Court Upholds East Ramapo Board’s Right to Fund Yeshivos

NEW YORK -

In a significant victory for the East Ramapo school board, a federal appeals court on Monday upheld its right to fulfill the state’s mandate of funding certain programs for yeshivos.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled that the parents of public school students who had brought the lawsuit had no direct harm from the board’s funding decisions, comparing it to any government budget with priorities.

School board president Yehuda Weissmandl said in a statement that “it is great news for the district.” He added that lawyers are still studying the brief.

Dozens of parents who send to the district’s dwindling public schools charged that the board’s allowing parents to choose where to send their special needs child took away money from the public school system, depriving the plaintiffs’ children of a proper education. They wanted to hold board members financially liable.

A lower court had accepted the case. The board appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs were not harmed by their decision. In Monday’s ruling, the appeals court agreed with the board.

Judge Peter Hall, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the majority that the supposed harm “is too far removed, too attenuated, from the alleged unconstitutional component of the act of funneling public monies to support the advancement of Orthodox Hasidic Jewish schools to constitute the type of injury cognizable and compensable as the result of an Establishment Clause violation.”

He directed the lower court to dismiss the charges against the board.

The plaintiffs said that the board, whose makeup mirrors the community that elected them, sold or leased two public school buildings to yeshivos at a reduced price, and purchased Jewish-themed books for the yeshivos. Some of the titles include I Keep Kosher, Let’s Go to Shul! and Why Weren’t You Zisha and Other Stories.

They claimed that these actions “contributed to the defunding of the public school system, which in turn injured the Student Plaintiffs by depriving them of educational opportunities and by damaging their psychological and mental well being.” The court dismissed the real estate charge since the sale never went through, and said that the books’ charge was too trivial to have made a difference in the public school education system.

As for the Establishment Clause argument, which bars the use of public funds to promote religion, the court ruled that the plaintiffs lack standing “because they are only indirectly affected by the conduct alleged.”

“Because this injury is often elusive,” Hall wrote, “the connection between the plaintiff and the challenged action must be direct and immediate.”

He added that the problem resulted from “being enmeshed in an underfunded school system.” East Ramapo’s unique demographic — there are about 24,000 private school students and 8,000 public school students — has for years skewed the state’s formula for distributing school aid.

That problem has eased in recent months, with the state removing a program that has reduced districts’ education funds and granted an extra $3 million a year to East Ramapo’s public schools. That has allowed the board to reopen some of the shuttered programs, such as kindergarten and arts classes, for public schools.