East Ramapo’s first school board election after a federal judge found the district violated the federal Voting Rights Act didn’t change the balance of power on a body sharply divided by race and religion. But public school parents believe the new election system gave them a stronger voice on an unusual board, where most members are strictly Orthodox Jews who rely on private schools. The public school parents are now pushing the state for additional actions.

“I’m hoping that it brings a sense of pride and representation,” said Ashley Leveille, a Black public school parent who was re-elected this week.

The Rockland County district, about an hour northwest of New York City, is infamous for its skewed demographics. About 9,000 students go to public schools, more than 90 percent of whom are Black or Latino. But nearly three times as many of the district’s children are enrolled in private yeshivas. 

For more than a decade, most of the school board members have been strictly Orthodox Jewish men. They steered more money to school buses, textbooks and special education services for private yeshivas. All the while, the board made drastic cuts to public schools - from laying off teachers and social workers to reducing kindergarten hours and gutting school supplies.

“It got so bad, at one point, children were coming home—little girls were coming home, saying ‘I don't go to the bathroom because there's no toilet paper,’" said Willie Trotman, president of the NAACP’s Spring Valley chapter.

Listen to Beth Fertig discuss the election with Sean Carlson on WNYC:

The Orthodox communities say they’re unfairly blamed for these funding cuts, especially when it comes to anecdotes like cutting toilet paper. They’ve pointed out that it’s legal to use taxpayer dollars for busing kids to private schools, and claim East Ramapo’s budget suffers because the state doesn’t reimburse their district enough money.

But the school board sets the budget priorities and Blacks and Latinos have had problems winning seats. The NAACP sued in 2017, and last year a federal judge found East Ramapo's election system violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Judge Cathy Seibel said the problem lay with the at-large voting system, in which everyone in the district voted on all nine candidates. She found this diluted the voting power of Black and Latino public school parents to elect a candidate of their choice, because the white private school parents could always outvote them. 

The district argued that there was no racial bias and that voters were merely lining up along policy differences, like whether to raise taxes. But Seibel rejected that argument.

“In the district, policies benefiting private schools or reducing expenditures on public education benefit the white community, and policies benefiting public schools or reducing expenditures on private education benefit the black and Latino communities,” she wrote. “Put differently, if the white community votes down a budget because the budget increases taxes, minority children lose access to services.”

Seibel also found evidence of a slating system, in which a few people of color were elected with the backing of white private school parents. Trotman said this prevented them from truly representing the public school parents because if they didn’t go along, they’d “be replaced during the next election."

The district lost an appeal last month and is now seeking a second appeal. It’s already spent millions of dollars on court fees. School board president Harry Grossman declined to speak to Gothamist/WNYC, citing the ongoing litigation. But in an email, he said “the district and the board will always follow the law and comply with legal decisions and will always make decisions that are in the best interests of the district, the children, the parents, and the taxpayers.”

The New Voting System

Last year’s court ruling required the district to create nine geographic wards for this month’s election, eliminating the prior system of at-large voting in which all seats were chosen by all voters. Three of the new wards are mostly Black and Latino areas. This assured they could elect the candidates of their choice. 

Leveille and Sabrina Charles-Pierre were re-elected after running against write-in candidates, and a third Black woman, Sherry McGill, won a seat for the first time by handily defeating an opponent. Two other Black candidates lost including incumbent Carole Anderson, who’s from a ward that’s mostly white.

A campaign flyer showing five Black candidates for East Ramapo School board

A flyer for the East Ramapo school board election

A flyer for the East Ramapo school board election

The election didn’t change the math because Blacks already held three seats. And the annual schools budget is still voted on by the entire East Ramapo community, which is when the private school parents consistently oppose tax increases.

But Chevon Dos Reis, a plaintiff in last year’s lawsuit, said she’s optimistic this election will lead to change. She said school board members will now only be accountable to the voters in their ward, without fearing they’ll be voted out by private school parents. And she said that can inspire confidence.

"People had stopped voting,” she said. “They stopped coming out to vote because they felt ‘What was the point? My vote doesn't count.’”

Dos Reis grew up in Spring Valley and has two children in the public schools. She ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2017, with a couple of other candidates. They wanted to meet with private school parents but she said they were told to go through two liaisons from the Orthodox community. “And the reason why it was done that way was because we were told that we were not going to be welcome in the private school sector,” she said.

This sharp division between the public and private school parents highlights uncomfortable tensions around race and religion in the East Ramapo district. A 2014 episode of the public radio program This American Life featuring the district included shouting matches and accusations of anti-Semitism. 

Today, many of those pushing for change refer to the “private school sector” or “private school parents” to avoid labeling people by religion. But the divide persists. 

“It’s not because we don’t like these people,” said Luis Nivelo, a public school parent, referring to the Orthodox communityJews. But he said it’s people on the board “who destroy our schools.”  And he said extra state funds that were allocated in recent years weren’t sufficient. “They give us a piece of cookies,” he said, adding “we deserve equality in education, because we are human beings.”

Parents and activists noted that East Ramapo’s students don’t have the same resources as children in other districts because of the way things are managed. For example, during the pandemic they didn’t receive tablets for remote instruction until the fall. Nivelo said his children had to use a cell phone and a laptop for online instruction until then.

Oscar Cohen, co-chair of the Spring Valley NAACP’s education committee, said he feels some positive changes can come from having school board members who don’t have to depend on the private school community’s support - even if they’re still a minority. “We believe it will affect the optics if these three members speak up, if they choose to,” he said. “The media covers all of these meetings. The [state education] commissioner knows what's going on here.”

But Cohen and others agree much more is needed. In 2014, Albany appointed an independent monitor for the East Ramapo district. Cohen said this followed lobbying by Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, which included leaders of all faiths. 

Additional state funds were appropriated. But the monitors still only had advisory powers. Their latest report notes the district still hasn’t restored hundreds of teaching positions lost since 2008, and also recommends anti-racism training. Academics are still struggling, with low test scores and just 65% of students graduating high school in four years in 2018-19 - compared to 86% for Rockland County overall. Cohen also said there are no social workers in East Ramapo’s schools, even though the district has more economically disadvantaged children than the other districts in Rockland.

Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, who represents Rockland County, said he has tried in the past to advance legislation giving East Ramapo’s monitors veto power and will do so again this year. But he said that won’t rectify what he called a “failure of democracy” in such an unusual district. Zebrowski said it’s time to change the budgeting process for East Ramapo.

“So that if a budget fails, cuts have to be considered across the board,” he said. “Not just on the side of the public school community, but they also have to be a possibility for the private school community so that everybody knows that it's important to pass a school budget.”

Zebrowski said he’s still exploring legislation. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the state’s education commissioner could also take steps such as ousting a school board, if it’s corrupt, and ordering audits.

The Spring Valley NAACP chapter and the NYCLU sent a letter last month to State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, calling for her to get more involved. The letter said positive reports by the monitors in East Ramapo “sweep the reality of 21st Century Jim Crow education under the rug.” It was signed by the NYCLU, students, local community groups, and education leaders.

State education department spokesperson Emily DeSantis said the letter is being reviewed, and said there will be a response. “Our monitors are working with district officials to improve financial stability, academic opportunities and positive outcomes for all students in the East Ramapo Central School District,” she said. “We have had, and continue to have, conversations with the legislative delegation representing East Ramapo about appropriate next steps.” 

Perry Grossman, senior staff Attorney in the NYCLU’s Voting Rights Project, who represented the NAACP in the lawsuit, said he believes last year’s ruling will set a precedent. Although East Ramapo is an extreme case, he said there are other districts in New York where school boards are controlled by a white majority - even though their students are mostly Black and Latino. 

“So hopefully this gives districts pause to consider whether they should be taking steps to expand equity in their democratic process to ensure that there is that minority accountability,” he said.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig. This report was filed for the Race & Justice Unit at Gothamist/WNYC.