East Ramapo needs a sustainable plan–now

The following editorial appeared in The Journal News, Sunday April 7, 2024. The co-authors are Donna Lieberman and Carole Anderson.

“State leaders know all too well how the East Ramapo school board has driven its public schools to dysfunction — they’ve watched it happen and haven’t done enough to stop it.

The East Ramapo Central School District includes 10,400 public school students, and 30,000 private school kids. The public schools are attended by almost all children of color, while the private schools are almost exclusively white.

The district’s public schools are in crisis. They have the highest dropout and absentee rates, and the lowest graduation numbers in Rockland County. East Ramapo also has the worst outcomes in the state for English Language Learners, who make up more than half of district students and are rapidly increasing.

By mid-summer, the district will run out of money. After voting down tax increases for nearly a decade, the district’s Orthodox Jewish majority – whose children almost entirely attend private yeshivas — are now asking the rest of the state to pay their bills. While the state must protect the education of children in East Ramapo, it cannot write a blank check to this district. The state must take over East Ramapo.

At its March 5th public meeting, the board put its dysfunction on full display. The district’s accounting staff presented the board with several cost-cutting plans, all of which hinge on reducing the district’s biggest single expense: transportation. This school year, East Ramapo will spend $62 million — nearly 20% of its budget — on “universal busing,” far more than any comparable district.

Universal busing means that every student is eligible for a ride on the school bus, no matter how close they live to school. In practice, this benefits no one as much as the bus contractors, who rake in taxpayer money and provide subpar service. Students and parents regularly report that school buses fail to pick them up, or that they drop them off in the wrong locations. Horrifically, school buses have killed two students in East Ramapo this year.

Yet the board — the majority of whom are elected by the white majority — has refused to rein in the extravagant spending on transportation. Instead, the board is demanding the state bail them out, even though state aid to the district increased by nearly $40 million in 2023 while the local tax levy increased by zero for the sixth year in a row. The board is taking no responsibility: one board member even attempted to scapegoat homeless children for the district’s woes.

Public school students and parents in East Ramapo are fighting hard to protect their education. This month, 500 parents packed the local Salvation Army Center for a chance to speak to State Education officials. We know from district voting data that, in the wards populated by public school families, voters show up to support tax increases overwhelmingly. Indeed, the vast majority of voters across New York vote in favor of school tax increases every year. While almost all public schools could use additional money, local voters generally support their school spending plans.

The East Ramapo Board is right on one thing — the state must step in. New York policymakers must take the futures of East Ramapo kids out of the hands of local voters and get the district on track. This means a governance structure that gives public school parents a meaningful role and prioritizes a safe and sensible school transportation plan. The district also needs a sufficient local tax increase to fund urgently needed infrastructure improvements, bilingual teachers, interpreters, and support for kids at risk of dropping out.

East Ramapo doesn’t need a bailout, it needs a sustainable plan for the future.

Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Carole Anderson is an educator, former member of the East Ramapo Central School District Board of Education.