East Ramapo parent and activist picks up debate where Thomas DePrisco and Trustee Grossman left off
OP-ED BY “POWER OF TEN” FOUNDER STEVEN WHITE
Thank you to the Rockland County Times for hosting a much needed debate between Pearl River School Board member and candidate for NY Senate Thomas DePrisco and East Ramapo District Trustee Grossman on the relative impacts of state aid cuts and school board mismanagement on the quality of education in East Ramapo. I have been analyzing and reporting on this issue at www.poweroften.us
for some time now.
The full extent of the impact of mismanagement may never be known, but certain aspects are well documented. In 2009, despite warnings from the superintendent of schools and longtime board members, a new law firm was brought in and they implemented a radical and expensive agenda. Legal costs skyrocketed from under a half million to over $3 million per year. This did not result in better services for the district. In 2015, New York State Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bucaria found that the district had paid $2,233,485.50 in legal fees for services worth only $187,500!
Poor legal advice led to a violation of the superintendent’s contract. The district ended up paying two superintendent’s salaries (over $500,000/year) plus legal fees. Poor legal advice also led to multiple citations by the state education department for illegally placing students in private schools at public expense. When the district ignored the citations, the state suspended reimbursements for these placements. The school board threw good money after bad by suing the state education department and even appealing when they lost that lawsuit (they lost the appeal too).
The response by school board defenders has been denial and obfuscation. The conclusions of the experts hired by NYSED are tossed aside just as they tossed aside the advice of former longtime board members and administrators. They find their own unique way to look at the data that somehow comes to a different conclusion than everyone else. Just by coincidence, their math exonerates them of any wrongdoing and places the blame elsewhere.
For example, in his letter to the Rockland Times, East Ramapo board member Grossman arbitrarily separates foundation aid from other types of aid. Foundation aid is based on the income and wealth of all district residents. Other types of aid address other factors such as special education and transportation costs. Different districts have different abilities and needs.
For instance, North Rockland residents have $1 billion less income than East Ramapo, but East Ramapo has more students receiving free lunch and needing special education. The only fair comparison is to look at the totality of the money coming from the state, not just aid based on one factor or another. East Ramapo receives a higher total amount of state aid than any other district in Rockland.
Mr. Grossman also incorrectly calls transportation a state mandate. Transportation is subject to local control; the state does not mandate universal busing. If a district chooses to bus its public school students, the state requires equal treatment for non-public students. Based on self-interest, non-public school users approved spending money on universal transportation. Those same voters have voted down more school budgets than any other district in New York State.
In my opinion, it is a disgrace that the state has failed to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. However, the data shows that local factors have had a larger impact in East Ramapo. The following table illustrates the total contributions from state and local revenue sources:
From 2010 to 2013 the state portion of funding Increased by 17 percent while local funding was up by only 2 percent. During that same period the school budget was voted down four times and the school board’s reckless mismanagement wasted millions of dollars. These are the years when the cuts to education programming were the most drastic.
Other districts responded to reductions in state aid by passing budgets that preserved the quality of education. Only in East Ramapo did we see people look the other way as their neighbor’s kids suffered. Voting records indicate that in areas where the majority uses non-public schools, support for the public school budget was as low as 4 percent!
East Ramapo residents pay 5.7 percent of their income, as a whole, in school tax. The average for Rockland is 7.9 percent. If East Ramapo’s local contribution was the same as the Rockland average, there would be $44 million more per year available for public education.
The consequence of a non-public school majority governing public education is that the needs and rights of the public school minority are unprotected. The state has a responsibility to fund education equitably, and also to ensure that schools are governed for the best interests of all students.