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Lawmakers Begin Work Regarding East Ramapo School District

A state-appointed fiscal monitor has made a number of recommendations concerning a beleaguered school district in Rockland County. He is recommending state oversight of the school board, and state lawmakers were meeting this afternoon to discuss how to craft legislation to make it happen.

A 61-page report entitled “East Ramapo: A School District in Crisis” comes from fiscal monitor Henry Greenberg, who was appointed by the state Education Department in June to assess the district whose finances, as Greenberg puts it, teeter on the edge of disaster. One recommendation calls for state oversight via a fiscal monitor who would have powers to override the school board and superintendent. Another calls for an increase in state funding. Democratic Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski represents a portion of the school district.

“The most important thing would be oversight and the ability for someone or some entity to reverse board decisions,” says Zebrowski. “And I’d like to see it go further. I’d like to see this person actually have input in the decision-making process.”

He and other legislators were meeting Friday afternoon to go over the report and talk about crafting legislation, which, he notes, will take collaboration with the governor’s staff, state education department and others.

“But I’d like to hit the ground running in January with at least the beginnings of a bill,” Zebrowski says.

January marks the beginning of the next legislative session. The report describes the East Ramapo School District as containing 33,000 school-age children, 9,000 of whom attend the public schools. Ninety-one percent of those 9,000 are African American and Latino. Some 24,000 attend private Yeshivas.

School Board President Yehuda Weissmandl, in a statement, says he is pleased that Greenberg found no illegal or improper wrongdoing by the board or district but is, however, saddened by some of the characterizations in the report, saying he does not believe these characterizations were warranted or factually correct.

Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee’s district includes a portion of the school district.

“I’m pleased that we’re moving in this very positive direction,” says Jaffee. “I would like to make the legislation as strong as possible.”

State Senator David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat whose district includes East Ramapo, says with the report issued, it is now time to pass meaningful legislation to reform governance and funding.

“For years myself, advocates, other legislators have called for action, but it’s very difficult when you’re one school district in the state of New York that’s so unique,” says Carlucci.  “And what this report really does is have an independent voice and gives us the leverage to finally take the action that is needed to make sure that our children get the education that they deserve.”

Greenberg’s report says that beginning in 2009, the Board made Draconian cuts in public school programs and services to balance its budgets while simultaneously increasing spending for private schools. The report also says the Board appears to favor private schools over public ones. Greenberg notes that since 2005, the Board majority has been comprised of members from the private school community. Today, that is seven of nine members. Zebrowksi says the school district is in chaos.

“Beyond the financial and other concerns there, we’ve seen instances where the lawyer for the district has cursed at parents, where kids have been belittled for speaking their minds at board meetings,” says Zebrowski. “We need a full overhaul over this district. Parents need, their confidence in their school system needs to be restored, so that’s what we need to get to work on.”

Dr. Oscar Cohen is education chair of the Spring Valley branch of the NAACP and member of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice. He says Greenberg’s report and recommendations are accurate, reflect community sentiment, and give voice to reality.

“While we’re supportive of his recommendation to have the state pass legislation that will appoint a monitor that has authority, we’re disappointed that it wasn’t a recommendation for a state takeover because the track record of the board and the superintendent is one that is suspect as to whether they are following the regulations and the statutes by the spirit of the law. They may be in terms of the letter of the law.”

Zebrowksi says he is not opposed to a complete state takeover; Carlucci says it should be a last resort; and Jaffee says it is unrealistic at this point.

Weissmandl says, quote, “Moving forward, we know we need to work on improving administration, communications and community relations. The goal of all our efforts must be to make real progress for all of the children in the district.” End quote. Greenberg’s report also recommends that the board undergo diversity training and improve transparency.

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