Public Kid vs. Private Kid Divide in One New York Community Turns Dangerous

Daryl Khan, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, May 6, 2013

On the evening of April 23, the members of the the East Ramapo Central School District’s board passed, with a unanimous vote and a barely audible mumble of approval, next year’s budget. Frustrated parents shook their heads, with weary looks of resignation. “What about the private school cuts,” one woman shouted from the audience. One fact obvious to anyone who was there or who is familiar with politics in the western edge of Rockland County, just north of New York City in the Lower Hudson Valley is that the parents were all black and Latino and all but one of the members of the board were white, Orthodox Jewish men.

Nearly everyone in attendance agreed, the budget, even this one that included a fresh round of deep cuts to an already decimated system, was likely going to need fresh hacking by summer’s end. A significant chunk of this provisional budget was predicated on longshot money the board hopes to get from the statehouse in Albany. But no one realistically thinks these funds are coming, especially for a town whose mayor is consumed in a statewide corruption scandal and named in a federal indictment. That means fewer teachers, more overburdened administrators, less security, and the elimination of more sports, programs and a wide array of electives and clubs that the students praise.

April’s board meeting lacked much of the theater and civic fireworks that have distinguished recent meetings; the protests, the accusations of anti-Semitism, the symbolic show of the board members recusing themselves to the executive suite to outlast angry parents and students delivering fiery speeches to empty chairs. But it did retain one distinctive feature—the furtive, almost clandestine way people talk to one another after the meeting has been gaveled.

Some audience members gathered in small, tight circles in the back of the board room. Others slipped into the hallway and began to talk in hushed tones. Two words whispered like a warning in the hallway that evening were those of a Brooklyn neighborhood.

“Crown Heights,” said Robert Forrest, casting a glance down the corridor. “That’s what’s going to happen here. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet, honestly. This is little East Ramapo, not Brooklyn, not New York City. We don’t want that happening here. But if we keep taking everything from these kids that’s what we’re going to get. We’re waiting for Armageddon.”

Like many here active in the fight between those involved in the public schools and the religiously-dominated school board, Forrest, a candidate running in the May 21 school board election, said he does not wish for the violence. But when he looks at the cuts the school board has made—a board of Orthodox Jews who do not mirror the demographics of the children they serve (a mostly black and Latino school district)—he is one among many who worry that a perfect storm is brewing for a public safety catastrophe.

Ramapo, like most school districts in New York, is under tremendous financial strain. {snip} But Ramapo’s problems are also unique in the state. Here, a complicated set of circumstances brought about by a demographic split has allowed public money to pour into religious schools. In this community in the Lower Hudson Valley, some 21,000 private school students are from the Ultra Orthodox community, more than double the number of public school children in the district.

To understand how the members of a religious sect took control of the only majority black and Latino school district in all of Rockland County, one has to be aware of local demographics, little known loopholes in the law, and the anti-modernist tradition of the Hasidic community.

Because of state and federal law, if a child needs special education and the school district can not provide it, then public money must pay for the student to attend a different school that can provide those services. In Ramapo, the public schools can provide those services. But the Hasidic community argues that since their religion forbids them from sending their children to public schools (girls and boys cannot attend the same schools, for instance, let alone ride in the same school buses), the local school board needs to pick up the tab.

{snip} Since the [Orthodox] community has taken control of the board support for public schools and other services that serve public school children have been slashed. Leaders of the Hasidic community here argue that their children don’t need sports, or arts or music, so why do the public school children?

Legally, the state is only required to provide what is mandated. {snip}

{snip}

Most parents, students and educators say those programs enrich education and attract students to school and, more importantly, keep them off the streets and involved in something where they are supervised. But, using the logic of austerity, the religiously-dominated board have slashed and gutted classes and programs, the last budget being only the most recent. {snip}

Yehuda Weissmandl, a Haisdic Jew who assumed leadership of the school board when his predecessor abruptly resigned last month, said the allegations that the religious dominated board redirects the money from public school children to the yeshivas is false.

“The biggest misconception that we have here is that we’re sticking our hands into the pockets of the public school kids and putting it in our childrens’ pockets,” he said. “That is not true and it is offensive. I give away lot of time to these children, time I should be spending with my children because I’m very passionate about these children.”

He said the blame lies with the calculation Albany uses to determine state aid. He said 76 percent of the children in East Ramapo qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, more than double the state average. But the state, since it only counts the 9,000 public school children in its calculation, funds them as if they were one of the wealthiest.

“We’re not poor,” he said. “We are very, very poor. Unfortunately we’re in the position where nothing else is left to be cut. We’re down to the skin and bone at this point.”

{snip}

An Uncertain Present Haunted by a Violent Past

Crown Heights, a now rapidly gentrifying enclave in central Brooklyn, is a neighborhood whose name became code for ethnic, racial and religious strife in New York City. In August 1991, riots broke out in the streets of Crown Heights when a Guyanese boy Gavin Cato, 7, was killed after an accident involving the motorcade of a Hasidic Rebbe. The accident, the boy’s death, and long simmering tensions between the Caribbean and Hasidic communities precipitated in three days of violence, beatings, looting and destruction. An Israeli flag was burned, Hasidic homes were damaged, and hundreds were injured. Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic man, was stabbed and beaten to death by a group of black men. 

What people fear here is Crown Heights with a twist. They worry that the teenagers in the public school system, after witnessing their social safety net slashed by a religiously-dominated majority on the school board, will turn to violence as a solution to the problems for which the intractable racially and religiously tainted politics here has had no answer.

This small-town clash of civilizations has been described by many as a “civil war,” one where the black and Latino students are the victims. {snip}

“That’s a huge concern for us,” said Spring Valley Police Chief Paul Modica. “My biggest fear is that they’ll cut all these programs and the kids will have nothing. We’re a village of working class families. These parents they’re working two, three jobs to make ends meet. You’re going to have a situation where these kids are going to have nothing better to do than roam the streets.”

Spring Valley is one of 17 police jurisdictions in the state that is responsible for 80 percent of the violent crime that occurs outside of New York City. Most of the children affected by the cuts live in Spring Valley, Modica said.

{snip}

Two Sides and No One Is Listening

As of now, with the two sides incapable of even listening to one another, there is little confidence that anything can be done to avert it. A number of lawsuits—federal, state and local—are wending their way through the legal systems, and other state agency reviews of the situation are underway. Activists have appealed to the state to take emergency action and replace the school board. Those, however, are a long way off from any resolution and the emergency facing the town’s children, observers say, is urgent.

{snip}

Rabbi Mayer Schiller, a member of the Hasidic community, said he is keenly aware of how the relations in town have deteriorated as the battle over the school board has coarsened feelings between the Hasidic community and the other residents in the working class villages that make up Ramapo.

“There is so much fear and suspicion on both sides,” he said from the doorway of his synagogue, Rachmistrivka, housed in a multi-family dwelling that sits in a cul de sac. “The residents here, they inhabit different worlds. The challenge is to preserve our identity without denying the identity of the other. It is a real conundrum.” 

{snip}

The differences between the residents here run deeper than houses of worship, or the study of sacred texts. They are granular and work their way into every aspect of life. Haitian barber shops and Central American markets butt up against Kosher pizzerias and markets. At bus stops, clusters of Hispanic families wait for a bus while 50 yards away, Hasidic families in their conservative garb, wait for a separate bus. Even a glance at the architecture of a health clinic will reveal which residents it serves. The differences are sharp but ubiquitous.

The divisions reveal themselves even in the use of language. Residents use a shorthand of the “public kids” and the “private kids,” to demarcate the black and Latino children from the Hasidic children. There are separate newsletters filled with tips for children, one for public school parents and one for non-public school parents.

“We live two separate lives, we live in two separate worlds,” Arnold Cruz, a sophomore at Spring Valley High School, said of the Hasidic and Hispanic and black residents in Ramapo. “There’s like a boundary that divides us. It’s not official, it’s not one you’ll find on a map, but you can feel it. It’s one everyone knows.”

{snip}

What has happened here defies the normal narrative about minorities and majorities. For about the last 15 years, Ramapo and its constituent villages have been populated by different branches of the Haredi community, the most conservative branch of Judaism, also described as Ultra Orthodox Hasidic Jews, and their 20,000 students. The community prizes insularity, and view diversity as a threat to their worldview instead of a pleasant civic buzzword.

{snip}

Separate and Unequal

On the other side are immigrant families and their 9,000 children who see the education system as at the heart of their aspirations to becoming part of the American fabric. This collision of worldviews, one that many on both sides say is irreconcilable, has led to a fight for political control of the local school board, and subsequently for the future of a generation of poor mostly black and Latino children here. 

In January of this year the last two remaining non-Orthodox members of the board resigned in protest, citing intimidation from their fellow board members as a reason for their sudden departure. {snip}

Willie Trotman, president of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP, has worked with Cohen since 2002. They have worked side by side in the effort to remove the board, reform the school system, and restore the programs to the children here. But Trotman does not share his colleagues’ empathy for the Hasidic community. He sees the battle for the schools in stark, unequivocal terms.

“This is about segregation,” he said. “This about a system that is separate and becoming more and more unequal. I think it’s the Hasidic community versus the rest of the world.”

{snip}

“If you want to put your kids in a private school fine, but we fight for public education because of Brown versus the Board of Education,” he said. “They’re unjust to their kids by not allowing them to become part of America. You just can’t become part of Monsey,” he said referring to the mostly Hasidic village, “and not part of America and then expect America to pay for that. That diversity is what America thrives on.”

{snip}

“Their kids, the private kids, and our kids, they’re the same amount of American, you know,” said Elsa Palma, in Spanish from behind a glass counter filled with cosmetics. “We’re in America. Everyone deserves a chance.”

She says the two communities need to come together, but in recent years the tension has grown and the resentment has started to harden. Attempts to mediate the two sides have ended with failure. Now communication between the two sides is limited to angry exchanges at the public meetings and little else.

{snip}

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