A bill to appoint an overseer over an Orthodox-dominated New York school board appears to be on the brink of failure, despite the backing of New York’s governor, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, the Rockland County Legislature, and a handful of advocacy groups.
The bill’s expected defeat, which comes amid opposition from Orthodox activists from across New York, would frustrate a state-appointed monitor’s key recommendation after investigating the school board’s controversial policies in 2014: the appointment of an oversight official with the power to veto the board’s decisions.
Henry Greenberg, the state-appointed monitor, in part supported the contentions of local activists that the East Ramapo Central School District had favored private religious schools in their district during a budget crisis.
But as New York State’s legislative session in Albany staggers to a close, at least two members of the state Assembly who had signed on as co-sponsors of the bill have withdrawn their support, and it appears to have little chance of passing the Senate and making its way to the governor’s desk.
“They’ve reached out to the Jewish groups and Jewish populations throughout the state,” Assembly member Ellen Jaffee, the main sponsor of the bill, said of the bill’s opponents. “They have come from all areas of New York.”
The bill’s apparent demise comes despite Greenberg’s report and his public testimony in a presentation to the Board of Regents last November, in which he said that, even while the board was forced to make serious spending cuts in 2009 to balance its budget, “programs that benefited the private school community increased” while public schools bore the brunt of the cuts.
Jaffe’s bill would allow the state to appoint a monitor for at least five years with the power to override the school board and the superintendent, and to access the district’s files. No other districts in New York State are currently under a state-appointed monitor’s control.
The East Ramapo school board and its supporters claim that the real problem is not the board’s spending policies, but underfunding by the state. “The bill that’s out there right now doesn’t even speak to resources,” said Darren Dopp, an external spokesman for the board. Stressing that the district’s payments to private schools do not exceed federal mandates, Dopp added, “The district and the board, they’re open to an appropriate level of oversight if it’s an appropriate level, and if it’s linked to resources.”
The area within the school board’s boundaries has seen a huge increase in recent years in the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom have large families whose children attend local yeshivas. Nearly 24,000 of the district’s children attend private religious schools, versus about 8,000 mostly minority low-income children who go to public schools. Members of the ultra-Orthodox community tend to vote in local school board elections as a bloc.
The school board’s allies describe Jaffe’s bill as a subversion of the democratic rights of the district’s voters. “The bottom line is, we’re entitled to representation, and they were voted in,” said Leon Goldenberg, a member of the board of trustees of Agudath Israel of America, a leading Orthodox umbrella group.
But in a June 3 opinion piece in The New York Times, Meryl Tisch, chairman of the Board of Regents that oversees New York State public schools, called for passage of Jaffe’s bill, citing the East Ramapo board’s “gross mismanagement and neglect” of the district’s public schools. Tisch, who is also co-chair of New York City’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, decried the Orthodox-dominated board’s dismissal of “hundreds of staff members” in the public school system and the consequent low test scores and graduation rates, which she attributed to the board’s policies.
A number of factors appear to have worked to foil Jaffe’s bill, among them the efforts of the school board’s hired lobbyist, Patricia Lynch, a onetime top aide to former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; a one-man campaign by former school board member and current Rockland County Legislature representative Aron Wieder, and a push by the Agudah, the influential umbrella group for a plethora of ultra-Orthodox organizations and Hasidic factions.
Lynch’s firm, Patricia Lynch Associates, has lost market share in recent years, but her lobbying shop remains a significant name in Albany. Dopp, who runs the media relations unit of Lynch’s firm, said that Lynch had argued the board’s position on resources to lawmakers with the ability to influence the legislation.
“We would go to them, and we would show them facts and figures on school funding,” Dopp said. “That’s the point of attack here. We’ve endeavored to talk to every lawmaker we could.”
When Assembly member Walter T. Mosley dropped his co-sponsorship of the bill, he credited not new information on East Ramapo’s finances, but what he called “anti-Semitic overtones,” according to the website Kings County Politics. Mosley told The New York Times that it was Wieder who had persuaded him.
In an email to the Forward, Wieder wrote, “My advocacy against this unconstitutional bill is as a voter in East Ramapo and on behalf of my constituents who live in East Ramapo.”
Dopp said that Lynch was not pushing the anti-Semitism charge. “We have never raised the concept of anti-Semitism,” Lynch said. “That’s not what we would do.”
The Agudah, meanwhile, has also argued against the bill in meetings with legislators, according to Goldenberg. The organization, however, is more focused on its top Albany priority, the education tax credit, which it is also struggling to get through before the session ends.
The bill barely squeezed through the Assembly on June 11 by a vote of 80 to 60, with many Democrats breaking ranks with the party leadership to oppose the bill. “I don’t appreciate the possibility that if I vote yes, I may be called an anti-Semite,” Assemblyman Matthew Titone said during the debate on the floor of the legislature. Titone, a Staten Island Democrat, voted in favor of the bill. Silver, the former speaker, voted against.
With the legislative session due to end on June 17, the bill seems unlikely to pass the Senate in time to be signed into law this session.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.