BY JANIE ROSMAN
Dennis Walcott spent a busy day with East Ramapo students and teachers last week. “I went to a number of schools today and am dealing with opening day with its challenges,” he told the Rockland County Times last Wednesday, during a nine-minute conversation.
While his answers were nonspecific, he said, “There are a number of things in progress. The first week of school is chaotic. We’ll try to correct the challenges as quickly as possible. I respect the parents’ and students’ sense of urgency. Wait a few weeks after school opens and see where things will fall.”
It was the day after an emotionally-charged school board meeting attended by Dr. Monica George-Fields and more than one month since Walcott and his team got to work.
“When you have an elected board, the responsibility falls on the elected board,” Walcott recently told a News 12 reporter. Reminded that the East Ramapo school board blames the district’s conditions on lack of money from Albany, he said, “I do not agree with that. We should never allow money to be an excuse for poor performance.”
Taxpayers and parents slammed the board for its irresponsibility and lack of concern. During the public speaking sessions, former board member Steve Price said revenues exceeded expenses by $10 million in last year’s Treasurer’s Report. “The question is, ‘What happened to the $10 million?’” Price asked.
Walcott was asked about Title money going to Yeshivas, and about extending contracts to Community Education Center/Yeshiva of Rockland County (YARC) without taxpayer knowledge or comments.
“We’ll be taking a look at that,” Walcott said. “Some things that are financial in nature require deep analysis and allocation of funds. (Dr. John W.) Stipple is an expert in that.”
This reporter sent him pictures of district school buildings showing containers catching water from leaking roofs, a hanging ceiling in a hallway, a photo of mold on the ceiling. “We’ll be finding mechanisms and looking at where the staff and the state can have funds to do building repairs,” Walcott said.
Yet NYSED Director of Facilities Carl T. Thurnau, PE, maintained the schools are safe, and the district can only consider limited emergency repairs without voter authorization.
How will students make up their lost school years? How can they prepare portfolios for college without art and music? What about lack of AP classes, English Language Learning programs, and empty class schedules?
“Some needs may not be immediately addressed, something like reorganizing certain classes,” Walcott said. “Some issues may be long-term in the future analysis.”
Luis Nivelo and other parents in the community want action now. “I don’t think you need to be here for four months,” he told George-Fields last week. “You know already what’s happening here.”
To board president Yehuda Weissmandl, Nivelo said, “This time I’m speaking English because you (he pointed), Yehuda, you do not respect me.” (Weissmandl removed his headset while Nivelo was speaking at last month’s meeting.)
Lee Duncan of Pomona was enraged about the bus schedule she received one week before school started. “I have to drop my child off at 6:30 in the morning and pick him up at 2:45 in the afternoon,” she reproached the board. “That’s impossible! How am I supposed to do that? How can you sleep well in your bed at night?
As he did last month Dan Quintero of New City questioned the board about busing cuts for 15 (now 16) families who send their children to private Catholic schools. “All issues are on the table regarding busing,” Walcott assured. “We’ll be looking at every aspect including transportation programs.”
“When will Yeshiva students ride the same bus?” this reporter asked. “It would save money and reallocate funds immediately.”
That’s when — after only eight minutes — Walcott said, “I have to wrap this up.”
He advised putting things into context. “The board did adjust how it responded to a number of things. It’s making adjustments and suggestions, and trying to incorporate those. Give the board credit for tying to include that as part of the meeting process.”
While the board has no formal policy for responding to phone messages and email inquiries, board member Harry Grossman replied publicly to speaker comments made last month. He said the board apologized for not telling parents in advance about their children’s bus schedules, and a protocol was developed so Walcott can attend executive sessions.
That small consolation is hardly enough for Nivelo. “You come here to our community just to destroy it. You destroyed it,” he told the board. “So I ask you, when is your last day to stop doing what you’re doing? When will you leave us alone?”