Ramapo Jews Tense as Key Panel Votes on Overseer

ALBANY -
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel (L) and Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz (center, facing away from camera), on Tuesday discuss the education tax credit and the East Ramapo school board with Assemblymen Dov Hikind (R), Michael Simanowitz (seated C) and Philip Goldfeder (seated, 2nd left) in Albany. (Hamodia Photo)
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel (L) and Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz (center, facing away from camera), on Tuesday discuss the education tax credit and the East Ramapo school board with Assemblymen Dov Hikind (R), Michael Simanowitz (seated C) and Philip Goldfeder (seated, 2nd left) in Albany. (Hamodia Photo)

A bill to impose a beefed-up monitor position over a Rockland County school board decried by many Orthodox Jewish groups as undemocratic and bordering on anti-Semitism was approved on Wednesday by a key Assembly panel, the first of several hurdles that must be cleared before a hard deadline comes up in less than two weeks.

The Assembly’s education committee voted largely along party lines to authorize the appointment of a state monitor over the East Ramapo school district, with veto power over the Orthodox-run school board’s budget decisions. All Republicans, plus two Democrats — Sheldon Silver of Manhattan and Walter Mosley of Fort Greene, Brooklyn — voted against the bill, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the two-thirds majority of Democrats who supported it.

The bill calls for the monitor to oversee the school board for five years. At that point, the legislature will review how things have improved.

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. Some observers are even concerned that, for example, the overseer may rescind funding for yeshivah busing and give the money for a public school art class.

“My advocacy against this unconstitutional bill is as a voter in East Ramapo and on behalf of my constituents who live in East Ramapo,” said Wieder, the majority leader of Rockland County’s legislature. “Agudath Israel of America is equally alarmed about this bill and is working tirelessly for its defeat. We were hopeful and still are that this bill will ultimately not become law.”

Yehuda Weissmandl, president of the school board, was in Albany several times in recent days to lobby for the bill’s defeat.

“I’m trying to solve a problem with a real solution, not solve a problem by creating a new problem,” Weissmandl told the Journal News. “The reality is that there is a large segment of the community that has serious … principle issues with this bill.”

The bill now heads to the Ways and Means committee, and afterward to the full Assembly, for a vote. It must then be voted on in the Republican-led Senate. Leaders in that chamber have indicated that they have strong reservations about it. Any bill must pass before the legislative session ends on June 17.

Prior to the vote, Cathy Nolan, a Queens Democrat who chairs the education committee, said that she took into account the opinions of the elected officials representing the area. She mentioned Rockland County executive Ed Day and its legislature, who last week called for the bill’s passage. Additionally, the bill is sponsored by local representatives — Assembly members Ellen Jaffee and Kenneth Zebrowski, and David Carlucci of the Independent Democrats in the Senate.

“We obviously don’t feel that a monitor is overwhelming or in some way completely undermining a locally elected board,” Nolan said. “We see it as a way to mediate through.”

However, Assembly Republicans questioned its constitutionality, noting that the state has only once intervened in local affairs — imposing a monitor on the Roosevelt school district on Long Island in 2007.

“To me, this looks like a state takeover,” said Assemblyman Al Graf, a Long Island Republican and former teacher, according to Capital New York. “It just sets a bad precedent, because if we could do it here, we could do it in any other school district.”

Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is not a member of the education committee, agreed that it would establish a “dangerous precedent.”

“Where does it end?” said Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat. “There will be no point in even electing a school board anymore — those elected members will become a board of advisors as the appointed monitor becomes the czar. We eliminate the democratic process.”

The East Ramapo school board is controlled by Orthodox Jews, a fact reflecting the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews living in the district. East Ramapo, home to Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square, has approximately 25,000 students attending non-public schools such as yeshivos, with only 8,500 being served by the public school system.

Under the current formula of state aid to school districts, relatively little funding goes to East Ramapo. This is since the state calculates the funding based on how much property taxes a district pays, and then divides that by how many students attend public school. So the taxes paid by the parents of all 33,500 students are taken into account, and then divided by only the 8,500 public school children. That gives the impression of a wealthy district, entitling it to lesser aid.

As the district’s Orthodox population grows, this skewed funding formula has grown in proportion. So the school board must stretch a dwindling pot of money among an ever bigger student body.

The board has dealt with this situation by first paying for services mandated by the state, such as textbooks and transportation, which goes to all schools, yeshivos included. That forces them to then cut down on extracurricular public school activities, such as art and dance classes, full-day prekindergarten and guidance counselors.

Angered public school parents have started showing up and protesting at school board meetings. They have on occasion even extended the loud protests to borderline anti-Semitism and unrelated issues, such as the wages Hispanic women get for cleaning Jewish homes. The majority of the public school students are Haitian and Hispanic immigrants.

At the urging of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state education commissioner last year appointed Hank Greenberg, a former federal prosecutor, to monitor the school board’s decisions.

Greenberg, who has since returned to his private law practice, issued a report in November calling for increased state funding and documented the elimination of services. He also called for the state to empower a monitor with the ability to veto board decisions.

School board supporters say that regardless of the religious makeup of the board, it is insulting to insinuate that Orthodox Jews cannot make decisions both for yeshivos and public schools.

“Frankly,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, told Hamodia earlier this year, “the notion is offensive to us that Orthodox Jews cannot run a school board in an equitable way simply because they send their children to yeshivos rather public school.”

Both Greenberg and Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, who published an opinion piece in The New York Times on Wednesday, suggested that East Ramapo is similar to the situation in Lakewood, N.J. While many Times readers would not make the connection, Lakewood is one of the only other school districts in the nation where a majority of students send to yeshivah.

Lakewood, itself under fiscal monitoring with veto powers, last year nearly had its busing pulled by the monitor. That is what may happen if this bill passes in East Ramapo, many Rockland residents fear.

Assemblyman Mosley, who also represents parts of Crown Heights, initially co-sponsored the bill. However, citing “outright anti-Semitic overtones” in it, he pulled his name from the bill and voted against it Wednesday.

Wieder said that the board, led by Yehuda Weissmandl, has for years offered to work with all groups. The sponsors of the bill, he said, refused to negotiate.

“It is a shame that the sponsor of this bill, Assemblywoman Jaffee, throughout has not listened to both sides and is not willing to work on a compromise solution,” Wieder said. “In the end it is all children in East Ramapo that lost an opportunity for a better and brighter future.”