Three New York lawmakers have introduced a bill to appoint a state monitor to the troubled East Ramapo School District in Rockland County. The move comes in response to recommendations issued by a state-appointed fiscal monitor.
The bill would authorize the education commissioner to appoint a state monitor to oversee the East Ramapo Central School District. The monitor would have the power to override actions of the school board and superintendent. The bill says the education commissioner would appoint the monitor to serve for five years. The lawmakers say their legislation stems directly from recommendations in a November 2014 report from a state-appointed fiscal monitor. David Carlucci, an Independent Democrat whose district includes East Ramapo, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.
“The district definitely needs more funding. However, I don’t think it’s going to be one silver bullet that solves the district’s problems,” says Carlucci. “What we need is a strategic plan to be developed, the monitor to make recommendations, so we have that ammunition going forward and we can work with our colleague in the legislature, work with the governor, to finally address some of the inadequacies that exist, such as the combined wealth ratio. Some of these issues in the state-aid formula have really been detrimental to East Ramapo.”
Democrats Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski are the bill’s sponsor and co-sponsor, respectively, in the Assembly. Ryan Karben, a former state assemblyman, attended East Ramapo schools and lives in the district.
“A monitor is not a Messiah and having some outsider come in to rule, or overrule, decisions of the school board really isn’t a substitute for a strategy to get people in the district working together again,” says Karben. “I think that a little bit too much faith is being put in the monitor to magically solve some of these problems.”
Carlucci says the legislation will require the adoption of a strategic academic and fiscal improvement plan that will be developed by the monitor, the state education commissioner, the school board, the superintendent, and with input from the community.
“We need a fundamental change and that’s why we need a partner,” says Carlucci. “We need someone independent from the state Education Department to really come down and walk in the shoes of the board members, walk in the shoes of the administrators and the teachers, to really get a sense of what’s going on and to see how the state laws on the books are not keeping up with the times, not keeping up with this district whose demographics have changed and are changing rapidly.”
Jaffee, who expects support from her colleagues, calls her bill a strong piece of oversight legislation that, if passed, would allow the monitor to immediately begin addressing what the fiscal monitor called a governance problem. She says the monitor will review fiscal and academic issues. Jaffee says she will continue to lobby for additional funding for the district. Karben says he is disappointed the bill does not commit to significant funding.
“So I’m a little bit worried that in the zeal to get Albany to pay attention to the problems in East Ramapo, we think that Albany can solve those problems and they can’t,” says Karben. “Those problems remain in a community where there is a huge gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust and grievance, and unless those core issues are tackled, you could have 100 monitors and East Ramapo’s going to remain a problem.”
School Board President Yehuda Weissmandl, in a statement, says he is disappointed WITH the proposed legislation because it does not focus on the underlying problem of inadequate funding. He says that instead of focusing on this critical problem, this legislation speaks to a continuing misconception in the community that the school board acted improperly in the past. The school district superintendent did not respond to a request for comment.
Azeem Farooki is with Rockland Clergy for Social Justice and supports the legislation. He says his group is heading to Albany March 3 to thank the three Rockland lawmakers and cull support from others.
“And then we are seeking support by the other lawmakers of the other 61 counties and certainly we hope that this draft legislation soon becomes the law obviously to rectify and remedy the governance of the East Ramapo School District,” says Farooki.
Farooki is also a board member and trustee of the Islamic Center of Rockland.
“There is a word in the Holy book Qur'an which simply says [recites in Arabic] and that’s in Arabic. And in English it means that Lord, please help me to increase my knowledge,” Farooki says. “And I associate that as the prayer of every child at the East Ramapo School District,” says Farooki.
The November report describes the East Ramapo School District as containing 33,000 school-age children, 9,000 of whom attend the public schools. Ninety-one percent of those 9,000 are African American and Latino. Some 24,000 attend private Yeshivas.