“A federal judge is being asked to decide the NAACP’s challenge to how school board members are elected in the East Ramapo school district. Disagreements over funding inequities will be aired at trial
The question before U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel comes down to this:
Does the current method for electing the East Ramapo Central School District’s school board members limit the participation of black and Latino voters whose children take up most of the seats in district schools?
And, if it does, should the district revert to a ward-based system of voting, which could lead to more blacks and Latinos being voted onto a board that for years has been dominated by white, Orthodox Jewish men?
Seibel is slated to begin hearing testimony this week in a voting rights case that could upend May’s board elections when three of nine seats on the Rockland County school board are up for election.
But it’s the subplot that promises to fuel the drama of the 10-day trial.
After years of litigation, name-calling and the intervention of state monitors, this could be the first time the district’s stubborn disagreements over funding inequities that some say cheat public school students out of a full education will be aired at trial.
Unless both sides agree to settle the case.
In an eleventh-hour decision, Seibel asked that several board members attend a 2:30 p.m. conference Monday in White Plains, according to a letter filed by district lawyers.
If it doesn’t settle, testimony will likely begin Monday. Seibel will decide the case herself.
‘Trash all over the floor’
Waging the case are opponents of the current system, led by the Spring Valley chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which brought the legal challenge two years ago.
Their concerns have been voiced by Olivia Castor, a 2013 graduate of Spring Valley High School currently attending Harvard Law School after graduating cum laude from Harvard University in 2017.
During her time at Spring Valley, Castor, 24, led student walkouts over budget-related cuts to honors courses and sports teams and the deteriorating physical condition of schools.
“The bathroom doors were completely off the hinges, and students had to lift the doors to open and close stall doors,” Castor recalled in testimony shared with Seibel this month. “I observed trash all over the floor. Hallways were overcrowded because there was not enough space for the number of students.”
Castor took her complaints to the school board in March 2013 when, she said, a classmate was called “a piece of s…” by a board lawyer who threatened him with physical violence. A few months later, upset that board members were not listening to her concerns, Castor picked up the podium and turned her back to them.
“I told Board Members that if they were not going to listen to public comments, then I might as well address the crowd,” Castor writes.
At the time, the board was being forced to defend budget cuts that led to teacher layoffs, the elimination of music and art classes in early grades and rundown buildings. English as a second language classes were cut, and full-day kindergarten was reduced to a half day.
Meanwhile, the district increased funding to transport the district’s 27,000 private school students – most of whom attend Orthodox yeshivas. Another 11,000 students are bused to public schools, roughly 90 percent of them black or Latino.
A 2014 monitor’s report called out the board for slashing school budgets while spending on programs that benefited private school students.”
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