Middletown Times Herald Record Story about book

Plaintiff in Kiryas Joel school court fight writes book

The Kiryas Joel School District has 250 full- and part-time students, 400 employees and a $38 million budget. TIMES HERALD-RECORD FILE PHOTO

The Kiryas Joel School District has 250 full- and part-time students, 400 employees and a $38 million budget. TIMES HERALD-RECORD FILE PHOTO

By Chris McKenna
Times Herald-Record

It sailed through the New York state Senate and Assembly in the waning hours of the 1989 legislative session, an unusual bill that would create a public school district in Kiryas Joel strictly to serve handicapped children from the Satmar Hasidic community.

The passage of that legislation 27 years ago, and its approval by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, set off an epic court battle over the little district and its constitutionality that ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994 and kept going for another five years. Courts repeatedly ruled during the 10-year fight that establishing a public school for a religious enclave breached the wall between church and state, and lawmakers in Albany responded to each defeat the same way: by passing new versions of the bill to try to make it apply to more places than just Kiryas Joel.
They finally succeeded with the fourth attempt in 1999. Today, Kiryas Joel School District – which didn’t close for a single day during the prolonged wrangling – has 250 full- and part-time students, 400 employees and a $38 million budget. In addition to providing schooling and therapy for disabled Hasidic and Orthodox children from Orange, Rockland and Sullivan counties, it provides busing for thousands of yeshiva students from Kiryas Joel and federally funded remedial classes for several hundred of those children.

The moving force behind the constitutional challenges of the 1990s was Louis Grumet, then the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association and the lead plaintiff in the long-running case. In a new book he co-wrote with journalist John Caher, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel,” Grumet details the legal arguments and constitutional principles he was defending and the history and political backdrop for the district, including the clout that the Satmar Hasidim wield in Albany. He will give a lecture about his book Sunday in Monroe.

“To me, the church-state relationship is one of the great things about America, and that’s why I fought this case,” Grumet said in an interview this week. “I think it’s something that you can’t set aside.”

Louis Grumet lecture

Author Louis Grumet will speak on Sunday in Monroe about the book he co-wrote with journalist John Caher, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State.” The talk is at 2 p.m. at Monroe Temple Beth-El, 314 Main St.

The book chronicles the legal fight that Grumet waged in the 1990s, as executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, to challenge the constitutionality of the Kiryas Joel School District, which was created by state law in 1989 to serve special-education students from the Satmar Hasidic community. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and struck down the law in 1994, but the district survived that and subsequent rulings through new legislation in Albany.

Grumet’s lecture is sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County. Tickets cost $18 in advance and $20 at the door. To buy tickets, email joyce@jewishorangeny.org or sharon@jewishorangeny.org or call 845-562-7860 until Friday.
Lines redrawn

The formation of a new school district followed years of conflict between Kiryas Joel and the Monroe-Woodbury School District, largely about the teaching of disabled Hasidic children in classrooms in which their clothing, native Yiddish and customs set them apart. Grumet acknowledges and condemns in his book the inadvertently offensive ways in which Kiryas Joel’s students were sometimes treated, but maintains – as he did during the court case – that the village and Monroe-Woodbury could have solved the problem by having a satellite school in Kiryas Joel or in other ways. The push for a new district, he contends, boiled down to controlling the public funding.

“It was very easy to solve,” Grumet said. “No one wanted to solve it. Most school districts have problems of that kind all the time, and they solve them.”

Joel Petlin, who has worked for Kiryas Joel School District since 1992 and has been superintendent for the past decade, calls that view “a denial of the reality of the situation.” In a written statement, Petlin argued that forming a separate school system allowed both Kiryas Joel and Monroe-Woodbury “to best serve their taxpayers with the public school programs and services that each community desires, is entitled to, and all within law and regulation.”
He also pointed out that “after 26 years, Mr. Grumet’s dire prediction that public education and the Constitution would be jeopardized by Kiryas Joel, has not come true.”

Grumet argues in response that his litigation squelched a wave of new school districts that might have sprung up had he not waged the constitutional fight that he did.

Kiryas Joel’s secession from Monroe-Woodbury removed part of the district’s tax base, but also spared it the sort of strife that has plagued East Ramapo School District in Rockland County, since Kiryas Joel’s large voting blocs don’t take part in Monroe-Woodbury elections. Coincidentally, Grumet’s book is revisiting that separation from Monroe-Woodbury just as Kiryas Joel has launched a new secession effort, this time to extract the village itself from the Town of Monroe. Orange County lawmakers are set to discuss for the first time on Wednesday a petition they got last week to create a new Town of North Monroe.

cmckenna@th-record.com

 

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