This editorial appeared in the Journal News on Feb 26, 2021. The authors are Donna Lieberman (Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union) and Willie Trotman (President of the Spring Valley NAACP).
“Last week, the East Ramapo Central School District announced draconian cuts to its public schools, citing a budget emergency. The district plans to wipe out dozens of staff positions and combine classrooms despite the pandemic, when distancing matters. Public school students — almost all Black and Brown — will suffer.
This is the latest outrage in a long, sordid saga of 21st-century Jim Crow education in a broken district, and it is past time for the state to truly intervene.
The school board has presided over widening systemic racism. Beginning more than a decade ago, the board began devastating cuts to the public schools, which the districts’ Black and Brown students overwhelmingly attend. It did so while siphoning funds to private schools, attended almost entirely by white students.
The district slashed hundreds of public school positions it never restored. Gutted schools led to plummeting proficiency and graduation rates, and rising dropout rates. Public school buildings fell into disrepair, the district sold valuable property to the white community at a bargain, and students couldn’t get enough credits to graduate — all while private school funding increased.
State-appointed monitors have for years raised alarms about financial mismanagement and educational neglect, while state and district leaders have refused to act. Those monitors even did so again this week, calling the current $30M shortfall “dire,” suggesting it was foreseeable, and demanding immediate action.
The white majority has denied a generation of students of color their education rights, echoing the Jim Crow system in the segregated South.
Unwilling to reckon with its history, the district lays blame elsewhere, even at our organizations.
The interim superintendent and private school leaders have pinned the planned cuts, in part, on a lawsuit we won that proved the district broke the law. In 2017, we sued East Ramapo for disenfranchising voters of color and diluting voices for public education in school board elections. The court found the district had violated the Voting Rights Act, and ordered the district to hold new elections and reimburse us for years of legal expenses. The district cites that reimbursement as one reason for the new cuts, though it would only be a small fraction of the district’s shortfall.
Blaming the remedy and not the misdeeds is as cynical as it gets.
Over the years we offered the district many opportunities to settle, save money, and honor the voting rights of people of color. Instead, the district dug in and forced years of litigation at ever-greater expense. Its lawyers ran up tabs of more than $7 million to defend its violations of the rights of voters of color — funds that could have gone toward the education of students of color. Even now, the district is threatening to prolong the court process and run up costs, after losing twice and despite its financial position.
Unlike so many decisions made by the school board, court-ordered reimbursement to our groups is money well spent.
For one, reimbursement tells East Ramapo’s leadership and other would-be vote suppressors that they cannot avoid accountability by intimidating challengers with big legal tabs and endless court battles.
But more importantly, our groups will use reimbursement funds to fight for equity and opportunity for East Ramapo’s public school community — something the district cannot be trusted to do. We are partnering with hundreds of residents, 1,500 of whom recently signed onto our petition to the state to demand intervention with teeth.
With community leadership and input, we are organizing for the long term to save East Ramapo’s public schools.
In the wake of the district’s new cuts, however, the state needs to step in immediately.
The state education commissioner should investigate board members who created this current mess and remove anyone who failed to meet their educational obligations to students. And the commissioner, governor, and legislature all need to ensure these cuts don’t happen.
We are in the midst of a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism. If state leaders are serious about this, they need to do the hard work of confronting 21st-century Jim Crow education in their own backyard.
That must start today by stopping the district’s latest cuts to public education.”
Donna Lieberman is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Willie Trotman is president of the Spring Valley NAACP.