In a compelling talk about his new book on Sunday, author Louis Grumet offered some surprising challenges to commonly held beliefs about the Kiryas Joel School District, created with the stroke of a pen 27 years ago by the New York state Legislature.
Grumet delivered his talk, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County, before a rapt audience of about 60 people at Monroe Temple Beth-El - just a mile from the epicenter of his 10-year legal fight against a school district formed strictly to serve handicapped children from the Satmar Hasidic community.
In his book, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State,” co-written with journalist John Caher, Grumet details the constitutional tenet he fought for all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The executive director of the New York State School Boards Association at the time and a former special assistant to then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, Grumet described the political maneuvering that created the district in “vampire” legislation, at 5 a.m. on the last day of session in 1989.
“Luigi,” Grumet recalls Cuomo saying to him before signing the bill, “These people don’t ask for much. Besides, who would sue?”
“‘I will, Governor,’” Grumet told his boss and friend.
Throughout repeated court losses in 11 separate legal challenges, lawmakers under Cuomo and the subsequent administration of Gov. George Pataki simply re-legislated the district back into existence.
Through it all, Grumet insists, he was not fighting against the Satmars, but the state’s unconstitutional laws.
In fact, he criticized the Monroe-Woodbury School District for its insensitive treatment of Hasidic children with disabilities, who were taken on field trips to McDonald’s, where the food isn't kosher, and made to perform in school Christmas plays.
“They had a real problem, in which the Monroe-Woodbury School District – an otherwise very good school district – did a terrible job,” Grumet said.
With just 13 disabled students, “(The Hasidim) weren’t asking for a district; they were asking for special services,” which could have been accomplished with a satellite school in the village. “… But once they got (the legislation), they realized what they were sitting on,” Grumet speculated.
“By getting ownership, they got to make all the decisions. Monroe-Woodbury was cut out of the decisions.
“It could have been very easily solved,” he said. Instead, the state created “a regional kosher BOCES” that catered to about 60 students, largely from East Ramapo in Rockland County, in its first year.
The Kiryas Joel School District now has 250 students from three counties and a $38 million budget.
Grumet dispelled the oft-repeated idea that Kiryas Joel achieves its political ends by having the largest bloc vote. Though the village represents only 6-7 percent of the total population of Orange County, he said, “The difference is, (the Satmar) are better citizens, because they all vote.
“The real villain here is not the Hasids,” Grumet said. “The real villain here is the State of New York.”