It may be a cliché, but it is a fact that our young are our greatest resource. Protecting them, improving their lot in life, and preparing them for the future is each of our responsibilities. This is why the situation our children are facing in the East Ramapo School District is so upsetting, and so merits the attention of the entire County and those who govern it.
Reduced Pre-K, schools being shuttered and sold off for losses, dropping test scores, threats of half-day kindergarten, cuts to BOCES technical programs, increased class sizes, cancelled extracurricular programs, distressingly low graduation rates – these kids are suffering from a series of deprivations that simply cannot be tolerated. To add insult to injury, the property owners in the district, whether they are parents or not, are smothered with incredibly high school taxes, higher than any other district in Rockland.
The East Ramapo school board has abandoned their duties. They have engaged in dismissive, insulting, and potentially criminal actions towards the kids and parents they are supposed to represent. Where they have failed, where they are derelict, others must step in – others with central executive authority. Unfortunately, neither the Ramapo Supervisor nor County Executive has advocated and used his bully pulpit to push for change or propose solutions.
Come November, that will change if I am elected. The County may not have direct say over school districts, but that will not affect my focus. First, I will continue the push for a state takeover of the district as is authorized under current law. Recognizing the current statutory limitations that restrict the ease with which the state can do so, I will advocate for the proposed state law “S6687-2011: An Act to Amend the Education Law, in Relation to Intervention in Chronically Underperforming School Districts,” which has been languishing in committee since 2011. This law would set up a more flexible and functional system to allow the state to move in and appoint a caretaker school board if the NYS Schools Chancellor determines that the current one is not acting in the district’s best interest, and a caretaker fiscal director to correct budgetary issues. In so advocating, I will personally travel to Albany to meet with Governor Cuomo, and will invite a delegation of East Ramapo students to join me in the effort. When this law is passed, I will push forward for the state to take action using their new authority. This, I am certain, will give short term relief and stability to the district.
Additionally, I will advocate for a solution to fix the systemic problems associated with a district in which a majority of school-aged children do not attend public schools. The current formula for public school tax aid of private schools, particularly in relation to textbooks, busing, and special education, simply cannot be sustained in such an environment. As a remedy, I will advocate for a sliding-scale or ceiling-based adjustment to reduce and contain the massive outflows of cash from the public schools, possibly including a new method of collecting school taxes that accounts for areas with high levels of tax-exempt property. I will also push for a by-parcel review of all tax exempt property in the County to ensure that those areas claiming exemption do in fact deserve it, whether it is the enhanced STAR exemption, religious exemptions, or veteran status-based exemptions.
Further, to reduce and eliminate the disconnect between the interests of the school board and the children actually attending the schools, I will explore several options and, once educational experts, legal experts, and district parents have weighed in, will push with sustained effort to make the fixes. Included as options will be splitting the school district (as Assemblyman Zebrowski has proposed), single member school board districts to ensure proportional representation, and other possible novel approaches. If such a fix is not adopted, along with a fiscal one as addressed previously, we will soon see a return to the status quo after the period of state takeover has ended – and the goal should be to be able to have true and effective local control in the long run.
The time for action is now. It is my hope that our state representatives put their full weight behind their recent announcements of support for various efforts to rescue the kids of East Ramapo. Either way, as County Executive I will not stand idly by while any one level of government buries my fellow Rocklanders with taxes, provides them ineffective services, or mortgages their children’s future. These kids, these parents, these neighbors need a fighter, and I will fight for them no matter the effort required.