By: Jennifer Korn
After winning a three-year legal battle centered on the East Ramapo school district’s favoritism of private schools, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is facing another predicament.
The district board disagrees that they owe NAACP $4.3 million in legal fees and has threatened to dismiss teachers and other school staff if the fees are not cut to $1.
“It’s hostage-taking,” said Dr. Oscar Cohen, Spring Valley NAACP Education Committee Chair.
Spring Valley NAACP President Willie Trotman described the proposed layoffs as an act of retaliation and asserted that his organization is solely concerned with providing children an opportunity to get an education. “Nobody should be able to take that right from them,” said Trotman.
“I am not surprised by the school district’s extortion,” said Steven White, publisher of The Power of Ten newsletter, and inductee of the Rockland County Civil Rights Hall of Fame. “They made clear from the beginning that they were more interested in inflicting punishment than following the law.”
The district claimed that the proposed fees would be a “financial hardship” after being forced to cut $2 million in June when their proposed budget was rejected. Judge Judith McCarthy rejected this claim, stating that the district was able to pay lawyers as much as $650 an hour to defend the district’s voting system, which violated the Voting Rights Act.
According to Cohen, NAACP lawyers tried to negotiate with the district board three years ago for the ward voting system, which would allow for three minority seats. Both sides would have avoided legal fees. However, the board said no.
“At the final junction, Judge Siebel instructed them to negotiate in good faith,” said White. “It was their contempt for the judge’s assistance which resulted in the judge ruling they also must pay the other side’s legal costs, because these costs were incurred as a result of the district’s own unreasonable actions.”
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union and the private firm Latham & Watkins, the district paid its own lawyers between $7.2 million and $8.9 million.
“It was their intransigence which led them to spend $7 million of the children’s education money on this lawsuit,” said White.
“They knew all along they were going to have to pay their expensive lawyers, and they appeal,” said Trotman.
White said he believes that the $7 million spent on the district’s defense lawyers should be added to what is owed. “I think we need to add the $7 million the board spent, they have consistently tried to use the threat of legal expenses as a way of silencing the public school parents, because they are in this position which is such a clear conflict of interest,” said White. “It’s as if the board of directors of Coca Cola all only owned stock in Pepsi.”
Latham & Watkins, which represented NAACP, said it will dedicate its fees to a non-profit that assists East Ramapo’s public school children. The lawyers plan to set up a fund “where all the money goes to the children, but just not through the district,” said Cohen.
According to a recent article published by Lohud, district superintendent Raymond Giamartino wrote in court documents that the district may cut seven social workers as a result of the suit.
This came as a surprise to the superintendent, who later clarified that his district doesn’t employ any social workers. “They haven’t had any for about six years,” said Cohen.
Giamartino confirmed in a statement to the Rockland County Times that East Ramapo does not currently have any social workers. “The district immediately notified the reporting agency and was essentially informed that it was their professional interpretation of the manner in which the information was shared,” said Giamartino. “As such, there was an overt refusal to rectify or clarify the misinformation for our community.”
Public school affiliates have expressed concern regarding the potential loss of staff, especially with the district’s current lack of support for public school students.
“In a district where teachers are taking on multiple roles because there is already a shortage of administrative and support staff, it would be debilitating to lose any teachers,” said Nichole Floyd, public school parent.
Since 2009, the district has cut about 500 positions.
“The board did not feel any pressure to be reasonable, because the money they were spending was for other people’s children, for an education that they don’t consider worthwhile,” said White.
White explained that schools are already struggling due to hundreds of laid off staff. “This results in increased class size,” said White. “Teachers are overwhelmed. But beyond the fiscal cuts there has been a destruction of vision.”
Floyd described issues her children experienced at school due to the preexisting shortages. During the last school year, busses were overcrowded. Floyd’s children told her “that there was sometimes no place for students to sit on the buses because they were overcrowded,” said Floyd. “There were three students to a seat.”
“The board also hired a consultant to study how to save money on busing,” said White. The plan created resulted in the overcrowding of busses, according to White. “[The consultant] even said two overweight kids can’t sit on the same seat, so they can fit three to a seat.”
According to the lawsuit, the district allocated funding for 1,172 private school students that were not registered to use transportation services, spending an additional $832,584 from 2017 to 2019.
“The consultant only looked into savings for public school busing,” said White. “The largest expense and the greatest savings could be gotten by looking at private school busing, especially the gender segregated bus runs.”
As the new ward system was implemented to protect the voting rights of people of color, the district using the expense of the lawsuit “as a way of holding the public school users hostage had perhaps brought to light issues that need to be addressed by the state, and hopefully it will lead to further action to protect the children’s civil right to a quality education, said White.
Cohen said that although minorities will gain three seats out of the nine on the district board, “all the decisions will still be made in favor of the private school children,” said Cohen. However, “We won a victory where people at least can speak up and get angry. By winning the trial, it puts this on the map of politicians, and government leaders, not just here, but throughout the country,” said Cohen. “It’s a major victory.”