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In East Ramapo trial, trying to untangle race and policy in school board elections

Testimony from two witnesses Thursday at the trial over the East Ramapo Central School District spoke to a key question at the center of the case: Are elections won and lost over questions of race, or of policy?

Outside of a courtroom, it is often hard to separate the two things. For example, consider the opposition to the stop-and-frisk policy in New York: data suggest it was not effective at lowering crime, and the policy was also found to violate the civil rights of racial minorities.

And yet at the legal level, sometimes race and policy have to get teased apart. That’s what is happening in the East Ramapo trial right now.

The case turns on the voting system of the district, in suburban Rockland County, N.Y. Private school students — almost entirely Orthodox students who attend private yeshivas — outnumber public school students — over 90% black and Latino — by about 30,000 to 9,000. The board is majority Orthodox, too, and has been under fire for over a decade after it dramatically cut teaching positions and extracurricular programs while expanding state-mandated busing for the rapidly growing yeshiva population.

The Orthodox community has been successful in electing people to the board who support their favored policies — such as not raising property taxes — in large part because of the district’s at-large voting system. It allows residents from the entire district to vote for each seat on the board. The effect, local residents say, has been to give candidates favored by private school parents a near-monopoly on board seats since 2008, and leave racial minority communities without a voice.

So the NAACP, along with several residents, is suing the board, saying the system amounts to illegal vote dilution of racial minorities. And because they’re bringing the case under the Voting Rights Act, they need to prove that the voting system is broken not because of policy disagreements, but because of race: that racial minority-preferred candidates always lose contested elections, while candidates preferred by white voters always win.

“The evidence will show that the white community has unchecked power, and the minority community has no power,” Corey Calabrese, a lawyer for the NAACP, argued in opening statements on Monday.

By their own analysis, they have an extremely strong case: Their voting rights expert, Dr. Matthew Barreto, showed through a dozen different kinds of analyses that races are won and lost along racial lines.

But the district’s lawyers have a very different take. And testimony on Thursday showed that it’s not simply race that’s affecting the votes of black and Latino voters, but policies whose effects differ sharply depending on what race you are.

David Butler, lead attorney for the district, said in his opening argument that voters in East Ramapo’s school board elections make their decisions on the basis of policy questions, like managing the budget, and that in East Ramapo “the divisions are demonstrably not racial.”

That would appear to be true, according to election data. Over the past decade, candidates of color have received support across racial groups. Minority candidates have even won contested elections more often than white candidates.

But according to the NAACP, voting patterns and other evidence show that these candidates are essentially “tokens” supported by the board and the political organizers in the Orthodox world that campaign on their behalf. Even so, data analyzed by Barreto shows that even candidates broadly seen as supporting the interests private school community have received some black and Latino support, while candidates supported by advocates of the public school have received a portion of their votes from white voters.

Clara Kollm, a lawyer for the district, asked Olivia Castor, a former East Ramapo public school student and activist, if she had voted for Bernard Charles, a black board member the NAACP also identified as preferred by white voters. Castor said she had not.

So had she voted against him because of policy differences? Yes, Castor said.

To try and explain her position, Castor testified that the issues of race and policy are intertwined—or “intersectional,” as she called it—in the district.

“You’re taught that you’re in this post-racial era, but you’re in these schools that are all black and Latino,” but they’re run by people who don’t seem to care about issues that pertain to those students, Castor said. For instance, she testified that when she made a presentation to the board, as a high school senior in March 2013, none of the people on the board — including racial minority board members — were paying attention to her. They were texting or talking with one another, she said.

“It’s the policy part, but it’s also the racial element,” she said.

Even candidates from the self-described public school community feel that when they have lost elections, it has not been directly about their race — even if they are running to give a voice to a black and Latino community.

When Chevon Dos Reis, who is black and Latina, ran for the school board in 2017, she took policy positions on the state of the district. Testifying Thursday, she said that she wanted to raise taxes to help balance the budget, and maintain universal busing in the district.

She lost the race to Joel Freilich — who the NAACP has identified as the white-preferred candidate — 4,500 votes to Freilich’s 9,500 votes.

So, Kollm asked, did Dos Reis think she lost because she was Latina?

“I believe I lost the race because I wasn’t willing to represent only the private school community’s students,” she said.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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