Rockland County: Board’s Hiring Sets Off a School War

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monseyThe following article by Peter Applebome appears in the New York Times:

The season of Peace on Earth isn’t getting off to the most peaceful of starts in a Rockland County┬ácommunity where the melting pot seems to have achieved meltdown.

It looked like the level of unease might have peaked last month near the end of a long school board meeting going on well past midnight when the deputy school superintendent, Joe Farmer, lectured the East Ramapo school board as follows:

“This has not much to do with the selection of a lawyer or firing lawyers,” he said of a board decision to hire a new law firm at four times the rates of its current lawyers. “It has to do with the demise of a school district as we know it.” He concluded, “This is a declaration of war.”

As it turned out, that meeting was rather tame compared with the one last Wednesday when more than 500 people turned out to orate, jeer, shout “Shame!” and more often than not, berate the board.

“We went from an arena of disagreement to an arena of lunacy,” said Nathan Rothschild, the school board president.

And so it goes in a community where it seems almost everything boils down to a divide between Orthodox Jews, on the one side, and much of the rest of the community, on the other.

Ground zero for now is the schools, where roughly 70 percent of the students are black and Hispanic, and where Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews, who almost always send their children to private yeshivas, control six of the nine seats on the school board.

What is commonly called the “private school community,” centered in enclaves of traditional Jewish life like Monsey and New Square, tends to chafe at high taxes and complain that schools are wasteful. Their leader on the board, Aron Wieder, said the discord is the result of “trumped up rumors and innuendos” about the board’s plans to cut positions. In remarks sometimes met with jeers Wednesday, he tried and failed to find a conciliatory message.

“Change we can believe in comes with bold and daring actions, which at times can be highly controversial,” he said. “At this pivotal time, I would like to reach out to each and every person of this district.”

Alas, for many other residents, the perception is that the board cares about keeping down taxes, acquiring power and finding ways to extend public services to private school students much more than it cares about the education of students.

“I feel it’s incumbent on every school board member to care about the education of the kids – that’s why we’re there,” said Mimi Calhoun, who first came on the school board when the Orthodox members took control six years ago. “We don’t talk about it. We talk about money, about bids, budgets, contracts. We don’t talk about education. It’s shocking, and it’s becoming demoralizing for the district.”

WHAT set things off was a vote to hire a Long Island lawyer, Albert D’Agostino. His main appeal to the board was that he represents the Lawrence School District on Long Island, which also is controlled by Orthodox Jews, and has been enterprising in finding lawful ways to provide special education services at shared expense to private school students. It is a complicated issue involving cost, services and guidelines about providing services in the least restrictive environment that the board majority says can be handled more effectively and less expensively in Ramapo.

It might have been a tough sell even if Mr. D’Agostino’s fees and expenses were not four times what the current lawyers get paid when the board is desperately pruning costs everywhere else and if he had not been part of an investigation by the state attorney general’s office questioning the legality of public pensions being awarded to him and other lawyers.

Mr. Wieder and Mr. Rothschild, who is not Hasidic and tends to be a moderator between the two sides, say it is inaccurate and unfair to insinuate that the board cares about issues other than education. They point out that the board has expanded full-day kindergarten and opened a new early education center. They say that a well-run district means more resources, not less, for education. Still, it’s painful to watch, whether it’s Mr. Wieder referring to improving “the services we are required to provide for the unfortunate special-needs children” or much of the audience hooting when he concluded with “God bless America.”

You can say it’s a lot more benign than other culture clashes around the world, and it probably is. But at the very least, you could draw the conclusion that if you want to make decisions for children and communities with which you have little in common, you better listen well, reach out far and do everything in as transparent a way as possible. Few people seem to think that’s the way things have worked in East Ramapo.

{NY Times}

{Noam Newscenter}


  1. How many times need it be drilled into our heads: golus, golus, golus! In this voluntary golus, when communities of Jews become highly visible and exercise power over their gentile neighbors, it leads to only one thing: TROUBLE.

    As far as I’m concerned, this is just another message from the Ribbono Shel Olam that it’s time to leave golus America and return to Eretz Yisrael…the land that He has graciously given back to us.

    And yet, American Jews stubbornly remain in golus, fighting everywhere with neighbors, running afoul of government agencies, and getting into all kinds of legal troubles by failing to respect dina d’malchusa dina. As a result of their obstinacy I fear that it’s only going to get worse for the Jews of America, as midda k’negged midda for rejecting Eretz Yisrael in favor of their golden golus.

  2. Brooklyn, Monsey, lakewood or new square are not our homes they are just temporarily. ERETZ YISROEL IS OUR REAL HOME but we just don’t seem to miss it. Hashem is telling us when you can show me that you miss Eretz Yisroel & go there i will give you Mashiach & the bais hamikdosh but right now your all just not ready.

  3. As taxpayers religious people have a right to participate in the political process.

    Fulfillment of our civic duties entails
    participation in the process.

    In the normal course of events, people
    will sometimes disagree. But differences
    of opinion should not cause anyone to
    refrain from wholesome participation in the

    All this is part of “Hishtadlus”.
    Naturally, “Hishtadlus” must be
    accompanied by “Bitakhohn” and “Siyata
    Deh Shmaya.”

    May HASHEM hear our “tefilos”.

  4. In my humble opinion, if most of the school board doesn’t send their children to the community schools, why are they on the school board? What business is it of theirs what happens in the public schools when they would never, ever send their own children there?

    It just may be that what some of the parents are saying is true – these school board members are looking out only for their own – in lower taxes, services, etc. At least it looks that way. Why provide non-Jews any more excuses to dislike us? Stop playing the game of “grab everything you can” and get off the school board – let the parents of the children who actually go there run things, rather than generate hostility.

  5. Anonymous: what pays for the schools? property tax does! who pays the property tax, those people who send to private schools. most of those people who send to public are renting and dont contribute directly to the costs. if they controled the bourd they would have no incentive to keep the costs down. And becides that the non publick schools recive funding in the form of traspotation and special ed.therefor it is important to have ample repersentation. becides: majorty rules, and the minoritys have an entitilment complex….

  6. This is neither a Jewish nor gentile
    issue as blogger # 5 inexplicably
    suggests. There are Gentiles who
    would also like to send their children
    to private schools. In fact, there are
    Gentiles who serve on school boards even
    though their children do not attend
    public schools.

    In the final analysis, the folks
    on the local board are elected. What’s
    wrong with that?


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