Religious leaders unite to stop cycle of abuse in East Ramapo Schools

BY GIANNA VOLPE

On Tuesday afternoon, the basement of Spring Valley’s First Baptist Church was packed with members of the community and press as a newly formed group of nearly 100 religious leaders, known as “Rockland Clergy for Social Justice,” spoke out against the East Ramapo Central School District, which has been systematically cutting classes, sports teams, educational programming, staffing and resources, despite growing class sizes.

Bronx-based Rabbi Ari Hart of Uri L’Tzedek—Orthodox for Social Justice—voiced his support of newly formed “Rockland Clergy for Social Justice” in the packed basement of Spring Valley’s First Baptist Church on Tuesday afternoon, when the group announced its intent to petition Governor Andrew Cuomo for immediate fiscal and administrative oversight over the East Ramapo Central School District.

Rabbis, pastors and imams alike announced their intention to petition Governor Andrew Cuomo’s authorization of immediate fiscal and administrative oversight of the school district, in addition to the creation of a task force to study and implement structural changes to the governance of East Ramapo and other, similar school districts, to “ensure that public school students have access to basic educational opportunities and resources as stipulated in New York State’s Constitution,” according to the group’s mission statement.

As cuts have continued across East Ramapo schools, including full day kindergarten, honors and advanced placement classes, music and art electives, as well as scores of both academic and sports teams, Pastor Joel Michel of Spring Valley’s French Speaking Baptist Church said Tuesday “communal life of the schools disappeared” from their halls, devastating morale and preventing students from reaching their full potential. President Barack Obama would not have risen to his post as the country Commander-In-Chief without a quality education, according to Michel.

“The students have been deprived of the opportunity to be part of the race to the top that President Barack Obama has spoken of so passionately on July 29, 2010,” Michel said. “All children are precious beings with one chance to grow into wholesome, contributing members of society. For most of us education is the means toward reaching this goal. We are witnessing a tragedy in process. The East Ramapo governance is broken and we need Governor Cuomo to address this tragedy immediately.”

According to Spring Valley’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, growing tensions between the secular community and the Orthodox and Ultraorthodox Jewish dominated school board are a result of manipulative, segregational voting behavior, “minimizing public school funding by defeating budgets for anything above mandated services, while maximizing the use of public funds for segregated religious schools by bending the law.”
The state Supreme Court recently upheld the New York Department of Education’s finding the East Ramapo School District guilty of repeatedly violating federal law by placing students with disabilities into private, religious schools when less restrictive options were available, a decision the board plans to appeal for a third time. The district projects it will spend $2.66 million in 2014 for this and other legal battles which have plagued it throughout the past few years, according to a previous article.

On Tuesday, Rockland Clergy for Social Justice announced their plan to visit Albany on April 30, where they will ask that state representatives begin to oversee decisions made by the school board, which is currently under investigation by other state and country-wide financial and ethical protection agencies.

These include the United States Department of Education’s Inspector General and Office for Civil Rights; the New York State Comptroller’s Office and the New York Civil Liberties Union for Fiscal irregularies, including diverting public funds to segregated religious schools, according to a recent Spring Valley NAACP press release.

The Education chairman for the Spring Valley NAACP, Dr. Oscar Cohen, said Tuesday, in response to a question by a Rockland County Times reporter on the correspondence thus far with Governor Cuomo’s office, that the visit to Albany occurs after ongoing conversations with the state’s deputy secretaries for civil rights and education, Alphonso David and Ian Rosenblum, failed to yield results.

“Initially they said, ‘We empathize, we understand, but the governor does not have the power to do anything about the situation; it’s only up to the legislature,’” said Dr. Cohen. “We raised with these deputy secretaries that the governor seemed to find the power to deal with gun control, marriage equality, medical marijuana; that we didn’t understand how he didn’t have any power to deal with the education of children going to public schools in East Ramapo. They no longer throw that back to us.”

The movement against what the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice group and several of those who spoke out during Tuesday’s press conference, including parents, educators and former students, believe is racial oppression and segregation being perpetrated against the East Ramapo School District’s public school children by its own school board, has begun to gather steam outside the county, according to Bronx Rabbi Ari Hart, cofounder of Uri L’Tzedek, also known as Orthodox for Social Justice.

“In the past 72 hours, over 500 jewish leaders, rabbis and community members across the denominational spectrum–orthodox, conservative, reform–have signed a petition in suport of this very group and these very efforts,” Rabbi Hart said Tuesday, in a message to the governor. “They’re not just from Rockland County. These are your constituents from Brooklyn to Manhattan to the Bronx to Westchester – and guess what – we’re bringing our voices all the way to Albany…the needs and concerns of one community must not steamroll the needs and concerns of another.”

Representatives from the East Ramapo School District did not return a call for comment.