A measure that would expand the powers of monitors in the segregated school district of East Ramapo passed the New York state legislature on Thursday, a year after a federal judge found that the school board’s election system violated the federal voting rights act.
The legislation would grant monitors the ability to veto or overturn a decision by the school board should there be a violation of the district’s academic and fiscal improvement plan.
The bill follows a federal court decision last year, where a judge agreed with the NAACP and found that East Ramapo's school board election system violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 due to “white-supported board members supporting policies that favor white students in private schools over minority students in public schools.”
A 2014 state monitor report also echoed similar findings, revealing that while the board directed more money, textbooks, and special education services to private yeshivas, public schools have experienced major cuts, with a number of teachers and social workers being laid off.
“Every kid in that district, whether you go to a public or private school, has a constitutional right to an education,” bill sponsor and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski said to Gothamist. “But we need to make sure that no matter who is on the board, that the public school students, parents, and all the folks associated with the public school district have a right to a seat at the table.”
One of those parents is Ana Maeda-Gonzalez, a 26-year old mother of three who grew up and lives in the East Ramapo central school district.
Maeda-Gonzalez has held on to a lingering fear that her children won’t have the same access and quality education that she once had available to her.
“We are suffering through a lot of injustice and also a Jim Crow-like education,” Maeda-Gonzalez, who runs a Facebook group called Union de Padres, or Union of Parents, of East Ramapo said. “Basically in a way we're being segregated from what the kids need money-wise to get a proper education.”
Maeda-Gonzalez pointed to the representation of the district’s school board, which is skewed across racial and religious lines.
In fact, she and many others believe that the school board is making the conscious decision to serve the district’s Orthodox Jewish community on a much greater scale than their Black and Hispanic peers.
“Not only that we're going through a very bad situation, it doesn't seem like the district cares about the kids of color and what they need in order to provide services,” Maeda-Gonzalez said. “Especially for kids who need help with their learning disabilities.”
The 2014 state monitor report found that of the 9,000 kids who attend public schools, 91% identify as Black or Latino, while 99% of the 24,000 private school students are white and go to yeshivas.
Despite this sharp divide within the schools, six of the nine current board members are Orthodox Jews. The board has held this majority for over a decade.
But some civil rights activists like NAACP Spring Valley president Willie Trotman say it wasn’t always like this.
“It was one of the top-notch school [districts] in the state of New York,” Trotman said. “There were people who moved from New York City and beyond to bring their kids to East Ramapo central school district.”
One of those success stories includes freshman U.S. Congressman Mondaire Jones, who cites his high school experience as a reason why he is where he is today.
“The education I received as a student in the East Ramapo central school district paved the way for me to attend Stanford University and Harvard Law, and now serve as a Member of Congress,” U.S. Representative Mondaire Jones, who graduated from Spring Valley high school in 2005, said in a statement to Gothamist. “But the deprivation of critical educational opportunities that we are seeing today in East Ramapo public schools is unacceptable.”
Trotman, who has been living in the area since 1982, said the failures of the school board have since caused some serious long-term ramifications.
“We call it Jim Crow education,” Trotman said. “There seems to be no effort in terms of ensuring that these kids get the same kind of opportunities, benefits, books and whatever they need in a timely fashion compared to other districts in the county.”
It was a result of those consistently discriminatory actions that prompted Dorothy Miller, a 73-year-old parent of a former district student that was once involved with the civil rights movement, to become a plaintiff in the case.
“I felt like it was a racial issue that they didn't value or feel like they had to be careful in some of the things that they did because you know, who cares, these are minorities,” Miller said.
In the end, the judge’s decision helped show the community that what was going on at the school board was indeed wrong in the eyes of the law.
“You know, people don't have a voice because of the way the elections are run,” Miller said. “But in the East Ramapo school district, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Now, the nine board members are divided into nine different districts - each with their own elections - instead of a county-wide vote. But problems still exist when it comes to the decisions made by the racially skewed school board.
And even though a monitor can note these issues, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) says that their recommendations are limited and regularly overruled by the board.
“The problem with the monitors is that they have no power; they have no authority to do anything but try to convince and mediate things that would identify problems,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said. “But they couldn't do anything; they couldn't step in on behalf of the kids to stop bad things from happening. And so bad things happened.”
While advocates believe that this measure passed in the legislature is not a final solution, it’s a step in the right direction. (The bill heads to Governor Andrew Cuomo next. His office says it will be reviewed; his state education commissioner Betty Rosa has expressed support for the legislation.)
“[Monitors] will have the power to intervene in school board decisions when they are not done according to the process and when they will hurt the kids,” Lieberman said. “It’s not enough, but it’s huge.”
But not all in the community agree with this approach.
“I think that this is the opposite of democracy,” public safety chair at the Rockland County legislature and former school board president Aron Wieder said. “If people have the right to elect their representative, there should not and there cannot be someone who is not democratically elected to override the ruling of the elected representatives.”
Wieder instead believes that state lawmakers should allow the new ward system to work itself out.
“In recent years, things have really toned down, especially now that we have a ward system,” he said. “We need to come up with solutions, real solutions, not a dictatorship.”
Still, public school parents and lifelong residents like Maeda-Gonzalez say when it comes to their kids, the time to act is now.
“My kids are being raised here and it’s just going downhill, it’s not getting better,” she said. “The education system isn’t giving them the same treatment as other schools and it’s just not right.”
Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email him at email@example.com reach out on Twitter @JGedeon1. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal, or otherwise, at 929-351-5374.