Monday, December 15, 2014
A monitor chosen by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently accused the East Ramapo school board in Rockland County, which is dominated by Orthodox Jews who send their children to private yeshivas, of systematically starving the public schools in favor of the yeshivas.
The school board fired back, saying it was the state that was starving the district, effectively forcing a cut of 200 teachers, a reduction from full-day to half-day kindergarten and a shrinking of sports and other extracurricular activities.
The school district, the board said, was being shortchanged by a state aid formula that classifies it as having more than enough resources to pay for adequate schooling when, by measures like the number of pupils qualifying for federally-subsidized lunches, the district is actually one of the state's poorest.
"The state says we're a very wealthy district; the feds say we're a very poor district," Yehuda Weissmandl, the board's president, said. "And it's the same district we're talking about."
The dispute has been raging for years, with public-school parents, many of whom are Latino and Haitian, and school officials confronting each other in angry exchanges, and board members, seven of whom are Orthodox Jews, sealing themselves in frequent executive sessions. But it reached a crossroads with the report in November to the Board of Regents by the monitor, Henry M. Greenberg, who declared bluntly: "The board appears to favor the interest of private schools over public schools."
He faulted the district for many sins: fiscal mismanagement, spending too much money on transportation and special education assistance for the yeshivas, hiring $650-an-hour lawyers, selling two public schools to yeshiva operators at bargain-basement prices, and of fractious relations with the community — a charge some board members concede, and are trying to repair, by promising simultaneous Spanish translation of all meetings.
Mr. Greenberg proposed that the State Legislature appoint a fiscal monitor with the power to overrule the nine-member board's decisions.
Still, he acknowledged that the district, financially imprudent as it had been, needed more aid. That is something the Legislature would have to do, though lawmakers have been loath to tinker with the aid formula for fear of opening a Pandora's box: Every district, after all, wants more money.
Interviews with state officials, current and former school board members and public-school community leaders indicate that the formula does seem to give the district less than it needs to fully finance the school system.
State education officials, however, point out that East Ramapo's aid is augmented by other factors in the formula that credit the district for having large numbers of poor children. They also say that the formula applies to all the state's nearly 700 school districts, many of which have their own inequities.
Still, there is a disparity that hurts East Ramapo, which encompasses all or parts of Spring Valley, Monsey, Nanuet and Chestnut Ridge. The area has experienced a huge growth of Hasidic and other Orthodox Jewish families, almost all of whom send children to yeshivas. The state provides an average of 40 percent of a district's budget, with wealthier districts getting less and poorer ones more. East Ramapo, however, receives 32.9 percent of its revenue from the state, putting a bigger burden on local taxpayers, who have often balked at paying more.
The formula, known as the Combined Wealth Ratio, is complicated, but in its simplest terms it determines how many students attend public schools and how much wealth the district has to pay for each public school student. In East Ramapo, there are 9,000 public school students and 24,000 private school students in over 50 yeshivas.
When the total value of taxable property in the district is divided solely by the district's number of public school students, board officials say, East Ramapo seems to have more than enough money to pay for each of its students; more than a neighboring town, Clarkstown, which also has about 9,000 public students, but far fewer private school students. With equivalent wealth ratios, the state may send as much money per student to Clarkstown as it does to East Ramapo.
Harry Phillips III, a longtime member of the Board of Regents and a fierce critic of East Ramapo's management, acknowledged in an interview that the formula "hurts East Ramapo because their proportion of private and public school students is the worst in the state." He said a similar situation prevailed in another locale with a large Orthodox Jewish population, Lawrence, on Long Island, and in his hometown district of Greenburgh, in Westchester County, where large proportions of students attend private and parochial schools.
A majority of East Ramapo's 9,000 public school students are indigent; 77 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many are children of immigrants and need extra teachers who can provide language classes and remedial reading programs. In contrast, only 6 percent of Clarkstown's pupils were eligible for a free lunch in 2011.
In the 2010-2011, school year, the last year for which fully comparable figures were available, East Ramapo, with a $113 million budget, spent $14,398 per general education pupil (not including those with disabilities), while Clarkstown spent $9,897, yet they received similar amounts of state aid per pupil.
District leaders estimate that they are losing up to $30 million a year in aid to general education they might have gotten had the formula treated them like a district with a roughly comparable economic profile. They cite Mount Vernon, N.Y., whose 10,000 public school students received $76 million in the basic state allotment known as "foundation aid" while East Ramapo received about $43 million. The major difference, said Mr. Weissmandl, a Hasidic real estate developer who has been on the school board for three years, is that Mount Vernon has only 1,000 students in private schools.
"We're considered very wealthy," Mr. Weissmandl said.
East Ramapo, like all other districts, is hurting because of large cuts in state aid enacted years ago to close a state budget gap, according to the New York State School Boards Association. Though the association acknowledges that East Ramapo could use more money, it is strongly opposed to counting private school students in the foundation aid formula.
When Mr. Greenberg looked into the disparity, according to people familiar with his conversations with education officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on his behalf, he found that the district used an inordinate proportion of its scarce funding — 37 percent — for transportation and special education. The state average is 26 percent. Since much of that money is spent on private school students, school officials have had to make cuts in instruction and extracurricular activities for public schools.
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The school board argues that it is mandated to bus all students as a result of ballot questions passed by local voters at referendums. But the board, Mr. Greenberg told education officials, also has the power to make the bus system, which has about 300 routes, including yeshiva buses segregated by sex, more efficient and less costly. It could also lobby voters to pass a law that excludes busing for, say, students who live a quarter-mile or less from schools.
Similarly, Mr. Greenberg found that the board had not contested what some call "Cadillac" placements for disabled students in yeshiva-based settings or in the special-education schools of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village in Orange County that operates its own public school system for disabled students. The state has withheld reimbursement for some students because they could have gotten instruction of equivalent quality in public settings.
Mr. Weissmandl, 39, a father of seven, insists that he is not going out of his way to favor yeshivas.
"I want every child to get the best education possible," he said." "I care about every child because I want people to care about my children. Public school education drives the local economy and the quality of local neighborhoods and our future years."
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