East Ramapo was once recognized as one of the best school districts in New York State. Under the leadership of school board President Georgine Hyde, high test scores and graduation rates, and acceptance to the best colleges were the norm.
Additionally, because East Ramapo had a significant number of African American students it became a magnet for African American families who desired a high-quality education for their children in a setting that was integrated.
Over the past 30 years there have been demographic changes that have impacted the school district. The growing white majority population more and more began using private schools for their children, and the also growing (but still a numerical minority) nonwhite population is now mostly immigrants of color, including many families from Haiti and Latin America.
The result of the demographic changes is:
- Increased school segregation
- A majority minority public school system with increased needs
- A white majority with no interest in funding public education (as demonstrated by multiple failed budgets – the highest rate of failed budgets in the state)
The district has gotten significant assistance from New York State because the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit forced New York State to provide funding based on needs such as the number of English language learners and low-income students.
However, in 2005 Ms. Hyde was voted off the school board, and the new school board majority focused on the needs of the private schools that their children attended. Large amounts of money began to flow from the school district’s bank accounts into private school bank accounts. This eventually brought the attention of the Federal and NY State governments.
It was discovered that the school board was illegally paying tuition for students to attend private school. The board was warned by the state education department to stop this practice, but the district responded by suing the state education department. The district spent millions of dollars on lawsuits and appeals, fighting the state education department every step of the way, but they lost all of those lawsuits.
During this period the school board also began transferring real estate ownership of public schools to private schools. It was discovered that appraisal fraud was involved in one of the sales and the New York State Atty. General’s office investigated. The school board sued the New York State Atty. General to prevent him from accessing information which could have revealed that a school board member was complicit in the appraisal fraud and subsequent sale of the school for less than market value. The school board won that lawsuit and the only person convicted of fraud was the appraiser himself.
The combination of increased needs, failed school budgets and increase spending on private schools created a perfect storm which devastated educational outcomes for the public-school students. Test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates plummeted.
At the same time, a perfect storm of opposition was brewing. A major New York law firm, Advocates for Justice, filed suit against the school board for depriving the children of their civil right to an education. Local clergy organized themselves into “Rockland Clergy for Social Justice” and filed appeals with the state government to intervene. Alumni from East Ramapo’s heyday organized themselves into “Strong East Ramapo” and held rallies and events to draw public attention to the problem. Parents from the growing Latino community organized “Padres Unidos” and came out by the hundreds to protest at school board meetings.
Our state elected officials took notice. The governor directed that a fiscal monitor be appointed. His study found that the district had mismanaged funds and favored the interests of private schools. Legislation was drafted to implement the recommendations of the monitor, but it was opposed by the powerful private religious school advocacy group Agudath Israel and Rockland County legislator Aron Wieder (a former school board president). The legislation passed the assembly but failed in the senate.
Our state level representatives were able to introduce another bill which provided three million dollars and a monitor to ensure it was spent correctly. This money has successfully brought back full day kindergarten and some of the music and art programming. The education department has also forced the district to provide some bilingual programming. With the increased state oversight, we were able to pass a bond to repair crumbling infrastructure.
The challenge of providing high quality education for students of color in highly segregated areas is not unique to East Ramapo. In Ferguson Missouri the NAACP and the ACLU successfully sued the white dominated school board to change a voting system that illegally denied proportional representation to the African American community. Today, the Spring Valley NAACP and the NYCLU are suing the East Ramapo school board, claiming that the East Ramapo district is also illegally favoring a white majority with an at-large system, and asking the court to create a ward system to increase minority representation.
At the end of the day it is the state of New York which has the constitutional duty and authority to ensure the education of the children. The powers and duties of the local school district are entirely derivative from the state. Protection of minorities up to now has been only through the courts. It is time for state education law to recognize the vulnerability of children of color, and to protect their interests when local white populations are not willing.