Sometimes Being Right – Is Wrong

East Ramapo is a school district where a lot of Orthodox families live. Most of it in Monsey, New York. Those residents send their children to private religious schools.  24,000 students attend religious schools there versus 8000 in public schools.

Back when the school board consisted of non Jews, many of those Orthodox families felt that that they seriously violated its obligation with respect to their own children. So they decided to get into politics. Orthodox Jewish candidates ran for seats on that board; the community was encouraged to vote;  and the overwhelming majority of votes went to those Orthodox Jewish candidates. They now comprise the majority of that board. And now those funds are distributed more equitably as mandated by law. A law that says the following:

The school board is required by law to provide students in all the district’s schools, public and private alike, with textbooks and bus transportation; and to provide special education services to all schoolchildren in an educationally appropriate setting.

It is also true that this district is underfunded:

State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers. Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.

So that after these requirements are fulfilled, there is not enough money to support non mandated programs in the public schools. It of course stands to reason that when there are 24,000 students not in the public school system getting textbooks and the like, that they are in fact using up the majority of those funds. That has caused an uproar by parents of the public school children. They feel that the board has taken over and are spending public funds on themselves at the expense of the public school children.

This has not gone unnoticed by public officials. Many of them, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, sympathize with the protesting public school parents. The New York State Assembly passed a bill that would create a state monitor to over-see that board. One that would have veto power. That bill now awaits passage in the state senate.

This bill is vehemently being opposed by the school board and many of its supporters. But the bill has its share of supporters too. As it obviously did in the state assembly which passed it. Not only do legislator support it,  Uri L’Tzedek a left wing Modern Orthodox social justice organization has been vehement in its criticism of this board and have joined the fight to get this bill passed.

This is where things stand now.

Here is how I see it. I do not believe that the board did anything illegal. They were following the law. At least as far as allocating state funds are concerned. There are other issues that have been raised that may or may not have merit. But for the sake of argument, let us put those aside and focus on this issue.

I also understand the tremendous financial burden placed on tuition paying parents. Religious families that want to raise religious children have no choice but to have them educated in a religious school. Although there are exceptions, I think it is fair to say that in the vast majority of cases, children that attend public school have little chance to remain religious as adults.

It is also a well established fact that many religious schools run enormous deficits while at the same time squeezing every penny they can out of their parent body. So I can’t blame a board comprised of such parents using all legal means available to it to help alleviate that burden. If the state says they can spend public funds on textbooks for parochial school students – same as public school students, they are going to do that.

I want to be clear. I believe the men serving on this board are honorable people. They have taken time from their busy schedules to serve the public welfare. They are there only to protect the rights of their own community which they saw as being undermined. They had no intention to undermine the rights of others. They have tried to act in the best interests of all – with the limited resources they have.

But the optics are terrible. You have a school board that is primarily designed to service the public schools. And yet those schools are being undeserved because of the demographics of that community. Then there is the apparently unfair way of determining the amount of funds the state allocates.

I can’t really blame the public school parents feeling cheated, even though the school board has done nothing illegal. How is a public school parent supposed to feel when they see a school board that looks like the one in the picture above determining the fate of their children’s education? One might say that this smacks of antisemitism. I suppose it’s possible to some degree. But I don’t think it is entirely that. They see a very healthy parochial school system and an anemic public school system and they draw conclusions that may seem obvious even if they are wrong.

That said. I don’t like the idea of an oversight monitor with veto power. Because that undermines the democratic nature of an elected board. These people were elected democratically and ought to be able to function without someone looking over their shoulders ..with veto powers no less! This does not mean that the board shouldn’t be taken to task if they act improperly. But that is what courts are for.  A monitor with veto power effectively takes away the authority that board was elected to have.

Right or wrong, this is a huge mess that does not make Orthodox Jews look good. As I said, the optics are terrible. I would have preferred that Orthodox Jews not get involved in a system designed to mostly provide for public school students. If the community felt short-changed by the previous board, as I said, that’s what courts are for. That would have prevented this whole mess.

There are those that say doing it that way would have been a long drawn out and expensive process with no guarantee of success. I get that. But now that they have taken this road  (…a road that is as American as apple pie in the sense that anyone can run for public office and people can vote for whomever they choose) is the bad publicity really worth it?

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.