Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Parent activists are calling on the state education commissioner to cancel the sale of an East Ramapo school building to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregation and remove all nine members of the Board of Education.
A new petition from Betty Carmand and Steve White says the school board secretly orchestrated a raw deal for the public last year by selling the Hillcrest Elementary School for $4.9 million, allegedly millions of dollars less than its fair market value.
The impoverished district has touted the sale's proceeds as a way to help it stay afloat and possibly even restore punishing budget cuts that have stripped away many of East Ramapo's arts, music and sports programs in the last couple of years.
The two Spring Valley residents argue that the board could have gotten a better offer but failed to use an accurate appraisal of the property and didn't consider comparable properties nearby that sold for millions more. It's the latest challenge in a series of controversies over the district's real estate transactions involving the ultra-Orthodox community, whose members hold a majority on the school board.
"It's getting tiring fighting for basic education for our children, but I can't give up because our children matter — black and brown children matter," said Carmand, mother of two East Ramapo students and one graduate.
White and Carmand also say the school board closed Hillcrest in 2010 and sold it twice (the first sale was annulled by the commissioner) based on "the false assumption" that public school enrollment would decline, leaving the building as surplus. Enrollment has actually grown by nearly 1,000 students since the last demographic study in 2009, in part because of an influx of children from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
"The fact that they're selling (Hillcrest) to the same people, that they sold it in an emergency meeting and the fact that enrollment is increasing — I think that these three facts alone should require that it be annulled," Carmand said.
Furthermore, they claim, the buyers exercised an illegitimate "right of first refusal" when they bid $4.9 million on the property following an earlier bid that was $50,000 lower from a mysterious corporation called Excellence in Education.
The petitioners claim that Excellence in Education's "alleged" bid of $4.85 million was "a sham designed to trigger" Hasidic Congregation Avir Yakov's right of first refusal on the sale of the property, a guarantee provided in its lease agreement with the district. The congregation uses the school as a girls yeshiva.
That lease had already been annulled by the commissioner, which voided the congregation's right of first refusal, the petitioners argue.
"We have no comment except to say that a significant portion of the district's legal bills are related to lawsuits that have no merit," school district spokesman Darren Dopp wrote via email. District officials have not yet filed a response to the parents' Dec. 19 petition.
It's the second time the Hillcrest building has been sold to Avir Yakov by the district. The first sale, in 2010, was annulled by the state education commissioner after White challenged it on similar grounds.
An investigation into that sale and other East Ramapo real estate transactions by the state Attorney General's Office resulted in the school board's appraiser pleading guilty to a fraud-related misdemeanor.
The Avir Yakov congregation is based in New Square, an insular Hasidic village that borders the Hillcrest property on Addison Boyce Drive in New City.
In theorizing about the congregation's desire to obtain the property to accommodate the fast-growing population of ultra-Orthodox children who attend private schools, petitioners describe a "special relationship" between current and former East Ramapo school board members and the New Square community.
Petitioners charge that the district has shown favoritism to Avir Yakov by not charging late fees for consistent late rent payments. They also note that, unlike other East Ramapo schools, Hillcrest has a new central air conditioning system, a new roof and a location convenient to New Square.
Advocates for Justice attorney Laura Barbieri, who is fighting a related federal lawsuit against the school board on behalf of hundreds of East Ramapo parents and residents, said she may also take White and Carmand's case to the courts.
Unlike a lawsuit, the petition is sent as a formal request to the commissioner for a review and decision. It will be decided by Acting Education Commissioner Beth Berlin, a department spokesman said.
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