Once again, a New York school district controlled by Orthodox Jews is trying to sell a shuttered public elementary school to deal with its budget woes. And once again, critics have asked state officials to stop the sale.
Activists challenging the East Ramapo Central School District’s handling of the latest sale say that it favors two private Jewish schools at the expense of a fair price. Their appeal to the state education department comes just weeks after state officials overturned the school board’s earlier sale of an East Ramapo elementary school to a different Jewish school. A majority of the school board, whose members are elected, is made up of Orthodox Jews.
The activists allege that the school board has acted irresponsibly in signing a conditional contract before seeking outside bids. But district officials maintain that increasingly dire economic pressures necessitated the sale.
“It’s surplus property at this point,” said East Ramapo’s superintendent of schools, Joel Klein. “We do not need it, and we have significant budget issues.”
The latest turmoil in Rockland County, less than an hour north of New York City, comes after years of conflict between the area’s growing Orthodox Jewish population and the non-Orthodox, largely non-Jewish families that send their children to the public schools.
That school board’s Orthodox majority survived a public election last May, despite significant efforts by opponents to elect new non-Orthodox members to the board. The board’s former president, Nathan Rothschild, pleaded guilty June 30 to mail fraud charges stemming from allegations that he had abused his elected role as Monsey fire commissioner to settle a personal debt. Rothschild resigned from the school board in April, when the charges were first filed.
Colton Elementary School was closed in 2009 following years of districtwide enrollment declines. The building was leased to Bais Malka, a yeshiva affiliated with the Belz Hasidic sect, and to the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, Inc., an organization that runs programs for disabled Jewish children.
Now, two years into the five-year lease of the building, the district has decided to sell Colton to the two Jewish schools despite the $2.5 million the district is slated to receive in the remaining years of the lease agreement.
“The rent, which is considerable, is not anywhere near as much as we would get on the sale,” Klein said. He also cited maintenance and upkeep costs that the building continues to incur upon the district.
But critics say that the sale price isn’t high enough. On May 25, the school signed a contract selling the Colton School to Bais Malka and the Hebrew Academy for Special Children for $6.6 million. The sale is conditional upon the results of an open bidding process that began on June 1, though the religious schools have the right to best any higher offer that results from that process.
According to an affidavit filed by board of education president Aron Wieder, a 2011 appraisal pegged the market value of the school at $6.6 million. But a 2010 estimation of the property’s market value by the Ramapo town assessor put it at $12 million.
Klein said that he did not know why the estimations of the school’s value were so divergent. School board lawyer Albert D’Agostino and Wieder could not be reached for comment, and Ramapo town assessor Scott Shedler declined to comment.
According to Geoff Gloak, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, when tax-exempt properties like schools reach the market, sale prices don’t always correspond with previous assessments. Since they pay no property taxes, “in a sense that number isn’t relevant, and it’s certainly not relevant to the sale,” Gloak said. “The assessments can vary widely because of the fact that they haven’t been taxed in prior years.”
In an appeal to the state education commissioner to stop the Colton sale, Brenda Carole Anderson, who lost a school board election in May, complained that the eight weeks allowed for the submission of bids is too short, that the district had not sufficiently advertised its request for bids and had provided preferential treatment to Bais Malka and the Hebrew Academy for Special Children.
Anderson requested that the sale be temporarily halted while the education department considers the petition. In his affidavit in response to that request, Wieder said that the call for bids on the property had been circulated more widely than Anderson contended, and that the religious schools were not receiving preferential treatment.
The commissioner of the New York State Education Department, John B. King Jr., on July 6 issued a temporary stay on the sale of the school pending his judgment on the appeal.
On June 6, NYSED commissioner David Steiner, whom King succeed on June 15, issued a stinging rebuke of the East Ramapo school board over its handling of the attempted sale of Hillcrest Elementary School to a yeshiva based in the nearby Hasidic town of New Square.
The board, he wrote “abused its discretion” by hastily approving the sale of Hillcrest. Steiner found that the board failed to spend significant time considering two divergent appraisals of the value of Hillcrest, instead selling the school at the lower value a day and a half after receiving the second, far lower appraisal. Steiner also found that the period the board allowed for bids was too short and that the request for bids was not advertised well enough.
The board, he wrote, must take “reasonable steps, consistent with this decision, to secure the best price obtainable for Hillcrest.”
The attorney who represented Bais Malka and the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in the sale of Colton, Paul Savad, said that the conditional contract selling Colton was signed before additional bids were sought in order to secure a minimum price for the property.
“They wanted to lock us in,” Savad said. “It’s a floor for the price. It protects the school district and the taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, Klein said that the urgency to sell Colton stemmed from financial pressures created by cuts in state aid and by the newly approved statewide 2% cap on annual property tax increases. The bulk of public school funding is drawn from property tax assessments.
“We’re not a resource-rich district, so the state aid cuts we receive are significant,” Klein said. “Next year, with a 2% [property tax increase] cap and our costs going up more than 2%, we’re going to lay off more people, so having a school sold and $6 million in reserves is going to help prevent more layoffs and cuts in more programs.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.