Friday, February 14, 2020

In East Ramapo trial, trying to untangle race and policy in school board elections 

Testimony from two witnesses Thursday at the trial over the East Ramapo Central School District spoke to a key question at the center of the case: Are elections won and lost over questions of race, or of policy?

Outside of a courtroom, it is often hard to separate the two things. For example, consider the opposition to the stop-and-frisk policy in New York: data suggest it was not effective at lowering crime, and the policy was also found to violate the civil rights of racial minorities.

And yet at the legal level, sometimes race and policy have to get teased apart. That’s what is happening in the East Ramapo trial right now.

The case turns on the voting system of the district, in suburban Rockland County, N.Y. Private school students — almost entirely Orthodox students who attend private yeshivas — outnumber public school students — over 90% black and Latino — by about 30,000 to 9,000. The board is majority Orthodox, too, and has been under fire for over a decade after it dramatically cut teaching positions and extracurricular programs while expanding state-mandated busing for the rapidly growing yeshiva population.

The Orthodox community has been successful in electing people to the board who support their favored policies — such as not raising property taxes — in large part because of the district’s at-large voting system. It allows residents from the entire district to vote for each seat on the board. The effect, local residents say, has been to give candidates favored by private school parents a near-monopoly on board seats since 2008, and leave racial minority communities without a voice.

So the NAACP, along with several residents, is suing the board, saying the system amounts to illegal vote dilution of racial minorities. And because they’re bringing the case under the Voting Rights Act, they need to prove that the voting system is broken not because of policy disagreements, but because of race: that racial minority-preferred candidates always lose contested elections, while candidates preferred by white voters always win.

“The evidence will show that the white community has unchecked power, and the minority community has no power,” Corey Calabrese, a lawyer for the NAACP, argued in opening statements on Monday.


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