June 29, 2015 The day after the New York bill to appoint a monitor for the East Ramapo School Board had died in the Senate, those opposing the oversight were congratulating themselves online with the kind of bravado that seemed to include great relief that the fire had been put out. At the same time, there was a groundswell of recriminations directed at the Senate Republicans who had refused to bring the proposed bill up for a vote. Also Friday morning, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, was calling for the resignation of the East Ramapo Superintendent of Schools Joel Klein. Two days later, on Sunday morning, a large group of parents accompanied by Channel 12 News gathered in front of Klein’s home in New City calling for the Superintendent’s resignation. Standing on the side, attracting very little notice, was the agent who had helped engineer the killing of the bill.
One of the more difficult two-steps in politics is how to oppose a popular piece of legislation and then be able to step aside to avoid the backlash. One path to take is to assume a conflicted position expressing great concern over how this bill, if passed, could cause unintended, widespread harm. Then, vote against it. A second more cowardly way will work if you have control over when and if the proposed legislation will get introduced for a vote. Then you can wait until midnight, come up with something you say is a compromise, and make sure it doesn’t get to the members for a vote. Turn your palms out and proclaim I did what I could, and step aside as the stuff hits the fan.
This recent “good faith effort” shuffle was steered by a local Democratic Senator who officially caucuses with the Republicans. Carlucci’s Compromise effort is definitely worth a closer look since it was the instrument used to kill the Monitor demanded by both the state and the Assembly Democrats.
First the New York State Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Assemblypersons Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski. That was several weeks ago, and the bill provided oversight powers to a monitor in East Ramapo who would be appointed by the State Education Department. The monitor would supervise the East Ramapo School Board and Superintendent, both of whom have been accused of illegal and irresponsible management of the District, and the monitor would have veto power over their decisions. The need for a monitor was recommended by Hank Greenberg, a former prosecutor who reviewed recent policies and decisions of the East Ramapo board and superintendent. Governor Cuomo endorsed the Jaffee/Zebrowski bill. Having passed the Assembly, all that remained was the vote in the state senate.
On the Senate side, Senator David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, had agreed to bring the measure to that house for a vote. Only he didn’t. He rewrote the proposed legislation in a way that would short circuit what Greenberg, Cuomo, Jaffee and Zebrowski said was necessary to save a school system on the brink. Carlucci’s version of the initiative was S05974. He called his bill a compromise, when in truth it was nothing short of total capitulation to those forces opposing any oversight of the board.
After posing for months as an advocate for the collapsing public school system, Senator Carlucci quietly, late Sunday, night put in place a roadblock that remained in place and effectively ended any chance of meaningful oversight of a school district that Greenberg cited as “teetering on the edge of disaster.” Those betrayed by this political maneuver include the students, the parents, the staff, and the taxpayers of the East Ramapo Central School District.
Eviscerate (v) to deprive of vital content or force
The difference between the Jaffee/Zebrowsky bill and the Carlucci bill is stark. It all centers on the notion of what each bill interprets as “oversight.” The dictionary defines political oversight as “regulatory supervision” as in congressional oversight. In his report, that’s exactly what Greenberg presented to the state Board of Education:
“Whatever governance reform the legislature and the governor ultimately adopt for the District, it must be one that protects the public schools from further abuses like we have seen in recent years. At a minimum, there must be a vehicle to override, in real time, unreasonable decisions by the Board and Superintendent and ensure that the District conducts its affairs in a transparent fashion.”
In other words, a monitor with veto power and the ability to open up the closed door sessions that characterize this board. That’s what’s in the Jaffee/Zebrowsky bill that had passed in the Assembly.
That’s not what’s in Carlucci’s bill.
Here’s a brief summary of the most important elements in S05974. [NOTE-This is the first version of the proposed bill to be published]:
The first thing you notice about Carlucci’s proposed Monitor Bill is that the monitor is not brought into it until page 3, and the document is only four pages long. The first half of the text is about having the Comptroller do the oversight, and that’s odd because the Comptroller already does oversight of the District.
(a)(i) Senator Carlucci wants the New York State Comptroller’s Office to appoint someone to review the proposed school budgets 30 days before they come up for a vote.
(a)(ii) If there are problems, and the Comptroller thinks the students’ needs are not being fairly served, he/or she “may present their findings of the proposed budget no later than 10 days prior to the school district’s budget vote. The board of education shall make a good faith effort to amend the proposed budget to conform with the comptroller’s findings.”
OK, first of all—the Comptroller?? You have several pipes burst simultaneously in your house, so you jump on the phone and call an electrician?? A comptroller knows auditing; their expertise is grounded in financial functions, forecasts, cost accounting, not curriculum, class size, teacher preparation. One major task for the monitor is supposed to involve coming up with a long-term plan for the effective education of the students in East Ramapo. Do you want the Comptroller’s Office working on projects like accommodations for ESL students that will fix the present problems? Come to think of it, would you want the current school board working on those problems with their skill sets?
This would be ridiculous were it not for the fact that what’s implied here is that the problems in East Ramapo first and foremost need fiscal management to fix what’s broken. That’s the one note we have heard being played for years now by supporters of the current board, and now critics of the proposed state appointed monitor. It’s the formula for funding, and you just need to give us more money. Makes you wonder who wrote this “compromise legislation.” Curious that Carlucci’s version of the bill begins with the very same note that has been issuing from Aron Wieder’s bent trombone since the controversy over the monitor has erupted.
This part of the Senator’s solution is flawed in another way. The New York State Comptroller’s Office as an agency does not have the power to enforce state laws regulating what they are auditing. We have run into this exact problem in Ramapo. Preserve Ramapo has submitted numerous complaints to the Comptroller’s Office about illegal activity by the Town Board and St. Lawrence’s Ramapo Local Development Corporation (the one that built the stadium and the Elm Street Housing project). The Comptroller examiners have, on their part, also complained about the improper mixing of Ramapo tax funds and the RLDC development corp., and in a report they excoriated the Ramapo Town Board for its mindless complicity. But as their examiners have told us, the Comptroller and his investigators are empowered to review, report, and recommend. They have no real powers of enforcement. So you shouldn’t expect the NY Comptroller to rein in the East Ramapo School Board, even though the Governor’s appointed examiner, Hank Greenberg, has said the school board remains in standing violation of state and federal law regarding student placements. You would think an elected senator would know the limitations of the Comptroller’s Office.
More instructions for the Comptroller continue on to page three. Then, finally, the notion of a Monitor enters the picture.
S4. A) “Comptroller in consultation with the governor shall appoint a state monitor within 60 days following the effective date of this act to provide oversight of the educational and fiscal policies, practices, programs and decisions of the East Ramapo Central school district, the board of education and the superintendent.” (Note: the Comptroller is in charge of and is driving this process, while having no enforcement powers.)
“The term of the state monitor shall expire on December 31, 2017.” (In the Jaffee/Zebrowski bill, the term is set at five years not two and a half.)
S4. C) “Such monitor shall be entitled to attend all meetings of the board, including executive (closed to the public) sessions; providing however, such monitor shall not be considered for purposes of establishing a quorum of the board. Provided further that such monitor’s presence at executive sessions shall not negate any privileges existing during such session.” (It’s important to note here that this board conducts most of its controversial business secretly in executive session, and one of the privileges it claims is that nothing that goes on in these sessions can be made public or even obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests by the public. In Carlucci’s bill, that privilege of secrecy will apply even when the monitor attends the executive session meeting. What happens in those meetings, according to Carlucci’s Bill, will not appear in the Monitor’s reports.)
OK, so far we have an overseer, picked by the Comptroller, who is rendered mute and toothless by the bill.
S 5. “State monitor powers. The state monitor shall have the power to:
a. File a written objection to a decision or act by the board or superintendent if the monitor finds that such decision is in violation of any state or federal law. The state monitor may write a written objection to a decision with the board prior to or up to seven days following such decision. . . If the monitor feels that the board or superintendent has not adequately addressed the concerns raised in the written objection, then he or she may appeal to the commissioner on matters relating to any education law or to the comptroller on any matters relating to district finances.”
(Note: The first and primary power for the monitor in Carlucci’s bill is that the monitor has the power to complain. Is it me, or does anyone else not see “complaining” as “a power”? Further, the monitor will be complaining to the very people who are the reason for the complaint. Recall, this is the board that often responds to complaints in meeting by yelling at, denigrating, and accusing parents and students. They have attorneys that have cursed at students, vilified parents, threatened to sue and threatened to fight members of the public. The attorneys, in fact are so vile, the board promised to remove them after a loud public outcry, and then they kept them on.
You might also take note of the fact that the monitor is restricted according to the terms of this bill to complain only about two things: violations of state and federal law. Asinine educational malpractice, refusal to submit to sensitivity training to address bias, lack of transparency regarding records, expenditures and policies—forget it. The monitor is only entitled to those areas where he or she can patch together a case for full-blown violations and felonies. And you know that those will be met with legal retaliation that just adds to the already growing multimillion dollar legal bill this board has saddled the taxpayers with.
b) The monitor can hold public hearings or forums on school district matters (no mention of who should be required to attend) and, obviously what the monitor can talk about is dictated by S4 C above.
c) The monitor can conduct any relevant studies, reports and reviews of any state laws or rules and regulations as they relate to district matters, including state and local education funding. (Note: the operative words here are “report and review” not “enforce and veto.”
S6 We have reached the end of the “powers” of the monitor. That’s it: the monitor can review, report, and complain. He or she is to function as an amnesiac in the executive sessions, likely to continue as frequent and hours or evening-long, and the term for such monitoring will be cut in half.
If this bill were to pass as written, Carlucci would have delivered two victories to those opposing any oversight, not just one. The Monitor would have been eviscerated and the board that has been accused of illegal, incompetent, and disgraceful stewardship would have been given the perfect cover to continue their dismantling of the East Ramapo School District.
When the Carlucci compromise was sent back (published midnight Sunday night with only days to go), the Assembly lawmakers who had supported and passed the Jaffee/Zebrowsky version of the oversight bill said that it was unacceptable.
As far as we can tell, there were two more versions of the Carlucci shuffle. The second one was kind of funny. Apparently, someone had a “holy-crap-look-at-this-thing” moment, and they at least changed the order of paragraphs so that what the bill was about, a Monitor, was reversed from the end of the document (first version) to the front of the document. Nothing of substance changed as to the major issues of what the monitor could do. Version three, ditto.
Most of the noise we hear now is directed at the Senate Republicans, Governor Cuomo’s feeble endorsement of the stronger Assembly-defined monitor, and Superintendent of Schools and official lapdog of the Board, Joel Klein. But missing in all this is how the politics worked, and how Senator David Carlucci played a key, and perhaps the most insidious role in how this went down. In fact, his version of the monitor would have done even more damage to the kids, the schools, and the community than a simple rejection of the bill. But as it was, he managed to get for the Board and Klein exactly what they wanted—no oversight for another year-and-a-half.
Carlucci’s cover is kind of fragile, especially when you read the text of his proposals. He can say I tried to bring the two (Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats) together but every one of his three efforts he knew would not be acceptable to those supporting a monitor as Greenberg demanded, and those efforts would provide some cover for the Republicans who now had a way not to vote on the matter.
And as the Senator and Republican legislators backed off from what they had done, Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch explained the results of their combined efforts: “The hardship these students have endured is reprehensible. As the legislature leaves for vacation, they are also leaving East Ramapo students twisting in the wind for another year.”