East Ramapo monitors seek transportation cuts as banks refuse to lend money to district

“As a deficit looms and banks are refusing to lend money to East Ramapo, state monitors asked school board trustees point blank: Are you willing to cut transportation costs, which eat more and more of the budget each year, by rolling back universal busing?

Trustee Yitzchok Gruber warned at a meeting Thursday that cuts to busing would affect public support for school district budgets in his Monsey-based Ward 6: “If you want us to go out to the community and get a ‘yes’ vote, don’t even think about it … the budget is not going to go through if transportation is going to be on the line.”

The East Ramapo school district faces a nearly $20 million deficit for the 2024-2025 budget, even if the public agrees to pass a budget with a nearly 5.4% tax levy hike, a risky gambit that the school board is considering.

The operating budget under consideration for 2024-2025 is estimated at $336,214,212 for the district that serves about 45,000 children. About a quarter attend public schools; most are children of color and about 54% are new immigrant English language learners. Three quarters of kids living within the district’s boundaries attend private schools, mostly yeshivas that serve the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community.

Both populations are growing; both have many economically challenged families.

A district budget has to cover many “non negotiables,” state-appointed education monitor Shelley Jallow told the board Thursday. The cost of transportation beyond the state-reimbursed level is not one of them.

Busing is projected to cost $76 million for the next school year, taking up more than 20% of the district’s operating budget. In other districts, it usually accounts for about 5% of operating costs, Superintendent Clarence Ellis said.

East Ramapo voters have defeated more budget plans than in any other district in the state over the last decade. When budgets do pass, the tax levy increase has been minimal or even zero, like with the 2023-2024 plan.

No ‘rewarding bad behavior’

The lack of local investment hurts more now, officials said. Federal COVID funding is running out and state foundation aid is unlikely to get another significant boost. At the same time, the public- and private-school student populations soar.

Ellis made clear to his board that it was time for East Ramapo to do for itself. He said state legislators rightly have said to him, “You can’t go 10 years with a Zero budget … and expect us to go out on a limb for you.”

The community’s unwillingness to approve tax levy increases, combined with a stronger tax base from growing development in the greater Spring Valley region, has resulted in many residents seeing cuts to their property tax bills, according to district data.

Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, who was instrumental in bringing state monitors to the district, echoed that the state will be less interested in bailing out East Ramapo with extra aid if the district can’t pass a tax-levy increase.

“I have always fought for more money for this district,” the West Nyack Democrat said, “but the taxpayers of all the adjoining districts and across New York state are not going to pay for this district when they have to pay property taxes for themselves. It’s not fair to everybody else.”

Zebrowski said the state has some responsibility to act if East Ramapo cannot function and provide educational services. “But it won’t be just the state coming down with a check to reward bad behavior,” he said.

He said the Legislature and state Education Department are weighing options. “The state is going to have to take over this district in some way, shape or form in order for this district to educate their students and provide them their constitutional guarantees.”

East Ramapo is a risky investment’

The lack of local investment fed a August 2023 decision by Moody’s Investors Service to change East Ramapo’s outlook on certain borrowing to “negative.” The district’s bond rating, Baa3, is one step above junk status.

The weak rating hurts the district in very real ways, East Ramapo Assistant Superintendent for Business Natalie Espinal said. The district recently tried to borrow funds for an energy efficiency enhancement. “No bank was willing to loan money to East Ramapo because of the credit rating,” Espinal said. “East Ramapo is a risky investment.”

Short-term loans are commonly needed by local governments, including public school districts. Espinal said the lack of borrowing power means the district has ripped through its reserves and faces a steep deficit.

State-appointed fiscal monitor Bruce Singer said by June 30, the end of the current school year, that deficit will hit $18 million. If action isn’t taken, the deficit will reach $30 million.

Singer made clear that he and others have been warning of an impending “fiscal cliff” and imploring the board to act. “Ten years of defeated or zero budgets, this is not news.”

Meanwhile, about 70 teacher positions remain open, Singer said, and more teachers will be needed as enrollment continues to grow.

Singer made clear that he and others have been warning of an impending “fiscal cliff” and imploring the board to act. “Ten years of defeated or zero budgets, this is not news.”

Meanwhile, about 70 teacher positions remain open, Singer said, and more teachers will be needed as enrollment continues to grow.

The district’s transportation coordinator has left, so Espinal is doing that job, too. A buildings and grounds leadership position has been open for most of the time the district has been managing a $90 million building repair project paid for by federal COVID funds. Even with that work, every single building in the district has failed a state-mandated Building Conditions Survey and another $250 million worth of repairs, yet unfunded, are needed, officials have said.

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“The board has tough decisions to make,” Jallow said. “And so does the community.”

Why busing in East Ramapo costs so much

The district has the most complex school transportation system in the state outside the New York City.

A past school board axed a district-run transit system years ago. So the district uses scores of vendors to fill bus routes. There are 14 schools in the district; children also attend hundreds of private schools in the region.

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Gruber leaned into the private-school community’s desire to preserve universal busing during the Feb. 15 meeting. “The only thing most of the community gets is transportation.”

Ellis pushed back. The district provides various services for non-public school kids, including various therapies and the handling of federal aid for needy children.

The last two school years have launched with thousands of kids lacking bus routes. This year, some vendors dropped their contracts right before school started, creating a transportation crisis impacting thousands of kids.

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Replacement contracts cost more than average; about 50 drivers are still being brought up from Queens to fill the void, Singer said.”

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