The East Ramapo Central School District sits on a fault line where religion, culture, race, ethnicity, ideology, and education policy collide. In the surrounding areas of Rockland County, just north of New York City, the Orthodox Jewish population has exploded as Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews have outgrown their enclaves in the five boroughs and moved to expanding communities in the suburbs. The resulting rapidly growing demographic change has impacted every aspect of life in the existing neighborhoods, including the make-up and management of the area’s powerful school district, which runs the public schools and provides mandated services to public and private school children in the District. Of East Ramapo’s nearly 33,000 school age children, more than 25,000 are from the Orthodox Jewish community, and virtually all of them attend private yeshivas. The school district’s 8,500 public school students are mostly poor children of color, including a growing immigrant population. There is no other school district like it.
Responding to the needs of families of private religious school students, several members of the Orthodox Jewish community in East Ramapo ran for and won a majority of seats on the public school board in free and fair elections. The victors wore yarmulkes; some had beards and payot; virtually none had children in the public schools, and none fit the historic profile of school board members. The political aims on which the new Board members ran included what should have been the non-controversial goals of controlling public school costs, reducing or maintaining local property tax levels, and ensuring that the education services that private school students are entitled to receive at public expense are provided by the school district. But that was not to be. Instead, the political backlash to the assumption of control of the school board by “outsiders” was immediate, outrageous, and unrelenting. The tension and ill will that developed among all involved led to bad behavior and regrettable outbursts on all sides, most especially at school board meetings.
A small, vocal group of local political activists, who generally oppose the expanding presence of the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, and many of whom ran for seats on the School Board but lost to the Orthodox Jewish incumbents, saw the electoral shift on the School Board as an opportunity. In an effort to force the sort of political change they could not win through the electoral process, they opted to use litigation as a community organizing tool. To that end, they recruited a public interest law firm that named itself “Advocates for Justice,” which worked with them to file a massive, sprawling, messy class action lawsuit against the school district and the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish members of the school board called Montesa v. Schwartz. The Montesa plaintiffs had absolutely no legitimate legal claims against the school board or any of its members. But that was not the point. The openly expressed intent of the plaintiffs and their sponsors was to use the lawsuit to unify, focus, and publicize the grievances of everyone in Rockland County who felt threatened by the encroachment and growth of the area’s Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish population, and who believed they were negatively impacted by that community’s political awakening.
We represented the School District and members of its Board of Education throughout that litigation. The Montesa case is over now because the plaintiffs and their lawyers, after forcing the district to bear the costs of years of discovery, motions practice, and appeals, have finally given up. To be clear: the case did not settle. Rather, notwithstanding their relentless bravado, finger pointing, and demonization of the Board and its Orthodox leadership, the case was abandoned because the plaintiffs at last admitted that there was no possibility they could prove any of their claims. Even after nearly four years of litigation, they had absolutely no evidence to support their headline-grabbing accusations, and recognized they were never going to find any.
While the filing of the Montesa lawsuit and the outrageous accusations that were made against the School Board members (who are all volunteers) was breathlessly covered in the local and national media with great detail and fanfare, the story of the litigation’s ignominious end and the vindication of the school board is not being told. We write this piece to tell a part of that story.
East Ramapo’s Cold Hard Budget Math
One of the main sources of political strain in East Ramapo is the district’s poor financial state. Although the financial condition of the district is now starting to look better, the district was in major distress in 2012 when the Montesa case was filed.
The Montesa plaintiffs used the ageless strategy of accusing Orthodox Jews of stealing money and wanting to hurt non-Jewish children. In their lawsuit, they claimed that the school board (through its Hasidic and Orthodox members) was deliberately defunding the school district and “diverting” money to private religious schools attended by Jewish children. These sensational accusations were uncritically accepted by local politicians and credulous State Education Department officials, all of whom were happy to shift responsibility for the district’s dire financial condition away from themselves to the Orthodox Jewish members of the school board. With few notable exceptions (including this publication), local newspapers and even national media outlets like NPR also uniformly accepted this click-bait narrative without bothering to confirm whether any of it was true. The accusations were all false, and demonstrably so.
The real reasons for the school district’s financial strain were obvious, and no fault of the school board. The core of the problem is that New York’s education policies and funding scheme presume that public school students will vastly outnumber private school students, as is true in nearly every other school district in the state. The balance between private and public school populations in East Ramapo is upside down: private school students outnumber public school students three to one. This wreaks havoc on the school district’s finances, because New York law requires public school districts to fund services for private school students with public money, notably busing, textbooks, and special education for students with disabilities, but the State provides little or no additional state funding for those services.
So, for one example, other nearby public school districts manage to provide state mandated free busing for the few dozen or so private school students in their districts without straining their budgets. But no other school district in New York is required to bus 25,000 or more private school students, like East Ramapo. None even is comparable.
Starting around 2007, the growing financial strain due to this demographic imbalance, combined with the effects of the global recession, inevitably led to school budget cuts. The same was true for nearly every school district in New York, though the consequences were far more pronounced in East Ramapo. There was no mystery in this; no vast conspiracy, secret motives, or Orthodox Jewish cabals. Anyone who looked at the school district’s incoming tax revenues and state education aid compared against the legally required spending on public and private school students could see why the budget was broken.
Special Education Confusion and Misinformation
Another source of conflict and confusion in the school district was special education. Activists circulated a rumor within the community—that was also asserted in the lawsuit—that the school board was using the veil of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) in order to fund yeshiva education for Orthodox Jewish children. According to the rumor, the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish school board members were holding clandestine meetings with Orthodox Jewish parents at which they would agree to illegally pay for Orthodox Jewish students’ private school tuition at taxpayer expense.
This rumor was nonsense, of course, and the school district maintained and produced carefully detailed files on every student in its special education programs that proved it. But even though the rumor was easy to refute, that did not stop anyone from believing it. Even the State Education Department accepted the slander as gospel. Indeed, with no factual basis, and at the behest of the plaintiffs in the Montesa litigation, the State Education Department ordered the school district to stop violating the IDEA by its purported practice of placing students in private schools when public school placements were available. The State Education Department never identified any rule or regulation the district violated; never identified any student who was improperly classified as having special needs; never asserted that any student received an inadequate special education; and never found that the school district spent money illegally or “diverted” funds to private schools. Rather, it appears from documents produced by the State Education Department in discovery that it acted in direct response to the unsupported complaints brought by the Montesa plaintiffs in their relentless accusations against the school board. While the State Education Department seems to have come around, and recently found the school district in full compliance with the IDEA, the school district has nonetheless sought to challenge this unfair treatment in the courts, and has been roundly criticized for expending funds to defend the propriety of its actions.
Like the school district’s budget, however, the special education situation in East Ramapo is not mysterious. In short, the IDEA requires the school district to provide special education services to all students with disabilities, whether they attend public or private school. The Committee on Special Education (CSE) prepares individual plans for over 2,200 students each year—the overwhelming majority of which relate to the 8,500 students in the public school system. In each plan, the CSE recommends where the student should attend school: in a public school; or in another public or private school which provides special services. Of the District’s 2,200 special education students, the CSE recommends private or out of District school placements for about 70 students, and less than two dozen challenges to CSE recommendations are filed each year.
If parents disagree with the CSE recommendation, the IDEA allows them to challenge their child’s plan or placement. IDEA also allows parents to place their child in a private school of their choice, and to sue the school district for tuition reimbursement. When a challenge is filed, the school district must appoint someone to meet with a complaining parent to try to find a compromise, in what is called a “resolution meeting.” If no agreement is reached, the school district must litigate the challenge through multiple levels of expensive hearings and appeals.
For this reason, the IDEA encourages school districts to work out compromises and settlements with parents of students with disabilities, which is exactly what the school district has done. These settlements have saved the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and have helped to preserve relationships with the parents of students with disabilities. And contrary to the activists’ and plaintiffs’ false accusations, the exact same procedures set out in the IDEA for resolving placement and services disputes are available to all parents of students with disabilities in East Ramapo. Jewish students got no special treatment.
The Montesa Litigation Ends with a Whimper
In their 2012 class action complaint, filed in the federal court, the plaintiffs and their lawyers accused the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish school board members of a host of improprieties including fraud, racial and religious discrimination, establishment of religion, and educational malpractice, to name a few. Among other things, the plaintiffs wanted to intimidate the Orthodox board members and hound them from elected office, and to deter other members of the “non-public school community” from running for the school board in the future. To that end, they sued the Hasidic and Orthodox Board members individually, and asked the federal court to order those defendants to pay millions of dollars for their alleged offenses.
The lawsuit was legally meritless from the very beginning. But a tolerant federal court helped the plaintiffs and saved their case from complete dismissal multiple times. The plaintiffs and their lawyers promised that they would uncover in discovery clear evidence to prove their accusations of illegal favoritism, fraud, and religious motives on the part of the school board members. And the court gave them very broad discovery opportunities to do so. But they found nothing. And when those efforts failed, the plaintiffs and their lawyers pursued other claims against the school district, its board members, and even its counsel, in close to a dozen other administrative appeals, governmental challenges and lawsuits. None worked. And after more than four years of hard fought litigation, including cases filed in both federal and state courts, two appeals to the Second Circuit, six separate administrative appeals filed before the Commissioner of Education, one Attorney General investigation, dozens of depositions, and millions of pages of documents produced, the plaintiffs found nothing to support their claims.
The school district’s decision to stand fast and defend the Montesa lawsuit and related administrative and state court challenges has now been fully vindicated. As the federal judge overseeing the Montesa case put it, “rather than this case going out with a bang, this case is going out with a whimper.” Montesa is not ending by settlement. No one is paying the plaintiffs or their lawyers a penny to walk away. There will be no concessions, and there are no admissions of wrong doing. The plaintiffs are just giving up. In exchange for the school board’s agreement not to pursue the plaintiffs and their lawyers for the costs of the wasteful litigation they began, the plaintiffs have provided full and unconditional releases to every defendant in every case they have commenced, and to the school district itself. With this broad guarantee, East Ramapo will be free from plaintiffs’ ongoing litigation threats for the first time in years.
The School District has achieved an unconditional victory. Despite the unmistakable influence of negative and unfair media attention, the federal trial court rejected nine out of ten of the plaintiffs’ claims at the outset. Though the case began with some 420 individual plaintiffs complaining about the imaginary offenses of School Board members, over time it was established that all but about 20 of them had virtually no understanding of the litigation or what they had become involved with, and they either dropped out or were thrown out by the court. Finally, the federal Second Circuit court of appeals rejected the basic premise of the plaintiffs’ case, holding that their dissatisfaction resulted from “being enmeshed in an underfunded school system,” not from any discrimination or improper religious motivations of the school board. Even the plaintiffs now accept what we have maintained from the very beginning: their accusations against the school board were wrong.
Things are looking much better today in East Ramapo than they were in 2012. But while education policy problems are manageable with funding tweaks from the State, the underlying culture conflict in East Ramapo is not so easily fixed. Work must be done within the community to ensure that nothing like this damaging, harmful, and ultimately fruitless litigation ever happens again. The growing Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish population in East Ramapo is a fact of life that is not going away. But that need not be an unending source of conflict in the school district.
In a relatively short period of time, the leadership of the new Education Commissioner Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Rosa has helped the school district achieve a dramatic turnaround. And, notwithstanding the years of accusations and ill will, the Board itself, and its leaders, have gone out of their way to be open, accommodating and cooperative with communal leaders and the Education Department without compromising core beliefs and principles upon which they were elected. That spirit of mutual cooperation has borne fruit: the District has received new state financial assistance, which has enabled the restoration of programs cut during the financial crisis, like art, music, and full day kindergarten. Without the foreboding shadow of litigation, and without the baseless charges of impropriety and other hateful accusations, the school board can look forward to working respectfully and cooperatively with parents, educators, the State Education Department, and all people of good will who share the goal of achieving a better future for East Ramapo and all of its students.
Related: The Blame Game
David J. Butler and Randall M. Levine, are partners, and Stephanie Schuster is an associate, at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.