“After more than three years of litigation and millions in legal fees, voters in Rockland County’s East Ramapo school district finally get to choose.
And the choices they’ll make in Tuesday’s mail in election for nine seats on the district’s school board could alter the future of a community divided along racial lines, where dialogue is hard to come by and differences had become so entrenched it required a federal judge’s intervention.
Linda Valentine is hoping to change that.
“We need to focus on what’s best for our kids, both kids. The bottom line is they’re children and they need guidance and we’re not giving them the guidance. We’re bickering back and forth. We’re not getting anywhere.”
Valentine spent nearly three decades as a New York state parole officer and a special education teacher in the New York City public schools while raising a family in Chestnut Ridge.
She was raised in the Bronx by parents who told her they’d “scrub floors” if it meant she and her siblings would have a good education. She earned a scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan after graduation from Lehman College.
And in recent years, she’s watched from the sidelines while budgets for East Ramapo’s public schools were voted down and graduation rates for minority students plummeted. She hopes to bridge the divide between a public school community of Blacks and Latinos and a private school community of Orthodox Jews. “This riffraff between the two communities has to stop,” Valentine said. “We need to focus on what’s best for our kids, both kids. The bottom line is they’re children and they need guidance and we’re not giving them the guidance. We’re bickering back and forth. We’re not getting anywhere.”
Valentine is a write-in candidate facing Shimon Z. Rose, a first-time candidate She’s one of six Black candidates running for five seats in a first-of-its-kind election challenging the hold Orthodox Jewish men have had on seats on the nine-member board for more than a decade.
It will be the first-time trustees on East Ramapo’s board will be elected by the ward or single-member voting system ordered by a federal judge in May.
Instead of all district voters choosing candidates for open seats as they had under an at-large voting setup, only voters from a single ward get to choose candidates from the ward where they live.
Districts were drawn to give minority candidates a better chance of winning seats on the board.
Two Black incumbents – Ashley Leveille and Sabrina Charles-Pierre – are running unopposed. Two other Black candidates – Sherry McGill and Andrice Sainclair – are squaring off against one another.
Incumbent Carole Anderson is facing off against the board president, Harry Grossman.
It’s likely that at least three board seats will go to Black candidates.
But it will be an uphill battle to pick up any more in a district of 113,000 where in past elections, Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have played a behind-thescenes role helping candidates win seats on the board.
In all, five seats are uncontested.
Three running unopposed are Orthodox Jewish candidates – board president Harry Grossman, board member Mark Berkowitz and candidate Yossi Weiss.
Three minority voices on the board would, at the very least, mean the concerns of Blacks and Latinos would be heard, according to Willie Trotman, the president of the Spring Valley chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“For the first time it gives them an opportunity to have a voice, an objective voice,” Trotman said.
“In the past if you went against the grain, they could say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to elect you or reelect you,’ ” Trotman said. “This time we can hopefully get at least three seats and it gives us a voice, an objective voice.”
Testimony in last year’s voting rights challenge by the NAACP revealed how members of the district’s Orthodox Jewish religious community helped elect “safe” or token minority candidates to the board to blunt criticism of board dominance by Orthodox Jewish men.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel declared the district’s at-large method for electing candidates was unfair to the district’s Black and Latino voters and a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In Ward 6, Robert Romanowski, a pro-public-school candidate faces board member Yehuda Weissmandl.
Romanowski lives in Monsey and graduated from Spring Valley High School. He’s worked with the advocacy group Preserve Ramapo.
“The buildings are in disrepair,” he said of district schools. “They’re overcrowded. It’s very depressing to come to a school that’s falling apart. The facilities don’t work. A lot of the books are outdated. They’re missing pages … The previous board has wasted millions of dollars on lawyers, money that could have been used to educate the students. Now they have to pay the NAACP $4.3 million. I’d like to stop wasting money on these lawyers.”
Read the full text of the Journal News article here.