A controversial bill to appoint a monitor with veto power over the decisions of an Orthodox-dominated public school board in New York’s Rockland County won approval June 3 from the state Assembly’s education committee.
The bill, which comes after years of advocacy by residents critical of the East Ramapo Central School District’s board, has drawn intense backlash from Orthodox advocates. A concerted lobbying campaign has damaged the bill’s chances, though its sponsor, Rockland County Democrat Ellen Jaffee, still believes she can shepherd it through the full Assembly.
“I think I have the votes right now,” Jafffe said. “Right now I’m feeling very optimistic.”
The bill would also have to make it through the Senate and win approval of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has not said if he supports it.
The school district, which includes the Orthodox-dominated hamlets of Monsey and New Square, has been the site of escalating conflict since at least 2009 between an Orthodox Jewish majority, which sends its students to private yeshivas, and public school parents who say that the district faces neglect. Now, Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, and Jaffe, who represents the school district in the Assembly, are pushing for a monitor to rein in the board.
“It is a crucial step toward reversing the district’s disastrous decline and repairing the deep rifts in the community,” Tisch wrote in a June 3 op-ed in the New York Times.
Last November, an investigator appointed by State Education Department reported that that the East Ramapo school board had shown favor to the district’s private yeshivas. “Beginning in 2009, the board had to make serious spending cuts in order to balance its budget,” the fiscal monitor, Henry Greenberg, told the state’s Board of Regents. “Programs that benefited the private school community increased.”
Greenberg recommended in his report that the state appoint a fiscal monitor to oversee the board. Under Jaffe’s bill, a monitor would be appointed for at least five years with the power to override the school board or superintendent’s decisions, make proposals to the board and superintendent, and access all of the district’s documents.
A raft of Orthodox groups and lobbyists have pushed back against the monitor bill. An Agudath Israel delegation to Albany on August 2 raised the issue with legislators. “The bottom line is we’re entitled to representation,” said Leon Goldenberg, an Agudah board member, who participated in the delegation. “They were voted in.”
The school board has lobbied against the bill through its lobbyist, Patricia Lynch, a onetime top aide to former State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. Aron Wieder, a former member of the East Ramapo school board and now a member of the Rockland County Legislature, has also been meeting with state legislators.
“My advocacy against this unconstitutional bill is as a voter in East Ramapo and on behalf of my constituents who live in East Ramapo,” Wieder wrote in an email to the Forward. “We were hopeful and still are that this bill will ultimately not become law.”
Michael Fragin, an Orthodox advocate, said that he, too, had been meeting with legislators to argue against the bill. “There is a real policy issue of taking away the power of elected officials by an unelected monitor,” Fragin said. “I think that is a dangerous precedent.”
Jaffe said that she hoped to get the bill before the Assembly’s ways and means committee soon, and to a floor vote. The Republican-dominated State Senate could be a larger hurdle. Cuomo’s office did not respond to an inquiry as to the governor’s position on the bill. The current legislative session ends on June 17.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.