East Ramapo might have to fire dozens of teachers if the school district can’t find $9 million to pay the legal fees of NAACP attorneys for winning a voting rights challenge of the district in May, Superintendent Deborah Wortham said.
Wortham said “political, financial and practical” hurdles would need to be cleared to fund an award district attorneys say would be the largest ever in a voting rights case.
And if the money can’t be secured, Wortham said the district would be forced to consider cutting kindergarten, English, math and social studies teachers.
“If these or similar reductions were required, it would represent a significant reversal of the progress the District has made since I became superintendent in October 2015,” Wortham writes in court papers filed Monday in U.S. District Court in White Plains.
“I would strongly encourage the District to avoid such reductions by any possible means,” she added.
But lawyers for the NAACP questioned the timing of Wortham’s claims, saying the East Ramapo school board had an opportunity to settle the case before trial in a deal that would have spared the district legal fees.
And they say if a judge approves the $9 million award they would donate it to a nonprofit organization dedicated to the interests of public-school students.
“If we get the money we will use it through nonprofits to directly benefit the children,” said Andrew Clubok, an attorney with Latham & Watkins, which represented the NAACP, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“This board has shown they can’t be trusted with the money,” he added. “They’ll just give it to their own lawyers.”
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel sided with the NAACP in ruling that the district’s at-large method for electing its school board was unfair to Blacks and Latinos.
For more than a decade, seats on the nine-member school board have been dominated by Orthodox Jewish men, even though nearly all of the 11,000 students in the public schools are Black or Latino.
Seibel will decide in the coming weeks whether to grant the $9 million fee request by the NAACP lawyers or reduce the amount.
Any award would be in addition to the millions of dollars the district has already spent on its own lawyers to defend the district during more than two years of litigation — a total the NYCLU says has reached $7 million.
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“I find this memorandum deeply offensive coming from a school board that took more than $7 million out of public schools serving minority kids and to try to stop minority voters from electing any candidates of their choice to the school board,” said NYCLU attorney Perry Grossman.
Wortham submitted two pages of possible cuts that would need to be made if the district was ordered to pay the award out of its budget. In addition to teachers, several clerical positions would be eliminated as well as assistant superintendents.
Wortham is stepping down from the superintendent’s post in October to take a job with the Roosevelt Union Free School District, a post she held from 2013 to 2015.
The district is already facing steep financial challenges after district voters last month rejected a $247 million budget. As a result, the district was forced to cut another $2 million when it adopted a contingency budget.”
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