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Saturday, April 16, 2022 

Haredis in Ramapo lead to tension with non-Jewish public schools

I'd read about this very sad case in past years, where ultra-Orthodox working on a school board in the Ramapo township of New York - for public schools they don't even send their children to - are appropriating use of the funds for private yeshivas instead, and it's led to a lot of predictably unfortunate resentment with the non-Jewish residents of the area who send their children to public schools:
Made up of over a dozen distinct hamlets and villages over 61 square miles, Ramapo is a town in name only. Its communities range from rich to poor, urban to rural, progressive to conservative; some have dense ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, and some are largely Black or Latino, but as a whole Ramapo’s demographic makeup largely mirrors that of the United States. Some see it as a microcosm of the nation as a whole.

Behind the suburban idyll, though, the town has also become ground zero for a Kulturkampf pitting a booming ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredi, community against secular residents who worry that their needs and way of life are being shunted to the side as they recede into the minority.

A decade ago, Matthew Townsend was a struggling student at Ramapo High School when he enlisted in the pre-military Junior Reserve Officer Training Course, better known as JROTC. He credits the program with giving him a zeal for helping others that has lasted to this day.

“One of the key lessons that I’ve learned was ‘service before self,’” Townsend told The Times of Israel recently. “There are certain things we want to accomplish personally, but we realize, by doing it for the greater good, it tends to have a bigger impact for all of us.”

By the time Townsend was a senior, though, his school was cutting programs like art, advanced placement, and athletics to deal with budget cuts. Eventually, the program that gave him direction, JROTC, fell victim as well.

The cuts were the start of a trend that would see the East Ramapo School District, which covers much of the town, slump from one of the top school systems in the state to one of the worst. In January, the state deemed it the most fiscally stressed school district in New York. Critics charge that instead of fully funding public schools, the majority ultra-Orthodox school board has shifted money to services that benefit the ultra-Orthodox, such as buses and special education.

School boards across the US have recently become an ideological battleground, sundered by disputes over masking policies and critical race theory curriculum. But the East Ramapo school district has been for years at the center of a battle over what critics have deemed unofficial segregation and a contentious debate over the role of public money in religious institutions.

“They were just simply taking money from the public trust and paying for private needs. To me, it’s just as wrong as if they’d gone out and bought themselves a yacht,”
Steve White, an activist for the public schools, told The Times of Israel, referring to the ultra-Orthodox on the school board.

“Public money is for the public use. Just because you’re the president of the school board, doesn’t mean you can just say, ‘oh, I think it should be spent on something else.’ It’s irrelevant whether something else is a private education or a private car.”
Of course it's wrong to take public funding and use it to bankroll private institutions instead. And that's easily one of the most unfortunate parts of this whole PR debacle, along with the whole notion some Haredi council members would serve on a public school board for locations they don't even send their children to. If you're not interested in serving all and recognizing equality among ethnicities, than you don't serve on the district boards. Interestingly enough, look who appears to have caused some of this trouble:
The decline only accelerated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which had helped contribute to state budget shortfalls. In 2011, Andrew Cuomo came into office as governor and announced a $1.5 billion cut in previously earmarked school aid to help make up the deficit.

“The real trouble began under Cuomo, when he did something called ‘clawing back’ money that was intended for distressed small districts,” said Lawrence R. Lynn, mayor of the neighboring town of Grand View-on-Hudson.
My my, so Cuomo, the same NY governor who'd been forced to resign after a sexual abuse scandal, seems to have some accountability to shoulder in this whole debacle. One more reason to detest him in retrospect for all the harm he caused, especially when the Covid19 crisis came around.
According to the report, from 2009 to 2014, the board went from having $12.5 million in reserves to a deficit of $7 million, and saw other restricted funds dry up as well.

But at the same time as it was cutting public school activities, the board increased spending on services utilized by the ultra-Orthodox such as special education. Spending on legal fees skyrocketed from $330,000 a year to nearly $3 million, and transportation costs, which included gender-segregated buses, rose at double the state average.

“No meaningful effort [was] made to distribute pain of deep budget cuts fairly among private and public schools,” the report charged.

It also noted the board’s poor relationship with many constituents, discriminatory remarks by board members, a lack of transparency, and knee-jerk dismissals of complaints as antisemitic.
And that was inappropriate to take such an approach and make it sound like all dissent equals 100 percent antisemitism when school funds are being misused. That said, there was, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, some antisemitic acts taking place:
In Rockland County, residents say efforts to push back against Haredi influence over the school board or to preserve the area’s formerly secular way of life have skirted into genuine antisemitic abuse and even physical attacks.

Things got so volatile within the community that protests against the school board would sometimes devolve into chants of “F— Jews.”

In late 2014, Aron Wieder, a former school board president and the first Hasidic Jewish member of the Rockland County Legislature, received a disturbing piece of mail, sent with the name “Moshe Muhammad” and postmarked from within Monsey.

Inside the plain brown envelope, Wieder found a frightening image: his face superimposed on an ISIS captive about to be decapitated by a hooded figure dressed in black.
Now that's absolutely abominable alright. But that's exactly why it's a shame this misuse of funds has had to take place, because all that does is make things worse than need be.
In June 2021, Albany voted to give state monitors assigned to the East Ramapo Central School District expanded oversight powers, including the ability to veto board decisions.

“A strengthened monitor will increase oversight, limit financial mismanagement, and ensure that school board leadership is providing for all students in the district, not wreaking havoc on a generation of public school students of color,” NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

But the move has been vociferously fought by the local Haredi community, which has taken an oppositional stance to the state’s decrees. A court ruling that the school board owed $4.3 million in legal fees over the NYCLU lawsuit was met with a threat from the board to lay off teachers and school staff unless the fee was reduced to one dollar.

Nevertheless, the parents and students of the public schools hope that the school district will reclaim the educational prowess it once possessed. They maintain a certain kind of faith, if not exactly in the same way as the more religious-minded members of the school board.
Wow, so the Haredis in that community are opposed to oversight meant to detect mismanagement? All that does is send an open signal to how entitled they feel. If they really lack that much faith in their ability to get funding in a meaningful way, and not abuse public tax dollars, then no wonder they have no business working in education built on a most insular form of Judaism, and come to think of it, doesn't even quality as Judaism. Just shameful.

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