In court, East Ramapo parents argue for state intervention in school district
By Keshia Clukey, 08/17/2016 03:53 PM EDT
TROY – Parents of children in East Ramapo schools called on the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to require the state education department to take more substantial measures to remedy the district’s schools.
“The children of East Ramapo have nowhere else to turn, all levels of government have failed them year after year,” Wendy Lecker, an attorney with the Education Law Center, an advocacy group representing the parents, told Justice Raymond Elliott.
“The state is responsible to correct malfeasance or mismanagement by a school district that sabotages their right to a sound basic education,” Lecker said during oral arguments.
East Ramapo parents David Curry, Luis Nivelo and Romel Alvarez allege that the state education department and commissioner, state Board of Regents and board chancellor have not taken sufficient action to ensure the public school students’ constitutional right.
The state and board, represented by the office of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have motioned for the petition to be dismissed, saying there is no statute that provides for further action. The school district has also become involved and has its own representation.
The district has seen deep cuts to programs and staffing at the hands of the local school board, which is controlled by the area’s Orthodox Jewish community, whose members send their children to private yeshivas. State leaders and advocacy groups have accused the board of making decisions that favor private school students at the expense of public school children, many of whom are low-income, have disabilities or are immigrants who don’t speak fluent English.
The state has been working with the school board to turn the district around, having appointed a monitor in the 2014-15 school year to report back to the education department with suggestions for legislative remedies.
Last year, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia appointed a team of three monitors to further review the district and work with the board to rebuild community trust and put the schools back on track. State lawmakers in June passed legislation that provided an additional $3 million in aid to the district and increased oversight power for the monitors and education commissioner. On Monday, Elia announced the appointment of a new monitor and that one of the three previous monitors would stay on for another year to assist the district.
Justice Elliott began Wednesday by asking if the petition was still necessary, given the recent legislation.
Lecker responded saying the “deep systematic problems” still need to be addressed and that the law, which expires in one year, “nearly continues the status quo.”
The parents, represented by Lecker, are asking that the education department move on recommendations already outlined by the state monitor reports. The commissioner, for example, could direct the district to “stop wasteful spending,” direct the allocation of resources and correct violations impeding the rights of English language learners, she said.
Assistant Attorney General Louis Jim said there is nothing in statute or in the constitution that would require the state to take the actions called for, and further said doing so would be an overreach over the school district and school board, which have “substantial power” under state education law.
“What they’re asking here is essentially a whole state takeover of the school district, which is not called for,” Jim said in oral arguments.
Elliott questioned what the outcome would be if he did order the commissioner to take further action, saying that if he orders her to correct some deficiencies, petitioners could again come in saying something different should have been acted on. “This is never going to end,” he said.
The court said it would reach out soon with a response to the petition.
Lecker told POLITICO New York she felt the justice was fair in hearing the arguments and in his questions.
“What we’re asking is the court to say this part of your duty …to correct the mismanagement and the damage done by this mismanagement,” she said. “All we’re asking the court to say is, ‘correct it, you’ve identified it, correct it. How you correct it is up to you, but correct it.'”