The Case for an East Ramapo Receivership

Power of Ten Update
In This Issue:
1. Getting to Know your Neighbors
2. Budget Roller Coaster Ride
3. The Case for an East Ramapo Receivership

1) Getting to Know your Neighbors

“To people on the outside, the religious Jewish world can appear monolithic. Black hats and long beards have come to represent a way of life that follows specific rules very separate from those within secular society. But the truth is, there are many different levels of observance and affiliations within the religious Jewish community. To understand the role of education in this multifaceted Jewish world, it’s important to have a firm grasp of the nuances among the different communities.”

Read this fascinating and informative report from Yaffed, and get to know your Jewish neighbors better!

2) Budget Roller Coaster Ride

Funding for East Ramapo’s school programs has been on one crazy roller coaster ride this year. Here’s the turn-by-turn:

  • April 2020: NY State cut East Ramapo’s aid by $15 million, in proportion to the $15 million that the federal government gave to East Ramapo’s yeshivas. Somewhere along the line, NY State did not understand that these are not the same thing.
  • August 2020: When the $15 million was brought up at a school board meeting, there was action to spend the money in the yeshivas, and an RFP was written, but no one, not a single board member, not the monitors – NO ONE – asked what cuts would be made to the public programs! And, indeed, even the new interim superintendent was not made aware of this cut to the public school budget when he came onboard in September.
  • February 2021: It was not until Dr. Giamartino conducted his own audit that it was discovered that this was only one of several budget miscalculations that left the district $30 million in the red, and it was announced they would have to make layoffs or risk not being able to make payroll.
  • March 2021: Somehow money was borrowed to avert the worst of the layoffs. The monitors said the shortfall “was known in July“, but gave no explanation why they didn’t speak up then.
  • March 2021: It is reported that East Ramapo will receive a large amount in COVID relief funds, perhaps $162 million or more. 
  • April 2021: NY State has announced it will finally fully fund the CFE Aid. This is money owed to districts by NY State from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, filed by parents against the State of New York. This will mean many millions more for East Ramapo public school programs.

How will East Ramapo recover from the pandemic? Will the funds be used wisely to provide the kinds of programs that the students need? 

The district will hold a series of presentations, starting on April 12. They don’t give out the address in advance, so Power of Ten is unable to provide a link here. You have to go to the district website the day of the event to find the link.

3) The Case for an East Ramapo Receivership

We’re in the seventh year of the state takeover of East Ramapo.  What do I mean by that?  Really, the state doesn’t need to “take over” our district because it already oversees it—and always has. It’s the state that bears the legal responsibility to ensure our children’s education. Whatever authority local educational authorities have was granted by the state, to which they are answerable. 

Eight years ago it became obvious to all that the school board—the majority of whose members send their children to private schools–was acting against the interests of the school district they oversee, and the state education department (NYSED) was neglecting their duty to the children.

Here are the salient facts:

  1. They used public money to pay for tuition in private schools. They tried to use the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) to camouflage this diversion of tax dollars to all-white private schools, but state authorities should have seen it for what it was: embezzlement, plain and simple. The state education department (NYSED) should have referred the matter to the NYS attorney general’s office for prosecution, instead they provided the board with a “corrective action plan.”
  2. They transferred ownership of public-school properties to private-school entities. They submitted a fraudulent appraisal to NYSED in defense of the sale price. NYSED annulled the sale but failed to recognize or report the crime that had been committed. Later, local activists reported the crime to the attorney general’s office resulting in a criminal conviction of the appraiser.

It’s as if a child’s parents decided the babysitter was the final authority in parenting matters, and that their role was purely advisory.

Due to public outcry at the harm done to public-school children by the board, pressure was growing for New York State to take over the school district.  Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch made the decision to intervene in East Ramapo but their plan for a new governance system in East Ramapo was, to put it bluntly, bizarre.  They proposed a power-sharing arrangement in which New York State would abandon its obligation to the children and instead serve only as adviser to the school board, an entity whose powers, again, derive entirely from the state.  A helpful analogy: it’s as if a child’s parents decided the babysitter was the final authority in parenting matters, and that their role was purely advisory.

This power-sharing arrangement would prove to be the worst of all possible state takeover plans.

  1. The first “fiscal monitor” appointed by Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch was Hank Greenberg, a former subordinate of Governor Cuomo. While Mr. Greenberg served as the state’s representative, the two schools whose sale had been blocked by local activists were sold again at pennies on the dollar.  Greenberg then provided the first of a series of “monitor’s reports” justifying the state’s continued power-sharing arrangement.
  2. While supposedly under continuous monitoring from NYSED, the school board ignored the failed budget vote of 2020, overspent their legal budget by millions of dollars, and failed to correct the budget to account for Governor Cuomo’s transfer of $15 million from public school aid to private school aid (The governor cut state funds in equal amount to federal COVID relief funds, but the $15 million of the federal funds were earmarked for private schools, so the effect was a transfer from the public to the private). This resulted in a fiscal disaster in which the district became insolvent and needed to borrow funds to meet the payroll.

Clearly, the power-sharing system imposed by the state takeover ordered by Governor Cuomo in 2014 has been a failure for the children of the district.  On the other hand, it has been a great success for the school board whose real mission—as opposed to the one its members swore to uphold upon taking office–was to transfer public funds and public property into private hands.

Governor Cuomo deserves the lion’s share of the blame.  NYSED is certainly a close second. These are the entities that have both the power and the obligation to provide an education to New York’s children; both have failed miserably, and it is the children of the East Ramapo public-school district, many of them low-income, most of them people of color, who have suffered, their schools sold off to private schools, their district budget gutted, their programs slashed, their teachers laid off.

Local activists have called for the removal of the school board and the direct management and funding of the district until an alternative system can be put in place. Yet, up to now, New York State has offered little more than “oversight, guidance, and technical assistance”. Local activists have done all the heavy lifting. 

Repeated requests from activists have been ignored, including a lengthy position paper written by former board members and superintendents (including Mimi Calhoun, Suzanne Young-Mercer, Oscar Cohen, Judith Johnson, Jason Friedman and Constance Frazier) sent to the “fiscal monitor” Hank Greenberg, recommending that the state implement a Receivership model for the district.

With a deluge of new state and federal money coming in, there is the potential that more fiscal shenanigans will be hidden in the flood. More marginal improvement will be used as cover for continued diversion of resources from public schools that serve children of color to all-white private schools. The school board majority has shown that they will do everything in their power to achieve this. The question is “why do they still have have any power at all?”