BY KATHY KAHN
A school district deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court thrives to this day, thanks to the political finagling of Albany.
Louis Grumet, along with former Albany-Times Union political reporter John Caher, co-authored “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel.” It’s a must-read for those who want to learn how Albany finds a way to push legislation through regardless of the rule of law. In the case of the creation of the KJ school district, it happened in the wee hours of the morning on the last day of a Legislative session in 1994- a/k/a “vampire legislation.”
Grumet fought the school district’s creation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which concurred the religious school district was unconstitutional. “It didn’t stop the NYS Legislature, although it was the end of Cuomo’s administration.” (A 60 Minutes interview with Grumet aired two days before the election, leaving Cuomo in the dust and putting George Pataki in the State house.) Pataki continued to work with the Legislature and signed four separate bills to keep KJ’s school district intact.
Today, the district originally formed to serve 13 severely handicapped children now serves nearly 300, with the majority of them coming from the East Ramapo School District and a handful from Sullivan County. “A BOCES satellite in the village would have been the answer for the problem of mixing Ultra-Orthodox children with special needs with non-Satmar children,” said Grumet. “Satmar parents were outraged their children were made to perform in Christian performances during the holiday season and taken on field trips to McDonald’s, where a kosher menu is not available.”
The law scholar explains in his book how the Satmar sect, realizing the gold mine they had won by the formation of their own school district, immediately began to take advantage of the village’s position of power. Because of Monroe-Woodbury’s failure to address the needs of this small particular group of special-needs children, it helped to further the cause of the Hasidim.
Grumet has concerns about the fate of students who attend public school in East Ramapo. Many of the yeshivas servicing the religious community provide inadequate education themselves. “The public children are being short-changed and will continue to be,” he said during a recent discussion about his book. Sports, music and other cultural benefits have bitten the dust, while East Ramapo pays tuition to bus its own Hasidic handicapped children to school in KJ.
Grumet also made it clear to his small but engaged audience at Monroe’s Temple Beth-El when he spoke there on Sunday, September 25. “There really is no ‘bloc’ vote—it is the failure of the community at large to vote at all that has left the Hasidim with the power ‘outsiders’ disdain. There are over 340,000 residents of Orange County, and the Hasidim represent less than seven percent of the voters. Yet, the Hasidim vote 99 percent of the time.” Voter apathy, it appears, has allowed the Satmar to call the shots in local elections, which trickle up to Albany.
If Rocklanders feel they are being overwhelmed by Hasidic authoritarianism, Grumet countered they had only themselves to blame for not voting.
“The real villain here is not the Hasids,” said the former NYS School Board chief. “It’s the State of New York.” In Orange County, less than 25 percent of registered voters outside of the Hasidim even bother to go to the polls.
“The people of Rockland County need to start asking where state and school funding is going,” said Grumet. “If the Hasids want to live in ‘ghettos,’ that is their decision. As for the school children of East Ramapo, the State Board of Regents refuses to get involved. For the last twenty-plus years, they have just gone along with whatever East Ramapo wants. No one wants to deal with the heat.”
Grumet will be in Rockland County at the JCC on Nyack Road on Tuesday, November 1 at 8 p.m. Admission is $18. For further information on this event, contact JCC at 845-362-4400.