Where in the World is Governor Cuomo?
July 31, 2013 Article by Michael Bongiorno in Our Town Newspaper
What is in the water cooler at the Long Island-based law firm of Minerva & D’Agostino? Attorneys for the firm, which was hired in 2009 to represent the East Ramapo School District (“ERSD”), have engaged in a pattern of bullying, intimidation and unprofessional conduct toward the parents and students of the district.
In early July an attorney for the firm, Christopher Kirby, acted disrespectfully toward a parent while she addressed the school board, and then confronted her and other parents in the school board parking lot, attacking them in a profanity-laced tirade, and even challenging one parent to fight.
All these actions were video recorded, so denial was not an option. Instead, about a week later the board terminated its relationship with the law firm, but the firm is still being consulted and paid during a “transition” period. Let’s hope this transition period does not turn into long-term project.
This was not the first time a lawyer for the firm engaged in abusive behavior toward the public. Name-partner Albert D’Agostino has been criticized by parents for being abrasive to speakers, even approaching speakers and poking his finger at them that as he spoke. According to witnesses, after a March 5, board meeting D’Agostino cursed at a high school student.
While the behavior of these so-called professionals may not be reason enough for Governor Cuomo and the New York State Education Department to intervene in the ERSD, their misconduct reflects an institutionalized contempt for, and disregard of, the interests of the public school community.
More importantly, news reports since Kirby’s meltdown establish that intervention in necessary to provide east Ramapo students with the quality education they need and deserve.
First, the state Education Department recently upheld a petition filed by East Ramapo parent Robert A. Forest and took the extraordinary step of annulling the sweetheart lease of the Hillcrest School by Yeshiva Avir Yakov of New Square. The lease called for initial payments of $19,000 per month for the school and surrounding land, with an option to extend the lease for each of the next four years with a 2% annual increase. Forest complained that a comparable school in the ERSD was leased for approximately $760,000 per year, meaning that the Hillcrest lease equated to a loss of more than $500,000 per year.
Commissioner John King, Jr. agreed with Forrest’s claim, finding no evidence “that the Board took reasonable steps to ensure that it was getting the best deal possible in this instance.” This raises an important question: Why would a perpetually cash-strapped school board lease a school for less than 40% of it’s true value?
For the same reason that the board attempted to sell the Hillcrest School to a New Square Yeshiva for about one-third of it’s fair market value (a sale also halted by a state education commissioner): the ultra-religious majority on the school board is committed to advancing the interests of the power-wielders in their community, the taxpayers and public-school students be damned. There is simply no other explanation for refusing to obtain top dollar for the sale or lease of a valuable asset such as the Hillcrest School. (The school board has announced it will appeal the commissioner’s ruling canceling the lease.)
Within days of the commissioner’s extraordinary action the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, issued an audit report for East Ramapo for the period from June 1, 2009 to February 1, 2013, with a projection of the district’s operating costs through June 30, 2013.
The picture is not pretty and raises questions about the competence and motivation of school board members, past and present, to serve the public interest. To begin with, DiNapoli found that ERSD’s poor financial practices have “left the district with operating deficits for the past two years” that could jeopardize future operations. For example, the audit found that the district estimated a $7.4 million deficit for the 2012-2013 school year and borrowed that amount to cover the deficit. It turned out that the actual deficit was for $8.2 million, $800,000 more than the district covered. That was better than 2011-2012, when the district ran up a $13,440,263 deficit.
Other criticisms in the report lead to the unmistakable conclusion that East Ramapo’s budget numbers are wholly unreliable. At best, this speaks of dysfunction and incompetence. At worst, perhaps something more pernicious is at work.
Not reported in the press, but contained in the report, were the numbers for East Ramapo’s special education programs. For years parent activists have complained that East Ramapo has improperly placed special needs students from the private-school community in expensive private settings funded with taxpayer dollars. A lawsuit filed on behalf of public school parents by Advocates for Justice has characterized this process as improperly funneling taxpayer money from public schools to religious private schools.
In 2010 the state Education Department agreed with the parents, finding that the ERSD improperly placed special-education students in private schools when appropriate public school placements were available, and then denied the district at least $325,000 in reimbursements.
According to the audit report, since 2010 East Ramapo has seen a drastic increase in expenditures for programs for students with disabilities. In the 2009-2010 school year the district spent approximately $23,442,401 on those programs. By 2011-2012 that figure grew to about $34, 151,053, a staggering 45% increase in a mere two years! While the report does not state what caused this skyrocketing expense, a large portion of it can probably be attributed to increased private-school placements. No school district, not even Scarsdale, can sustain that kind of cost explosion.
School superintendent Joel Klein asserts the district’s problems stem from a lack of revenue that can be corrected by changing the state aid formulae to provide the district with more state funding. But throwing good money after bad by placing it in the hands of a board that has a history of fiscal mismanagement solves nothing.
All these recent events come on top of years of maladministration (remember the $2.4 million in private-school textbooks that have never been accounted for). Nowhere else in this nation or state would this injustice be allowed to continue. Yet, only a few courageous politicians have stood up for the students of East Ramapo. To their credit, Rockland’s state legislators – Senator David Carlucci, Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, Jr. and Assemblywomen Ellen Jaffee – have introduced legislation and made efforts to assist the district. Additionally two county legislators, Ed Day and Joseph Meyers, have consistently spoken out on behalf of the students and parents of East Ramapo.
Disgracefully, the following prominent elected officials have acted like potted plants as other people’s children suffer: U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, all Ramapo town board members, the indicted mayor of Spring Valley, the Rockland County Executive and most county legislators. Their silence speaks volumes as to the power of the bloc vote.
The destruction of East Ramapo cannot continue. If the ERSD collapses, the neighboring school districts will be saddled with the additional burdens and problems that used to plague East Ramapo, at a greater cost to all Rockland taxpayers. That’s why it is critical for Governor Cuomo and the state Education Department to intervene and place competent, honest public servants in charge of the district. If special legislation is needed, Rockland’s legislators must sponsor that legislation. East Ramapo is running out of time and money. The time to act is now.
The writer, Michael Bongiorno, served as district attorney from 1995 until November 2007.