As New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo steams toward what’s expected to be an easy re-election this fall, he may face opposition from an unexpected corner.
Cuomo has long sought to cultivate support among the state’s powerful ultra-Orthodox community. But a series of recent moves has threatened that relationship, culminating in Cuomo’s early June decision to order the State Education Department to monitor the finances of the East Ramapo school district, which is headed by a majority-Orthodox school board.
“The way things stand now, he’s going to have a difficult time in the Orthodox community, there’s no question about that,” said Leon Goldenberg, an activist who sits on the board of the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America. Goldenberg expects Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino to do well among Orthodox voters.
Ultra-Orthodox sources were far from universal in their criticism of Cuomo. Goldenberg himself acknowledged that the governor has “done some positive things also.” But the appointment of the monitor in upstate East Ramapo, in particular, appears to have angered many ultra-Orthodox.
For years the East Ramapo School District has been engulfed in conflict, with an Orthodox-dominated school board facing off against the mostly black and Latino public school parents. The district includes Monsey and New Square, whose large Orthodox populations send their children to private yeshivas but rely on state aid for transportation and other mandated services. Candidates from those well-organized ultra-Orthodox communities consistently beat non-Orthodox challengers in local school board elections.
The school board’s critics charge that the district has cut public school services in order to benefit private yeshivas. In 2010 the board sold an elementary school to a yeshiva far below market value; the appraiser in the sale was later indicted and the sale reversed. The State Education Department has withheld special education aid from the district over its practices of placing Orthodox special education students in private yeshivas rather than public schools.
Orthodox community members, for their part, say that the district is underfunded by the state and that the district provides only mandated services to private yeshivas.
The Journal News, the area’s local daily newspaper, reported June 11 that the new state-appointed fiscal monitor, a former Cuomo aide from his previous position as New York State attorney general, would be tasked with evaluating the competing claims in East Ramapo and with recommending action.
“We thought it was appropriate to have an independent monitor from outside the community who doesn’t have any predisposition on the issue to come in and to review the operations of the school district, take a look at the accusations that have been made and give us an independent [analysis],” Cuomo told the Journal News.