Lo Hud Journal News Op Ed on East Ramapo

View: State’s inertia fails East Ramapo

New York leaders once again ignore problems, just as they did in early days of Kiryas Joel divide

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For over a dozen years, or more than the entire education of an individual child, the political decision-makers of the State of New York have failed to find a solution to East Ramapo school district’s difficult problems.

One side talks about not having sufficient resources; the other talks about discrimination against minority children. Both may be right. Meanwhile, the state performs periodic investigations, but does little to resolve the issues, including dwindling education quality for public schoolchildren, poor management of the district’s limited resources and a rapid growth of a private-school community that demands resources.

There is a sad sense of deja vu to those of us who watched a similar lack of resolve in Kiryas Joel school district, not far away. Indeed, the connections between the two school districts are more than coincidence — most of the disabled children in Kiryas Joel were placed there by East Ramapo, instead of serving them in the home district.

Tensions ignored

In the 1980s, the Satmar Hasidic sect that constitutes virtually the entire population of the Village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County decided that they could no longer afford to provide adequate special education services to their large population of disabled youngsters. The rest of their students were all served in yeshivas, since they did not want their children to mix in the public schools. The yeshivas were paid for by the parents. The community reluctantly sent their disabled youngsters to the Monroe Woodbury school district, which had an excellent program.

The public school district showed incredible insensitivity to religious issues, and took the Satmar children who only eat strictly kosher food to a field trip to McDonald’s. They had one child play Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in a Christmas pageant. The Hasidic parents made their own missteps, demanding that female school bus drivers not be allowed to drive boys to school.

The state Education Department, which was aware of these issues, did nothing to try to help the district work out these issues, which seemed fairly easy to solve. Tension grew with each incident, and litigation finally resulted. The courts told the district to resolve it. There was no resolution.

Finally, then-Assemblyman George Pataki introduced legislation that established a separate district to only serve the Satmar, and which was to be carved out of Monroe Woodbury. Both sides supported it, and it breezed through the state Legislature, almost unanimously.

But this plan had significant constitutional problems. It would have been the first governmental body in the country that was created specifically for the use of one religious group.

After trying unsuccessfully to get Gov. Mario Cuomo to veto it, I filed litigation on behalf of the New York State School Boards Association. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled the district unconstitutional. The state Legislature tried to keep the district alive twice with similar legislation that was thrown in two New York Court of Appeals decisions.

Finally, the Legislature enacted a broad law that was no longer based on religious criteria. It would allow other dissident groups to form their own school districts. A second one, however, has never been established.

State must act, now

What started as a local problem of insensitivity that could have been easily resolved locally evolved into a decade-long political battle at the state level, then a constitutional battle at the state court and Supreme Court levels. This all wasted a decade of energy that could have been better spent on improving education.

The way it is supposed to work is that majority rules; however minority rights are protected by the state and the courts. When the state fails to do its duty, the courts are the only protection left.

The lesson of this exercise? Our strong system of democratic governance can get fragile when issues don’t get resolved through normal channels.

Similarly, in East Ramapo, had the state acted strongly, in a timely fashion, the problems had answers. The commissioner of education should have intervened with district finances and special education placements. By neglecting to do so, the state has left these matters to become further inflamed.

It is well past time to admit that the governance structure is not working in East Ramapo.

The sometimes discussed solution of a separate district for the Orthodox is not only unconstitutional — as was Kiryas Joel — it simply would not work. Unlike the totally contiguous Satmar population in Kiryas Joel, which had clear boundaries, the Orthodox community in East Ramapo is spread throughout the wider community.

The school board should have been made accountable or removed. If that is not thought to be viable because the majority of the district has chosen to not get involved in elections, then the regional BOCES superintendent should be ordered to take the district into receivership. If there is not courage to do that, the state should consider eliminating the district and dispersing the student population into surrounding school districts that can handle the problems.

What needs to happen is that governing bodies must do their jobs, according to state and federal laws. Now.

The writer, a former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, was the plaintiff in litigation against Kiryas Joel, which led to the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet. His forthcoming book, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State,” coauthored by John Caher, will be released April 1 by Chicago Review Press. He lives in Manhattan.

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