A bill proposed in New York’s legislature Wednesday appointing a fiscal overseer to supervise the troubled East Ramapo school district has alarmed the district’s Orthodox Jewish community, even as many local observers say the move will not solve the problem.
The call for the state education commissioner to assign an overseer, who would have authority to veto spending on such things as transportation and textbooks for yeshivos, comes after years of frustration as a dwindling amount of state funding has gone to subsidize education in the district.
Aron Wieder, a former East Ramapo school board president, said that the concept of having a state official overrule an elected board has rattled Orthodox community officials. The overseer would be able, for example, to rescind funding for yeshivah busing and give the money for a public school art class.
“It’s unconscionable that in 2015 we can have lawmakers contemplating disenfranchising voters without any recourse,” said Wieder, the majority leader of Rockland County’s legislature.
Wieder said that “the phone lines have been burning” as Orthodox community leaders grapple with the next phase in the years-old dispute.
Yehuda Weissmandl, the president of East Ramapo school district, said he was “disappointed” by the bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by David Carlucci, a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic conference, and in the Assembly by Ellen Jaffe, a Democrat. Both represent the district.
Weissmandl said the legislation “does not focus on the underlying problem in the school district.” The solution, he and others have said, is changing the way the state doles out school funds.
The current formula gives relatively little education funds to East Ramapo, which covers the heavily Jewish areas of Monsey, New Square and Spring Valley. This is since the state calculates the funding based on how much taxes a district pays, and then divides that by how many students attend public school.
In East Ramapo, only 8,500 of the approximately 33,500 students go to public school. Under the current formula, this makes it a wealthy district, since the property taxes of the entire population go to pay for the relatively small number of students. This entitles them to less money.
But there are the other 25,000 students who attend non-public schools, whose parents pay for tuition in addition to property taxes. These students are entitled to buses, textbooks, security and other services. Paying for that has forced the school board to terminate some art and dance classes in public schools.
“East Ramapo is a high-needs school district with a unique demographic situation,” Weissmandl said in his statement. “The state’s current school funding formula does not provide adequate resources to high-needs districts and makes no provision for districts with demographics like East Ramapo.”
A referendum last week to sell bonds for the district to raise more money for its education system was voted down.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year asked the education commissioner to appoint a fiscal monitor to oversee, but not overrule, the school board. Then-commissioner John King chose Albany attorney Hank Greenberg.
In a stinging report in November, Greenberg said that the district’s finances “teeter on the edge of disaster” and called for state oversight. The legislation proposed on Wednesday would supply that binding supervision.
While Weissmandl says the board would agree to some oversight in exchange for additional funding from Albany, the bill, he says, would not solve anything.
“Instead of focusing on this critical problem,” he said, “this legislation speaks to a continuing misconception in the community that the school board acted improperly in the past.”
The continued state and media focus on the district, which is less fiscally troubled than others in the state, has fueled a perception by some in the Orthodox community that a prejudice may be at play. This is compounded by regular complaints by participants at public hearings that “the Jewish people” take advantage of the rest of the district.
“We are frustrated by this situation,” Weissmandl said.