Monday, September 08, 2014

The Blame Game 

If you get off the train in Spring Valley, N.Y., in Rockland Country, 40 minutes northwest of New York City, you will find yourself in a place that looks like many other charming little villages in New York and New Jersey, with one essential difference: In Spring Valley, the gabled two-story houses, some with porches and garrets, show signs of an immigrant population nearby. The quaint brick train station houses a Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill; on the first block past the train station you will find an immigration lawyer, three beauty salons, a dollar store, a money-transfer agency whose sign is in French, and a travel agency whose sign is in Spanish. If you follow the road up a hill and turn right on Route 59, it’s not long before the first traces of yet another community begin to emerge: The signs change from Spanish and French into Yiddish and Hebrew. Abutting the second church on the next block is a Jewish funeral home and across the street—like a bad joke—a debt-resolution agency. The school district here incorporates not just Spring Valley proper—with its large African American, Haitian, and South American communities—but also several other towns and hamlets, including Monsey, where many ultra-Orthodox Jews live. Their population is about 50,000, and it’s growing.

On July 1, I came to town to watch as five Hasidim, two non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews, an African American man, and a Haitian man sat together behind a long wooden table at the East Ramapo Central School District administration building. These men make up the district’s board, and they are the most hated men in town. As Yehuda Weissmandl, the soft-spoken board president, who wore a long black coat and big velvet yarmulke, read the Pledge of Allegiance, the first signs that all is not right in East Ramapo began to percolate from hidden depths to the surface. “Does he even speak English?” a voice whispered from the back of the room. And then: “He doesn’t know what the Constitution is.”

A visible camaraderie seemed to exist among the board members, like the bonhomie that suffuses a religious congregation during services. But their good cheer seemed only to further infuriate the public attendees. After hearing from the treasurer, Israel Bier, an ancient-looking Hasidic man with unraveling white payes and a long black coat, the board voted against requiring two people to sign every check. In the audience, a woman whispered loudly, “You see, now just he gets to sign all the checks.” But this was a quiet meeting compared to some. In 2009, one of the school board’s hired attorneys, Chris Kirby, called a parent a “fat cunt” and told her, “If I were married to you, I would fucking blow my brains out.” (“You’re not man enough,” she answered back.)

A deep rift has opened among citizens who live in and around Spring Valley and share the East Ramapo School District: On one side are Orthodox Jews, including many Hasidim—a subset of Orthodox Jews who follow rabbinic dynasties. Their children make up the majority of the 22,000 private-school students living in the district and attending private schools. On the other side are, mainly, African Americans and Haitian and Latino immigrants, whose 8,000 children attend the district’s public schools. In 2005, taxpayers voted in enough new board members that the board became and has remained a majority Orthodox. Starting in 2009, when the board made significant cuts to student programming—including cutting athletics, arts and drama clubs, as well as counselors and administrative staff—the rift turned into an all-out war. Locals have condemned the board’s sales of public schools, saying the appraisals are too low, and have complained that the board has spent money on schoolbooks with religious content and that it has used up the district’s reserves. The board is accused of using public funds to pay private-school tuitions for Orthodox special-needs children. Some public-school parents have sued, assisted by a pro-bono law firm, Advocates for Justice.

The media have generally adopted the public-school community’s criticisms of the Orthodox community and school board. Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools,” and the New York Times accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board” of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” The Journal News, a local paper, has been particularly critical of the school board. To the casual observer, East Ramapo looks a lot like a case of a white ethnic voting bloc shrewdly using its electoral clout, and some slick lawyering, to disempower poor people of color.

But what if the media got it wrong?

Some of the complaints are valid. One appraiser radically undervalued a public-school property that was being sold to a yeshiva (and he has been charged with a felony). A number of religious texts (80, out of tens of thousands) were found to have been paid for by the district. But a closer look at the situation in East Ramapo, based on visits and interviews conducted this past spring and summer, as well as on inspections of the local budgets and tax rolls, suggests that where budgetary problems exist, they exist across the county, not just in East Ramapo, and are largely the result of state laws, not any machinations on the part of cynical Jews.

East Ramapo’s towns, like Spring Valley and Monsey, are more densely populated than the surrounding villages—which the Times has called “Cheever-esque”—as well as younger and poorer. The discrepancy stems in part from higher birth rates among immigrants and Orthodox Jews. But part of it stems from the way some towns responded to the sudden influx of Orthodox Jews into their neighborhoods. In 1997, the Times reported that “the clash between cultures has been so intense that entire neighborhoods have seceded from Ramapo and formed their own villages.” Non-Jews and more secular Jews formed villages “to preserve the sparse Better Homes and Gardens ambiance that attracted them to Rockland County.”

Resources are tight in the school district, 78 percent of whose students qualify for free and reduced lunches. The district has two main funding sources—property taxes and state aid. Both have taken a hit in recent years. According to the superintendent, state budget cuts started to hit in 2009—the same year as the programming cuts—eventually adding up to $45 million over five years and devastating the district’s pockets. In 2011, Albany imposed a tax cap that said districts could raise property taxes by no more than 2 percent in any year.

But funding cuts are not the only reason East Ramapo is facing financial difficulty. State and federal laws mandate that a district must provide certain services to every student, even those in private school. These services include transportation, textbooks, and, when needed, special education. The state reimburses the district for these services, but it also expects the district to pick up some of the burden, determined by a complicated funding formula. This formula has determined that East Ramapo will only be reimbursed 70 percent for transportation costs, which in another district might not be such a heavy burden. But because of its huge religious population, East Ramapo has 22,000 private-school students whom it must, by state law, transport to school, at a total cost of $33 million, of which the district’s share is $10 million. Another major private-school burden is special education (which we’ll get to in a moment). In total, the private-school community costs the district a quarter of its $200 million budget.

But even a modest estimate of the property taxes paid by Orthodox Jews is above the $50 million the private-school community costs the district, which includes some parochial school children besides Orthodox Jews. Their presence in town is surely a net gain for the school coffers. Nevertheless, the rhetoric that abounds in East Ramapo is that the Orthodox Jews are stealing money from the public schools for their special-needs children. There’s no question that the public-school children of East Ramapo aren’t getting the education they deserve, but their Jewish neighbors don’t deserve what they’re getting, either—all the blame.

I met Ebony Thompson while she was browsing DVDs in the Finkelstein Library, on Route 59, on the border between Spring Valley and Monsey, two of East Ramapo Central School District’s towns. The library is one of the few establishments in Ramapo where you will find children from both the public-school community and the private-school community milling about. One muggy afternoon in June, a man wearing a velvet yarmulke and showing payes read the New York Times on the second floor, while teenage girls in tight jeans and sparkly sneakers giggled and chatted in Spanish in the foyer. A Haitian woman picked books for her son, who has Down Syndrome.

Thompson, who is black, has lived in Spring Valley for 43 years. She went through 12 years of schooling in East Ramapo Schools, and now her 17-year-old son attends Ramapo High School. Thompson, whose hair was braided on one side and fell neatly on the other side, told me quietly that the schools have changed drastically since she attended them. “Our board is a mixture of people who don’t represent us,” Thompson said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. Being that way, it does not help with our children.”


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