After a three-hour heated debate, the state Assembly today approved a bill that would install a state monitor at the troubled East Ramapo school district.
But the vote didn’t come easily, and it faces an even tougher climb in the Senate with just days left in the legislative session.
The measure passed the Assembly, 80-56.
In a rare divide among Assembly Democrats, some members – particularly Orthodox Jewish lawmakers — along with Republican legislators criticized the measure. They said it would usurp the power of the locally elected school board and set a dangerous precedent in New York.
“I think the real concern here is the voice of the people,” said Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, Erie County. “The whole idea of a board of education is to be elected by the people so the school district in the community is a reflection and is the response to what the people in the district want.”
Assembly members Ellen Jaffee and Kenneth Zebrowski, who represent the Rockland County district and are the Democrats who sponsored the bill, beat back extensive questioning and criticism from their colleagues.
They said the bill is critical because the district has been mismanaged and has unique circumstances.
“This was a much more modified approach to responding to what is a very serious situation — not a takeover, not the removal of the board – but an opportunity for guidance and interaction and collaboration,” Jaffee said.
The bill would require the state education commissioner to appoint a monitor to oversee the school board and develop a five-year improvement plan for the district.
The monitor was recommended in a critical state report about the district in November because the majority of students in the district attend private schools, mostly in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that runs the school board.
The district’s 9,000 mostly black and Latino students attend public schools, leading to charges that the board has mismanaged the district’s finances at the expense of public-school students, who are mainly black and Latino.
But critics argued that the monitor would be able to override the school board, saying that there has been no illegalities found with the board’s control.
“The only place in New York that needs a special monitor that is basically going to be a dictatorship? That’s what it is,” said Dov Hikind, D-Brooklyn. “The school board? You might as well get rid of the school board. There is no purpose. No one has done anything malicious. No one has done anything vicious.”
Opponents of the bill said the district is far from the worst in the state in performance – and districts that are worse off aren’t clamoring for state intervention. They said that the state has other ways, such as additional audits or removing school board members found guilty of misdeeds, to address problems in a district.
“I agree that there are issues that need to be addressed,” said Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, D-Queens. “What I was saying: there is already a place in the law that dictates if there are legalities going on that would remove a school board member.”
Zebrowski countered, “We’ve seen a crisis of trust in the district,” citing a series of audits and reports that showed the district is in turmoil.