State Monitor gets an earful at his first East Ramapo School Board Meeting

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Members of school board/Credit: Len Tsou
Members of school board/Credit: Len Tsou

East Ramapo school board president Yehuda Weissmandl removed his headset as Luis Nivelo was speaking, a move that was not unnoticed by the more than 200 people at Chestnut Ridge Middle School Tuesday night.

Neither state monitor Dennis Walcott nor Dr. Monica George-Fields, a member of his new monitoring team, removed theirs. Douglas Gerhardt of the board’s new law firm Harris Beach PLLC held his up to one ear.

“One of the things I said . . . being relentless on the part of our students,” Walcott said last week at Rockland Community College. “We know when something’s not right. We will know when something stinks.”

Their visible presence was a relief for parents, children, educators and community members who talked about lack of music and art in schools, the board’s lack of transparency with the community and district shortcomings, reminding the board of its fiduciary responsibilities.

Kamila Isabelle Magana said losing music and art in her school was taking away their futures. “I won’t let that happen,” she said.

Her friend Isis Agustin told the board her friend Kamila loves to sing and won’t be silenced despite its absence in school. “Want to sing? Now?” Agustin asked, turning around to Magana.

Kamila Isabelle Magana (blue shirt) singing next to her friend Isis Agustin/Credit: Len Tsou
Kamila Isabelle Magana (blue shirt) singing next to her friend Isis Agustin/Credit: Len Tsou

Everyone stood when the 11-year-old started to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and joined her: “O say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave . . . “

The room burst into applause when she finished. Magana had a high IQ in preschool and kindergarten until she began first grade, her mother Yolanda Maya told the Rockland County Times.

“They changed her to another school, and it affected her because she had to leave her friends,” Maya said. “She’s been in four different schools in five years, and it’s affected her socially and emotionally. If a child is not happy in school, he or she cannot do well.”

Walcott, a grandfather, listened as he did last week when retired district employee Mae Davis stood up in her seat at Rockland Community College. “I need to say this, please let me say this,” she said, unable to contain herself.

Realizing Davis would not sit down, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia let her continue.

“Speak with the children. They are the ones you need to be speaking to,” Davis told then-new state-appointed monitor Walcott, George-Fields and John W. Sipple. “The district cut back on maintenance and custodians, used substitute cleaners and had only a skeleton crew.”

Walcott heard the same passionate pleas about replacing district superintendent Joel Klein and doing right for the children of East Ramapo.

Kamila Isabelle Magana's art/Credit: Janie Rosman
Kamila Isabelle Magana’s art/Credit: Janie Rosman

Michael Pedroza is in middle school, but already aspires to become a cardiologist. “How are we supposed to learn?” the seventh grade student asked. “I went from kindergarten to sixth grade, and they took away my music and my art. I want things to change. Now.”

“Who coordinates meetings of all the principals of lower-grade schools so that we have coordination no matter which school our children go to?” an educator queried. “Are all of our schools on the same page about classes offered?”

That’s exactly what Walcott and his team want to hear about as they mingle with the community.

Carole Anderson wanted to know the board’s policies and procedures for answering questions posed to the board during the public comment section and sent to the board via email and letter. Another resident asked where the district posts minutes of board meetings; another parent reprimanded the board for suddenly denying his children transportation to private school.

“I’m representing 15 families who feel a Christian education is what we want to expose our families to,” he said, “the same way our Hebrew brothers on the panel want to send their children to private school.”

Three months ago, three weeks before school ended, busing was denied the 15 families.

“This is about religious freedom, this is about religious rights and wanting the best for your children,” he said. “If we want to expose our children to a Christian education, we should have that right as East Ramapo taxpayers.”

Walcott, George-Fields and Gerhardt listened to everyone speak, using headsets when translation was needed. Weissmandl did not use his headset again after he removed it.

Monica George-Fields and state monitor Dennis Walcott listening with headset/Credit: Len Tsou
Monica George-Fields and state monitor Dennis Walcott listening with headset/Credit: Len Tsou

“While it was downright disgusting behavior, I’m glad Yehuda Weissmandl acted the way he did,” Ger Up, Stand Up: East Ramapo co-founder Eric Grossfeld said. “By taking off his headset during Luis Nivelo’s comments in Spanish, he showed in front of the new monitoring team how truly arrogant and disconnected he is from this community.”

Davis worries about her great-grandchildren in the district’s elementary school. “It’s time for Governor Cuomo to take a stand for the children of East Ramapo and to look at Spring Valley as a whole. The children deserve to know someone is fighting for them. It looks like nobody cares because if they did, they would have been here a long time ago.”

“I believe Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Tisch came to Rockland last week to try to calm the masses,” advocate Robert Kurkela said. “The only thing their visit did was energize the movement more.”

Before the meeting adjourned the board approved legal counsel for each member in the petition to the State Education Department to remove them and in the Supreme Court class action lawsuit calling for board members to reimburse the district $2 million in legal fees. Both were dated August 3, 2015, and received by the district seven days later.

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