The State-appointed fiscal monitor of the East Ramapo school district wants a legislative intervention that would give an appointee veto power over the board’s “bad decisions.” If enacted, the Board of Regents-backed proposal by the monitor, attorney Hank Greenberg, would be the most dramatic intervention in a school district by New York State in more than a decade.
Here are some direct comments that Greenberg made to the Board of Regents late this afternoon while presenting the report.
In the East Ramapo School District there are 33,000 school children, 9,000 in public school and 24,000 in 60 private Yeshivas schools. The private school population is growing at an enormous rate – in 5 to 10 years the number of children in Yeshivas will be 40 – 50,000. The academic performance in the public schools is substantially below neighboring districts and State averages.
Seven of nine board members come from the Hasidic community and the other two members were elected with strong support from the Hasidic community.
The school budget has 40% of its expenditures devoted to Transportation, Special Education, and Administration. Even if you assume that the school board is acting flawlessly, which according to Greenberg it is not, this is an oddly configured budget. In five to ten years when the population of Hasidic children doubles it will stress the budget to such an extent that it is completely unsustainable. There are presently 300 bus routes and 400 different private school locations in gender-separated busses nearly all of which are provided by private contractors. Costs are soaring – the private school busing costs have exploded over 76% in the last eight years. These numbers will continue to soar.
Special education costs are also ballooning. $60 million is spent to serve 2,400 students in the school district. Those numbers will grow as the private school population increases. The district is not receiving the amount of State aid for these services that it should because the school board is not applying for services they think will not be approved.
The School District is in crisis and the School Board has made serious mistakes. The Board is constituted by individuals who have very little governmental experience. There have been five Board Presidents in the past three years and only one member of the Board sends their children to the public schools.
No one should be shocked that with this lack of understanding of the public schools that the Board has performed as poorly as it has.
Public protests and rallies are commonplace. Board meetings have become shouting matches in which the Board’s counsel for reasons known best only to him and the Board is allowed to berate and attack students and parents. Criminal charges have arisen in one instance from the sale of a closed school.
The budget process has been a mess for years. Proposed budgets have been frequently defeated. The Hasidic community has been reluctant to propose tax increases. The Board’s financial matters have been inadequately handled and that is the kindest way one can put it. The Board has been operating at a deficit. There have been unrealistic revenue projections, inaccurate budget estimates. It has perfected the art of the ‘one-shot’ budget fix. It never plans for the long term but simply handles crisis after crisis.
The district teeters on the edge of disaster. The most obvious example of the Board’s reckless financial management is the way they have claimed to have balanced their budgets. 4% of a school budget is supposed to be set aside in an emergency rainy-day fund. A few years ago the School Board had $12 million in the rainy-day fund but today that fund is negative to the tune of $7 million. They have no savings – there is nothing that stands between this district and disaster. In 2008 the Board had about $5 million in mandated restricted funds which today stands at a few thousands of dollars.
Perhaps the perfect metaphor for the fiscal dysfunction in the district is how they handle legal fees. Last year the School Board spent about $3 million for outside counsel. From 2008 – 2014 these expenses rose 668%. Over that period the Board paid $7 million to thirteen law firms. Last year they spent for a single out-of-state law firm $2.5 million. The kindest thing Greenberg could say about that kind of expenditure is that “it is absurd and outrageous”.
Another problem is the behavior of the Board’s principal counsel hired in 2009 who the Board has permitted to berate students and parents in unthinkable ways and another attorney used language that cannot be repeated. One of the members of the same firm said things Greenberg would never think to utter and the Board promised the firm would be fired. Even after Greenberg was appointed the District announced it was reversing the decision. Greenberg said the Board misled the public. The board conducted a replacement search for another firm that was a “charade”.
The Board is perceived to engage in favoritism to the private Hasidic students over the public school students. Greenberg said he is led to believe that this perception is true. Beginning in 2009 the Board had to make serious cuts to balance its budget. Positions were eliminated, teachers and social workers were fired, advanced courses and sports were cut. The heart of the academic program in the public schools suffered a grievous blow. At the same time programs that benefited the Hasidic community increased: special education programs and transportation were increased. There was no attempt by the School Board to fairly distribute the pain of the cuts.
The problems are exacerbated by the Board’s lack of transparency in conducting much of its ‘public meeting’ in executive session out of the public view returning only to hear public comments late in the night and sometimes in the early hours of the morning. According to Greenberg the Board has operated in violation of the State’s Open Meetings Law. Where executive sessions should be the exception and not the rule, just the opposite happens in East Ramapo. Over the course of just the last year the Board routinely spent 60-70% of its time out of the public view in executive sessions.
The problems are made even worse by the way the Board responds to critique from the public. Routinely people of good faith objecting to the Board’s actions receive in response name-calling branding critics as anti-Semitic, disaffected activists and oftentimes worse etc. Greenberg pointed out that his appointment as fiscal monitor was referred by the President of the Board as being the action of “bigots” and that others were “feigning ignorance”. Greenberg said the problem comes because most of the Board only understand the world through the lens of the Hasidic community and are so desirous and desperate to help their own community that they are blind to the needs of the larger community.
Greenberg made several recommendations:
- Reform of the East Ramapo School Board to provide checks and balances as the heart of the problem is a governance problem by the Hasidic dominated school board members. Greenberg mentioned a very similar situation in Lakewood, New Jersey and recommended a fiscal monitor with power to reverse imprudent decisions by the Board and the Superintendent and be involved in every aspect of the Board’s decision making processes including attending its executive sessions. Someone has to be empowered to immediately reverse bad decisions by the Board without such decisions being tied up by legal actions taken by the Board.
- The State needs to find additional dollars for the district as the demographic numbers show that there is no way education can continue in East Ramapo without additional state funding. But it is unthinkable that the State send any funds to the district without some control over how the monies would be used by the School Board.
- The Board needs to immediately undergo transparency training to understand the laws on how Open Meetings are to be conducted and the rights of the public to see their government perform its responsibilities.
- The Board also needs to immediately undergo diversity training to learn how to communicate with people different from themselves and how to understand other cultures. It is clear from the conduct of members of the Board and the School Superintendent that they would benefit from diversity training.
- There must be changes in compliance with State and Federal laws with respect to the instruction of English to those deficient in that language.
- The School District must start to see itself as one community and not a system of private schools competing with public schools across a cultural divide. There is a moral obligation on all leaders in East Ramapo to begin to discuss not only their fiscal deficit but also their cultural deficit in mutually understanding one another.