Agudath Israel: East Ramapo Report Undermines Integrity of Democratic Process

The report and recommendations issued on December 14 by the state-appointed Monitors of the East Ramapo Central School District have elicited an expression of deep disappointment by Agudath Israel of America.

The report, entitled “Opportunity Deferred,” acknowledges the fact that, since State Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s appointment 17 weeks ago of Dennis M. Walcott, Monica George-Fields and John W. Sipple to serve as Monitors of the District, the Monitors have worked closely with East Ramapo School Board President Yehuda Weissmandl in effectuating a number of critical positive changes in the district. The report describes Mr. Weissmandl as “an active partner” with the Monitors, who “has been accessible at all hours and has listened [to] and implemented suggestions to improve board practices.”

In discussing the public school student support programs that were cut by the District in recent years, and which have led to much of the complaint against the School Board, the report acknowledges that “[n]one of these reductions came from mandated services,” and that the District instead used at least part of those funds for other programs that were in fact mandated under state law.

The report also acknowledges that “the costs incurred by the District to fully educate 8,500 public students and provide the legally-required services to the 24,000 (and growing) non-public school students outstrip available revenues,” due in large part to the District’s “unusually large non-public school population,” and recommends allocations of additional state funds to enable the District to restore certain public school programs and carry out its obligations to all students.

Yet despite all these acknowledgements – that the Monitors are receiving excellent cooperation from the Board President, and are together making significant progress in addressing the District’s challenges; that the cuts in public school programing were in programs not mandated by state law, with funds instead spent to carry out state mandates in the nonpublic schools; that insufficient state funding due to the unique demographic profile of the District was a major factor in the District’s problems – the report accuses the Board of “persistently fail[ing] to act in the best interests of public school students,” and recommends a number of unprecedented measures that would severely undermine both the authority of the Board and the integrity of the democratic process.

Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, Rabbi David Zwiebel, pointed to three specific recommendations as examples of the report’s “unjustified overreach”:

  1. The report recommends legislative action to authorize the appointment of a Monitor who would have veto power over Board decisions. “There is no other School District in New York where a duly elected School Board, voted into office by a majority of the District’s voters, may have its decisions over-ridden by a state-appointed monitor,” noted Rabbi Zwiebel.
  2. The report further recommends that one of the seats on the East Ramapo School Board in each election cycle be reserved exclusively for “parents of children attending public schools selected in a local process by other public school parents.” The rationale offered by the report for this astounding abrogation of the “one person, one vote” principle that stands at the core of American democracy is that the demographics of East Ramapo may otherwise lead to the election of a Board whose majority “may not be motivated by the same focus on the public schools as a traditional board member.” Commented Rabbi Zwiebel, “this recommendation supports the canard that parents of nonpublic school children are inherently untrustworthy to carry out the responsibilities of school board governance.”
  3. Citing the supposed fact that “the election process in the District is viewed with suspicion,” and that “the Monitors have heard from many District residents that they lack confidence in the process,” the report recommends that an “independent election monitor” be brought in to ensure the integrity of the election process. However, Rabbi Zwiebel pointed out, “there has been no evidence of any corruption of the District’s election process, no findings of any voters being disenfranchised, no basis for treating East Ramapo as if it were some third world country where special election monitors are needed to oversee the integrity of the ballot box.”

What is especially dismaying about the Monitors’ report, said the Agudath Israel leader, is that it rekindles the highly charged atmosphere that pits groups against each other in East Ramapo on the basis of religion and race.

“Mr. Walcott and his team are wonderful, highly accomplished professionals,” Rabbi Zwiebel stated. “Working together with Mr. Weissmandl and his colleagues on the Board, they have made meaningful progress over the last few months, not only in addressing many of the challenges facing the schools of East Ramapo, but also in defusing the inter-group tensions that have reached dangerous levels in recent years. There was every reason to be hopeful that continued cooperation between the Monitors and the Board would have resulted in further progress on these critical fronts. Unfortunately, these new recommendations may now set us back considerably. This is not an ‘Opportunity Deferred’; it is an ‘Opportunity Squandered.’

“The effort to undermine the authority of the Board and dilute the voting power of the citizens of East Ramapo is unjust. Worse, it is potentially dangerous, as it feeds into the types of ugly stereotypes whose destructive potential we know all too well. Agudath Israel calls upon all people of good will to reject the path of confrontation embodied in these recommendations, and to move forward constructively and cooperatively in dealing with the challenges facing all of the children of East Ramapo.”

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