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East Ramapo School Board Members. Photo: Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News

New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia rescinded approval of the East Ramapo school district’s budget after she discovered it included five days worth of funding for busing students to private religious schools. She then traveled to the district to discuss the budget behind closed doors, where she ultimately approved funding for fourteen days of the busing, at a cost of about $1.4 million dollars.

This is only the latest dust-up in the continuing saga of the embattled East Ramapo school district, where affiliates of a large Hasidic community have controlled the school board for years. For the uninitiated, NPR unpacked the fascinating story in a 2014 episode of This American Life, but the short version is that about 24,000 East Ramapo students attend private yeshivas while public schools hold only about 8,500 students. The Hasidic community is so densely populated in the district they have dominated school board elections and slashed funding for public schools, shifting tax dollars to cover private school expenses and even closed public schools, only to sell the properties to the yeshivas at deep discounts.

The actions of the school board, usually carried out in secret, have been considered detrimental to public education, so the NY state legislature and education department stepped in, appointing outside monitors and oversight of school board activities. But now local parents say the monitors and the education commissioner are part of the problem.

Parent groups and school board candidates are circulating a petition calling for Commissioner Elia to step down after her flip-flop-flip on the latest proposed budget.

Because of East Ramapo’s unique monitor law, Elia has to approve the school budget proposal. She did so last month, apparently without reading it. Two days later, Elia rescinded her approval when she discovered it included five days of funding for busing students to private religious schools on days the public schools are closed.

She then visited the district with NY State Education Department lawyers to discuss the budget–behind closed doors. Local parents later discovered the renegotiated deal included funding for FOURTEEN days of busing private school students at a cost of about $1.4 million dollars. No explanation was offered by Elia as inconsistency apparently changed into total capitulation.

Now, Elia and the monitors are suggesting an “override” vote as the budget exceeds the state tax cap. This means the budget has to pass by 60% or more, but residents vowed during last week’s hearing to vote AGAINST the budget on May 16, expressly because of the giveaway to the private schools, calling schools board members “corrupt” and “deceptive” to their faces. Some also asked why Elia never pushed for a tax cap override for desperately needed academic funding in years past, but is now willing to do so for religious school perks.

The Blaine Amendment clause in New York’s Constitution has, since 1894, “prohibited the use of public money for the direct or indirect support of educational institutions that are controlled or directed by any religious denomination, or where religious tenets or doctrines are taught.” This prevents the board from allocating tax dollars for rent or teacher salaries for religious schools, but there are exceptions regarding transportation, textbooks, technology, health and special education services.

In decades past, East Ramapo’s public schools were considered among the best in the state, but under pressure from the growing Hasidic population, local leaders developed an “understanding” where private schools would receive tax dollars for services like transportation. In exchange, the large voting bloc would agree to support the annual school budget. When the bloc decided to flex their “democratic” muscle and take over the board, the public schools deteriorated as officials voted, in secret, again and again for cutting or privatizing public education funding.

Finally the state stepped in, imposing monitors and oversight to eliminate the funding for private busing on days there is no public school. But now it’s back. The funding for private busing to religious schools not only ensures the bloc will vote for the budget, but will also turn out for school board elections held the same day, where three of nine seats are up for grabs (because of the contention in the district, vote turnout in East Ramapo is typically over five times higher than neighboring districts).

Local religious schools have used budget loopholes as mechanisms to privatize public education money, resulting in scandals, litigation, FBI raids and costly judgments. East Ramapo’s open secret is that the monolithic “bloc” vote is not just powerful enough to control school board elections, but can also tip state and Congressional elections. This is why heavyweights like Bill Clinton and John Boehner come to court local rabbis during campaign season. This is why the monitor law was watered down to exclude all-important “veto” powers. This is why state education officials cut backroom agreements with the 8-1 majority on the board, allocating 38% of new revenue for private schools expenses.

It’s also come to light over the years that New York yeshivas receiving public tax dollars do not actually teach academics at required minimal levels, sometimes excluding entire math, English and science programs.

According to a little-known 1928 state law, responsibility for enforcing adequate secular study in religious schools is supposed to fall to the local school board. For decades, the issue was non-controversial because most religious schools around the state, predominantly Catholic schools, offer robust academic programs. Consequently, the state Education Department has no mechanisms for tracking coursework in religious schools and there is no precedent for penalizing schools who flout the law, leaving the community in charge.

The school board not only looks the other way, but the powerful ultra-Orthodox community reportedly makes local Hasidic parents afraid to speak out in fear of retribution. Thanks to RLIUPA, a federal zoning law designed to help the expansion of religious institutions, East Ramapo’s 80 private yeshivas now dwarf the number of public schools.

Understanding these realities, the question is not why Commissioner Elia approved such a sweet deal for the bloc, but rather why she rescinded her earlier approval when the funding for non-mandated private busing was much lower. This suggests Elia didn’t initially understand “how things work,” until it was explained in person.

Aside from her new troubles in East Ramapo, Elia is also under criticism statewide for her handling of New York’s standardized testing and Common Core, support for charter schools and for moving too slowly to remove billionaire Carl Paladino from Buffalo’s school board after his racist remarks came to light. Elia’s gaffe encouraging students to consider both sides in a Holocaust assignment also made headlines last month, but her recent, privately-struck deal with the East Ramapo board has not been widely reported.

The polls for this vote on the East Ramapo school district’s budget will be open on May 16 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and it will have to pass by at least 60%. Please check back here for updates on this story, as we will report whether or not the town rejects the proposed budget.

 

MAY 25, 2017
UPDATE: The East Ramapo school budget failed to pass by a crushing 89-11%.

The preferred slate of the ultra-orthodox bloc vote won by a comfortable margin, maintaining an 8-1 majority on the school board.

Public school advocates in East Ramapo say the budget would have been acceptable if not for the $1.4 million in private yeshiva busing costs added in at the last minute.

It is still unclear why Commissioner Elia approved the religious school bus funding after initially objecting to an even lesser amount. It’s also not known why the large bloc of pro-private school voters abandoned the budget in what appears to be a costly miscalculation of voter sentiment.

Another budget vote is scheduled for June 20.

Community members will be also watching closely as it is suspected the board will once again try to award a contract to Brega Transport, a busing operation that was barred from federally-funded contracts after the owner was indicted by Preet Bharara’s office for allegedly falsifying $86,000 in repair invoices. The East Ramapo school board awarded Brega’s firm further contracts despite the scandal, prompting local residents to petition the state Education department for a stay order.

The petition contends Brega should be barred from district business not only because of the fraud and bribery charges, nor even Brega’s blemished safety record, but because they were not even the lowest bid. As is too often the case, political allies of the board were showered with maxed-out campaign contributions by Brega and his family members.

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