Friday, January 22, 2016
A trio of Rockland County, N.Y., parents made good on their threat and sued state education officials for denying their children a "sound, basic education."
The parents say Article XI of the New York Constitution, dubbed the "education article," ensures a public education to all students, but the New York State Education Department and Board of Regents are not doing enough to protect that right.
The parents contend that, despite detailed reports of "ongoing mismanagement and neglect" by the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District, the state has failed to intercede to stop staff and program cuts that have affected student performance.
"Because the state, through respondents, has extensively documented and acknowledged such failures by its agents in East Ramapo, it has an affirmative, non-discretionary duty to intervene and correct the board's failures," the parents say in a lawsuit filed last week in Albany County Supreme Court.
Lead plaintiff David Curry, who has two children in East Ramapo schools, wants the court to order the Education Department and Board of Regents - which oversee K-12 and university-level education in the state - to take action.
The East Ramapo district, located about 45 minutes northwest of New York City, has 33,000 students, but only 9,000 of them attend its schools, according to the complaint. The other 24,000 attend private school, nearly all of them in yeshivas, or Orthodox Jewish schools. Several Hasidic villages and hamlets are within the district's borders.
The public school population is 91 percent African-American, Latino and Haitian, reflecting the diversity of the surrounding communities. The parents' lawsuit points to the village of Spring Valley, where the district's two high schools are located, whose residents comprise 100 different nationalities. 66 percent of them speak a language other than English at home, the complaint states.
Among the district's students, 83 percent are economically disadvantaged and 20 percent have disabilities. In addition, 27 percent are classified as "English language learners," meaning they cannot communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, according to data footnoted in the complaint.
But Curry says services to many of these students have been cut, along with teachers and programs, ever since the local Orthodox Jewish community secured a majority of the seats on the district's board of education in 2005.
Instead, money has been channeled to the transportation and special education needs of students attending some 50 yeshivas, Curry claims.
The lawsuit cites a 2014 report prepared for the Education Department by Henry Greenberg, a former federal prosecutor and adviser to the state attorney general, who was asked to look into how the board operated.
Greenberg found favoritism by the board toward the yeshiva students, an "inexcusable" lack of transparency, and "abysmal" budget management that put the district "on the precipice of fiscal disaster," according to the Jan. 14 complaint.
He also found that the district had operated at a deficit in seven of the past 10 years, and that the board "has rarely addressed budget gaps with long-term solutions, preferring 'one-shot' salvos to durable fixes," the complaint states.
Curry cites other reports also prepared at the state's behest, including one late last year by three "monitors" - outside education experts - who "confirmed yet again that 'the East Ramapo Board of Education has persistently failed to act in the best interests of public school students.'"
Like the Greenberg report, Curry says, the monitors found not only educational and operational faults but "total breakdown" in community trust.
Curry says the parents wrote to the Education Department and Board of Regents last summer to remind them of their constitutional duty, in partnership with local school boards, to provide a sound, basic education for students.
The letter said that, if the East Ramapo board did not demonstrate a willingness to change by taking to heart the recommendations in the reports "and the state fails to intervene directly, we will have no alternative but to take legal action to compel such intervention."
Besides Curry, the litigating parents include Luis Nivelo and Romel Alvarez.
They are represented by Gary Svirsky, Brad Elias and Matthew Schock of O'Melveny & Myers in Manhattan, along with Wendy Lecker of the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J.
In addition to the New York State Education Department and Board of Regents, the heads of those agencies - Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch - are named as defendants.
Gannett's Journal News in the lower Hudson Valley reported Wednesday that the Education Department and East Ramapo school board declined comment on the lawsuit.
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