A New York school district whose board is run by Orthodox Jews must change the way it elects members, a federal court has ruled.

The East Ramapo Central School District has been the site of controversy for years. Since 2005, the district’s nine-member board has been dominated by Orthodox Jewish mem­bers whose children attend private yeshivas. Critics say the board has steered taxpayer money to the private system while cutting funding for the district’s public schools, which serve a largely black and Latino population.

In 2017 the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP sued the district, asserting that its voting system was designed to disenfranchise black and Latino voters. The school board uses an at-large method, which gives all legal voters in the district the power to vote for all members. Opponents have argued for a ward system, which would break the area up into districts. Voters would then have the power to vote only for candidates representing their district.

U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel in late May agreed, and ordered the school district to adopt the ward system. The current system, Seibel ruled, violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

“[T]he purpose of [the Voting Rights Act] is not to produce any particular policy outcome,” Seibel wrote. “Rather, it is to ensure that every voter has equal access to the electoral process. For too long, black and Latino voters in the District have been frustrated in that most fundamental and precious endeavor. They, like their white neighbors, are entitled to have their voices heard.”

Local NAACP officials hailed the ruling.

“Judge Seibel’s decision represents a significant improvement for East Ramapo’s students and their families,” Willie Trotman, president of the Spring Valley NAACP, said. “Although a majority of board members will still be elected by the district’s white voters, there will finally be an opportunity for people of color to elect candidates who will represent the needs of our communities of color for the first time in over a decade.” (The New York Civil Liberties Union represented the NAACP in court.)

The Westchester Journal-News reported that under control of the Orthodox Jewish bloc, the district has been allocating millions to bus students to private schools. It also pays for their special education.

NAACP officials said the board’s bias toward private religious schools had harmed the public schools. In 2008, the district faced a budget crunch and had to lay off hundreds of teachers and slash programs. Graduation rates for the district’s two high schools have been in decline.

State Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-Clarkstown), who for years has advocated for state control of the district, praised the ruling.

“This district has been an ano­maly for years – a public school district that is run by a private school community,” Zebrowski told the Journal-News. “This dynamic has been problematic and has led to inequity, distrust and conflict between the public and the board.” (NAACP, Spring Valley Branch v. East Ramapo Central School District)

 

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