ALBANY – The state Education Department said Tuesday it will install a fiscal monitor for the troubled East Ramapo school district after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the state to step up its oversight.
State Education Commissioner John King said the fiscal monitor will be Albany attorney Hank Greenberg, a former counsel to Cuomo when the governor was attorney general.
“The department has been working closely with East Ramapo to try to address the district’s serious fiscal issues, and the appointment of a fiscal monitor is the next step in those efforts,” King said in a statement.
The move comes after local officials have pressed for state intervention in the Rockland County school district, which has been plagued by financial turmoil and political controversy.
East Ramapo officials have been accused of giving short shrift to the interests of public school children, and many residents have alleged that the school board steers taxpayer money toward the private religious schools.
Superintendent Joel Klein said he viewed the appointment as an opportunity for the district to show that “everything is perfect here.”
“I welcome it because we have nothing to hide,” he said.
School board President Yehuda Weissmandl did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Cuomo’s office said it’s been working with the Education Department to find ways to help the district. Greenberg served as an investigator for the department in 2011 to review alleged improprieties involving student assessments. It’s unclear how much he will be paid or when he’ll start.
The fiscal monitor will have the ability to look at the district’s books and issue reports and recommendations, state officials said.
“We look forward to continuing our work with Governor Cuomo to ensure that the children of East Ramapo have access to the best education possible and that the tax dollars of the district’s residents are spent fairly and appropriately,” King said.
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Community activists welcomed the announcement.
“We have been working toward this for years but it’s been years that were unproductive. And we never heard back from the governor… One word that comes to mind is ‘Hallelujah!’ It’s about time,” said Peggy Hatton, one of East Ramapo’s most aggressive critics and a parent whose children attended the district until they moved out of state last year.
“That’s what we’ve been asking for,” said Oscar Cohen, a retired school administrator who chairs the education committee of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP. “The district currently is dysfunctional. The governance is dysfunctional. And the children going to the public schools are suffering by massive cuts — and intervention would be a beginning of transparency and perhaps relief.”
In April, religious leaders called on Cuomo to help resolve the district’s difficulties.
The Rev. Weldon McWilliams, part of the grassroots Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, cautioned that a fiscal monitor was no panacea to the district’s complex problems.
“I think that a state-appointed fiscal monitor could help ease some of the tension that exists within the East Ramapo community,” McWilliams said. “Hopefully, this is just the first of many steps toward reconciliation and establishing trust between the community and the East Ramapo Board of Education.”
The district has been criticized for financial mismanagement and budget cuts that have slashed art and music programs, sports and hundreds of teaching positions.
East Ramapo is a unique district. Its nine-member school board is controlled by Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic men, and the district includes twice as many private-school students as public-school students.
The school board and administrators have pushed back on community activists’ calls for financial oversight, saying the real problem is an inequitable state aid formula that doesn’t account for the district’s unusually large population of private school students. About 22,000 students attend private schools, mostly at Orthodox Jewish yeshivas, while 9,000 students — mostly black, Latino and Haitian — go to the public schools.
The state increased aid to the district by 11 percent this year.
“Today’s announcement is finally some good news for the district’s frustrated parents, teachers and students,” said state Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City.
“It’s extremely important that we have the right protocol in place in making sure that resources are going to the children that need it,” said state Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown.
A spokesman for Community United for Formula Change, the district-backed group lobbying for a state formula change, noted the multiple state agencies – the Comptroller’s Office, the attorney general, the Education Department — that have already scrutinized East Ramapo’s books and practices. An Attorney General’s investigation into potentially fraudulent real estate deals enacted by the school board is ongoing.
“Added government oversight will not bring back the classes, programs and sports that have been cut due to state underfunding,” said Yossi Gestetner, co-Founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. “East Ramapo students need added fiscal help by means of formula change.”
Hatton said the recent efforts by the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice group brought the longtime pleas to Albany for help by activists like herself “to another level.”
“All of the years that we were crying out for East Ramapo kids to receive an education that was a decent education, we were probably looked upon as agitators,” she said.
The coalition of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other clergy members who went to Albany in April “were there for all the right reasons,” she said. “They weren’t accusatory and their mission was social justice for the kids. And it was hard for Cuomo, in an election year, to ignore that.”
Steve White, another parent activist, said he hoped an East Ramapo monitor would act similarly to one appointed recently by the New Jersey education department in the Lakewood school district, a similarly divided community.
“It should have happened earlier but I’m happy that it’s happening now,” he said. “And I believe that with oversight East Ramapo can once again be the district that it used to be.”