Trevor Brookins

*The East Ramapo school district is located in Rockland County New York almost an hour north of New York City.

The student population of the district is mostly students of color, Haitian and Guatemalan kids because the district serves the village of Spring Valley where these families have settled. But there is a powerful Hassidic Jewish community that also lies within the boundary of the district.

Over the past decade this Jewish community has utilized its political prerogative and gained a majority of seats on the school board to then authorize more and more funds and services to be allocated to the Yeshivas. Ignore for a moment that these Yeshivas are somehow classified as public schools and therefore receive tax funds while operating in a private manner in that they do not admit non-Jewish children.

There are still two major problems that continue to grow in significance. First, there is the steady reallocation of funds from schools with an inclusive student population (heterogeneous ethnically and religiously) to schools that are exclusively Jewish; second, there is the steady decrease in the amount of non-Jewish students and families in the district which makes the dissolution of the district more and more a possibility.

The first problem comes because of the callous attitude the school board takes toward non-Jewish children. After draining the budgets of public schools leading to an increase in the average class size and the possible elimination of assistant principals, the latest proposal of the school board is that two public school buildings be re-allotted for use by the Hasidic community while the displaced student be moved to the least favorable, already empty, building the district owns. It is understandable that Hasidic board members would advocate policies to benefit children in their community, nonetheless it is more than distasteful that they do so in such a manner that does not consider the needs of non-Jewish children. Footage of a recent board meeting has been posted on YouTube which illustrates the bias with which the Hasidic board members operate. And it must be noted that the bias is tolerated because of their status as a religious group. Were the board members white and the affected students mostly black, were the board members predominately male and the affected students largely female, ironically were the board members all Christian and the affected student population primarily Jewish, then the behavior of the board would inspire national news coverage and public outrage. In the case, though the local newspaper has covered the story, the uproar has not materialized yet.

This lack of outrage, even within the adjacent towns, is related to the second problem with this situation. The East Ramapo school district was created to include the town of Spring Valley (mainly Haitian and Guatemalan families), and parts of neighboring towns,  Nanuet and New City among them; but only those parts that have people of color were gerrymandered into the East Ramapo district. The optimist in me says that this allowed for people of color to be more in control of their local school board by creating a district in which they would be the majority. The cynic in me sees this as racial segregation mixed with xenophobia, with the people in the Nanuet and Clarkstown (New City’s) school district happy to be rid of a large population of student learning English as a second language that would potentially adversely affect their test scores, and subsequently their property values. So really why would the people in these neighboring towns be alarmed and speak up. None of the goings on in East Ramapo affect them. But the tide may turn. Because of the dwindling enrollment numbers in the district (in part because of families moving out of the district to ensure a quality educations for their children and an unwillingness on the part of new families to move into the district for the same reason – all related to the first problem) the East Ramapo school district may become a candidate for dissolution.

While some positives may come out such a drastic measure, the dilution of the Hasidic power bloc for instance, the failure of a school district is ultimately a negative. But if the district is eliminated and its students dispersed throughout neighboring districts, the people of Rockland County at large may finally see what was at stake for the kids in Spring Valley and the ire may be raised.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War and he maintains a blog called This Seems Familiar. You can reach him at [email protected].