Reason for Hope in East Ramapo

The first sentence of the latest chapter in the long and tumultuous saga of the East Ramapo school district in Rockland County was written last week with the appointment by the New York State Education Department of a team to study the district’s operations and make recommendations to the school board and the Board of Regents.

The development is a positive one, as the team will be led by former New York City schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott, who has a well-earned reputation for fairness and sensitivity, and who has demonstrated his recognition of the fact that all of New York’s schoolchildren, not just those in public schools, are government’s responsibility.

That acknowledgment is key to untangling the difficulties in East Ramapo. That the local school district is obligated to address the needs of the large and growing non-public school community should be obvious, but, unfortunately, seems uncomprehended by many area residents. Such lack of understanding has been a glowing coal fanned into flames by “activists” who tapped into latent and ugly sentiments and turned less-than-fully-informed citizens into an angry force arrayed against local families who send their children to yeshivos.

As a result, much heat but little light has been generated, intensified by the media.

The facts are, as facts always are, germane.  The East Ramapo district’s public schools educate approximately 8,000 students, while about 24,000 of the district’s students attend yeshivos. For the past 10 years, the democratic process, reflecting that imbalance, has yielded a school board with a majority of Orthodox Jewish members.

That board has fulfilled its legal obligation to provide all the district’s students with mandated services like transportation and special education, but has been hampered by severely inadequate state funding, leaving various extracurricular services that had been provided to the district’s public schools unfunded. As a result, the board has been portrayed as seeking to harm public schools to benefit religious Jews, and vilified by some public school parents, other residents of the district and mindless media.

“Since 2009,” the New York Times reported on Friday, “the board has made severe cuts to public schools,” while “at the same time, the board has increased spending on transportation and special education for children in private school.”

Unmentioned is that it had no legal choice but to do so. The school board is required by law to provide students in all the district’s schools, public and private alike, with textbooks and bus transportation; and to provide special education services to all schoolchildren in an educationally appropriate setting.

“Relations between public school parents and the board have become hostile,” the report continues, although it doesn’t bother explaining how misguided the hostility is (or note the media’s role in stoking it).

There have indeed been cutbacks to non-essential services to public school students in the district, but the reason for the reductions and eliminations has been the fact that state funding to school districts is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers. Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.

East Ramapo’s demographics and relatively high property values result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats it as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it is in fact one of the poorest.

So, while there has been a shortchanging of the district’s public school population — and its non-public school one as well — the guilty party isn’t the board, but Albany.

Mr. Walcott is a wise choice for assessing the situation objectively and making cogent recommendations. And assisting him will be Monica George-Fields, a former principal, and John W. Sipple, a Cornell University professor whose expertise includes school district funding formulas.

Mr. Walcott has declared that he and his team will speak and listen to all of the East Ramapo school district’s residents. They will hear much uninformed resentment from many, and some unfortunate but hard facts from others. Whether or not they will prove themselves impervious to the harsh and misguided sentiments of the former and rightly guide the focus of attention away from observant Jews to Albany remains to be seen.

But, considering Mr. Walcott’s past commitment to the idea that children are children, no matter what schools they attend, there is room here for much optimism. We wish him and his team much success in assessing the situation and making the necessary recommendations to provide all of East Ramapo’s students with what they need to succeed themselves.