BY CHERYL SLAVIN
In his November 17, 2014 report, State Education Department investigator Hank Greenberg found that the East Ramapo School Board had badly failed in its fiscal and educational responsibilities to the public school children it was charged to serve. Greenberg characterized the district’s finances as “teetering on the edge of disaster,” and criticized the board’s lack of transparency, non-compliance with SED guidelines, and inability to understand or care about the public school community. He recommended that the state appoint a fiscal monitor to oversee the Board’s decisions and ensure that future monies would be spent equitably for the benefit of the public school students.
Now, as the community waits to see how the state legislators will respond to this recommendation, differing points of view have emerged as to what the next step should be.
The board and the private school sector, most of who send their children to Yeshiva schools, have widely disputed Greenberg’s findings and recommendations. Many, including Rockland Legislator Aron Weider, have asserted that appointing a fiscal monitor would undermine the community of its civil rights to vote and to representation in government. He, as well as
Board members, advocate instead for changes in the state aid formula which they claim is discriminatory towards private school students and their families. A change in formula, they assert, would solve their problems by bringing more money into the district.
More money is needed, counters Steve White, founder of the East Ramapo email newsletter “Power of Ten,” but it still doesn’t address the concern over how the money would be distributed. The problem in East Ramapo, he asserts, is not just that there is a lack of funds, but that the Board has squandered what money there is on inappropriate expenditures such as legal fees to fight their regulators, as well as excessive spending on transportation and special education for private school children.
White’s suggestion is that any money funneled into the district be done so under the state’s “Contracts for Excellence” program, developed in 2007 as a means to equitably distribute money to districts designated as underserved. The money comes with a host of oversight provisions already built in, so that a fiscal monitor might not be necessary. However, eligibility for the program rests on the status of the district as of 2006, a year in which East Ramapo was not yet operating at a deficit. White has started a petition on the Power of Ten website to have the legislature amend the law in order to include East Ramapo in the program. It can be found at www.poweroften.us.
Another voice has emerged from the recently formed “Strong East Ramapo (Strong ER).” Motivated by their strong personal connections to the East Ramapo School District, this group of over 1100 East Ramapo alumni plus at least 55 past and present staff members have banded together to advocate for a fiscal monitor with more than just the veto power that Greenberg recommended.
“We launched our group to be ready to mobilize after Monitor Greenberg issued his report,” writes organizer Andrew Mandel in response to a Rockland County Times inquiry. “We are hopeful that the language will ensure that the state appointee will not only be able to veto poor decisions of the board, but also make proactive decisions to ensure a new chapter for the children of the district.”
The group has so far reached out to groups longer in the fight such as the NAACP and the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice They have also sent a letter with 650 signatures to local legislators and state officials urging strong state oversight, and are preparing for additional advocacy as the legislative process continues.
“Our experiences in the East Ramapo schools taught us how to work together, and now we can help by bringing visibility to the situation,” states organizer Julie Gurerro, Spring Valley High School class of ‘96. “We are an example of the kind of success that East Ramapo graduates can and should have with a great education.” They continue to welcome alumni to the group; their website can be found at www.strongeastramapo.org.
Meanwhile, a recent joint press release issued by State Senator David Carlucci and Assemblymembers Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski, reports that the representatives covering East Ramapo are “hard at work…to introduce legislation as soon as possible for this coming legislative session” to translate Greenberg’s recommendations, including that for state oversight, into law. Carlucci’s spokesman Mike Grubiak would not elaborate much further than to say that the legislators hope to have the bill ready by early January and that it will address all the points in Greenberg’s report.
While the legislators labor, however, it appears that the SED will require that the school board and Superintendent Joel Klein complete the diversity and transparency trainings also included among Greenberg’s recommendations. It remains to be seen whether the Board will actually go through with the trainings or if, as it has so often before, it will use the court system to delay compliance.