A bill that would give boards of education in many school districts the option to establish wards for their elections has been sent to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Meantime, the New York Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit challenging the at-large method of electing Board of Education members of the East Ramapo School District.
The bill would amend education law and, says State Senator David Carlucci, bring parity to elections.
"We need to make sure that the voting system is as simple as possible, that we have the best representation possible. And while towns and villages and counties have had a ward system for years, the school districts still don't," Carlucci says. "And we need to get as close to one person, one vote, have representation that really represents the local community and make sure that regions don't get favored, particularly in school districts, over one another."
Carlucci is a co-sponsor of Republican Senator Bill Larkin’s legislation. A third Hudson Valley-area lawmaker, Republican John Bonacic, is the other co-sponsor. Carlucci, an Independent Democrat who recently stood with representatives of the New York State United Teachers union, further describes the bill.
“But ultimately it’ll be up to the voters of the school district because the school board, if this bill is passed, will allow for them to decide to go to a referendum to then have a ward system,” Carlucci says. “So that’s why I think this is important because it’s not a mandate on the school district; it’s just giving them more flexibility in how to best govern their school district.”
Julie Marlette is director of governmental relations at the New York State School Boards Association, which supports the bill and is urging Governor Cuomo to sign.
“This is a local control issue. It’s sort of reaffirming the idea that school boards in partnership with their voters are the ones really, under this model, being put in the driver’s seat to design their model of governance that works best for their community,” says Marlette. “And that, ultimately, even if a board of education may think this would serve the community well, it’s still in the hands of the voters that elected that board to ultimately say yes or no, we think this is how you can best represent us.”
And she underscores that the bill empowers school boards to ask their communities if they would like to establish voting wards. Marlette says school boards would have to pass a resolution that would then go to the voters via referendum. The Assembly bill’s sponsors are all from the Hudson Valley as well. Democrat Aileen Gunther is the sponsor, and fellow Democrats Ellen Jaffee, James Skoufis and Kenneth Zebrowski are cosponsors. A spokesman for the governor says the bill remains under review.
Meanwhile, the NYCLU in November filed suit over school board elections in the East Ramapo Central School District, alleging they violate the voting rights of black and Latino residents. Perry Grossman is senior staff attorney of NYCLU’s Voting Rights Project.
“It’s important for communities of color to be able to have an opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. And the at-large system in the East Ramapo Central School District denies them that opportunity because what we have there is heavily racially polarized voting in which the white community votes as a bloc, and black and Latino voters vote as a bloc and, because the white community outnumbers them they’re able to win elections again and again and again,” Grossman says. “And so even since the state’s intervention in 2014, we have seen the white community consistently out-vote the minority community in order to install board members who are consistently favoring the interests of the private schools.”
Requests for comment from East Ramapo Board of Education members were not returned in time for this broadcast. Carlucci says the bill on the governor’s desk could help a district like East Ramapo.
“Well, I think that lawsuit is saying, hey, why don’t the school districts have representation like every other municipality in New York state and like the rest of the country,” says Carlucci. “And I think we just have to bring our laws into the 21st century and avoid a situation like that lawsuit is putting forth. And, by having the ward system, it could better represent these school districts.”
Again, the NYCLU’s Grossman.
“This is an incredibly common problem,” says Grossman. “It is not unique to East Ramapo. East Ramapo is just a very extreme case of a very common problem.
Plaintiffs include the Spring Valley NAACP and seven black and Latino voters. The East Ramapo School District is under state monitors. Some 27,000 of the district’s students attend private schools, mainly yeshivas. About 8,500 predominantly African American and Latino students attend public schools.