Monday, May 16, 2011

Schools Fight Gets Heated 

The large Orthodox Jewish community here sends most of its children to private schools but took control of the public school district six years ago.

Now, there's a heated school board election pitting three Orthodox Jewish candidates against so-called "public school candidates," who have or had children in the school system.

Critics say the current school board has favored private schools, closing two public schools and arranging for them to be used by yeshivas, or private Jewish schools.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community say the board is acting appropriately and trying to make sure that the needs of children attending private school aren't ignored.

At a Parent Teacher Association candidate's forum last week, the only candidates that showed up were public school candidates. None of their opponents made an appearance.

It was the same story at an NAACP candidate's forum earlier this month. The Orthodox candidates complain they never received an invitation.

"There has been a lot of division, unfortunately," said Kim Foskew, president of the Parent Teacher Association Council. "I wish there weren't. People are getting angry. It's just the culmination of everything and it has built up a lot of animosity."

Similar power struggles have taken place in communities with large Orthodox populations, such as Lawrence, Long Island, and Lakewood, N.J. But in the East Ramapo district, residents say the conflict has reached the breaking point. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the New York Civil Liberties Union have written letters to school officials expressing concerns about various issues in the district.

Situated about 35 miles northwest of New York City, the East Ramapo district faces an unusual situation. Its public student population of roughly 8,100 is dwarfed by a private student population of about 20,000. The majority of private students are educated in yeshivas.

For years the Orthodox community—migrating to Rockland from Brooklyn—held a couple of seats on the nine-member board. But as the private student population grew, they began contesting more seats.

In 2005, Orthodox members became the majority on the East Ramapo school board. In a subsequent election the first Hasidic was elected to the board. Since then, the Hasidim have become the majority.

Critics claim that the school board has ignored the needs of a student population that is about 90% minority, with large Haitian and Latino populations. More than 60% of the district's public students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last year.

One of the closed schools was leased to two yeshivas; the other was slated to be sold to a yeshiva. The sale is on hold pending a review of a complaint filed by Steve White, an activist heading up the campaigns of the public school candidates, to state officials, alleging that the sale price was undervalued.

Parents critical of the board also allege that the board has improperly placed Orthodox Jewish special education students in private and other public schools. A state education audit last year found that the district was placing students with disabilities in private schools when spots were available in public schools.

The local branch of the NAACP filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging discrimination for special education placements, among other things, which is currently under investigation.

Some parents and activists were further angered when the board replaced its long-time local attorney with a Long Island attorney who charges a higher hourly rate and has represented an Orthodox-controlled board in Long Island where he helped with similar legal challenges regarding school closures and special education.

Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said Hasidic and Orthodox populations, such as in Ramapo, have many internal divisions and sects. But when it comes securing more resources for their community, they will rally together.

"They vote as a bloc," said Mr. Heilman. "They vote based on who is going to provide them with services. They have a very strong grass-roots network and everybody knows who they have to vote for."

Aron Wieder has been leading the Orthodox faction of the school board since his election three years ago. Mr. Wieder abruptly decided not to seek re-election.

At a "Kosher on the Go" Shell gas station in Monsey last week two men speaking in Yiddish asked Mr. Wieder why he wasn't running.

Mr. Wieder explains that he became a lightning rod of controversy so he decided not to run. But he remains concerned that the Orthodox could lose their majority. Others in his community share his concern. They say that the board should be equally concerned with both public and private students.

"I think the purpose of the school board is to make sure that all kids get an education," said Shaya Green, an Orthodox Jew from Monsey who has four children in private school. "All kids include private school kids. And public school kids. There's very little that we get back from the district. I'm very worried that if they get in they will take that all way."

The district pays for the transportation for private school students and textbooks, as mandated by state law, as well as the education of all special needs students.

Many in the Orthodox and Hasidic communities defend the placement of special needs students in schools outside of the district. "Not every child in the Hasidic community is the right fit and the comfortable fit to be put into a public school class," said Yehuda Weissmandhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifl, a Hasidic Jew who is running for the school board. "And that is something that needs to be understood and respected."

But the opposition candidates, such as Peggy Hatton, who lost a campaign in 2009, say the cultural misunderstandings go the other way, too.

"The people who are currently running the school board do not understand the culture of the children who attend the public schools and they don't quite frankly have skin in the game," said Ms. Hatton. "Why do they want to be a part of the school board to begin with?"


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