BY THOMAS DEPRISCO
I applaud the Rockland County Legislature for passing a resolution calling for a monitor with veto power to be assigned to the East Ramapo School District. For many years, I have read and heard about the problems facing this school district. As a school board member, I can understand and relate to the financial complexities that school districts face regarding the funding of programs, receiving state aid, and balancing the needs of the taxpayers. It has been well documented that the public school students of East Ramapo have experienced drastic cuts to their programs.
Understandably, the Great Recession negatively affected school districts statewide. Reductions in state aid and increased pension contribution costs caused many school districts, like East Ramapo, to resort to drastic cuts to their public education programs. Interesting though, it appears that this has not affected the private school sector specifically regarding transportation and special education costs. We all faced reductions in Education Foundation Aid and were subjected to a further reduction in state aid via the Gap Elimination Adjustment. Over the past few years, the state has been gradually repaying the GEA to school districts. Thankfully, both the senate and assembly seem poised to finally fully restore these funds this year. It should be noted that East Ramapo has been repaid their GEA at a much faster rate than the other school districts in Rockland County. They needed it. To put this in perspective, East Ramapo is only owed $44,463 while Pearl River is owed $621,838 (representing the lowest amount) and Clarkstown is owed $2,552,776 (representing the highest amount).
I reviewed the 2015-16 school district state aid provided to all the Rockland County school districts. This information is published on the New York State Education Department website. Basic state aid is calculated upon the number of public school students. Interesting enough, East Ramapo received $21.4 million in transportation aid. This amount represents 8.5 times the average amount of transportation aid received by the other seven Rockland County school districts. Up to this point, I truly believed that considering the number of private school students (24,000), East Ramapo needed more transportation aid. Now, I am not sure.
Both the Hank Greenberg and Dennis Walcott reports reveal a practice of gender-segregated private school bus transportation. Boys and girls are bused separately. Should public tax dollars be paying for this?
The East Ramapo transportation budget increased from $22 million in 2010 to $27 million in 2014. From 2007 through 2014, East Ramapo’s private school transportation costs have increased by 48 percent, while the NYS average increase was 24 percent. Additionally, East Ramapo received $2.4 million in software / library / textbook state aid. This amount represents 4 times the average amount received by the other seven Rockland school districts.
East Ramapo also received $33.6 million in Foundation Aid. Based upon the number of public school students listed on the NYSED website, this aid represents $4,181 per student. In comparison, six of the Rockland County school districts received anywhere between $1,917 and $2,420 per student in Foundation Aid. The North Rockland School District, which has been drastically affected by a debilitating tax certiorari settlement, received $4,827 per student.
According to the Greenberg report, East Ramapo is under enforcement action by the NYS Education Department due to patterns and practices inconsistent with the Individuals with Disabilities Act and related laws. The school district was found to have made placements in private schools when appropriate placements were available in public facilities.
The Greenberg Report indicated that the East Ramapo private school population could increase to 40,000 – 50,000 students within 10 years. A review of the 2010 U.S. Census Data Report reveals a much higher than average continuing population increase within the towns and villages serviced by the East Ramapo School District.
This population trend and the current status of the East Ramapo School District must be acknowledged as a complex and unique situation which requires a long-term multi-faceted discussion and approach by the school district, NYSED, Board of Regents, and elected officials in order to ensure all public school students receive their fair share of programs and services. Additionally, we must ensure that each and every student within the ERSD receives a quality education as mandated by NYS Education law.
State Senator Carlucci proposed legislation in February 2015 which would have required a state monitor with veto power. After the assembly passed their same version of this bill in June 2015, the senate failed to vote on their version. Subsequently, Senator Carlucci proposed a much watered down bill with no real monitor veto power. For the sake of the public school students of East Ramapo, there can be no compromise.
The notion of enabling veto power over an elected governing body frightens some elected officials. It has been done necessarily in the past in several school districts in the metropolitan area. As a school board member attending a meeting upstate, I was able to educate and convince other school board members from school districts throughout the state of the necessity for a monitor with veto power.
The East Ramapo School District needs a monitor with veto power when necessary for the educational welfare of the students and fiscal stability of the school district.
Unfortunately, based upon recently published articles, I find the need to state that I am not anti-semitic. I am a concerned citizen, former teacher, and present school board member. I was born and raised for my first 17 years in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. I learned so much and developed a true respect for the Lubavicher Hasidic people during that period.
As a member of the NYPD, I heavily and favorably interacted with many of the different Hasidic sects in Brooklyn. Additionally, for the past 10 years, I have been teaching sixth grade Catholic Religious Education, which is all about the history and culture of the Jewish people as described in the Old Testament.
The author is a concerned citizen and vice president of the Pearl River School District School Board