Court strikes down East Ramapo’s use of religious schools for special-ed placement

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

In a victory for critics of the controversial East Ramapo Central School District, the state Supreme Court ruled on December 30 that the District’s prior placement of special needs children in private religious schools was illegal and had to be discontinued.

In his ruling, Justice Michael Melkonian concluded the school district was acting in accordance with the wishes of parents rather than state disability law when it approved school transfers for students through a single district representative.

Melkonian ruled the Department of Education was well within its rights to conclude in its review of the review process for placements was lax.

“Administrative agencies are entitled to broad discretion in rendering determinations on matters they are entitled to decide, and the agencies’ interpretation of their own regulations and the statutes under which they function are entitled to great weight,” Melkonian wrote in his decision.

East Ramapo argued it was that it was within its legal rights to use one representative and that the State Education Department improperly determined the school district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

However, Melkonian disagreed, stating the District’s placement review process was a toothless formality because it lacked input from other parties such as the CSE and parents. Hence, he concluded the Education Department’s cease-and-desist order did not significantly hinder the District’s ability to settle disputes.

The decision represents a victory for the Education Department in its drive to address East Ramapo and for local parents who have expressed frustration at what they claim to be illegal and discriminatory behavior.

According to Preserve Ramapo activist and East Ramapo parent Peggy Hatton, the ruling confirmed the existence of repeated infractions and was a “well-deserved defeat” for a school board which has given priority to Orthodox students over others.

“This Article 78 and the lawsuit launched against the State that preceded it was a fool’s errand and a waste of tax dollars. While the BOE and Administration have been busy cutting Special Ed services for the public school students, they have been lavishing improper out of District placements for the Yeshiva community,” Hatton said.

School Board representatives could not be reached for comment.

The suit is one of several legal challenges the District has faced in recent years. A similar lawsuit was also filed by East Ramapo parents for the District’s alleged collusion with attorney Albert D’Agostino to place disabled students in religious schools, among other allegations. Though some of the allegations have been thrown out, the core complaint remains in litigation.

The School District has also been under fire since its attempted sale of Hillcrest Elementary School to Congregation Avir Yakov of New Square, a move critics describe as a “sweetheart deal.” Though the lease was nullified by State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, the School District is still allowed to lease the building to the Congregation while they pursue an appeal.