This Journal News editorial appeared in the Sunday edition April 30
“If you thought an added state role in the East Ramapo school district could restore public-school confidence and priorities in the district, think again. The district’s 2017-18 budget plan — newly revised after the state education commissioner sharply rejected an earlier proposal — contains a huge lure for the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities that send their children to private yeshivas: a big boost to busing. The new budget plan also adds some more extra-curricular programs for public schools.
But it busts the property tax levy cap to do it. The district’s budget plan would hike taxes 2.49 percent, a full percentage point over the cap.
That’s a big ask for voters in a county with the second highest property taxes in the nation. And quite a risk to take with the quality of children’s public education.
It also portends to future struggles in the district, in which two communities — the public school and private-school — have been pitted against each other for increasingly limited resources. How can the state, and the district, win needed support from the private-school community for deeper investment in the struggling public schools?
The extra revenue added into the revised budget plan would provide up to 14 days of non-mandated busing for private schools. So yeshiva students would get busing even on the days public schools are off — something parents in the yeshiva community have been asking for since extra busing was cut in 2011. According to district spin, this would free up other budget dollars for more teachers and more programs for public schoolkids.
What’s pitched as a win-win, though, could easily become a big loss. If Elia is O.K. with this scheme (she had yet to give approval to the new plan as of Friday) it’s up to voters to decide if the additional tax cost is worth the added services. If the budget vote fails, the district could revise the spending plan and seek another vote; however, school officials have said this budget’s failure would likely lead to a contingency plan that keeps the tax levy flat and requires extensive spending cuts.
Making a mess
Here’s how we got into this game of chicken: The district, citing advances it has made on restoring deep cuts to public-school programs (often achieved with bonus state aid), originally put up a budget plan with a 1.48 percent tax hike, within the parameters of the tax cap. The plan increased some public-school staffing and programs. But it also, in a controversial move, added five days of non-mandated busing service for the private schools on days the public schools aren’t in session..
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who must O.K. East Ramapo’s budget plans as part of a deal to get millions of extra state dollars, balked. She rescinded her earlier approval, focusing on the additional busing for private schools. She cited the years of public-school cuts, not yet all restored, that should take budget priority. Elia also made clear that she felt like a victim of a bait-and-switch:
“I must point out that none of the district’s proposed budget materials which were presented to me and to the monitors for review provided any indication that the district planned to provide additional non-mandated transportation for nonpublic school students,” Elia wrote in an April 21 letter to East Ramapo school board President Yehuda Weissmandl. And yes, her letter included the bold, underscored words.”
Read the complete text of the Journal News editorial here.