East Ramapo fiscal monitor: School district needs oversight

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

Posing a dramatic challenge to the beleaguered East Ramapo School Board, the New York State fiscal monitor appointed to examine the school district issued a report on Monday, which criticizes the school district for neglecting public school students and suggests additional state oversight.

In his 61-page report submitted to the New York State Board of Regents, Fiscal Monitor Henry “Hank” Greenberg concluded that the district’s fiscal mismanagement positioned the school district so that it now “teeters on the precipice of fiscal disaster.”

Though Greenberg detected no ill-intent among the members of the Hasidic-dominated East Ramapo School Board, he argued the Board’s financial decisions had brought the District to a dangerous point where public schools had been placed in jeopardy by inordinate attention to private school interests.

“What I have found is that you have a board deeply influenced and informed by the community from which they’ve come, so concerned about the children of that community that it has blinded them to the needs of the entire community,” he said.

To remedy the situation, Greenberg recommended not only an infusion of funds from the state to restore jobs and programs but also a fiscal monitor with veto power over the school board to ensure those funds are appropriately spent. If his recommendations are followed by the state, they would be among the strongest oversights imposed on a local school board in a decade.

Greenberg blamed poor budgetary practices, including overestimation of revenues, rejection of critical funding and the depletion of reserve funds which once served as a financial cushion for the district. Since the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the school’s emergency funds have dropped from a $12.5 million surplus to a $7 million deficit.

At the same time, Greenberg noted the board had showed favoritism during these years of belt-tightening. Greenberg pointed to the elimination of about 400 public school positions and cuts or severe size reductions applied to academic and extracurricular programs.

In spite of this, he argued transportation and special education funds had skyrocketed for private yeshiva students served by the district and that most of the burden of the cuts had been borne by predominantly black and Latino public school students. From 2006-2007 to 2013-2014, transportation expenses rose by 48.1 percent, more than double the 21.9 percent increase statewide, while special education tuition costs jumped 33 percent within the past four years.

Spending for private schools showed an even more dramatic skew. Greenberg’s report highlights a 76.6 percent private school funding increase, which is more than triple the state average of 24.1 percent. The school currently district serves about 9,000 public school students and 24,000 private school students.

In line with the critiques of East Ramapo activists, Greenberg strongly criticized the East Ramapo School Board for its use of inflammatory rhetoric against its opponents and limitations on transparency such as the holding of meetings in executive session and strict, purposely inconvenient limitations on public participation.

Greenberg took particular exception to the board’s use of polarizing language, including and character attacks and allegations of anti-semitism against opponents. Such statements, he argues, widen the rift between public and private school communities and stifle productive conversation by antagonizing and pushing away the students and parents it is meant to support.

“It will take years for the District’s public schools to recover from the budget cuts of the last few years, which are estimated at $30 to $40 million,” Greenberg stated. “In the meanwhile, students and parents have lost faith in the Board and feel that the Board does not understand their needs.”

Greenberg did not go so far as to advocate a complete state takeover, but he did argue that if the state was to bolster East Ramapo’s fiscal stability with state funds, the school district would have to accept some checks on their power. That check would likely come in the form of a fiscal monitor with the power to oversee district finances and veto bad school board decisions.

“It is unthinkable that additional state funds should be granted to the District absent an enforceable mechanism which would ensure such funds are allocated fairly,” Greenberg argued.

Greenberg also suggested diversity and transparency training for the board and additional oversight to ensure the proper treatment of immigrant students and students who speak English as a second language.

The decision met with a mixed reaction from the East Ramapo School Board. Though Board President Yehuda Weissmandl challenged Greenberg’s characterization of the Board’s actions as improper, he expressed relief that the monitor recommended further financial support for the District and ruled out bad intent on the part of the Board’s members.

“While we are uncomfortable with some of the characterizations in Mr. Greenberg’s report, we are hopeful that it will lead to progress for the children of the district,” Weissmandl said.

Others, including both county and state officials, applauded the report and echoed Greenberg’s recommendations for additional oversight. County Executive Ed Day agreed with Greenberg’s assessment that urgent, immediate action was required on the state level to address the District’s fiscal woes.

“I simply quote Mr. Greenberg and call upon our state legislators to pay immediate heed,” Day stated. “More need not be said.”

Others on the state level, including State Sen. David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski similarly called for state officiials to consider Greenberg’s suggestions. Referring the suggestions “a bold and meaningful step,” Zebrowski praised Greenberg’s report as a way to repair the divided district and fix years of fiscal tumult.

“Now that we have an independent, detailed analysis of the issues, we must all sit down and work to repair this district,” Zebrowski said. “There is no more important issue then the education of children and the constant conflict surrounding the East Ramapo School District makes this goal impossible.”

Zebrowski added that amendments to New York’s school aid formula would further help East Ramapo, allowing a more accurate assessment of the troubled school district. The current school aid formula, he claims, designates East Ramapo as among the wealthiest districts in the county due to its unusually high prevalence of private schools.

Proposed solutions to the program were modeled in part on past efforts to stabilize the Lakewood School District in New Jersey, which faced a similar divide between the interests of its 5,000 public school students and a largely Orthodox Jewish private school population which was five times larger and, like Rockland, served by a predominantly Orthodox school board. In the case of Lakewood, New Jersey appointed a fiscal monitor who was empowered to consult with the Lakewood school board, oversee the fiscal management of funds, staffing and facilities and-if necessary-override school board decisions the monitor deemed detrimental to the overall health of the school district.