Law firm will be replaced, but underlying conflicts remain
BY CHERYL SLAVIN
Over 100 parents, students and community members rallied outside the offices of the East Ramapo School Central School District Tuesday night to demand the ouster of the school board’s law firm, Minerva & D’Agostino, and the intervention of the State Department of Education. In the end the crowd got some of what they wanted, but noticeably absent was an apology from the board.
The protest was organized by the Save Our Schools Coalition in response to continuing abusive and disrespectful behavior by the lawyers, in particular attorney Chris Kirby. The most recent incident, which occurred on July 2, involved a verbal assault against parent-activists Peggy Hatton and Antonio Luciano.
Kirby had mocked Hatton and told her to “shut up” during a school board meeting, taking the name of Jesus in vain in the process by saying “Christ’s sake,” and afterward, as seen in a video that has gone viral, cursed at her and Luciano in the parking lot and challenged Luciano to a fight. This incident follows on the heels of another that took place on March 5 in which lead attorney Albert D’Agostino barked at a student who had attended a board meeting.
The simmering tensions between the community and the school board were evident as the Rev. Weldon McWilliams, a youth minister in Spring Valley, and young East Ramapo student Glenn Edwards led the loud but orderly crowd in repeated chants against the board.
Many elected officials, including county legislator and county executive candidate Ed Day, former village justice and county executive candidate David Fried, Legislator Toney Earl and State Assembly members Ken Zebrowski and Ellen Jaffee, also attended the rally to condemn the actions of the attorneys and to show support for the community.
Both David Fried and Ed Day have contacted the Grievance Committee for the Ninth Judicial District to pursue disciplinary action against Kirby, with Fried holding that nothing short of Kirby’s disbarment would suffice. Jaffee and Zebrowski support legislation at the state level to strengthen the laws that would permit state intervention under such circumstances as currently present in East Ramapo.
After about two hours of protests and speeches by parents, students and community activists, the school board appeared and board president Yehuda Weissmandl declared that Kirby would no longer represent the school board, that the law firm would discipline Kirby “internally,” and that under these circumstances the firm has “withdrawn” as counsel to the board.
He further stated that the board members “disassociate ourselves from Kirby’s actions and his words,” and that the board will seek to adopt a policy of civility and conduct for all. He also stated that the transition phase to a new law firm will take place over the next few weeks and acknowledged that there will be a loss of funds resulting from that transition. The board further chose to allow Minerva & D’Agostino to oversee the transition, a move which according to Ed Day is highly irregular and raises questions about the integrity of the process. Members of the Save Our Schools Coalition worry that the new firm will have a close relationship with the departed D’Agostino.
The gathered protesters applauded the news of the ouster, although the general consensus was that the board’s action did not go far enough. Not only has Peggy Hatton yet to receive a personal apology from the board, the district superintendent or the law firm, the board did not at all address the underlying concerns, voiced by many of the rally speakers, about the continuing budget cuts and loss of services and programs to the students of the district.
The elected officials echoed the community’s sentiment that this is a board completely out of touch with the needs and interests of its taxpaying electors. David Fried in particular noted that while the release from their contract of D’Agostino and Minerva was a welcome development, “Parents deserve answers, and a school board responsive to all of their issues and concerns.”