East Ramapo Passes School Budget, a Hint to Albany

NEW city – Voters’ ratification Tuesday night of East Ramapo’s school budget, the first time in six years it passed on the first attempt, carries a broad hint to Albany that the way the district gets its education funding is grossly skewed and it must be changed, say local observers.

East Ramapo, which encompasses the heavily Orthodox Jewish populations in Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square, has approximately 75 percent of its students learning in nonpublic schools, primarily yeshivos, according to published statistics.

The formula used by the state to allocate education funding has caused tensions in recent months, with outside groups attempting to stir up anti-Orthodox sentiments.

The reason for the funding disparity is simple: Education costs — the overwhelming majority of which goes to pay for public schools, but a small portion goes for non-public schools, such as for busing, security and textbooks — are paid for by property taxes.

The state calculates how much taxes a given district pays, and then divides that by how many students attend public school.

In East Ramapo, only 8,500 of the district’s approximately 33,500 students go to public school. According to New York state’s formula — known as the Pupil Wealth Ratio, or PWR — this makes it a wealthy district, since the property taxes of the entire population goes to pay for the relatively small number of students. They have therefore appropriated school funds accordingly, giving them less money.

However, left unsaid are the other 25,000 students who attend non-public schools, who pay for tuition besides for the taxation.

Past school budgets that raised property taxes have been voted down by residents, who must pay a double burden of property taxes and private school tuition. The district was then forced to cut spending to bare bones, slicing art and music classes, laying off dozens of teachers and borrowing money to keep it afloat.

These past few months, representatives of the Jewish and secular communities have broadly coalesced around a single demand of Gov. Andrew Cuomo: the distorted formula must be changed.

“Seventy-five percent of children [in the district] are eligible for free or reduced lunch,” one local official told Hamodia, requesting anonymity to speak frankly about the situation. “Yet, the state considers it a wealthy district and gives them less education dollars.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s referendum, the new coalition agreed to push voters on both sides to vote “yes.” The $210.9 million spending plan passed by about 500 votes, without cutting services.

Now, activists say, the ball is in Cuomo’s court to mix the funding formula to a fairer one.

“The PWR index works around the state but it is flawed in East Ramapo,” said the official. “The message to Albany is now, we did our share, now it is your turn to do your share and change the formula.”

Also on Tuesday, four of East Ramapo’s nine school board members won reelection. Board president Yehuda Weissmandl, Moshe Hopstein, Harry Grossman and Yakov M. Engel were unopposed in their bid to serve another three-year term.