To paraphrase George Orwell, all school boards are created equal. But some are more equal than others.
State funds for education are allocated in large part by a ratio of real estate divided by the number of public school students. This will naturally result in disproportionate representation of a dense population, needing large houses, who — on the other hand — do not attend public schools.
In the district of East Ramapo, New York, the duly elected school board represents the entire population — mostly Orthodox Jews. About two-thirds of the district’s 32,000 students attend yeshivos.
In the United States, it should be expected that the results of a democratic election would be honored and those elected officials be allowed to do their jobs without interference. But something went awry and, largely due to outside agitation — including social media incitement and harassment — the New York Board of Regents appointed a monitor to assess the situation and make recommendations.
Yehuda Weissmandl, president of the East Ramapo school board, had reason to be optimistic about the appointment of former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to head the committee to study the situation in East Ramapo. In the past, Walcott has demonstrated a sensitivity to the needs of the Orthodox community. Indeed, meetings Weissmandl had since the appointment in the summer had led him to believe that Walcott “spoke to these very issues and seemed intent on avoiding a repeat of the past.”
Despite allegations of misconduct from agitators, the committee found “no large-scale misappropriation of funds or potential criminal wrongdoing in East Ramapo.” What was being characterized as corruption by opponents to the board were such decisions as allocating mandatory funding for school buses, instead of voluntary programs as art and music studies.
While the accusations were almost laughable, it was no laughing matter when the report came. The shocking recommendations were a body blow to the community. The report not only confirmed an earlier discriminatory proposal, but it called for the monitor to have veto power over any decisions of the elected board.
Abrogating the authority of duly elected officials with arbitrary veto power seems to have all the earmarks of a civil rights case that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
The decision is especially egregious in a district that is still trying to heal from the acrimony of a year ago. This is no way to heal. While it is not actually part of the Hippocratic Oath, the golden rule of the healing profession is “First do no harm.”
A similar situation in Lakewood, New Jersey, has seen a state-appointed monitor dictating policy in a school district that is overwhelmingly populated by Orthodox Jews who do not go to public school.
A simple fact, ignored by adversaries, is that yeshivah students save taxpayers millions of dollars a year by not partaking in services to which they are legally entitled. The few services they do utilize — such as special education resources — cost nowhere near the amount they save the state.
What needs to be overhauled is not local community leadership, who faithfully represent their constituencies of all backgrounds. In both Ramapo and Lakewood, the monitors acknowledged that the real problem is inadequate state funding for the districts. If the pie is too small, you can’t get enough slices out of it, no matter how you cut it.
The real solution is for New York and New Jersey to readjust the amounts of state aid to the districts, not to change the structure of duly elected school boards. And certainly not to undermine their authority.
Free elections are at the heart of what makes America great. To threaten it isn’t only wrong. It’s un-American.