groups.” Theirs is a “very different approach.”
“Let’s hope this won’t be Greenberg 2.0,” Antonio Luciano of East Ramapo Underground said earlier that day. “The district needs help; now let’s hope something gets done.”
Roughly 9,000 students attend public schools and 24,000 attend private schools, many of them Yeshivas.
School board president Yehuda Weissmandl affirmed the board’s commitment to cooperating with the State Education Department. “We want to do whatever is in the best interest of the children of this district,” he said after the meeting.
“I’m incredulous that the commissioner feels she needs to identify the issues in the school district,” Grossfeld said. “The issues plaguing this district are well-known and have been thoroughly documented. Albany needs to stop talking, stop surveying and finally take action. They can’t waste another second – our children cannot afford it.”
Advocate Robert Kurkela was “appalled at the constant praise given to the school board, especially after the Greenberg report. It added insult to injury and made it worse” for those there. Kurkela cited the lack of Latino representation in the plan “and (referring to monitors’ presence at school board meetings) they’ll be invited to attend executive session? That’s a joke!”
Walcott will present a report to the Regents in December so it can process his recommendations before the legislative session starts in January.