Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Is Being Right Always Enough?

Yehuda Weissmandl
of the East Ramapo Central School District
Back in the 1990s a conflict arose here in Chicago between a public school and Hanna Sacks Beis Yaakov (HSBY). During the 1980s after the baby boom was over, public school attendance was down. A lot of public school buildings were emptied as schools combined. One such building (just a half block from my house) was the Green School building.

Hanna Sacks had grown to a point where it needed a building. The Green School was available and leased to them. But in the nineties the public school population had grown to a point where it needed to take some of those buildings back. Specifically the nearby Dewitt Clinton Elementary School had requested the Green School building for its overflow.

Hanna Sacks had no place to go. Having been in that building for quite some time and investing money in it, they fought for the building. I was on the Hanna Sacks Board of Directors at the time. State Senator Howard Karol was sympathetic to our cause and went to bat for us. He contacted Mayor Richard J. Daley who also sympathized with us. But Clinton’s Local School Council was adamant. They felt the school belonged to them. It was needed now and it should go back on line.

Senator Karol suggested to the Hanna Sacks board that we run 2 candidates for that council in the next election. Their by-laws allowed 2 of its members to be non parents that would represent the community’s interests. As a member of Hanna Sacks board and a resident of the area, I was asked to run along with another board member who lived there too. Anyone who lived in the Clinton school district could vote. The religious community leaders asked the Orthodox Jews of this heavily Orthodox neighborhood to vote for us. We won. Suddenly my fellow Hanna Sacks board member and I were members of the DeWitt Clinton Local School Council.  

We had made our point with that board. Keeping the Green School building in Hanna Sacks hands was what the voters in that district wanted.

What about the legitimate claims by the Clinton School Council members that it needed the building? That’s where Mayor Daley came in. He had convinced the public building commission to build a state of the art addition to the school that more than accommodated the overflow. This addition was a far better alternative than dividing their students between two buildings that were not really walking distance from each other. Their overcrowding problems were solved and we were able to buy that building from the Chicago Board of Education.

That was a happy ending. But in the interim there was some very acrimonious debate between the two religious members of that council and some of the more strident advocates of getting the Green school back. Even after the new building was promised, there were Clinton council members that were opposed to us. They preferred getting the older building back – saying that it was a waste of money to build an auxiliary to a school when a building was already in existence. The fact that an entire school would be out in the streets didn’t concern them.

Since then I have wondered if our participation were necessary. Were we wrong to run for the Local School Council? Could we have gotten the building without that? Were they right for fighting us? Was the acrimony that resulted worth getting that building? All I can say is that it has been over 2 decades since this happened and all is well.

I haven’t been following the controversy in Monsey all that closely. But I can’t help noticing some similarities. Monsey, New York, is part of the East Ramapo school district. And as is well known Monsey is heavily populated by Orthodox Jews. Mostly Chasidim but quite a few non Chasidim and even some Modern Orthodox. What has happened is that the East Ramapo school board now  consists mostly (if not exclusively) of Orthodox Jews.

This wasn’t always the case even after the population of this suburb became heavily Orthodox. But apparently the Orthodox residents of Monsey felt that they were somehow being discriminated by the previous board. So community activists there asked some Orthodox members to run for that office and urged the usually apathetic voters (with respect to the East Ramapo School board) to vote for them. That board now consists mostly of religious Jews (If I understand correctly).

During their tenure, controversy erupted. There was an appearance of bias by the Orthodox Board members against the public schools. However it seems that this was not actually the case. The accusations were unfounded. Because of a New York State funding formula that did not work for this district the East Ramapo public schools were grossly underfunded… and programs had to be cut by the board. There was no prejudice. Just no money, through no fault of their own.

Nevertheless, there was the appearance of prejudice. That’s how it was reported in the media.  Private religious schools where these board members sent their own children seemed to be thriving, while public schools seemed to be suffering at the hands of religious Jews.

I tend to agree that the board is not at fault here. And that they were unfairly blamed. That seems finally to be corroborated by a new coalition of Monsey residents. From an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Cross Currents:
At a press conference in Monsey, some 75 people gathered to speak, hear or report on a new initiative, “Community United for Formula Change,” launched by a group of local charedi, black and Latino activists, who are working together to address the problem of the East Ramapo school district’s inadequate funding. Among those involved in the initiative are Chasidic rabbis, pastors of Latino and Haitian churches, and American-born black community members….
I was struck by the friendship, unified spirit and determination among the multi-ethnic backers of the initiative.
One black speaker at the press conference, Brendel Charles (a councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, but who attended as a parent of two public school children), told Tablet magazine that “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community.”
“I thought that there could be a possibility that there was something wrong,” she said, “that there could be a prejudice of [their] thinking, ‘We don’t have to give them that [they felt], because it doesn’t really matter’.”…
But when Ms. Charles’ husband joined the East Ramapo school board, she recounted, he quickly “realized that… the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.
That seems to be a vindication of the board’s actions. But I have to ask whether a school board should consist almost exclusively of people that do not send their children to those schools. I’m not sure what the exact nature of the problem was that motivated the community to pack the board with religious members. I suspect that their reasons were legitimate. But even so was it worth the acrimony that has been built up? 

There was an obvious appearance of prejudice – even if there wasn’t any in actuality. There was an appearance of protecting our interests at the expense of the minority. It just plain looks bad when seemingly wealthy Orthodox Jews whose children are in private schools determine the fate of poor non Jewish parents whose children are in the public schools. Especially when things go as badly as they did in East Ramapo.

This does not mean that there shouldn’t be any Orthodox Jews on the board. Of course there should. Their legitimate interests have to be protected. I was on a board like that for that very reason. But when the majority of a board sends their own children to private schools, there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. And I think we have to bend over backwards to avoid that.