The commissioner of the New York State Education Department has annulled the sale of a New York elementary school to a New Square Orthodox yeshiva, criticizing the local school board for failing to take steps to get the best price for the property.
The rejection of the sale is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between the largely non-Jewish parents of children in the East Ramapo Central School District and the Orthodox majority on the district’s board of trustees, members of religious communities that send children to private yeshivas.
The annulment comes as the district moves forward on the sale of another public elementary school currently being leased to two Orthodox yeshivas.
The June 6 annulment of the sale of Hillcrest Elementary School by state education commissioner David Steiner is only the latest sign of trouble in the district, which is also the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“I am constrained to find that the board abused its discretion by hastily approving the sale of Hillcrest,” Steiner wrote in his decision.
The East Ramapo school board agreed to sell the Hillcrest school to Congregation Yeshiva Avir Yakov for $3.1 million on July 28, 2010. The property had been appraised at $5.9 million in May, but a second appraisal, submitted July 26, valued the property at $3.1 million.
A community activist named Steven White, chairperson of a group called East Ramapo Stakeholders for Public Education that has been active in opposing the Orthodox-majority board, filed an appeal with the state education department, asking that the board annul the sale.
In his decision, Steiner found that the board acted too quickly in accepting the second appraisal. “In the face of the two substantially discrepant appraisals conducted within a short period, the board, as public trustee of the property, was obligated to engage in a careful, deliberative process” to determine whether Avir Yakov’s bid was the best the district could do.
“The record indicates that the board did not engage in such a deliberative process, but instead acted in haste to approve the sale almost immediately upon receipt of the second appraisal,” Steiner wrote.
Steiner also found no proof that the board actually evaluated the second, lower appraisal before approving the sale of Hillcrest at the value it assigned just a day and a half after receiving it.
Further, Steiner questioned the dismissal of the first appraisal, saying that the publicity given to the sale and the amount of time allowed for bids were far less than the appraiser had thought would yield the higher price.
Neither the attorney for the school district nor the attorney for the yeshiva that was set to purchase the property responded by press time to requests for comment made through their law offices. Aron Wieder, the school board’s president since the resignation of former president Nathan Rothschild following charges of corruption in a separate public office, also did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
Meanwhile, the district is preparing to sell Colton Elementary School, which has been closed and rented to two Orthodox yeshivas since 2009. At a May school board meeting, the trustees approved a motion that authorized the board president to sell the school for $6.6 million, pending the results of an eight-week open bidding process seeking better offers.
Given the ruling on the Hillcrest sale, some wonder if the board will put the breaks on the sale of Colton. “For them to proceed to the Colton sale, it would seem to me, would be kind of like thumbing their nose at the commissioner,” said White, who appealed the Hillcrest sale. If they don’t reconsider, White said, “obviously it will be appealed again.”
Following the May 17 school district elections, some board positions will officially turn over on July 1. Despite a campaign by White’s East Ramapo Stakeholders, the balance of the board between Orthodox and non-Orthodox members remains as it was before the elections, with six Orthodox and three non-Orthodox members. The board will pick a new president in early July.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.