Taking it to court: lawsuit charges unfair representation in East Ramapo school district

BY JANIE ROSMAN

Determined to end a system that denies black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives on the East Ramapo Central School District school board, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Latham & Watkins LLP filed a lawsuit last Thursday against the district and NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

Eight plaintiffs, including the Spring Valley NAACP and seven black and Latino voters, charge the current system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and unlawfully denies black and Latino citizens in the district equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

The lawsuit seeks to have the district divided into nine wards, four of which would have majority-minority populations, NYCLU senior attorney Perry Grossman explained. Those majority-minority districts would offer minority voters an opportunity to elect candidates who will represent their interests and be responsive to their needs.

Voting in the district tends to mirror the population of the schools, which is 96 percent non-white; private schools are 99 percent white. White residents are a narrow majority of the district’s population; the at-large system has allowed them to elect eight of nine board members despite opposition backed by minority voters.

Chevon Dos Reis, who grew up in the district and has three children in its schools, is one of two plaintiffs who ran unsuccessfully for seats on the board in 2017 despite being strongly preferred by black and Latino voters. “It’s upsetting and frustrating to know that teachers and staff are not as accessible to our children as they were when I was growing up because so many positions and programs have been cut,” she said.

NYCLU contacted school board president Yehuda Weissmandl prior to filing the lawsuit with Latham & Watkins LLP on behalf of the district’s black and Latino residents, Spring Valley NAACP chapter president Willie Trotman explained. “We hoped the board president would sit down and talk with them.”

Weissmandl didn’t answer. Attorney David J. Butler with the Philadelphia-based firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP — hired at taxpayer expense — replied on behalf of the district.

Mr. Butler wrote that the district did not have the authority to create a ward system, and because there are three minority board members, there’s no need to implement one,” Grossman explained. “We disagree with both of those assertions (as) the board has the authority to create a ward system.”

Regarding the board members, the question is not whether they’re minorities themselves, but whether they’re the candidates of choice for minority voters, Grossman said.

Sabrina Charles-Pierre is the only current board member who ran on a slate backed by the public school community. She lost in 2015, but was subsequently appointed to a seat and won the election to fill the remainder of the vacant seat’s term in 2016. Charles-Pierre was not sworn-in until more than 30-days after her election, after which the board voted to halve her two-year term. Earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to reinstate her full term.

“We’re very optimistic that while it is an opportunity for individuals who live in all areas of the district — for example, on the outskirts in Pomona and New City — to have a candidate of their choice on the board,” Trotman said. “I don’t understand why the board is objecting.”

Andrew Mandel, co-founder and current secretary of advocacy group Strong East Ramapo, said during last May’s budgeting process, “the school board tried to prioritize extra private school busing over increased academic support in a district where less than one quarter of third-through-eighth graders are proficient in math and reading.”

When district superintendent Dr. Deborah Wortham asked the board if it had any questions about the (district’s) most recent test scores, Mandel said, “No one said a word. This underscores something critical. While the current superintendent is a champion for children, it is still a stunning fact that East Ramapo does not have sufficient advocates for public school governing the district.”

“This case is an extreme example of a common problem facing racially diverse school districts nationwide,” Grossman said at a press conference on Thursday. “Thankfully, the Voting Rights Act provides a remedy to change a system that has alienated minority students, parents, and residents from the school district, and that has fostered deep resentment across the community.”

Neither the school board and its attorney nor Elia replied to this newspaper’s request for comment.