The headline in a Journal News story last week mistakenly claimed: East Ramapo: Federal Court dismisses bias suit. To begin with, the class-action lawsuit brought by the parents and students of the district against the East Ramapo board is not a bias suit. Secondly, the case, called Montesa v Schwartz, brought by numerous parents continues in the court of Supreme Court Justice Cathy Seibel, where it is scheduled for a decision for or against an order for injunctive relief against the East Ramapo Board sometime next month. The decision reported on last week was the decision of the Appeals Court to exclude the students from the lawsuit. Two of three judges on the panel decided the students didn’t have standing to sue because they were not “directly impacted” by the Board’s improper decisions on spending, and, therefore they should not be allowed to proceed.
In the more technical language of the court, two of the three Appellate judges ruled: “The majority holds that Student-Plaintiffs fail to allege standing to assert claims because they are only indirectly affected by Defendants’ alleged Establishment Clause violations.” Rather than deal with the three claims made against the Board, the court focused on the narrow technical application of the Establishment Clause in the case. Three charges of First Amendment violations that were not addressed on the merits include the following:
- The Board systematically funded Hasidic schools with public monies by manipulating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) settlement process;
- The Board provided preferential treatment to Hasidic Institutions when they attempted to sell and lease two school building (Hillcrest and Colton);
- And the Board bought religious books with public money and loaned the books to Hasidic schools.
[All three of these are illegal under the terms of the separation of church and state as spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.]
Attorney Laura Barbieri of the Advocates for Justice, the firm representing the parents and students in the lawsuit, filed a petition shortly after the decision to exclude the students. It’s a formal petition for a panel rehearing and also a rehearing by the entire judicial panel (en banc) not just the three original judges.
There’s a second point that requires clarification. In the deck of the newspaper story (the bold type paragraph at the opening that sums up what’s in the article) is this statement: “Court rules that the lawsuit had no Merit and the plaintiffs lacked standing.” Actually, the Appellate court did not deal with the merits of the case. In the conclusion of the decision, the last lines are: ‘To be clear, we make no decision as to the merits of the student-plaintiffs’ claims.”
So, to sum up, here is where the lawsuit rests today. The Appellate Court, represented by three judges, voted 2-1 against the students’ claims that they were directly harmed by the inappropriate actions of the East Ramapo School Board. The Appellate Judges decided the students did not have legal standing to sue to assert an Establisment Clause claim against the Defendants (Members of the Board).
Attorney Laura Barbieri of the Advocates for Justice, has filed a petition for the panel rehearing and for rehearing en banc, of all of the members of the Appellate Court for the Second Circuit.
The lawsuit Montesa et al v Schwartz et al continues in another venue before Judge Cathy Seibel of the US District Court of the Southern District of New York. A decision to sanction the board with an order of “perspective relief” is anticipated perhaps as early as next month.
No Harm, No Foul—Really?
The strangest element of this case so far seems to be the short-sighted evaluation of what is essentially at stake, and what is happening to those who have been the most seriously impacted by cuts to curriculum, staff, and educational materials. It’s the kids in the public schools—and the Appellate court has just kicked them off the bus, claiming their plight is just not legally relevant.
As with many court proceedings, the numbing amount of case law cited to argue the positions of the two sides puts the many winding paths taken beyond the reach of most outside observers. Rather, I would like to conclude with a simple statement of the facts on the ground as presented in the most recent Power of Ten update written by Steve White. What follows was in Steve’s email today. Of most interest are items #2 and #3—both relating to recent examples of who is paying the cost for the actions of the current board.
Monday October 3, 2016
Power of Ten Update
In This Issue:
- Full Day Kindergarten Begins
2. Board’s Actions Cost District Millions
3. Yeshiva pays $9 million for Temple Beth El
1) Full Day Kindergarten Begins
It was only three years ago that the district announced they were doing away with Kindergarten entirely. Now, because of constant pressure from parents and civil rights groups, ALL East Ramapo Kindergarten classes will be full-day!
The Journal News: Full-day K begins Oct. 6
Also, some of our favorite Art and Music teachers are coming back this year! We know the children will appreciate that!
Special thanks are owed to Assembly Member Ellen Jaffee for her tireless work in securing the funds to make this happen. November 8 she is up for re-election, please make sure you get out to vote!
2) Board’s Actions Cost District Millions
Several actions of the school board have resulted in millions of dollars lost to the children’s education. Not only have these actions harmed the children, they have resulted in expense to taxpayers all over New York State who are now paying for services to East Ramapo. Strong East Ramapo reports:
“In 2011, the School District entered into an energy performance contract with Johnson Controls, Inc. to install numerous energy efficient controls and devices throughout the School District’s buildings. It seems that no actual contract was signed and approved by both parties. The School District was unable to secure financing for the project and was unaware that work had commenced. Johnson Controls claims to have done close to $1.9 million of work. The School District believed it should not be required to pay Johnson Controls the required amount as funding was not secured prior to Johnson commencing work done. This matter proceeded to mediation. The mediation session took place on Monday, September 12, 2016. There is now a Board approved agreement between the School District and Johnson Controls to pay $1 million over a five-year period starting in fiscal year 2017-18. The School District’s 2017-18 proposed budget will include the first payment of $200,000.”
In 2015, the East Ramapo School Board sued its insurer, New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal (NYSIR), to cover $2.23 million in legal fees the district owed its defense teams, the New York State Supreme Court ruled last year that the district was overcharged by $2 million, saying “a reasonable fee for the legal services provided is $187,500.”
“In April 2016 New York State Insurance Reciprocal (NYSIR) made a decision to drop coverage for East Ramapo Central School District. This decision negatively impacted the School District as it had to seek new insurance coverage in a very short time notice. There was no single insurer that offered to commit in insuring our School District. The insurance costs increased by over $900,000 on annual basis. The School District will continue working to identify efficiencies to accommodate this additional cost for the fiscal year 2017-18 and beyond.”
This negligence is inexcusable: $2 million in overcharged legal fees, $1 million per year in extra insurance costs, $1 million dollars in unauthorized spending for “energy performance” work that no one seemed to know was happening. That’s $4 million alone that could have been spent on children’s needs. Students, families, taxpayers deserve much, much better.
3) Yeshiva pays $9 million for Temple Beth El
The Journal News: Auctioned Reform temple to become Satmar school
Temple Beth El was sold at auction. More than 100 buyers expressed interest, and four made bids over $8 million. The property included a 32,000 square-foot building on a 5.6 acre lot. The price is attributed to ongoing high demand for space by nonpublic schools.
Compare this to Colton Elementary, a 62,000 square-foot building on 15 acres, which the East Ramapo board sold for $6.6 million (minus rental credits), or Hillcrest Elementary, a 62,000 square-foot building on 11 acres, which was sold for $4.8 million. The value of these schools was estimated as over $10 million each. Even that amount now seems low in comparison.
- Temple Beth El: 32,000 sq ft. on 5.6 acres: $9 million
- Two East Ramapo Schools: 120,000 sq. ft. on 27 acres: $11 million
Both East Ramapo schools were sold to yeshivas by a school board that was found to favor the interests of yeshivas by a state monitor. The sales were closed while the monitor was doing his investigation. Attorney General Schneiderman was aware of fraud by an appraiser hired by the district, but has not acted regarding the school board or the yeshivas (yet).
While Dr. Wortham and Commissioner Elia and the teachers and parents and advocates are all working so hard and so diligently to improve the educational experiences of the children, we must assume that the school board is continuing its agenda to hand over more district real estate to their friends at bargain prices. There needs to be some fundamental change in the governance of the district to restore trust.