The backlash has begun.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders are rallying their constituents and denouncing a state monitor's request for powerful and sustained oversight of the East Ramapo school district.
On Monday, the Board of Regents approved the recommendations of a three-person monitor team, led by former New York City chancellor Dennis Walcott, and extended its stay in the district for an indefinite term. Tapped by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in August, the group spent four months scrutinizing the troubled district.
Of the 19 recommendations offered by the state-appointed monitor team, its proposal to install a monitor with the authority to override school board decisions is drawing the most attention and outrage.
The groundswell of rebellion against such a monitor includes the following groups:
Level-headed religious leaders lash out
"There is no other School District in New York where a duly elected School Board, voted into office by a majority of the District's voters, may have its decisions over-ridden by a state-appointed monitor," said Agudath Israel's executive vice president, Rabbi David Zwiebel in a written statement.
When asked why a national non-profit religious group would involve itself with the affairs of a local school board, Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs said that his group's mandate includes advocating "for the rights of religious Jews, and of all religious Americans" as well as countering "unfair negative images of the Jewish community, and in particular its Orthodox sector."
Shafran said that challenging a particular decision of a school board is fair game, but failing to trust an elected body to carry out its job responsibly, in this case, "to serve all the district's students fairly, and respect the mandates of the law – is deeply offensive."
"It's no different from insinuating that a Jewish Supreme Court justice is somehow compromised in ruling on an issue that involves a Christian institution; or that a Catholic public servant is less capable than someone else of treating Baptist citizens fairly. Is someone who is childless, and thus not invested personally in public schools, unqualified to be on a school board?"
Grassroots group organizes for lawsuit
Through a new website, localrulepreservation.com, a group called Local Rule Preservation in East Ramapo (LRPER) is seeking signatures of people who might want to join in a planned "Class Action Lawsuit to Defend Citizens' Rights" against the state of New York. Citing passages from the Bill of Rights, the state constitution among other documents, the blog post dated December 15, decries Walcott's report and concluded," We – as parents and taxpayers – must do all we can to protect the integrity of our community, our children and their futures."
Laura Barbieri, an attorney who has filed several class action lawsuits for the nonprofit law firm Advocates for Justice, said the idea of a class action lawsuit at this point is premature because no monitor legislation has yet been passed.
"Asking the court to give an advisory opinion is not justifiable because the law is not in effect," she said. In addition, the constitution prevents one branch of government from meddling with that of another. "The state isn't going to tell the legislature what it can do."
Local and state leaders join forces
Rockland legislator Aron Wieder, a former East Ramapo school board president rallied his community at Tuesday night's board meeting, during which some speakers said they would take their complaints about the imposition of a monitor on a duly elected school board "all the way to the Supreme Court." Wieder announced on Wednesday that he and Assemblyman Dov Hikind, D-Brooklyn, would have a "major announcement" on Thursday.
"We had real hopes that Dennis Walcott would be fair. Everything looked and smelled right, but he really let us down," said Hikind, who represents a heavily ultra-Orthodox district and opposed past efforts to limit the school board's power. "This report is an insult to the community and schools within the East Ramapo School District."
Back to the future
Last November, Hank Greenberg, a previous state-appointed monitor, issued a critical report charging that the board had helped private religious schools at the expense of public-school children. About 24,000 children East Ramapo go to religious schools, mostly yeshivas. About 8,500 children, who are mostly poor Latinos and Haitians, attend public schools.
Assembly Democrats passed a bill granting veto power to a monitor in June but Senate Republicans blocked it, arguing against denying a duly elected board its rightful authority.. Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, (D-New City) has already begun relaunching efforts to install a monitor who can override the board.
"I just said to my staff, it's like deja vu."
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