If you get off the train in Spring Valley, N.Y., in Rockland County, 40 minutes northwest of New York City, you will find yourself in a place that looks like many other charming little villages in New York and New Jersey, with one essential difference: In Spring Valley, the gabled two-story houses, some with porches and garrets, show signs of an immigrant population nearby. The quaint brick train station houses a Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill; on the first block past the train station you will find an immigration lawyer, three beauty salons, a dollar store, a money-transfer agency whose sign is in French, and a travel agency whose sign is in Spanish. If you follow the road up a hill and turn right on Route 59, it’s not long before the first traces of yet another community begin to emerge: The signs change from Spanish and French into Yiddish and Hebrew. Abutting the second church on the next block is a Jewish funeral home and across the street—like a bad joke—a debt-resolution agency. The school district here incorporates not just Spring Valley proper—with its large African American, Haitian, and South American communities—but also several other towns and hamlets, including Monsey, where many ultra-Orthodox Jews live. Their population is about 50,000, and it’s growing.
On July 1, I came to town to watch as five Hasidim, two non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews, an African American man, and a Haitian man sat together behind a long wooden table at the East Ramapo Central School District administration building. These men make up the district’s board, and they are the most hated men in town. As Yehuda Weissmandl, the soft-spoken board president, who wore a long black coat and big velvet yarmulke, read the Pledge of Allegiance, the first signs that all is not right in East Ramapo began to percolate from hidden depths to the surface. “Does he even speak English?” a voice whispered from the back of the room. And then: “He doesn’t know what the Constitution is.”
A visible camaraderie seemed to exist among the board members, like the bonhomie that suffuses a religious congregation during services. But their good cheer seemed only to further infuriate the public attendees. After hearing from the treasurer, Israel Bier, an ancient-looking Hasidic man with unraveling white payes and a long black coat, the board voted against requiring two people to sign every check. In the audience, a woman whispered loudly, “You see, now just he gets to sign all the checks.” But this was a quiet meeting compared to some. In 2009, one of the school board’s hired attorneys, Chris Kirby, called a parent a “fat cunt” and told her, “If I were married to you, I would fucking blow my brains out.” (“You’re not man enough,” she answered back.)
A deep rift has opened among citizens who live in and around Spring Valley and share the East Ramapo School District: On one side are Orthodox Jews, including many Hasidim—a subset of Orthodox Jews who follow rabbinic dynasties. Their children make up the majority of the 22,000 private-school students living in the district and attending private schools. On the other side are, mainly, African Americans and Haitian and Latino immigrants, whose 8,000 children attend the district’s public schools. In 2005, taxpayers voted in enough new board members that the board became and has remained a majority Orthodox. Starting in 2009, when the board made significant cuts to student programming—including cutting athletics, arts and drama clubs, as well as counselors and administrative staff—the rift turned into an all-out war. Locals have condemned the board’s sales of public schools, saying the appraisals are too low, and have complained that the board has spent money on schoolbooks with religious content and that it has used up the district’s reserves. The board is accused of using public funds to pay private-school tuitions for Orthodox special-needs children. Some public-school parents have sued, assisted by a pro-bono law firm, Advocates for Justice.
The media have generally adopted the public-school community’s criticisms of the Orthodox community and school board. Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools,” and the New York Times accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board” of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” The Journal News, a local paper, has been particularly critical of the school board. To the casual observer, East Ramapo looks a lot like a case of a white ethnic voting bloc shrewdly using its electoral clout, and some slick lawyering, to disempower poor people of color.
But what if the media got it wrong?
Some of the complaints are valid. One appraiser radically undervalued a public-school property that was being sold to a yeshiva (and he has been charged with a felony). A number of religious texts (80, out of tens of thousands) were found to have been paid for by the district. But a closer look at the situation in East Ramapo, based on visits and interviews conducted this past spring and summer, as well as on inspections of the local budgets and tax rolls, suggests that where budgetary problems exist, they exist across the county, not just in East Ramapo, and are largely the result of state laws, not any machinations on the part of cynical Jews.
East Ramapo’s towns, like Spring Valley and Monsey, are more densely populated than the surrounding villages—which the Times has called “Cheever-esque”—as well as younger and poorer. The discrepancy stems in part from higher birth rates among immigrants and Orthodox Jews. But part of it stems from the way some towns responded to the sudden influx of Orthodox Jews into their neighborhoods. In 1997, the Times reported that “the clash between cultures has been so intense that entire neighborhoods have seceded from Ramapo and formed their own villages.” Non-Jews and more secular Jews formed villages “to preserve the sparse Better Homes and Gardens ambiance that attracted them to Rockland County.”
Resources are tight in the school district, 78 percent of whose students qualify for free and reduced lunches. The district has two main funding sources—property taxes and state aid. Both have taken a hit in recent years. According to the superintendent, state budget cuts started to hit in 2009—the same year as the programming cuts—eventually adding up to $45 million over five years and devastating the district’s pockets. In 2011, Albany imposed a tax cap that said districts could raise property taxes by no more than 2 percent in any year.
But funding cuts are not the only reason East Ramapo is facing financial difficulty. State and federal laws mandate that a district must provide certain services to every student, even those in private school. These services include transportation, textbooks, and, when needed, special education. The state reimburses the district for these services, but it also expects the district to pick up some of the burden, determined by a complicated funding formula. This formula has determined that East Ramapo will only be reimbursed 70 percent for transportation costs, which in another district might not be such a heavy burden. But because of its huge religious population, East Ramapo has 22,000 private-school students whom it must, by state law, transport to school, at a total cost of $33 million, of which the district’s share is $10 million. Another major private-school burden is special education (which we’ll get to in a moment). In total, the private-school community costs the district a quarter of its $200 million budget.
But even a modest estimate of the property taxes paid by Orthodox Jews is above the $50 million the private-school community costs the district, which includes some parochial school children besides Orthodox Jews. Their presence in town is surely a net gain for the school coffers. Nevertheless, the rhetoric that abounds in East Ramapo is that the Orthodox Jews are stealing money from the public schools for their special-needs children. There’s no question that the public-school children of East Ramapo aren’t getting the education they deserve, but their Jewish neighbors don’t deserve what they’re getting, either—all the blame.
I met Ebony Thompson while she was browsing DVDs in the Finkelstein Library, on Route 59, on the border between Spring Valley and Monsey, two of East Ramapo Central School District’s towns. The library is one of the few establishments in Ramapo where you will find children from both the public-school community and the private-school community milling about. One muggy afternoon in June, a man wearing a velvet yarmulke and showing payes read the New York Times on the second floor, while teenage girls in tight jeans and sparkly sneakers giggled and chatted in Spanish in the foyer. A Haitian woman picked books for her son, who has Down Syndrome.
Thompson, who is black, has lived in Spring Valley for 43 years. She went through 12 years of schooling in East Ramapo Schools, and now her 17-year-old son attends Ramapo High School. Thompson, whose hair was braided on one side and fell neatly on the other side, told me quietly that the schools have changed drastically since she attended them. “Our board is a mixture of people who don’t represent us,” Thompson said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. Being that way, it does not help with our children.”
Thompson’s complaints include a shortage of supplies, which she blames on the private-school community’s needs. “I don’t pay taxes to provide other children with supplies,” she said. “That bothers me.” She also complained of the cuts to programming and staff. She said the school she had attended and the school her son attends, though nominally the same school, are not comparable.
Thompson is also bothered by the rental of public-school buildings to private schools in the summers. “What’s going on with the Chestnut Ridge Middle School [is] the Hasidic children are using it for the summer. They’re installing a temporary pool, and I just find that to be preposterous. That’s the best way I can say that.” (Others seem to have agreed. The pool was slashed a few months ago.) Though the rental of schools to Orthodox summer camps provides additional revenue to the school district, it seemed to symbolize for Thompson the use of resources for a community she didn’t feel were entitled to them.
“I don’t want to blame it all on them,” she said, referring to the school board or perhaps to the Orthodox Jews who elected them. “I want to blame it also on our community, because we don’t vote. And they have bloc votes. They come in and they vote, in droves. And what are we to do? They basically have taken over our board, they’ve taken over our schools, our children.”
Everyone I spoke to at the Finkelstein Memorial Library who had children in the public schools echoed the same complaints: Massive cuts to arts and athletics programming, as well as staff and counselors, had radically downgraded the quality of the schools in the district. And when I asked who they thought was to blame, the answer was unanimous: the school board. “I’m not making this up,” said one woman, a mother of four. “It’s in the papers.”
‘They basically have taken over our board, they’ve taken over our schools, our children.’
I also spoke with Willie Trotman, the president of the Rockland branch of the NAACP, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in Rockland County since 1983. He grew up in Quincy, Fla., where as a child he drank from “colored” fountains. And I spoke with Oscar Cohen, who worked for many years at the Lexington School for the Deaf and is now the education chair of the NAACP; he wore a North Face fleece over a frayed polo shirt, sandals, and socks. The three of us met for tea in Cohen’s home abutting a creek in Chestnut Ridge, which incorporated its way out of the Town of Ramapo in 1986.
“What has built up over time is a significant distrust and dislike both ways, the school board toward the community and the community toward the school board,” Cohen said.
“Mine may be a little bit more profound than distrust,” Trotman admitted.
Cohen conceded that all eight school districts in Rockland County have experienced budget cuts, but he says that none of the other seven have seen anything like the cuts that have occurred in East Ramapo. “The majority of the board became members who are from the Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox community,” Cohen said, and he believed this resulted in “the unequal treatment to the children of East Ramapo, 90 percent of whom are children of color.”
Cohen believes that because few Orthodox children go to district schools, their parents don’t want to raise taxes for services. They would rather strip the schools of their extracurricular programming. “So, the marching band, for example, the director—who is the winner of awards galore and for whom a couple of hundred children would come to school, because they want to be part of this experience—is terminated, and then the very next week is hired by Nyack, and now Nyack is winning all the awards. You say, so what’s a marching band? Why is that important? People aren’t becoming brain surgeons. It’s a tremendous incentive, especially in poor communities. So, you know, compound that by a hundred times, a thousand times, and you see there’s a serious impact and deficit.”
But the other districts have found themselves similarly strapped. For example, nearby, the North Rockland Central School District also sustained substantial cuts in state funding. They had to cut between 60 and 70 positions and increase class size to 30 students per teacher. Cash-strapped Clarkstown has had to dip into municipal reserves, to the tune of $11 million, to maintain staff and programs. All of these districts could have raised taxes more than 2 percent with a super-majority vote—the state tax cap allows for that exception—but none of them did. All of them made drastic financial decisions, and none decided to solve their problems with an unusually large tax hike. Not one of 53 school districts in Rockland, Westchester, or Putnam Counties voted to raise taxes above the tax cap. And yet, in 2010, when the highly organized Orthodox bloc voted down a budget with a 10 percent tax increase—well above the tax cap—they were accused of “depleting the resources of the already-strapped East Ramapo schools.”
Oscar Cohen has another bugbear: special education. For critics of the new school board, special education has become a major point of irritation. According to Superintendent Joel Klein (not the former New York City schools chancellor), the Orthodox community’s special-needs population is smaller, proportionally, than that of the public-school community (Klein chalks this up to genetic testing that young Orthodox couples take prior to getting married). Private-school children make up two-thirds of the population of the district, but they represent only one-third of the special-needs community. Five hundred children receive special-education services in their private schools—again, a service that the state forces the district to provide and does not reimburse (the state reimburses only after the district has spent $46,000 per student, which it doesn’t for these children). The total cost to the district for these services is in the vicinity of $5 million. The district also provides special education to its public-school population, for a cost of $33 million for 1,500 students (some of these are Orthodox Jews who have not been approved for private-school special education). It pays for 200 students to attend public school outside the district, for a total of $17 million, and it pays tuition for around 40 students to attend private special-education schools for a total of $3.7 million.
Orthodox kids are hardly the bulk of the special-ed caseload. So, what’s the problem? The law mandates that, to the largest extent possible, special-needs children must be mainstreamed with non-special needs children. A committee makes a recommendation as to which school places the special-needs child in the least restrictive—most mainstream—environment possible. Often, this will be a public school. But if parents do not like that recommendation, they can appeal to the state. If the state officer finds with the parents, the child may go to the school of the parents’ choice, and the district picks up the tab for tuition and the parents’ lawyers’ fees. But if the officer finds with the district, the child must go to the public school the district recommended or pay for private school themselves.
According to Cohen, this process changed radically when the board became a majority Orthodox. Cohen said that one of the first actions of the new board was to fire their attorney of 30 years and hire Albert D’Agostino, a lawyer from Lawrence, Long Island, “whose reputation was based on getting special-ed Orthodox children into yeshivas at public expense,” according to Cohen. D’Agostino did not respond to my request for an interview. Then, Cohen says, the board started referring special-needs Orthodox children to religious schools. “It’s our belief they were all white, and so that’s another aspect of the complaint, is that they were segregating children,” Cohen said.
“Well, we’ve sort of proven that separate and equal doesn’t work,” Trotman said, with a laugh.
The complaint of segregation has been followed up by a lawsuit, brought by Advocates for Justice, a pro bono law firm. Attorney Laura Barbieri came out of retirement to try this case after hearing about it from an old friend at a high-school reunion. “I see a very big disparity between the children who remain in the system and those that are being sent out of the system, and the type of education that they’re getting,” Barbieri said. “And so the minority black and Hispanic children that remain in the district are not getting the education that they deserve. And I see this as a fight of David and Goliath, because this is 8,000 children versus 24,000 children who are in the private-school system, and the money is going to support the private schools, in my view, unlawfully.” She believes that the board and the school administration are conspiring “to send children with special needs to private schools, which are religious private schools, at the expense of the public.”
Like Cohen, Barbieri locates this conspiracy in the board’s practice of settling with, rather than litigating against, parents who wish to contest their children’s school placement. The board has contended that doing things this way is cheaper, but Barbieri said that the real motive is religious preference.
“Clearly, if parents want to send their children to religious school, they should, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Barbieri said. “I sent my children to Catholic school. I believe in parochial-school education. But I paid for it.” (Her children are not special-needs.)
One of the 450 parents represented by Barbieri is Emilia White, a day-care provider from Haiti, who moved to Spring Valley in 1986. I met White at the July 1 board meeting, where she was one of seven parents and taxpayers in the audience. She got involved in the school-board controversy in 2007, she told me, when someone called her husband, Steve White, and asked him to come to a school-board meeting. Concerns had arisen among parents: Teachers were complaining about a lack of supplies; during off hours, a Jewish group was using the Elmwood Middle School, and there was concern among parents that the Jewish group hadn’t been fingerprinted, as the law requires, White said. A parent was passing around a petition to voice her concerns; she had been brushed aside by the board and was looking for support from the community.
“I started videotaping the stuff because I wanted to let other people see the disregard the board had for people,” White said. “Students would talk about how important sports was to them, and clubs, and music, and we wanted to make sure the people knew what was going on in the school.” White said the board would call parents liars.
When I asked White why she thinks all of the cuts were being made, she answered simply, “A change in governance.” She explained: “Before 2005, we had Jewish people on the board, but I don’t believe it was Hasidic individuals. The Jewish people on the board cared about the students. They genuinely were there because they wanted to be, and they cared about every student. And their priorities were to educate the children, not to keep them from getting ahead, or keep them from getting an adequate education. So, we had people from different walks of life in East Ramapo on the board. But 2005, 2008, we started getting people who seemed to want to ignore the needs of the students, and education isn’t a priority.”
When Advocates for Justice got in touch with White and her husband, she was elated. “My heart skipped a beat,” she recalled. “I said, Wow. Thank God. Because, the whole time some of us parents have been saying, we need help, we need somebody to do something about what’s going on. We’ve had people on the board calling us anti-Semites, calling us miscreants.”
I asked White if she was anti-Semitic, and she laughed. “No, no,” she said. “I’m far from an anti-Semite. And it bothers me when people, when board members, when the public use that word, because that’s a strong word that shouldn’t be used to scare somebody, you know? It’s a scary enough word. When you think of anti-Semitic people, it’s—thousands of people died because of people who were real anti-Semites. So, when instead of facing a problem, you’re calling somebody that to scare people, you’re making the force of the word less.”
Many of the board’s critics, like White, clearly are not anti-Semites. But Cohen and Trotman said that anti-Semitism actually is a growing problem in the community. “I think what is happening because of the tension and the distrust is that there is a growing feeling among the non-Orthodox community of anti-Semitism,” Cohen said. Trotman said that only the most sophisticated residents distinguished between being against the Orthodox school-board members and being anti-Semitic. “I think it’s going to be pretty devastating,” Trotman said. “I think it’s going to come to a serious head.”
Of the 15 or so women I stopped at the Evergreen Kosher Market, further into Monsey on Route 59, many said they didn’t know enough about school issues to offer opinions. Every one of them said she voted and that a male in their lives, a husband or a brother or a brother-in-law, told them how to vote. And a few women insisted that they, not public-school parents, were the oppressed ones.
“We get the short end of the stick,” said a Hasidic woman who declined to be named. She was wearing a dark wig and a long-sleeved shirt and was having coffee with a friend in a new café in the Evergreen shopping center. “We pay taxes like everyone else, but they keep cutting our busing. We’re funding the public schools, and our kids don’t benefit at all.”
“The public schools would collapse if we enrolled our kids!” her friend said. “We’re not asking for a free ride.”
‘When instead of facing a problem, you’re calling somebody an anti-Semite to scare people, you’re making the force of the word less.’
Later in the afternoon, I met a Hasidic woman, wearing a small hat atop her wig, who was having coffee and cheesecake with her mother and sister. The woman was angry about the sale of a school, or rather, the lack of sale. Her son’s yeshiva had been renting a public school that had been closed. The yeshiva, which was overcrowded, was trying to buy its building from the district for what the woman said was fair price. “For $6 million, and they’re not even letting us buy it! Fair would be, in a community where we pay 90 percent of the taxes, if we want to buy a school and we are offering to pay … be fair,” she said.
The woman said that she did not resent paying taxes to a school system her children did not attend (I asked how many children she had, and she smiled and said, “Quite a few.”) “I can say, I need to give to the public school,” she said. “I understand the American mentality, to support immigrants—”
“To keep them off the streets,” her mother interjected.
“To keep them off the streets,” she agreed. “But it should be fair.”
“We’re filling up their pockets,” her mother said.
I asked her mother if she votes on the budgets. “You better believe it.”
“About five, six, seven, eight years ago, the community took a new approach of placing community members on the board,” explained Yehuda Weissmandl, the board president, who is a real-estate developer. We sat in the hallway after the school-board meeting, and he paused to listen as a parent shouted at Superintendent Joel Klein in the foyer. “I was approached actually for a number of years by various members of the community to throw my hat in the ring, but I wouldn’t hear of it. Then as communal pressure grew, I gave it some serious thought and I thought I could make a difference.”
Weissmandl believes he has made a difference, but not quite the difference he was hoping—after all, there was a shouting woman downstairs. “Stuff like that,” he said, referring to the woman. “I have not been very effective in fixing that problem. But where I have been effective is in taking down the rhetoric, taking the steam out of the battle, by changing the tone, by focusing on the positives, on going forward, making things happen.” The budget is balanced, and programs are being put back. “We’re heading in a great direction.”
At the meeting we had just attended, Klein also announced some extremely good news: His office had procured a grant that would enable the district to bring back all the clubs that had been cut, including freshman and middle-school sports, and he hoped art and music at the elementary schools. The board applauded the announcement. “We’re going to reach out to as many people as possible, so when we bring this back, it’s as transparent as possible,” he said.
The Orthodox community didn’t vote only Orthodox board members in. Pierre Germain moved to the United States in 1984 from Haiti. He was elected to the school board last year, after a friend suggested he get involved in the school district.
“The Jews wanted me to win because they liked my approach better,” Germain explained. We met in the skeletal construction site of a new medical office where Germain was working as a contractor. “My approach was, you guys from Israel, you left Israel to be here, and obviously you’re not going to leave here to go back to Israel. We the Haitians, we left Haiti to come here, obviously I’m not going to go back to Haiti, I’m gonna live here. So, due to the fact that we’re both in the community, we might as well get together and work together.”
Germain was wearing a yarmulke with American and Israeli flags on it. “When you work for them, you gotta dress like them!” he joked. I told him a lot of “them,” as anti-Zionist Orthodox, are not fans of Israel, and that they don’t hail from the Middle East. He was very surprised, as was I that none of the constituency who voted for him had bothered to point this out.
Germain says that the year he ran, there was a lot of controversy, which is why no Orthodox candidates ran for the school board. “Because in that case, there would be like, nine Jewish members!” Germain said, laughing. “To avoid nine Jewish members. That’s why they call us the puppet of the Jews, me and Bernard Charles”—the other non-Jewish board member.
I asked if specific rabbis endorsed him, and Germain said, “I cannot tell that, that’s my secret. Why you want me to tell you my secrets?” But he knows he got the Jewish vote, because all three candidates endorsed by the Orthodox community got the same amount of votes—8,000. “I made 8,900 votes,” he said, and laughed. “And I know 8,000 come from the Jewish community.”
Only about 900 of his votes came from the Haitian community, he believes, which he got by standing outside a community center on election day and shaking hands. “One thing I know about my folks—they love complaining,” Germain told me. “The black community, we love complaining, but we refuse to participate. And I said, well, the only way to change any outcome, you need to participate.” Germain says he isn’t a puppet. “It’s just a question of morality. Are you helping the students or not? That is not a question of being part of the Jews or part of the community. It’s ethics and morality.”
Germain said that he doesn’t agree with all of the board’s decisions, and he is vocal about those he does not support. At the meeting I attended, he confronted the board’s accountant, inquiring about the bank that handles the district’s $200 million account, demanding that that board look into other options. “They call me kick-ass already,” he laughed.
“I’m supposed to be the most hated man in East Ramapo,” Bernard Charles, the only African American on the board, told me when I caught up with him on the phone. “I haven’t joined anybody. I was elected to the board. I’m the only board member who has children in the district, so I’m not betraying anybody. I have the same interests as everybody else. I’m doing what I have to do for all the children, the public-school children and the private-school children.”
The lawsuit against the school board alleges that once the board had an Orthodox majority, it began settling, rather than litigating, appeals from parents whose special-needs children did not get placed in the school they wanted. Joel Klein, the superintendent, argues that this is not an explicit policy at all, but rather consistent with the school board’s practice of following federal law, which encourages the district to settle with parents unhappy with their placement by making the district pay their lawyers’ fees if they end up in litigation.
While the lawsuit has called the method of settling a conspiracy to send children to private religious school, the school most parents desire is not even a private school, but a public school: the Kiryas Joel Union Free School District, known as KJ. The price of that school is set by the state at $74,341 a year per pupil, but the East Ramapo School Board has negotiated a special rate of $72,500, a price comparable to the cheapest public-school option available. The other school that parents often request is the Rockland Institute for Special Education, known as R.I.S.E., which costs $26,000 a year.
Former Board President Daniel Schwartz was elected to the school board in 2011 and resigned after two highly contentious years. While on the school board, Schwartz spent an average of 17 hours a week on district business, he said. I met Schwartz for lunch in Monsey at the kind of kosher place that serves sushi and pizza. Schwartz, a lawyer who lives in New Hempstead (which is also in East Ramapo Central School District), wore a suit and a straw hat; he is Orthodox but not Hasidic. I asked if he had any regrets about his administration.
“In retrospect. I could have been a little more genteel with people,” he said. “I could have been a little less ham-fisted some of the time on some of the issues. The mistake that I made was, I played the game by their rules, instead of by mine.”
But Schwartz said the new special-ed policies are win-win. “No. 1,” he said, “you are actually satisfying the needs of the families, OK? Which in my opinion, in a special-ed situation, really has to be the first and foremost consideration. … There’s a level of rachmanes”—compassion, mercy—“beyond empathy which in my opinion has to be shown. No. 2, there was a cost savings, in terms of the actual costs. No. 3, we reduced or removed a tremendous amount of acrimony, which comes at a financial cost as well.”
The parents’ lawsuit alleges that cost is not supposed to be taken into account when determining the placement of a child; according to the law, known as IDEA, for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, only the child’s handicap and a preference for the “least restrictive environment”—or most mainstreamed option—may be considered. As Oscar Cohen put it, “The point is that IDEA doesn’t talk about saving money. It talks about the needs of children with disabilities and least restrictive environment and what’s a FAPE”—Free and Appropriate Public Education—“so saving money may very well be a red herring.” In December 2012, James P. DeLorenzo, assistant commissioner of the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, wrote a letter to the district making similar claims, in which he argued that the board’s practices with regard to settling special-education cases were not in compliance with federal and state laws regarding Least Restrictive Environment.
But the board is challenging the Department of Education over the letter. In a response to the letter in an Albany court, and later in an appeal, the district’s lawyers argued that federal and state law mandates resolution sessions between parents and the board and encourages school districts to resolve their disputes with parents rather than go through a lengthy and costly litigation process. “The Commissioner believes that the District’s compliance with federal law somehow violates federal law,” states their appeal, with the emphasis.
The board is not alone in contesting the Department of Education’s understanding of the law. According to a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in March, the requirement to mainstream children in the least restrictive environment “was aimed at preventing schools from segregating [disabled] students from the general student body,” but not necessarily “to restrict parental options when the public schools fail to comply with the requirements of the [IDEA].” (Again, emphasis is original.) In other words, schools have to try to mainstream children whenever possible—but parents are entitled to latitude to opt out of mainstreaming.
To understand why a parent might choose a more restrictive, less mainstreamed environment for her child, I spoke to Shoshana Rothman, the wife of board member Yonah Rothman. The Rothmans’ 6-year-old son, Yossi, has Down Syndrome and was born with a hole in his heart. He had to undergo open-heart surgery when he was 8 weeks old, during which time he had a stroke and lost much of the mobility in his right side.
“Having a special-needs child in your house is a day-to-day uphill battle in and of itself,” Rothman explained to me on the phone. “Once you’ve gotten past the emotions of having this child—every single day, every single minute, you’re dealing with this child—and on top of it, not having the security of knowing I can send him somewhere I’m comfortable, it adds a whole other layer to parents who are already suffering.”
She recalled what happened in 2011, when she tried to get the district’s Committee for Special Education to approve her son for a school she felt would be conducive to his development. She went to all the public-school options and felt that they couldn’t provide what she was looking for. When she visited Kiryas Joel, the out-of-district public school preferred by many Orthodox parents, she was impressed. “They had bells and whistles!” she exclaimed. “Child-sized treadmills, trampolines, an entire room filled with balls, adaptive bikes.”
But when she spoke to the other mothers, “It was pretty much, ‘Good luck getting into KJ. If you do, you struck gold.’ Even if you get in, every year, you have to start all over again.” Change is very hard on Yossi, Rothman said. For the first four months, “He’s just adapting and adapting and not growing. It takes him four months to adjust, and all the while he is resisting therapy. There are so many layers to a special-needs child,” she explained. “The people making these decisions have no clue. The minutest change can offset such trickle-down effects.”
And under the old system, parents had to go through the process with the Committee for Special Education every year, never knowing for the following year where their children would be enrolled and whether they would be losing another four months of therapy.
Shoshana Rothman was lucky—largely as a result of her due diligence and her ability to prove that the public schools couldn’t offer Yossi what KJ could, the Committee for Special Education approved KJ. But after a year, an even more attractive option presented itself.
One day in June, Superintendent Joel Klein accompanied me to Elmwood Elementary School, where we met with Principal Nancy Kavanagh. She has spearheaded a program that would seem to give something to parents on all sides of this issue: a bi-lingual program for Yiddish-speaking special-needs children. Rather than busing these children to Kiryas Joel, the district decided to try to give them the education they need in-house. Klein says he is saving $30,000 per student on busing alone. The program has succeeded in accommodating the needs of the 14 children enrolled. Next year, 36 students will be enrolled. One of the 14 is Yossi Rothman. “In a very short time, it’s become a complete success,” Shoshana Rothman said. “Parents are clamoring to get in. With time—we hope this will be the KJ of Monroe.”
‘It was a Latino guy who had hit an African American woman who had hit me: This is Spring Valley. This is Spring Valley!’
But her hopes might not come to fruition. Oscar Cohen, for one, is not satisfied. “They’re segregated,” he said of the special-needs children. “They’re in a part of the building completely separate from the rest of the building, and their children don’t mix with any of the children. Their teachers don’t mix with any other teachers. … Again, they have every right to segregate their children, but not at public expense.”
Laura Barbieri, the lawyer who is representing the class-action lawsuit, agrees. “You’re supposed to mainstream your kids as much as possible,” she said. “The fact that they don’t eat lunch with children who are not special needs, they don’t have gym with the children who are not special needs, they don’t get mainstreamed in any activities with the children who are not special needs—this is a violation of what’s called the Least Restrictive Environment, and this is, in our view, not in accord with the state requirements. So, we are concerned about that.”
“Even though those laws are supposed to protect these students, and this is what they”—the parents—“would consider in their best interest?” I asked.
“The mainstream is the law that protects their best interests,” Barbieri said. “These children are not being mainstreamed. They’re being segregated.”
“I guess what I mean is, they can’t, because of their law, eat with the rest of the students,” I said, referring to Jewish dietary restrictions.
“Exactly. That’s a problem.”
In other words, for the purposes of Barbieri’s suit, no special-needs child who keeps kosher to the extent of not being able to eat with other children is eligible for any public funds. The parents may wish to keep their children separate due to kosher laws, but Barbieri explained, “that’s not allowed in a public school.”
For many of the children in the Elmwood program, the question was moot. They wear their food in little brightly colored knapsacks which connect to their stomachs through feeding tubes. When I visited the classroom, a teacher wearing a black wig and a long black skirt was showing cards with colorful pictures and letters to a group of disabled children. “Tatty starts with T,” she said, tapping her finger to her lips. The children around her emulated her motion, though most had difficulty with the Yiddish word for father.
“It has actually been a terrific experience in more ways than we had anticipated,” said Kavanagh, the principal. “Beyond the things that you could anticipate it being, for example, kids become aware of students with disabilities, become more sympathetic, that kind of thing. Big kids get to work with little kids, all of those things you would anticipate being an outcome of this type of program.”
Kavanagh says that initially there was wariness among her staff at the idea of bringing in Orthodox teachers. “Because of all the politics of what goes on here between public-school staff and just, you know, them being embroiled or in the middle of anything,” she said. But everyone has been pleasantly surprised. “The teachers are absolutely phenomenal. They are so loving. And what we’ve come to understand is that familiarity piece, where we didn’t know much about a culture, we’ve come to have such respect for the Orthodox culture. It is quite amazing.” For example, Kavanagh told me, “They don’t gossip. I’m serious.”
“That’s a sin,” said Klein, the superintendent.
“It is a sin,” Kavanaugh reiterated. “They do not gossip. So, if you ask any of the teachers down there about a situation, they are very reluctant to speak ill of anybody. If they have an issue, they find a gentle, nice way to say it.” Another thing surprised Kavanagh. “They’re so easy to supervise because of their culture of respect for authority, respect for those who are supervising, respect for education. Whenever I have anything to do supervisory, there’s no argument about it, they do exactly whatever is asked of them, they’re interested, they have conversation around it, they’ll work hard. It’s just been absolutely phenomenal. And everybody has made an effort to be very friendly, very welcoming on everybody’s part.
“Like today, the kids came out and they participated in the carnival, but they couldn’t participate in the eating because of the kosher issue, so that’s fine. If we have a function with faculty, they’ll bring food that they’ve made or that is kosher so that everybody can participate. And it’s just become an enlightened kind of coexistence that we all are—you know, this is what it should be like, because this would dispel a lot of possible problems. If you allow people to get together, know each other, then you wouldn’t have the animosity that you would have.”
Harry Grossman, a “computer person” by trade, has been on the school board since February. He is Orthodox but not Hasidic. He wears a leather yarmulke and has a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. We met at his home in New Hempstead, one of those warm and busy homes you never want to leave. While we spoke, his son was making chicken in the kitchen, and his daughter showed me her salamander. He said he spends as much time in his volunteer work on the East Ramapo School Board as he does at his full-time job. And he disputes the narrative that the cuts to public-school programming were the result of policies of the Orthodox board. He notes that state funding dropped in 2009, when Gov. David Paterson introduced the “Gap Elimination Adjustment,” which cut $8.5 billion in state aid to school districts in order to help close New York’s $10 billion budget deficit.
The district’s only hope, Grossman believes, is for the state to change the formula. “It needs to take into account the expenses the district has in support of the private-school community when the formula only counts the public-school kids,” he wrote in an email. Instead of paying only 70 percent of busing costs, and nothing for private-school special ed—both of which the state mandates—the state should change the formula by which it determines East Ramapo’s reimbursement.
Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had Hank Greenberg, an Albany attorney and former adviser, appointed “fiscal monitor” to East Ramapo. Critics of the board were elated, but Board President Yehuda Weissmandl, in a scathing letter reprinted in the Journal News, wrote that Albany had acceded “to the demands of bigots.” Meanwhile, Klein told the paper, “I welcome it because we have nothing to hide.”
Despite all the acrimony, Grossman is hopeful for the future of Spring Valley. He told me that a few weeks earlier, he was driving home from the pet store, where he had picked up sand for his daughter’s lizard. He was stopped at a light when he heard a screech and a pop. The car two cars behind his had hit the car behind Grossman’s, and that car had hit Grossman. “And we all get out, and it was a Latino guy who had hit an African American woman who had hit me,” Grossman said. “I said, ‘This is Spring Valley. This is Spring Valley!’ ”
But on one of the days I was walking about town, an accident almost occurred when a car with two African American girls in it ran a stop sign and nearly collided with a cab driven by a woman who looked Eastern European and wore a shawl over her shoulders. The girls honked at the woman for a full 10 seconds when, after an initial hesitation, the cabbie took her right of way. As the cab passed in front of the two girls, one of them leaned out of her window and shouted, “Go back to your fucking country, bitch!”
So, maybe this was Spring Valley?
To listen to a Vox Tablet conversation with reporter Batya Ungar-Sargon, click here.