BY JANIE ROSMAN
PHOTOS BY ANTONIO LUCIANO
Several people waited to address the state monitors during last Thursday’s monitor meeting at Town of Ramapo Cultural Arts Center with questions and comments underlined by mistrust, disappointment, frustration and impatience.
What do the monitors need to know that Hank Greenberg’s report didn’t tell them? How many more studies do they need to conduct to see what happened in East Ramapo? Why can’t they do something about the situation now?
“We’re all very serious about what we’re doing and the challenge before us,” Dennis Walcott told the crowd Town of Ramapo Cultural Arts Center. Fifty-five days ago he, Dr. John W. Sipple and Dr. Monica George-Fields were charged with uncovering how and where the district — one of the area’s best 15 years ago — became financially, emotionally and creatively depleted.
They’ll be “doing a deep-dive analysis as far as the district finances are concerned” and will use the Hank Greenberg report to make immediate, short-term and long-term action plans before December, Walcott said.
George-Fields, a former principal and a consultant to schools, talked about charts and indicators. “What’s happening in the other (lower) grades that the students are struggling so much in high school?” she asked. “I’m looking for answers. Why are only 2 percent of the students graduating in four years?”
Luis Nivelo doesn’t trust the monitors. “You can know the source of what’s happening in two weeks. You don’t need more studies,” he told this reporter.
The eldest (19) of his three daughters graduated high school last year. “My 10-year-old is in fifth grade and plays a little guitar and charango,” he said. “There’s music in the house, and she learns it.”
Advocate Antonio Luciano felt people were surprised at Johnson’s comments that it took 10 years to get to this state of disrepair. “She’s done a fantastic job getting the state education department to take notice. Walcott doesn’t mention everything on his blog, only the positive items.”
The school board’s lack of urgency and accountability despite perilous student performance troubled Reverend Weldon McWilliams IV. “What do you see as recourse for parents?” he asked George-Fields.
“I reported to the Board of Regents that how the district was performing in comparison to neighboring districts did not seem to be present,” George-Fields replied. “The forefront of every conversation in the district is that change needs to happen in the classroom, and it needs to happen now. I am here to provide that kind of direction and support.”
Cornell University professor Sipple said the district’s financial health from 2005 through 2008 was “pretty healthy with a rainy day fund. In the span of a couple of years it changed.”
Walcott agreed. “The capital needs are severe, and the money is not as available as it should be to address the infrastructure. We’re going to need some feedback on how we prioritize those needs.”
One speaker wanted to know what the monitors will do if they identify fraud and missing money. “If you find financial fraud, will you refer that to the attorney general’s office or to the FBI?” “Yes,” Walcott said.
“How will you do that? What steps will you take to recapture or reclaim that money,” the speaker asked. “That’s where the lawyers get involved,” Stipple replied.
Last month the group Padres Unidos met with Walcott at the Martin Luther King Multi-Purpose Center. “I asked him three questions, and he didn’t answer,” Nivelo said. “When I told him about wrongdoings he didn’t commit to anything. He told me, ‘I’m not a lawyer. I’m here to look at education.’ I don’t believe him. He said nothing helpful.”
Advocate Peggy Hatton is disappointed because “the very people who are responsible for bringing the plight of the beleaguered school district to the state are being shut out of the process.”
Determined to stay in his community of 19 years, Nivelo is frustrated at the monitors’ ability to take action now. “I’m a taxpayer and believe we have to have change here. I’ve been speaking with people and friends, and we know it goes beyond the board.”
The monitors are working with the school board to address recommendations made in the Greenberg report, Walcott said.
He also said the charts and meeting would be posted on the district’s website and on the monitors’ blog the next day. Five days later they were still not online. “That the information is not posted when he (Walcott) said it would be solidifies what people think: they don’t believe the monitors,” Luciano said.