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This school district harms its own kids: Rockland’s East Ramapo Central district is falling apart and needs intervention

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

For more than seven years, 10,000 public school students — almost entirely children of color — in the East Ramapo Central School District just 40 miles north of New York City have had lead in their school water fountains. My organization, the New York Civil Liberties Union recently broke the news in a letter to state officials co-signed by 24 other groups calling for state intervention. Students speak of going thirsty after gym glass, of mold collecting in the water coolers provided to replace drinking fountains, and of washing their hands next to hazard signs.

But the story is bigger. School district leaders haven’t simply failed to fix the water problem. They’ve failed every part of the school system and hollowed out the educations of tens of thousands of public school students. Echoing the environmental racism of the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Mich., contamination and inaction in East Ramapo have been the result of malfeasance and mismanagement.

Not long ago, East Ramapo boasted some of the state’s best public schools. In 2005 the area’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish majority — whose children almost entirely attend private yeshivas — organized and won control of the school board. In 2009, the new board began gutting the public schools, whose students are 95% Black and Latinx.

The board eliminated hundreds of public school positions, including teachers, social workers, and more, while authorizing eye-popping millions of taxpayer funds to the district’s private religious schools, including door-to-door, gender-segregated busing for students.

The board slashed funding for public schools, public school buildings fell apart, and facilities were sold off to private schools for bargain prices. Students now routinely report rotten food, nonfunctional bathrooms, buses that don’t arrive, and more. The impact on student outcomes has been calamitous.

By 2021, East Ramapo schools’ dropout rate of 20% was more than three times greater than the other seven school districts in Rockland County. Nearly 41% of students were chronically absent, more than half of whom are English language learners. In 2020, as many as 29% of Latinx students dropped out, compared to a statewide average of 8%.

Among the ongoing obstacles to fixing the district’s problems is that the district’s religious-school voters consistently reject public school budgets. Over the past 15 years, school budget tax increases have failed 11 times in East Ramapo — more than any other district in the state. This forces the district to adopt barebones budgets. In June, the voting majority once again approved a 0% levy increase, leaving a meager $6.3 million for public school building repairs. According to a recent state mandated Building Condition Survey, that’s $230 million short of what’s needed to address just the immediate structural, health and safety concerns.

What would the public-school community want if it had a meaningful voice? Just this spring the NYCLU and local parents conducted a massive organizing effort, engaging thousands of families and students — including noncitizens who cannot vote on school matters but whose children attend public schools. More than 2,100 residents participated, including disenfranchised noncitizens who would have voted in favor of the rejected school budget. The district’s latest budget vote failed by only 45 votes.

The public-school community identified what fixes they would have prioritized if the budget had been approved. Families want healthy food, better safety measures, more bilingual services, desperately-needed building repairs, updated classroom materials, and expanded extracurricular activities.

The desire for input and improvement is palpable, but the deck is stacked against public school families in East Ramapo. If nothing changes, the district could face a$44.3 million deficit by 2028. Students could lose access to full-day Kindergarten, electives, sports, and AP courses, and could see further cuts to security and sanitation.

The state has been fretting over East Ramapo for years, including by installing a series of state monitors who report on conditions. Yet nothing has altered the district’s systemically racist governance. Some in Albany are thinking bigger. In response to the latest news about lead in the drinking fountains, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski called for structural changes that acknowledge local control has failed.

The time has come for Albany to take bold, meaningful action. The governor and state Education Department must take control of the district to ensure we protect the futures of students of color. In doing so, the state must not replicate the dilution of public-school voices or the disenfranchisement of noncitizen families.

Seven years in, and East Ramapo’s students of color still can’t expect safe water fountains. If Albany continues to allow 21st century Jim Crow to fester in East Ramapo, state leaders shouldn’t expect to keep a clear conscience.

This piece was originally published in the New York Daily News.

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