East Ramapo School District in Federal Court UPDATE. The Journal News February 29
“An Orthodox Jewish rabbi facing arrest for ignoring a judge’s order emerged from the shadows on Thursday to defend his behind-the-scenes role in choosing candidates for the East Ramapo school board.
And when Rabbi Yehuda Oshry’s testimony was over he sprinted from photographers waiting to take his picture outside the federal courthouse in White Plains.
That was after East Ramapo Central School District Superintendent Deborah Wortham tried to lead court spectators in a round of applause for coworkers but was shot down by the judge.
The last full day of testimony in a voting rights case that could alter the racial makeup of the East Ramapo school board had its share of unlikely surprises.
And for a few minutes the sideshow threatened to upstage the central question facing U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel: Whether the district’s method for electing school board members limits the participation of black and Latino voters.
It began when Wortham, under questioning by a district lawyer, was ticking off a list of the district’s successes during her nearly five-year tenure.
At one point she was asked to identify district administrators who posed with her for a picture that recently ran in The Journal News/lohud and with each name listed their personal achievements.
“Your honor, is that a cause for applause?” Wortham wondered.
“That doesn’t happen here,” Seibel responded.
“We could try,” Wortham persisted.
“I don’t think so, sorry,” Seibel said.
Earlier this week, Seibel held Oshry in contempt of court and issued a warrant for his arrest after he repeatedly ignored a subpoena from lawyers representing the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP who brought the voting rights challenge.
Oshry appeared contrite as he took the stand Thursday afternoon.
“First, I would like to apologize to the judge,” Oshry said.
“We’ll talk about that later,” Seibel said.
Oshry is an administrator for a private school in Rockland County who doubles as a matchmaker, pairing Jewish men and women for marriage.
“Thank you so much,” Oshry said when attorney Russell Mangas noted he’d successfully paired some 700 men and women.
Oshry admitted he’s worked behind the scenes in the campaigns of several Orthodox Jewish candidates for the nine-member board. His duties include collecting signatures to qualify candidates for a school board run.
“We did the signatures in one morning in the synagogues,” Oshry testified. “We did like 6 to 800 signatures in less than six hours.”
The NAACP, which is being represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Latham & Watkins, has identified Oshry and others as members of a “slating” organization dedicated to insuring that white or Orthodox Jewish men maintain a majority of the seats on the board.
They say white dominance of the board has led to school budgets that favor the interests of some 27,000 private school students ahead of the 11,000 public school students, most of whom are black or Latino.
The district pays to bus private school students to school and picks up the tab for their special education needs.
Oshry said his choice of candidates hinges on whether they support issues important to the private school students, like busing and special education.
And he said a candidate’s race had nothing to do with it, noting that he’s supported former board member Bernard Charles, who is black.
“I support him, too, and he’s not a Jewish person,” Oshry said. “He’s African-American.”
Lawyers for the NAACP say Charles was a “safe” or “token” candidate elected to the board with the support of white, Orthodox Jewish leaders in an effort to blunt criticism of their slating efforts. Charles has denied such a suggestion.
The NAACP wants to replace the district’s at-large voting setup, which allows all voters in the district to select candidates, in favor of a ward-based system, which they say would increase black and Latino representation on the board.”
Read the full coverage from The Journal News here.