January 2015 Church & State | People & Events

For years, a New York community’s public school system has been drained of resources by school board members who are more interested in assisting sectarian institutions than in improving public education. But thanks to complaints from angry residents, the state has finally assigned a financial monitor to oversee the board’s activities.

The controversy centers on the East Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, which is home to a large concentration of Orthodox Jews. This group dominates the local school board – seven of the board’s nine members are Orthodox men. But these men don’t send their children to public schools, enrolling them instead in private yeshivas. And it seems the only reason they got elected to the school board in the first place is so they could divert as much taxpayer money as possible to sectarian institutions their kids attend.

The New York Times explained recently that about 24,000 Orthodox children attend yeshivas. Approximately 9,000 kids, most of them from minority families, are in the public system. And that system is being slowly drained of money.

“Since 2009, the board has cut 245 public school positions, including special education teachers, guidance counselors, all social workers and all elementary assistant principals,” The Times reported. “Full-day kindergarten has been reduced to half-day, and instrumental music has been eliminated for kindergarten through third grades. Summer school has been eliminated, as has transportation for field trips. Athletics and extracurricular activities have been reduced by 50 percent.”

It appears that much of the money siphoned from public schools was used to help the yeshiva students instead. The Times reported that even as the public system was being bled dry, “spending on programs that benefit private school students – specifically, transportation and special education – have increased sub­stant­ial­ly.”

Continued The Times, “From 2006-7 to 2013-14, transportation costs increased 48 percent, more than double the statewide increase of 22 percent. Spending on transporting private school students specifically increased nearly 77 percent. From 2010-11 to 2013-14, the cost of providing special education increased 33 percent. Together, transportation and special education now make up 37 percent of the district’s budget, a much higher proportion than is typical statewide.”

Eventually, angry public school parents demanded that the state intervene. In response, New York officials appointed a special monitor, an attorney named Hank Greenberg, to investigate. Greenberg recently recommended that the state appoint a fiscal monitor with the power to overrule the school board’s spending decisions. He labeled the board’s fiscal oversight “abysmal,” but he stopped short of calling for a state takeover of the district.

Greenberg told reporters that he does not believe the East Ramapo board operated “out of base or venal motives.” Rather, he asserted that the board was so intertwined with the Orthodox community that this “has blinded them to the needs of the entire community.”

In a “Wall of Separation” blog post, Americans United Director of Communications Rob Boston said New York officials acted appropriately and must follow through.

“The board is guilty of a gross dereliction of duty,” he wrote. “The state should intervene swiftly and take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that the children attending the East Ramapo District’s public schools get the education they’re entitled to.”