East Ramapo Breakthrough: Monitor Without Veto Power

NEW YORK -
South Madison Avenue Elementary School. Built in 1959, was an elementary school for the East Ramapo district. It now houses the district administration. (Richard/Flickr)
South Madison Avenue Elementary School.
Built in 1959, was an elementary school for the East Ramapo district. It now houses the district administration. (Richard/Flickr)

A deal that would end years of tension in the East Ramapo school district is set to pass the state legislature on Thursday, denying the veto-empowered overseer some legislators sought.

Under the breakthrough legislation, which was agreed upon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic-led Assembly and the Republican Senate, the district will receive an additional $3 million next year. This money is earmarked solely for the district’s dwindling public school population and will be overseen by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

The $3 million, which will be funded jointly by each chamber and the governor, is a minute portion of the board’s overall approximately $225 million annual school budget. But the board that serves the district which comprises the Torah centers of Monsey, Spring Valley and New Square, has come under increased scrutiny as they were forced to use their limited school funds to cover required services to private schools, such as busing, special education and textbooks.

Elia, who has cooperated with the Orthodox community in crafting the compromise bill, was seen as an acceptable alternative to the appointment of a monitor with veto power, as local lawmakers and anti-Orthodox Rockland County groups preferred. She will have authority to offer recommendations on the $3 million, not the entire school budget. And the school board, whose majority of Orthodox Jews represents the district’s make-up, can override her.

Yehuda Weissmandl, president of the school board, told Hamodia that he was “very happy” with the deal reached in Albany.

“The state is acknowledging that this is not a monitor issue but a funding issue,” Weissmandl said. “Hopefully we can build on it. But nonetheless this is the beginning of a recognition by the state that this district needs more money.”

Weissmandl said that the intention of lawmakers was to add to it in coming years, eventually reaching $5 million to $6 million a year.

The deal was agreed to Monday night and will be voted on by the Senate and Assembly on Thursday. The legislature is then scheduled to adjourn for the year, unless the governor calls for them to remain an additional day.

The East Ramapo saga began ten years ago, when the Orthodox community for the first time elected the majority of the nine-member school board. While the state uses property taxes to fund the public school system, the education budget also goes toward certain services for private schools. A burgeoning Jewish population has since caused funding for those private school services, which are mandated by the state, to skyrocket.

Currently, there are approximately 23,600 private school students in East Ramapo, compared to a public school population of fewer than 8,000 students. To pay for the state mandated services to private schools, the board was forced to reduce some nonessential services to public schools, such as art and dance classes, kindergarten, and physical education.

Local lawmakers such as Assembly members Ken Zebrowski and Ellen Jaffe and state Sen. David Carlucci pushed hard for a law setting a five-year monitor with veto power over all the board’s decisions. Community activists fought back vociferously, arguing that it was undemocratic since it undermines a popularly elected school board.

Two separate state observers said they did not find fault with the school board’s actions. However, surprisingly, and to the chagrin of the board, they issued reports recommending the veto-empowered oversight. The Assembly agreed, passing bills these past two years for the monitor. They were thwarted by the Senate both times.

The deal solves the issue for this year, and is widely seen as finally settling the East Ramapo problem since it sets a precedent for the future — additional funding for public schools in exchange for limited oversight.

“We won because people came out and voted,” one person involved in negotiations that led to the compromise bill told Hamodia on Wednesday. “Albany took notice.”