Amid a raging debate over the appointment of an independent state monitor, voters in the East Ramapo school district went to the polls last Tuesday for school board elections, reelecting two members and putting in one new face, as well as approving its budget.
Passage of the $218 million financial plan for the 2016 fiscal year is particularly noteworthy as five such proposals have been voted down in recent years. The proposal, which was supported by the Orthodox community, won with 55 percent of reported votes.
“I’m ecstatic that it [the budget] passed,” Dr. Joel Klein, East Ramapo’s superintendent, told Hamodia. “It’s a very good and total budget that is a start to correcting some of the major cuts in the system.”
Dr. Klein praised the board’s members as “wonderful,” saying that they were making “wise decisions.”
School Board President Yehuda Weissmandl issued a statement thanking the community for approving the budget, which increases the tax levy by 1.3 percent.
“Although we have had our challenges in the district in recent years, this budget represents real progress for the district,” he said in a statement.
Weissmandl told Hamodia that he was gratified that the budget will allow the district to reinstate many programs that have previously been cut, such as sports and some kindergarten programs. “Most of all, we are proud of the 2.5 million that we were able to put back into the reserve fund,” he added.
Yonah Rothman and Jacob Lefkowitz, both incumbents, were re-elected with 6,438 and 6,300 votes respectively. Juan Pablo Ramirez took the third available seat, garnering 6,216 votes. He replaces Eliyahu Solomon, who did not seek re-election.
Weissmandl added that the board is pleased that Ramirez’s election will make the board “more diverse” and that members hope and expect this addition will improve community relations in the district.
East Ramapo, which makes up part of the Monsey community, has attracted increased attention throughout the state amid pending legislation to empower the state-appointed monitor with the ability to veto school board decisions. The monitor, Hank Greenberg, was appointed last year by the state’s education commissioner at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s request.
However, the proposal has met with accusations of bias against the largely Orthodox population, who hold a majority of seats on the board. According to Greenberg’s report, of the 33,000 children in the district, 24,000 attend private schools, with only 9,000 enrolled in the public school system.
The accusations prompted Assemblyman Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn) to remove his initial support for the bill.
“The bill had outright anti-Semitic overtones,” he told Kings County Politics. “On the face of the bill, at first it looked benign, and that’s why I signed on to it, but after talking to people and seeing what people were actually doing for the (school district) budget, I didn’t think it was necessary and I didn’t like the anti-Semitic undertones affiliated with it.”
The bill’s proponents cite lagging student performance and lapses in governance and financial planning, reported in the state’s study, as reasons to require independent oversight.
Weissmandl said that the board is advocating a model of state oversight that has been employed in several other districts that will not “override the election process.”
“The real problem is that the district is severely underfunded,” he said. “If we focus on seeing that Albany gives recurring funds we can bring back all programs and give all of the district’s children the best education possible.”
Dr. Klein said that the district’s woes were rooted more in the state’s formula than in mismanagement, citing the “gap elimination adjustment” that took 45 million dollars from East Ramapo.
“The real problem is that there is no real equity. This is the only district in New York State that has more non-public school children than public school ones and the formula does not address that,” he said. “The issue is not who’s on the board. I am not against having a monitor, but without a bill to bring more money back to the district, it will not make a difference.”