An Orthodox-dominated public school board in Rockland County, New York, is facing a new round of protests this week after an elected non-Jewish board member’s term was sliced from two years to one.
Nearly 100 protesters marched outside of an August 9 meeting of the East Ramapo School board, according to the Journal News, a regional paper. The school district, which includes the Orthodox-dominated villages of New Square and Monsey, has faced years of controversy amid allegations that the board favors the interests of yeshivas students over those of students in the district’s public schools.
Now, activists are protesting the treatment of Sabrina Charles-Pierre, a public school parent first appointed to the board in 2015 to fill a vacant seat. Charles-Pierre, who is black and is the board’s only female member, ran unopposed in school district elections in May, and was sworn in to serve the remaining two years of the vacant three-year term in July. Days after her swearing in, however, the school board announced that Charles-Pierre’s seat had been rendered vacant after they failed to swear her in within the state-mandated 30 day window after her appointed position expired.
Charles-Pierre did not respond to a voicemail message.
Board officials insisted that the delay of her swearing-in had been an accident, and that their hands were tied by the law. The board appointed Charles-Pierre to a one-year term, saying it was the most they could do.
Board critics were furious. The advocacy group Strong East Ramapo circulated an online petition demanding the restoration of Charles-Pierre’s two-year term, or barring that, the resignation of Weissmandl.
“If the board didn’t have the reputation and history that it has… then it’s likely that the community would perceive an inadvertent error,” said Oscar Cohen, a prominent critic of the school board and a member of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP. “It’s unimaginable that the board couldn’t figure out how to resolve this issue before it became an issue.”
Weissmandl told the Forward that the failure to swear in Charles-Pierre was an accident. “She has been a great asset,” he said, noting that the board itself first appointed her to her position last October. “She’s a respected, well-liked colleague,board member, team player. We have no reason to want her anywhere but as a member of our board.”
“The simple truth of the matter is that the board cannot appoint anyone to term of longer than one year,” said board president Yehuda Weissmandl in a statement. “That’s the law.”
Weissmandl said that after the August 9 board meeting at which protesters marched against the treatment of Charles-Pierre, the board unanimously approved a new plan to try to reinstate Charles-Pierre’s original two-year term by filling an appeal with New York State’s Commissioner of Education. The board has previously discussed that option in late July, when it first learned that the timing of Charles-Pierre’s swearing-in violated the state’s Public Officers law, but Weissmandl said that the board was initially advised that an appeal to the commissioner was not a viable option.
That changed after the August 9 board meeting, when the board’s lawyer offered a new appeal strategy.
The appeal may be a long shot. The education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, generally hears appeals of decisions by a local school board. In this instance, the commissioner will theoretically be hearing an appeal of a state law.
The latest fight comes amid increased state involvement in the district, with state-appointed monitors producing a series of reports that recommend sweeping changes to the school board and its management. Efforts to appoint a monitor with veto power over board decisions have stalled in the state legislature.
Weissmandl said that the contretemps over Charles-Pierre’s seat could threaten progress he says has been made between the Orthodox board leadership and the public school parents. “People obviously don’t trust us yet, but I think people have taken a step back and said to themselves, ‘Let’s give them a chance,’” he said. “Unfortunately, something like this happens and people get very edgy and they jump back into the fray and they say, ‘I told you so,’ and they start questioning whether this board can be trusted.”
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.