A New York suburb is divided over plans to absorb a private special education program for Yiddish and Hebrew speakers into the public school district — a plan that opponents say could be racially discriminatory.
The proposal for the East Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, N.Y., to take over the financially troubled Rockland Institute for Special Education (RISE) is drawing complaints from local activists and minority communities in the ethnically diverse district, which is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. The Yiddish and Hebrew bilingual special education program, currently run under Orthodox auspices, would be the only bilingual program offered by the district.
The controversy comes after months of conflict between public school advocates and the school board’s Orthodox majority over claims that the board has acted primarily in the interest of the district’s Orthodox Jewish private schools. Unlike previous grievances against the board, however, which have focused on the balance of public resource allocations between the public and private schools, critics say that this newest proposal could create a discriminatory environment within the public school system itself.
“It’s offering something to kids in the Yiddish-speaking community not available” to those in other communities, said Peggy Hatton, a prominent critic of the school board.
In October, the Forward reported on rising tensions between members of the Orthodox community and their neighbors over the direction of the school district.
The proposal to absorb RISE and its 70 bilingual Yiddish- and Hebrew-speaking special education students into the East Ramapo school district was announced at a school board meeting on January 5. The board is expected to approve the proposal at its meeting on January 19. The school district already pays tuitions for 36 of the students at the Spring Valley, N.Y., school. These students are channeled into a separate stream within the school where they receive only secular education during school hours to avoid constitutional prohibitions of state funding of religion.
East Ramapo’s superintendent, Ira Oustatcher, did not respond to requests for comment about the latest proposal. Neither did Harriet Feldman, director of RISE.
But prior to the school board’s scheduled vote on the proposal, Feldman wrote her staff that an agreement had already been reached between RISE and the board. In a January 10 memo obtained by the Forward, Feldman informed her staff that the district would lease RISE’s building for three years and the school would become a part of the public school district. In a statement that appeared to anticipate controversy over the move, she wrote, “The district is trying to protect the program and the staff from the anti-Semites and those who will try to prove this merger is unconstitutional. The district people assure me, they have checked everything with lawyers and it is 100% legal. But there are those who will probably fight it.”
“It’s mystifying how an apparent deal has been made before the board has even discussed or voted on it,” said Oscar Cohen, an area resident and member of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had seen the memo.
The president of East Ramapo’s board of education, Nathan Rothschild, disputed the memo’s claim that a deal had already been reached. Absent a board vote, he said, no agreements between RISE and the district have been finalized, and no long-term decisions about the private school’s real estate have been made. He said that if the board approved the absorption, RISE’s building would likely be rented by the district for the remainder of the school year so as not to disrupt the students.
The school district has sold or attempted to sell two public schools in recent years. The sale of one of those schools is currently under review by the New York State Education Department.
The RISE proposal comes in the wake of a December audit report by the Office of the State Comptroller in New York faulting the East Ramapo school district for failing to solicit competitive bids for a portion of its annual special education spending, and for failing to keep records showing how those spending decisions were made.
According to Rothschild, and to a statement read at the January 5 board meeting by Oustatcher, East Ramapo also plans to eventually open bilingual special education programs for Spanish- and Haitian Creole-speaking students within the district. But Rothschild could not point to concrete plans or precise starting dates.
Rothschild warned that if the school board did not approve absorption of the Jewish special education program and RISE consequently folded, the district would have to pay exorbitant rates to place its students currently enrolled there elsewhere. He added that the RISE program could eventually make money for the district by charging other public school districts for instructing their special education students requiring Yiddish or Hebrew bilingual environments.
Local activists complained that the arrangement was potentially discriminatory. In a January 15 letter to Oustatcher and Rothschild, Willie Trotman, president of the Spring Valley branch of the NAACP, asked the school board to postpone its vote on the RISE proposal to give his group time “to determine the extent to which establishing an all white school may discriminate against children of color and/or violate their civil rights.”
Activists say the board allowed no time for public comment on the proposal. The plan was announced after registration for the public comment segment of the board meeting on January 5 was closed, and the vote at the school board’s January 19 meeting is expected to occur before the public comment period for that meeting takes place.
Some raised concerns about RISE’s current building being used exclusively for Yiddish- and Hebrew-speaking students. “If the district has a school for only white, Jewish special education kids, they’re still segregated from the rest of the system,” said Cohen. “Will this be a form of segregation, and in essence apartheid? That’s our fear.”
Rothschild countered that the students were being placed in these classrooms based on their need for Yiddish- and Hebrew-language environments and their special needs, not their race or religion. “If a person came from Puerto Rico speaking Yiddish, and they were not Jewish, they could be in this program, but it’s not going to happen because it’s not likely we’ll find somebody like that, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “They’re required to have that environment. It’s a disingenuous argument.”
In her memo, Feldman discusses how the school will need to change its program to adjust to rules barring religion from public school classrooms. Occasionally using Hebrew type, she writes that the school will no longer be able to teach limmud’e kodesh — religious studies — during the school day, but that private funds were being raised for before- and after-school programs. But she says that kreyah — reading — will be taught, along with what she calls “cultural subjects.” She writes that specifics about how to handle prayers have yet to be ironed out.
The letter also says that the school will not follow the school district’s regular calendar — a possible indication of the school’s intent to continue giving its students Jewish holy days off.
When contacted at the office of the mayor of Spring Valley, where he works as an administrative assistant, school board member Aron Wieder — widely seen as the leader of the school board’s Orthodox bloc — declined to speak on the record. Though he spoke for a half-hour, he would not discuss his position on the RISE absorption and would not agree to be quoted.
A spokesman for the New York State Education Department said that he had not heard of a private school being absorbed into a public school district before, and that he could not comment because of the possibility of a legal challenge.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.