Wednesday, August 18, 2010

E. Ramapo board owes explanation 

Members of the public and reporters have tried to shake loose from the East Ramapo school board key information used to justify the $3.1 million sale of Hillcrest Elementary School to Yeshiva Avir Yakov of New Square. From all appearances, the yeshiva got a great deal, paying much less than the $10.2 million the Town of Clarkstown assessment office said the property is worth. But another appraisal purportedly values the property at $5 million, while another puts the value at $3.2 million. What exactly do these appraisals reveal? Who inspected these appraisals? Were taxpayers treated fairly?

Those are among the many questions that have gone unanswered by the school board, despite the many pleas of parents, taxpayers and reporters, who have filed Freedom of Information Law requests seeking documents concerning the sale. Inconceivably, these quite reasonable requests for information have been summarily denied — no matter the public's right to know, nor the obvious public interest in the transaction.

The secrecy is untenable for public officers and the disposition of public property. Moreover, the lack of transparency only adds to the ample distrust and skepticism — not all of it justified — that already envelop the board's activities. The district is effectively controlled by the block-voting Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish community; their members do not use the public schools but, nonetheless, control the purse.

In their individual capacity, board members have not been forthcoming; most have replied "no comment" to questions about the sale. A Freedom of Information Law request was denied. An appeal is pending. Inasmuch as the board has been tight-lipped to a grievous fault, the Office of the State Comptroller should intervene on behalf of taxpayers. Who else to untangle the transaction and ensure that the public interest was served?

School district parent/community activist Steven White is among those who have been stonewalled by the school board. Having been rebuffed by the local officials, White has taken his pleas to the Office of the State Education Commissioner. White contends, among other things, that the $3.1 million sale price cannot possibly make sense; the district spent more than that — $3.5 million — on improvements to the school since 2001. He contends that the district didn't make a good-faith attempt to get the best possible sale price. At this juncture, the board offers few clues to help decide this question.

Ironically, White's bid to get the state officials to intervene is now used as cover for reticent school board members; they deem White's action as litigation, and reason to keep their mouths shut. What they should be doing is explaining to the taxpaying public how they flipped prime school property for a bargain. If they won't tell, the state Comptroller's Office should.


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