One week after East Ramapo became the only school district in the region to see its budget defeated by voters, school board Vice President Daniel Schwartz warned at a meeting that the district faced a “terrible, terrible crisis.”
The crisis he referred to was not the impending dismissal of another 90 jobs, including all social workers and most teaching assistants. It was not the reduction of kindergarten from full day to half-day or the shriveling of art, music and sports programs, or the possibility that a second defeated budget would eviscerate the school system like a carpet bombing.
The crisis that Schwartz bemoaned in May was a creeping anti-Semitism spurred by distrust of the school board, which since 2005 has been run by majorities of Chasidic and other Orthodox Jews who send their children to private schools.
Schwartz, tall and heavily built with a confident posture, bristled at the common notion that the school board cares more about saving money and restraining taxes than the education of public-school students. He linked this argument to ancient anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish obsession with money that “paved the way to Auschwitz.”
“I won’t have it. I simply won’t have it,” he said. “To suggest that we lack the moral authority to sit in these seats, let me tell you right now, is absolutely un-American and wrong.”
As he spoke, eight people in the audience, vocal opponents of the Board of Education’s management of the district, stood and turned their backs to Schwartz and his colleagues. It was an act of seething disrespect, with any pretension of common ground peeled away, that showed the depth of the divide between two communities that happen to fall within the boundaries of the same public-school system.
“You’ve had enough time!” Angela Canada, an often disruptive critic, yelled out.
But Schwartz, a lawyer who since has been elected board president, thundered on about his right as a resident — and Orthodox Jew — to hold his seat: “You don’t like it? Find yourself another place to live!”
New York’s public education system was not designed for a place like central Rockland County. East Ramapo’s 14 public schools serve about 9,000 students — almost all from families of working-class or poor African-Americans, Hispanics and Haitian immigrants. Also residing within the district are close to 20,000 students who attend private schools, primarily more than 100 yeshivas and Jewish day schools. Many large Hasidic families in New Square and Monsey are borderline poor themselves but pay tuition for their children and property taxes to support a public-school system that seems worlds away.
The strained relationship between the public schools and the larger Orthodox community has birthed a series of conflicts and suspicions and has left the district on the brink of financial insolvency. Many Orthodox Jews don’t understand why their taxes keep rising, while those on the other side accuse their own school board of slowly choking the public schools that are supposed to be their children’s path to the American dream.
“This is not about anti-Semitism,” said Danyel Semple, a 2011 graduate of the district who now attends Georgetown University, after Schwartz’s lecture. “This is about public distrust. We are not a Catholic school system or a Jewish school system. These are public schools, and the board is trampling on our rights to an appropriate education.”
The tensions building within East Ramapo boiled over during the summer. A public interest law firm representing some 200 parents filed a federal class-action lawsuit against school board members and administrators past and present, contending they violated students’ constitutional rights by diverting millions of dollars to private schools. In addition, 14 of the board’s most zealous critics filed a possibly game-changing petition with state Education Commissioner John King, asking him to remove five board members, all Orthodox, for a “pattern of impropriety” and to appoint a state monitor for the district.
East Ramapo began this school year with a $1.78 million deficit, no financial reserves and something approaching open revolt.
Source: The Journal News