Monday, September 19, 2016

East Ramapo – Revisited

Guest Contribution by RYS

Some members of the East Ramapo School Board as constructed last year
Just over a year ago, in June of 2015, I had written post about the optics of an Orthodox Jewish majority running the East Ramapo Central School District. They were democratically elected by an electorate that is predominantly Orthodox.  At the time I said that they had done nothing wrong in executing their duty and that the problems of underfunded public schools in that district were probably sourced in a flawed state allocation formula.

But I also said that ever since the school board had come to consist predominantly of Orthodox Jews, the perception of a flourishing Jewish parochial school system versus an underfunded public school system just looked bad – even though there was nothing untoward going on.  Which is why I chose the title of that post to read: Sometimes Being Right – is Wrong.

That post generated a heated exchange totaling a whopping 267 comments.

The following is a response to that post and many of the comments based on subsequent developments. It is authored by RYS, a frequent commenter here. RYS grew up in and is part of the Charedi community in the New York area; and attended traditional Yeshivos both in the US and Israel. He learned in Kollel for a number of years and has spent the last 30 years in a variety of positions in Jewish communal service. I know his identity and have had many email correspondences with him. He currently has an important communal position, and is a passionate defender of the Charedi world (albeit a bit over the top on occasion). Even though we occasionally disagree, I respect his views. His words follow:

First I would like to thank Rabbi Maryles for this opportunity. Full disclosure we have has a lengthy correspondence over this issue for the last few days, when he was kind enough to offer me a guest post to elaborate. Being how much pride Rabbi Maryles takes in his blog, taking great care that all posts both his own and guest ones are of the highest quality, I will do my best to live up to those standards.

For the last few years there has been lots of talk both in the general media, as well as here on Emes V’Emunah about the East Ramapo Central School District (ERCSD) in a suburb about 30 miles north of New York City in Rockland County. It is an issue that has aroused passions on each side, has been debated endlessly in the New York State Legislature, and was recently a major issue in a local election.

For a brief background, the village of Monsey, NY (which is part of the town of Ramapo) has been transformed from a sleepy hamlet 50 years ago, to a major Orthodox Jewish population center with Greater Monsey now including a number of surrounding towns including Spring Valley, Wesley Hills, New Hempstead, Concord, Forshay, Pomona and others. It is teeming with shuls , yeshivas, shopping and all other amenities, and includes two exclusive incorporated all Chasidic  villages.

As with any group, these new residents began using their democratic rights and involved themselves in the political system. And this included the most local of all, elections to the local school board. And in due time the orthodox/Charedi representatives became a majority of the school board, which was roughly in proportion to their share of the population.

As the orthodox population grew, the Board was faced with a major dilemma. In NY State, schools are funded in two ways. One is through property taxes, which is why more affluent suburban areas generally have better schools, as their tax revenue is higher. Whatever is not covered by property taxes, the state makes up the shortfall. However the state formula is based on the number of children enrolled in the public schools in each district. This is what caused the dilemma in ERCSD. Although there are about 25,000 schoolchildren in the district, only about a third attend public schools, as the vast majority attend yeshivas and other private schools. This consequently caused major budget shortfalls.

At the same time there are certain services that are state mandated for every child whether they attend public or private schools, including special education, remedial services and others. And so the Board either had to deny children their state mandated services or cut back in non essential areas of public schools like music sports etc. The cuts also included selling unused buildings as the public school population dwindled.  Some of these cuts were painful, but with perennial funding shortfalls the board had no choice.

It didn’t take long for ugliness to ensue. Parents of public school children accused the democratically elected board of favoring the yeshiva children over their own and unfortunately many of these accusations had anti Semitic innuendos. The ERSCD was hit with a lawsuit accusing the board of depriving their children of a proper education, and the local elected officials got involved. One Elllen Jaffee a local assemblywoman even questioned on the floor of the New York State assembly if the orthodox Jews were legitimate voters as seen in this video.

As a result of this vitriol, calls were raised for an independent monitor with veto power over the democratically elected board. Thankfully the State Senate had the good sense to realize that such a monitor would be a blatant violation of the will of the local voters.

This month New York State held primary elections for the state legislature. Ms. Jaffee was up for re-election and was opposed by many in the orthodox community due to her antagonism towards those voters to whom she questioned their legitimacy. At the same time in a neighboring district, Aron Wieder a former School Board president, and currently a member of the Rockland County legislator ran in the Democratic primary. If successful , Mr. Wider would be the first Chasidic member of the New York State Legislature.

Once again the election brought out the usual complaints against the orthodox community. In an op ed in a local publication called the Rockland Voice, one Jeff Gillies in responding to an exhortation by Mr. Chaskel  Bennett, a trustee of Agudath Israel of America urging people to vote with the quote “If You don’t vote you don’t matter”, wrote:
The deeper problem in Rockland County is that the ultra-religious sects for whom Mr. Bennet is working seemingly hold a belief that the electoral victories of their community comes with a license to trample the rights of the minority. This belief is the antithesis of everything our founding fathers worked to achieve, but it is also the simple truth of the matter. 
So according to Mr. Gillies, voting for what you believe and for your rights is the antithesis of the founding fathers. Pretty strong words.  And in a video postedon a Facebook page, Ms . Jaffee’s opponent Tom Gulla was lampooned as a creation of the “bloc”, while Aron Wieder was viciously caricatured as a member of the Taliban.

For the record both Ms. Jaffee and Mr. Wieder prevailed, although Mr. Wieder still has a Republican opponent in November.

On a blog post here a year ago last June dealing with  this topic, Daniel Schwartz, a frequent commenter here, and a former president of the school board (who is not Charedi) was harshly attacked in the comments section primarily by an avowed atheist, using the moniker Rational (sic) Thinker, one who voluntary refrained from commenting here when the moderator placed him on permanent moderation due to his inability to keep his atheistic opinions off the blog. To his credit Mr. Schwartz refused to engage in any substance, just simply stating that the matter is before the courts and he will fight his battles there.

Well…the courts have spoken.  As reported in Hamodia last week a federal appeals court upheld the right of the ERCSB board to fund yeshiva programs and that there was no harm done to public school parents. It is particularly noteworthy that the judge in his decision recognized that the underlying problem stems from an underfunded system.

 In addition the state, recognizing the issue here has allocated an additional $3 million specifically earmarked for the public schools which is greatly alleviating the underlying problem.

In light of the above, I believe a retraction and apology is in order for all those who questioned the veracity of this school board.