The following was posted by Journal News engagement editor Nancy Cutler in the Sunday Journal News.
“When East Ramapo school board president Yehuda Weissmandl asked at a May 23 special meeting why the panel couldn’t vote immediately to put the exact same budget plan up for a June 19 revote, the jam-packed room erupted in approving claps and cheers.
That’s what most speakers demanded during the meeting at the district’s Spring Valley headquarters. Their pleas followed comments by an uncharacteristically sullen Schools Superintendent Deborah Wortham, who explained the nearly yearlong process of budget planning that included eight months of community meetings. “At the beginning, it was rough,” Wortham said. But as the months went on, she witnessed a true effort to construct a budget that would support the complex public school district where the overwhelming majority of children attend yeshivas, where fiscal and community strains have forced the state to appoint monitors in recent years, where budgets more often don’t pass than do.
The school board ultimately decided to put the same $155.8 million spending plan before voters June 19. A public hearing is slated for 7:30 p.m. June 5 at the district’s administration building, 105 South Madison Ave., Spring Valley.
Could the exact same plan that voters rejected on May 15 actually pass? There’s reason to be hopeful — it lost by a mere 614 votes, according to the district’s unofficial results. There’s also reason to be skeptical — one speaker at the May 23 meeting made clear that the private-school community wanted more.
Skipping over budget
The private-school community already demonstrated the power of their vote on May 15, by withholding it.
Voter turnout was low in all May 15 school elections, thanks to a raging rainstorm. But East Ramapo’s numbers tell a more complex story. More than a third of those who cast a ballot skipped the budget proposition.
More ‘non-mandated’ yeshiva busing
The 2018-2019 budget plan included sweeteners for various communities, including more music and art for public schools.
For the yeshiva community, the hook is always busing, which is only provided on days the public schools are in session because those are the only days for which the state will provide reimbursements.
The 2018-2019 budget plan includes an elaborate “flexible” busing plan that would allow yeshivas to choose four days of busing on days the public schools are off, in exchange for skipping four other days of bus service. District leaders believed this would be attractive to parents at some yeshivas who have to scramble to find a way to get their kids to school during public-school breaks.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia approved the plan, but originally said that if the budget failed on May 15, the plan would have to be scrapped. In a followup letter May 21, Elia made room for the flexible busing plan in a second version. But, she wrote, if the budget failed again on June 19, the district will revert back to the current transportation schedule.
Last year, Elia rescinded her approval of the 2017-2018 budget plan when she was alerted that the budget proposal included five days of non-mandated private-school busing. Subsequently, Elia let the district try to pass a budget that broke the tax cap and used the extra revenue to boost public-school offerings and restore up to 14 days of non-mandated busing for the private schools. That budget failed and a more modest proposal, absent extra private school busing, passed on a re-vote.
The failure of another budget plan despite a “flexible” busing deal will likely temper Elia’s interest in easing busing restrictions in the near future.
Budget success now focuses on turnout. Another failed budget would bring a contingency budgetthat could not increase this year’s tax levy,which would exacerbate the district’s fiscal struggles.”
Nancy Cutler is an engagement editor. Twitter: @nancyrockland
Read the full text of Cutler’s commentary here.