A letter raises questions about if district lawyers and board president Harry Grossman shared details of the settlement offer with the board’s two black members – Ashley Leveille and Charles-Pierre
“Black members of the East Ramapo school board were effectively shut out of settlement talks that could have headed off a month-long trial over a voting rights challenge by the NAACP and saved the cash-strapped district millions of dollars in legal fees, the New York Civil Liberties Union says.
NYCLU attorney Perry Grossman, in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel, says the district turned down a settlement that would have waived the fees incurred by lawyers representing the NAACP during the two and a half years leading up to the trial.
The offer was rejected despite Seibel’s eleventh-hour attempt to get both sides to come to an agreement by inviting all the board’s members to a settlement conference on Feb. 10, the day the trial started in White Plains federal court.
Only four of the board’s nine members appeared.
Grossman’s letter also raises new questions about whether district lawyers and board president Harry Grossman shared details of the settlement offer with the board’s two black members – Ashley Leveille and Sabrina Charles-Pierre. Bernard Charles, a third black board member, resigned on Feb. 6.
“The exclusion from meaningful participation in settlement negotiations of Ms. Leveille and Ms. Charles-Pierre – the only two people of color on the board after Bernard Charles’ February 6 resignation – is yet another example of the marginalization of minority interests which lies at the heart of this case,” Grossman writes.
The Spring Valley chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the district in 2017, claiming its at-large method for electing school board members limits the participation of blacks and Latinos.
If Seibel rules against the district in the coming weeks, the district would be on the hook not only for its own legal fees but those incurred by attorneys representing the NAACP. Closing arguments will be conducted by telephone on Tuesday. The NAACP is being represented by the NYCLU and lawyers for Latham & Watkins.
The district’s legal fees have soared in recent years amid a series of pitched battles over how it spends public money. An investigation by The Journal News and Lohud.com found that the district spent $16 million in legal fees between 2012 and 2018. And in bond papers, the district said it expects to spend $1 million defending itself in this case.
Over the past decade, the nine-member board has been dominated by white, Orthodox Jewish men whose votes have favored the interests of private school students over mostly black and Latino public school students, the NAACP claims.
A 2014 state monitor’s report found the district increased spending to bus private school students to yeshivas even as the district was laying off hundreds of teachers and cutting funding for advanced placement courses at Spring Valley and Ramapo high schools. Graduation rates plummeted to 62 percent last year, down from 72 percent in 2008.”
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