Monday, October 25, 2010

Whose School Is it?

About 20 or so years ago my friend Alan Aron and I were elected to the local school council for the DeWitt Clinton Public Elementary School – or Clinton for short. Why would I get involved in the running of a public school? It was to protect the interests of the community where the school is located. Every school council was required to have 2 of its members be non parents in order to represent community interests when schools interests intersected with them.

Clinton is located in Chicago’s West Rogers Park. That is a heavily Orthodox neighborhood. For various reasons the enrollment increased over the years to the point of overcrowding. The school could not handle the over-flow. They had to rent space in various remote locations to handle the overload. This was obviously not an ideal situation.

Clinton rightly sought to put another nearby school building no longer used but still owned by the Chicago Board of Education back on line to remedy the situation. The problem was that the building was not empty. It had been leased for many years to Hanna Sacks Beis Yaakov – one of the premiere Orthodox high schools for girls in Chicago. Both Alan and I were Hanna Sacks board members too.

Legally the Chicago Board of Education had the right to get that school back. But morally it was a bit more complicated. Clinton needed that building to relieve their overcrowding. But for Hanna Sacks it was an existential crisis. They had no decent facility to go to at the time. They desperately needed the building just to stay alive.

Long story short, our presence on that local school council representing the community helped Hanna sacks to secure the building. We made our case directly to the school as members of their council. Local elected officials were involved and sided with us - as did Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley. Mayor Daley to his everlasting credit understood the importance of maintaining the integrity of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. He saw this divisive issue as a threat to that.

Hanna Sacks was - and is - an anchor for the Orthodox residents of West Rogers Park. If it fell – that may have precipitated a major population shift to the suburbs. I’m not sure that would have ultimately happened. But everyone felt that the loss of a major anchor could lead to that.

At the same time Mayor Daley is a dedicated public servant and very supportive of the Chicago public schools. He was not about to abandon them. He somehow got the Chicago Board of Education – an independent entity - to approve the construction of a state of the art expansion to Clinton on their very large property. That would solve their overcrowding problem. He also convinced the Board of Education to sell Hanna Sacks the building they were in at a very reasonable price. Problem solved. It was a win/win for everyone.

I bring all this up in the light if an article in the Forward about a similar (though not identical) situation in New York. An abandoned public school building, the former Hillcrest School, was recently sold to New Square - a Chasidic enclave in Rockland County - for purposes of converting it to a Yeshiva. Non Jewish and non Orthodox Jewish residents are upset by this.

Among other things they are upset by what they perceive to be the lowball price that New Square paid for it. They also feel that the Ramapo Board of Education - in whose jurisdiction this matter fell and who sold the building - was not truly interested in the welfare of the public school system they represent and they were shortchanging children that attend those schools. Six of the eight elected members of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District are Orthodox Jews.

The Ramapo board of course disagrees. They say they have not undermined the public school system at all. They are only responding to the needs of its constituents who are heavily Orthodox. In fact they say the only reason that Orthodox Jews are on the Ramapo Board of Education in the first place is because they felt their needs had been ignored in the past. And they are now the majority.

The sale of this abandoned school building is being contested and the New York State Education Department put a hold on the sale.

One might take the position that the non Jewish or non Orthodox residents have a point. They have a right to be upset and take action when they see assets belonging to the public school system being so easily transferred out of the system – assets that could be used to better the circumstances of the public schools.

But I would strongly disagree with that. There is a reason the board has so many Orthodox members. The vast majority of their district is Orthodox. Board members are elected and therefore should represent the wishes of the electorate. As long as they do not perpetrate a fraud they have the right to sell property for any price they wish. Even if it is under the actual value.

And it is far from certain that this is the case. That building may have intrinsic value that is greater than the price that was paid - but that alone is rarely what determines market value. The economic law of supply and demand does that. If a school is abandoned for many years during which time no one expresses any interest in purchasing it - it is worth zero dollars.

That New Square now expresses interest when no one else did means that its value went from zero to 3.2 million dollars (the price they paid). That was in effect the market value unless other legitimate buyers have shown any interest. I do not believe that is the case. Had New Square not bought it, the school would remain an abandoned building with no value to anyone.

This isn’t a matter of right versus right, as was the case with Hanna Sacks. It is a matter of right versus wrong. A private religious school has the need and they bought an abandoned building to fill that need. All the complaining by members of the neighborhood smacks of an anti-religious or even anti Semitic sentiment.

I say this as someone who is in no way a proponent of New Square Chasidus - or any Chasidus for that matter. Nonetheless this is a no brainer for me. If New Square is somehow denied their purchase, I believe it will be a travesty of justice.

That said, I would caution New Square should take care to be as accommodating as possible. I should think and hope that they already are. Riding roughshod over your opponents - non religious or non Jewish neighbors - would in effect be making a Chilul HaShem.

One must have sensitivity to the legitimate concerns of others no matter how great the need is. Need does not replace good behavior. Good behavior will generate good will. If there is a way to solve a problem in ways that will make both sides happy - that should be the way to go. That is what happened in Chicago and that is what should happen here.