Some parents have petitioned the state Education Department to remove the school board, a rare step. Department spokesman Tom Dunn would not comment specifically about East Ramapo, but said the commissioner has the authority to remove local officials “for willful violation of law or neglect of duty or willfully disobeying a decision, order, rule or regulation.”
The board denies any wrongdoing. It announced at Tuesday’s meeting that it is suing the state in federal court, seeking a judge’s declaration that its methods for special education placement are legal.
“Nobody has done anything to deprive anybody of anything,” Schwartz said. “The monies that are spent on private schools are state mandated just like the monies that are spent on public schools.”
He says the district’s problems stem from its being “a square peg” — a district that has about 9,000 public school children and an estimated 20,000 in private schools, almost all of them Jewish.
“You show me another district where at least two thirds, if not possibly more than that, of the total student population is private school as opposed to public school,” Schwartz said in an interview. “You show me a district like that anywhere.”
Similar patterns affected the school board makeup in Lawrence, on Long Island, but Dunn said Lawrence did not descend into similar problems. Lakewood, N.J., also has an Orthodox-dominated board and has experienced tensions.
Laura Barbieri, a lawyer with Advocates for Justice, which is suing the district on behalf of public-school parents and other taxpayers, said the board is catering to Orthodox parents who “do not want their children educated with children of color.”
“Do I think racial discrimination is at the core of this? Yes I do,” she said.
Schwartz dismisses claims that an Orthodox-dominated school board can’t represent the public school interests.
“Men can legislate for women, women can legislate for men, white people can legislate for black people and black people can legislate for white people,” he said. “I don’t see where it makes any difference.”
Asked if he felt anti-Semitism played a part in criticism of the board, he said only, “I can make my assumptions.” Last year he said some critics were engaging in “an age-old anti-Semitic trope” that Jews were interested only in money.
He said money — “more money from the state” — is the solution to East Ramapo’s problems. But state Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski said the division in the community is too deep for that to work.
“Public school parents have said, ‘We don’t want any more money.'” Zebrowski said. “They don’t trust their own school board with additional money.”
The Democratic assemblyman has proposed instead that East Ramapo be divided into two school districts, one for public schools and one for private schools.
“This is an unconventional situation and we need an unconventional solution,” Zebrowski said.