Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Dozens of private religious schools in Ramapo don't comply with the requirements of the fire safety code, putting the safety of students and firefighters at deadly risk.
That warning was delivered at Tuesday night's East Ramapo school board meeting by Justin Schwartz, a Spring Valley fire captain and Tarrytown rabbi who is a member of the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force.
During the public-comment period, Schwartz stood in full dress uniform and said he fears the danger grows with every passing day.
"Not only has this board and administration failed in educational opportunities to the nonpublic schools," he told an audience of more than 200 seated and standing in the gym, "but it allows outrageous conditions detrimental to the health and safety of the students of these schools."
East Ramapo's school board is dominated by Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews who send their children to private religious schools. Roughly 24,000 students attend private religious schools in the district. The population of about 8,500 students who attend public schools is mostly Latino and Haitian.
Schwartz said religious school students are "commonly crammed" into illegally converted trailers and single-family homes that have gone years without ever being inspected for potentially deadly hazards.
"Sanitary code violations are rife," he added.
An Oct. 6 report by the office of Secretary of State Cesar Perales says there are about 60 private schools in Rockland County that are missing fire safety reports. The majority are located in the Monsey-Spring Valley area.
Schwartz's comments touched on two of the most controversial issues in Rockland today: the spread of substandard and illegal housing and the allocation of East Ramapo's limited resources between public and private religious schools under the district's jurisdiction.
A countywide housing task force has raised concerns for several years that the lives of firefighters, students and predominantly poor tenants are being endangered by overcrowded houses carved up into multiple apartments and schools being operated in single-family homes without proper fire suppression equipment.
Adding urgency to the issue: On Tuesday morning, a woman was found dead after a fire at a home on Waldron Avenue in Central Nyack. Officials say the 1,600-square-foot-house was carved into four apartments for 14 people. There were no working smoke detectors.
The last few months have brought big changes to the troubled school district, now under the spotlight of a state monitoring team led by former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
On Oct. 7, embattled schools Superintendent Joel Klein resigned after a rocky five-year tenure. The board tapped Deborah Wortham, the superintendent of Long Island's Roosevelt school district, as interim superintendent starting on Nov. 2.
On Tuesday night, Walcott listened as speaker after speaker criticized the school board.
Standing in the back of the gym and holding a handmade sign, parent Luis Nivelo called for the remaining board members to resign.
"They're criminals of education," he said. "They destroy 9,000 students. Because they don't care."
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