The East Ramapo School District Oversight Bill

(A5355 - S3821 – Carlucci, Jaffee, Zebrowski)

Recently, Senator David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and I formally introduced our East Ramapo Oversight Bill (A5355 & S3821). Since the bill’s introduction, much of the Rockland community has rallied behind our oversight system. However, others have been up in Albany, misconstruing the bill and lobbying against its passage. The following is an outline of our bill and is a factual description of where we are and where we are trying to go:
  • The Report and how we got here: An independent report commissioned by the Board of Regents to study this troubled school district (in addition to other data) found:
    1. The East Ramapo School District is in extreme financial trouble.

      1. East Ramapo is the third most fiscally stressed district in the State.
      2. They have had an unreserved fund balance deficit for the past three fiscal years and the current deficit stands at over $7 million.
    2. The district is failing academically.

      1. This district is designated a “Focus” school district by Federal standards, placing them in the bottom 10% of academic performance statewide.
      2. Graduation rates are declining while statewide averages are increasing. East Ramapo’s graduation rates were 64% in 2013 and 60% in 2014 while the statewide average is 76%.
    3. Public school parents do not have input into their district.

      1. Up to 70% of public school board meetings are held behind closed doors in executive session. Often times, parents are left outside until after midnight before the public comment period is opened.
    4. Budget cuts were disproportionately made on the backs of public school students; a student population that is 91% minority and 78% eligible for free and reduced lunch.
      1. Between 2009 and 2012, the school board made draconian cuts that left students with fewer opportunities. The cuts included:
        1. Elimination of over 400 teaching and staff positions.
        2. Elimination of summer school and elementary music education.
        3. Over 50% cut in athletics, after-school activities and professional development.
    5. Extreme distrust and conflict exists between the Board and public school parents.
      1. The Board fired the long-time local attorney for the district and hired a more expensive and controversial law firm.
      2. This new firm was involved in a highly publicized fight that was caught on tape where a lawyer made deplorable, personal verbal attacks on a public school parent. Although the district vowed to hire a new firm, they still work for the district over 18 months later.
      3. District officials made insensitive remarks about the immigrant student population causing an outrage from the community.
  • The Details of the Bill: Our State Monitor legislation will bring in an independent, educational expert, appointed by the Commissioner of Education, to dial down the conflict and restore trust in the district.

    1. The Monitor’s duties will be to:
      1. Develop a comprehensive 5-year plan, with public input, that:
        1. Sets specific goals and benchmarks
        2. Improves fiscal stability
        3. Improves educational outcomes
        4. Improves opportunities for English Language Learners
        5. Improves opportunities for disabled students
      2. Issue annual reports and quarterly updates on the plan’s progress.
      3. Develop long-term recommendations for the district.
      4. Supervise the fiscal and operational management of the district, including development of the budget, resource allocation, facility management, educational programs and use of district funds.
    2. The Monitor’s powers are to:
      1. If necessary, overrule Board actions that are inconsistent with the 5-year plan or not in the best interest of students.
      2. Attend all board meetings including executive sessions.
      3. Hold public hearings and conduct studies.
    3. Appeal Process:
      1. If the Board feels that the actions of the Monitor are contrary to the 5-year comprehensive plan or a state law or regulation, the Board can appeal to the Commissioner of the Department of Education.
  • Is oversight an “unprecedented” step that takes away democratic rights?
    1. The State of New York has stepped in on many occasions to provide oversight to troubled municipalities including Counties where control boards were established and school districts where governance was restructured. Most recently, the County of Rockland received Comptroller oversight on their budget where the recommendations are binding.
    2. Locally elected school boards are a vital aspect of New York’s educational structure. Just as vital is the State’s responsibility to provide a sound, basic education to New York students. This bill balances these two goals.
    3. The district is not being taken over by the State over nor will it diminish anyone’s rights. Residents will continue to elect their school board members and vote on budgets. This bill seeks to protect students and their constitutionally guaranteed right to an education.
  • What about the need for increased funds?
    1. The East Ramapo School District has unique demographic characteristics with over 70% of students attending private school. The disproportionate number of private school students affects the combined wealth ratio calculation which determines the amount of state aid the district receives.
    2. In recognition of these challenges, my colleagues and I are pursuing additional funding for the district through either a direct grant or a school aid formula change.
    3. Policy changes are made through legislation and funding allocations are made in the budget. My colleagues and I are using these two separate vehicles to address both oversight and funding concerns.
The conflict in this district simply cannot continue. This bill will begin to mend the situation and refocus the district’s priorities to educating children and away from lawsuits and infighting.
Outline written by
Ken Zebrowski