1. A District in Crisis
Starting in 2005, a politically powerful group of private school advocates became the school board majority of a system where they do not send their own children. Over the next several years, the board made dramatic cuts to public education for the 9,000 children of color in East Ramapo, slashing kindergarten to two hours a day, eliminating 400 staff (including all social workers), arts, advanced classes and more, while increasing funding to private schools. The two board members who had sent their children to the public system—including a 20-year veteran of the board--resigned in January 2013, citing a troubling lack of financial information provided to board members and a “pattern of harassment and intimidation” from their peers. Students, parents and community activists staged protests and filed lawsuits. In 2014, NPR’s “This American Life” reported on students who had more study halls and lunches in their schedules than academic classes due to the board’s choices.
2. A Damning State Investigation
In November 2014, former federal prosecutor Hank Greenberg—assigned to investigate the district by the State Education Department and Governor Cuomo—issued a report to the Board of Regents declaring that the board had: “recklessly mismanaged” the district; favored private schools over public schools, “blinded by the needs of their own community”; made out-of-code special education placements in private schools and spent millions in “absurd” lawyers’ fees appealing the state’s rulings; depleted the district’s millions in reserves; disregarded the voices of parents, holding up to 70% of public meetings in secret and refusing $3.5 million in state money because it required community, not just board, involvement; sold public elementary school buildings at a deep discount to private schools, overcrowding classes in the process; should receive “not one penny” without state oversight given the irresponsible fiscal legacy.
3. A Proposed Remedy from Rockland County’s Representatives: A. 5355 and S. 3821
In February 2015, Assembly Members Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski, along with Senator David Carlucci, introduced a bill to authorize the Commissioner of Education to appoint a monitor who would (a) be responsible for a five-year strategic improvement plan for the district and (b) oversee and veto decisions of the board that are not in the best interests of public education; the board would be able to appeal the decisions of the monitor. Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Rockland Board of Rabbis, NAACP, Rockland County Legislature, the Rockland County Executive, the New York City Bar Association, Alliance for Quality Education, New York Civil Liberties Union and the Rockland County School Boards Association all endorsed the bill, and Chancellor Merryl Tisch wrote of her support in a New York Times editorial she co-authored, titled “When A School Board Victimizes Kids” (June 3). The bill passed the Assembly after a three-hour debate; however, Senate Leader Flanagan never brought the bill to the floor before the end of the session, citing concerns with the precedent-setting nature of the measure and claiming that SED already has the power to act. Gov. Cuomo said East Ramapo legislation was one of two bills he wished had been passed this session.
4. The State Education Department Releases Studies and Appoints a Monitor Without Veto Power
The State Education Department released several studies in June 2015, further finding serious fault with the district leadership. The reports stated: “the district has failed to provide bilingual education to students who are entitled to those services,” “has failed to provide ELLs access to required coursework and credits toward graduation,” and “there is a “pervasive lack of cultural competency by the district’s superintendent.” The district also “has not implemented a robust financial planning strategy” and “has failed its teachers by acknowledging it does not have a staffing strategy.”
On August 13, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia named former NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott as the new East Ramapo monitor. He will be joined by two experts, Dr. Monica George-Fields and Dr. John Sipple, to spend two to three days a week in the district, investigating, advising the board, and reporting their findings to Albany. Walcott did not have veto power over the board, but Commissioner Elia said that, if the board is not cooperative, "action will be taken." The board parted ways with the controversial Superintendent Joel Klein, hired former Roosevelt superintendent Dr. Deborah Wortham as an interim leader, and appointed Sabrina Charles-Pierre, an alumna and current parent of the district, to an open seat on the school board for the remainder of the school year.
5. Civil Rights Violations
Meanwhile, after a four-year investigation into allegations lodged by the Spring Valley NAACP, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) determined that the district has segregated the children in bilingual Yiddish special needs classrooms from the rest of the students in the schools -- and otherwise disproportionally placed white students with special needs in out-of-district placements. The district has entered into a Resolution Agreement with the OCR to stop these discriminatory practices, and the OCR is now supervising their compliance on these specific issues.
6. A Second Report
On December 13, Dennis Walcott and his monitoring team presented a report to the New York State Board of Regents affirming the conclusions of Hank Greenberg's report. Indicating that the district "persistently failed to act in the best interests of public school students," the monitors issued 19 recommendations, including vesting a state official with veto power to ensure sound district decisions, appointing an independent election monitor, and requiring that one school board seat be reserved for parents of public school students in every election cycle.
7. Empowering the Commissioner
Armed with a second report calling for a monitor with veto power, advocates for public schools lobbied throughout the legislative session in 2016 to get the previous year's bill passed. Yet Senate Leader John Flanagan and Senate Education Chair Carl Marcellino continued to prevent S. 3821 to reach the floor. As a result, Rockland’s representatives to Albany advanced an alternate proposal that authorized the State Commissioner of Education to have the power to approve East Ramapo's budget, as well as provide the district with $3 million to restore public school programs. The New York State Legislature approved the plan, and the Governor signed it, in June of 2016. Chuck Szuberla now serves as the East Ramapo monitor, and full-day kindergarten and some elementary arts programs have been restored for the year as a result of the agreement. The next step is pursuing a more sustained solution for our district.