Friday, May 11, 2012

Race for Monroe-Woodbury school board takes odd turn 

The race for three Monroe-Woodbury school board seats next week has veered in an unlikely direction, with one board member contending in a widely distributed email that three candidates support Kiryas Joel residents who want special-education services for their kids at Monroe-Woodbury's expense.

Board member Jen Trumper, who isn't up for election but backs two incumbents and their running mate, warns that three other candidates "will be sympathetic" to dissident Hasidic families who want services from providers other than Kiryas Joel's public school for disabled children.

"The dissident group seeks private special education for their children at Rabbi Deutch's school in Rockland, cost to the taxpayer = $1 million and that is just the beginning," she wrote in a May 2 message.

The accusation stems from an ongoing dispute between dissident leaders and Monroe-Woodbury officials and from one candidate's election petition, which includes signatures by Hasidic families living outside Kiryas Joel in the Town of Monroe.

The three people accused of representing the dissidents have expressed shock, saying they are not running together and knew nothing about the convoluted special-ed conflict.

"All I did was get signatures — my God," said Guilaine Leger-Vargas, a retired New York City police sergeant who now works part time for the Orange County Sheriff's Office.

The other candidates named in the email were Clara Munoz-Feliciano and Mark O'Brien. Trumper is supporting incumbents Eleni Kikiras Carter and Natalie Brooks and newcomer John Otero, who are running as a ticket in Tuesday's election.

The background issue is that Kiryas Joel's dissidents — a minority faction in the divided Satmar Hasidic community — want Monroe-Woodbury to offer other special-ed providers to parents with children in two private schools just outside Kiryas Joel. Monroe-Woodbury, which makes the call because the schools are in its district, contracts with Kiryas Joel School District for those services and doesn't want to switch.

Dissident leaders say they've had no involvement in the Monroe-Woodbury race other than to help Leger-Vargas gather last-minute petition signatures at the request of Monroe Councilman Harley Doles, who is friends with Leger-Vargas.

They question the relevance of their dispute to Monroe-Woobury voters — Kiryas Joel taxpayers pay for special-ed services for any Kiryas Joel residents — and suggest it was invoked to distract voters from controversy over $13.6 million in surplus funds the district amassed.

"It doesn't cost Monroe-Woodbury a cent," said Jacob Ferencz, former administrator of Sheri Torah school on Larkin Drive.

Trumper referred questions about her email to Monroe-Woodbury Superintendent Ed Mehrhof.

Mehrhof says the district has resisted allowing the dissidents other providers because Kiryas Joel's services are excellent and its employees are certified. He provided a December 2008 letter from the state Education Department supporting that decision.

There is a wide disparity in how many children the two sides say are involved. The dissidents say roughly 200 students attending Sheri Torah and B'nai Yoel get special-ed services through Monroe-Woodbury; Mehrhof presented a district tally indicating 12 students.

After a reporter explained to Leger-Vargas who Kiryas Joel's dissidents are and the nature of their special-ed conflict, she said that she has a son with autism and would indeed feel sympathy for parents going through similar struggles.

"If that's my badge, that I'll be sympathetic to the needs of any special-needs child, I'll wear that badge proudly," she said.


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