Tension in a suburban New York school district is rooted in an unusual dynamic: The families who send their children to public schools are mostly Hispanic and African-American. The school board is almost entirely made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews who send their children to private schools and are bent on keeping taxes low.
"It's as if the board of directors of Coke only owned stock in Pepsi," said Steven White, an activist for the public schools.
Public-school parents accuse the board of the 9,000-student East Ramapo Central School District of cutting teachers, guidance counselors, art programs, all-day kindergarten and the high school marching band, while diverting public resources to favored Orthodox institutions.
Peggy Hatton, who co-hosts a radio program that features school issues, said, "It's just becoming impossible for our students to apply to colleges when the advanced placement classes are cut, the extracurriculars are cut."
How a public school district that's 57 percent black, including Haitian, and 29 percent Hispanic, came to be governed by ultra-Orthodox Jews is a case study in changing demographics and the power of democracy.
The district, 25 miles north of New York City in Rockland County, has been settled rapidly in
At the same time, public-school supporters are less organized; many are believed to be non-citizens who don't vote. And the area's older residents have also tended to vote against school budget increases.
At least seven of the nine board members are ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. A man and a woman who represented the public-school community resigned from the board in January, alleging intimidation by the rest of the board. Two men, one black and one Jewish, were appointed to replace them.
The stark division has led to a flurry of lawsuits and petitions, and New York State has intervened, blocking the sale of a public school building to a Jewish congregation and warning the board to change the way it uses public special education money for private schools.
While state law provides for a school district to pay some private school expenses, for transportation, textbooks and special education, the state alleges that East Ramapo has been too quick to move children—mostly Jewish children—from the public schools into special education schools run by the Orthodox. Each case funnels thousands of taxpayer dollars to the private schools.
The state is also insisting that the district balance its budget, which has an estimated $8 million deficit this school year. At a meeting Tuesday night, the board approved borrowing $7.5 million.
That meeting illustrated the apparent disdain each side has for the other. There seemed little in common between the board members, most in yarmulkes and black coats, and the onlookers, mostly from racial minorities.
About 20 residents shouted in protest, then stood and turned their backs on the board when it decided that in the future, students could address the board only at the end of meetings.
"You're not doing right by these children!" shouted Mae Davis of Spring Valley. "What about freedom of speech?"
Daniel Schwartz, president of the board, had complained that public comment has become insulting, and he said there's no requirement to offer it at all.
"I think there are people who want to be abusive to the board and when it starts we're not going to tolerate it," he said Monday.
Some parents have petitioned the state Education Department to remove the school board, a rare step. Department spokesman Tom Dunn would not comment specifically about East Ramapo, but said the commissioner has the authority to remove local officials "for willful violation of law or neglect of duty or willfully disobeying a decision, order, rule or regulation."
The board denies any wrongdoing. It announced at Tuesday's meeting that it is suing the state in federal court, seeking a judge's declaration that its methods for special education placement are legal.
"Nobody has done anything to deprive anybody of anything," Schwartz said. "The monies that are spent on private schools are state mandated just like the monies that are spent on public schools."
He says the district's problems stem from its being "a square peg"—a district that has about 9,000 public school children and an estimated 20,000 in private schools, almost all of them Jewish.
"You show me another district where at least two thirds, if not possibly more than that, of the total student population is private school as opposed to public school," Schwartz said in an interview. "You show me a district like that anywhere."
Similar patterns affected the school board makeup in Lawrence, on Long Island, but Dunn said Lawrence did not descend into similar problems. Lakewood, N.J., also has an Orthodox-dominated board and has experienced tensions.
Laura Barbieri, a lawyer with Advocates for Justice, which is suing the district on behalf of public-school parents and other taxpayers, said the board is catering to Orthodox parents who "do not want their children educated with children of color."
"Do I think racial discrimination is at the core of this? Yes I do," she said.
Schwartz dismisses claims that an Orthodox-dominated school board can't represent the public school interests.
"Men can legislate for women, women can legislate for men, white people can legislate for black people and black people can legislate for white people," he said. "I don't see where it makes any difference."
Asked if he felt anti-Semitism played a part in criticism of the board, he said only, "I can make my assumptions." Last year he said some critics were engaging in "an age-old anti-Semitic trope" that Jews were interested only in money.
He said money—"more money from the state"—is the solution to East Ramapo's problems. But state Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski said the division in the community is too deep for that to work.
"Public school parents have said, 'We don't want any more money.'" Zebrowski said. "They don't trust their own school board with additional money."
The Democratic assemblyman has proposed instead that East Ramapo be divided into two school districts, one for public schools and one for private schools.
"This is an unconventional situation and we need an unconventional solution," Zebrowski said.