East Ramapo School District Violated Voting Rights Act of 1965: Federal Court Upholds Decision to End “21st Century Jim Crow”

By: Jennifer Korn 

After a three-year legal battle between the East Ramapo School District and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld its ruling that the district violated Section Two of the Voting Rights Act. The court agreed that there was sufficient evidence of both racially polarized voting and the district board’s favoritism of private schools over public schools. 

According to the case documents, district board members were appointed through a slating process that excluded input from minorities. “Influential members of the white, private-school community have an informal slating process by which preferred Board candidates are selected, endorsed, promoted, and elected,” wrote the three-judge court panel. “The Organization does not hold an open call for candidates, and only those with connections to the Organization or its leaders have been introduced, vetted, and selected.”

No minority-preferred candidate won a contested board election from 2008 to 2018, and each minority candidate who won only did so with the approval of the organization, according to the court. 

Many have argued that minority-preferred candidates were more qualified than those who were appointed. “Even when the School Board should in the end be about creating literacy, the machine itself prefers less literate, but loyal to the machine, white members,” said County Legislator James Foley. Foley referenced a passage in the suit which stated that the school board leadership chose to “appoint a less experienced, white individual to the Board over a black retired District principal who held two master’s degrees.”

The district board defended its failure to slate minority-preferred candidates by pointing out that minorities have previously been appointed to the board. They further stated that candidates were chosen based on policy preferences. However, “when vetted, candidates were not asked about their policy views,” as stated by the suit.

“Because this machine cares nothing of fairness, policy or effective education of minority students, and only values loyalty to segregationists, candidates are not vetted on policy,” said Foley. 

After a state-appointed monitor pressed the board to include a public school parent, the board appointed Sabrina Charles-Pierre. “Charles-Pierre complained that the Board kept her in the dark, made her look stupid, and criticized her,” wrote the panel. “In a message to other Board members, Grossman [the President of the school board] said that while Charles-Pierre ‘has a voice,’ ‘realistically, . . . she has zero control or influence on direction.’”

The district court also determined that the board acted in bad faith by misleading minority members about the lawsuit. “The district court also found that white Board members had lied to minority Board members about settlement negotiations regarding this lawsuit and considered this evidence of some Board members’ bad faith in wanting to maintain the at large voting system,” wrote the panel. 

Not only did the court find the slating process and treatment of minority members to be inequitable, it also agreed with evidence that the board prioritized private school interests over public schools.  

In 2009, the board began making harsh cuts in the public school budget to balance funds. Yet at the same time, the board chose to increase spending on private school programs. 

A state-appointed monitor who investigated the board’s activities in 2014, “made the most disturbing finding that the Board appears to favor the interests of private schools over public schools,” wrote the panel. “The monitor further observed that the District’s leaders responded poorly to disapproval, branding critics as ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘political opponents.’”

The East Ramapo School board had seemingly made a habit of prioritizing private Yeshivas even during periods of fiscal austerity.  

From 2017 to 2019, the district paid yeshiva contractors $832,584 more than what was needed for private school transportation, allocating for 1,172 more students than were registered to use private-school transportation services. Meanwhile, public school cuts were left unrestored.

The lawsuit further revealed that the district was exclusive in its decision to provide language accommodations to only Yiddish-speaking parents at board meetings. 

“The Board also made accommodations at Board meetings for Yiddish-speaking parents but did not do so for Spanish-speaking parents, resulting in New York State issuing a corrective action plan,” wrote the panel. 

A quote from former superintendent Joel Klein also included in the suit further demonstrated a disregard for immigrant students and parents. 

“Klein proposed flimsy, nonsubstantive programming for the immigrant students because according to him, the students ‘want to learn the language, they want free lunch, breakfast and whatever else they can get,’” wrote the panel. 

The board left Klein in place for over a year after he made the comments, until state-appointed monitors stepped in and helped the board president find a replacement. 

In fact, it appears that non-white members of the community had almost no say as to school boards decisions. Despite heavy minority opposition, the district closed two public schools and sold one of them to private Yeshivas at a heavily discounted price. 

“I will add that those schools were renovated with public tax dollars prior to the sales, and were by far the best school buildings in the district before they were sold off in that ‘sweetheart’ deal,” said Foley. “These sales left the brown and black students in the worst and least maintained District buildings; the private school students got the best and this outcome was intentional.”

The lawsuit also highlights the racial disparities of students in the district. 

92 percent of public school students are black or Latino, while 98 percent of private-school students are white. 

“Those are conscious racism based efforts, not in any way accidental decisions,” said Foley. 

The panel noted the impacts the board’s actions over the last decade have had on the public school community. “It defies reality to say that those who vote for private-school-friendly policies would be ignorant that the brunt of these policies is borne by minority children,” wrote the panel.

“Unchallenged power is part of this, and that needs to be rectified,” said Foley.

As a result of the original May 25 2020 ruling, the district court “enjoined the District from holding any further elections under its at-large system, including the election that was scheduled to take place in June 2020,” wrote the panel. The district also owes NAACP $4.3 million in legal fees. 

The school district will now use a ward system to elect members of the board. The district has been divided into nine wards and town residents can only vote for the candidate in their respective ward. The first election is set to take place in February and mail-in ballots have been sent out.