A short drive from both Albany and New York City, the East Ramapo Central School District is a hyper-segregated suburban school system where 21st Century Jim Crow education has taken root. Following a school board takeover by a white majority in 2009, a generation of public school students has been denied an adequate education, and New York’s leaders have failed to meaningfully address a decade of mismanagement.
District leaders have extracted resources from public schools, which are almost entirely attended by students of color, while lavishly funding private schools attended by white students. Public school students, parents, education advocates, and community members have pushed state leaders to fix the deeply unequal and struggling district for more than a decade. Legislators have responded with unprecedented state interventions intended to mitigate the problems. Despite these positive steps forward and years of grassroots efforts, East Ramapo’s deep-rooted issues persist.
To detail the impacts of the district’s most recent failures, this brief examines the financial spending, student outcomes, and staffing capacity of East Ramapo in the last three years and makes bold recommendations for the future of its public schools.
State data shows:
In 2020-2021, nearly 41 percent of students in East Ramapo were chronically absent. This includes almost half of students who are English Language Learners (ELLs).
In 2019-2020, only 17 percent of East Ramapo students received an advanced diploma, compared to 34-74 percent of students in neighboring districts.
East Ramapo schools have a higher dropout rate than the other seven school districts in Rockland County: 20 percent compared to 6 percent or less.
In almost every grade and on almost every test, fewer than 10 percent of English Language Learners in East Ramapo reached proficiency on Math or English Language Arts tests.
Equity is paramount when it comes to funding public schools. New York recognizes this and provides additional state dollars to help fund schools in districts where local wealth is lower. East Ramapo does not lack the necessary financial capacity to support great schools. While East Ramapo public school students are recognized by the state as having high needs compared to other districts, there is substantial income and property wealth within the district. In fact, according to State Education Department data, East Ramapo is in the top 25 percent of districts statewide for income and property wealth. Yet, when it comes to the level of funds provided by local taxpayers, what the state refers to as “Local Effort,” it is in the bottom 25 percent of districts.1
Rockland County School Districts' Local Revenue Effort Rate
The local tax effort in East Ramapo is well below that of the rest of the state and is inadequate to provide the constitutionally mandated “sound basic education” that all students deserve. East Ramapo is the most fiscally stressed district in the state, according to the New York State Comptroller.2 This is not because the district lacks wealth, but because white voters refuse to fund public schools.
Fiscally Stressed School Districts in New York (2021)
In fact, East Ramapo voters have defeated the school budget—refusing to pay enough taxes to adequately fund public education—more often than any other district in the state.3 As a result, despite having significantly greater student needs, the East Ramapo district spends less per pupil than any other district in Rockland County and less than the county average: just $26,327 compared to $29,272. While a difference of $3,000 may seem small, it translates to over 27 million dollars in a district of almost 10,000 public school students. Twenty-seven million dollars annually could be used to hire an additional 400 educators, guidance counselors, or school support staff in East Ramapo.4
East Ramapo is also not lacking in state dollars. In 2019-2020, State Aid provided 33 percent of the revenue in East Ramapo, considerably more than the average for the rest of Rockland County, which was just 17 percent.
Put simply, East Ramapo shows that our state’s system of local funding of public schools can be undermined by racially motivated voters who are not personally invested in the health of local schools. A refusal to pay voters’ fair share cannot be rewarded by increasing the state’s contribution to make up the difference. At the same time, the state cannot stand by while East Ramapo public schools are starved.
Daily Attendance (2019-2020)
A fundamental component of effective schooling is ensuring that students attend classes and participate regularly. Absenteeism is a major contributor to low graduation and high dropout rates.5 Average daily attendance was 92 percent in the East Ramapo Central School District as compared to 95-96 percent in every other district in Rockland County. In a district with around 9,200 public school students, that may mean as many as 275 students missing from class each day.
Rockland County School Districts' Attendance Rates (2021)
There are proven strategies to address absenteeism, including hiring family engagement staff and attendance teachers, ensuring that students have access to counselors, social workers and disability services, and employing school-based health strategies. Unfortunately, without adequate local funding, none of these resources can be provided in East Ramapo.
Chronic Absenteeism (2020-2021)
Nationally, 10-14 percent of students are chronically absent – defined as missing 10 percent or more of days in a school year. In the East Ramapo Central School District, nearly 41 percent of elementary students were chronically absent, including nearly 48 percent of ELLs. In East Ramapo high schools, nearly 54 percent of students were chronically absent, including 67 percent of ELLs. Chronic absenteeism has been at crisis levels in East Ramapo since at least 2017.6
During the 2020-21 school year, COVID-19 school closings and remote learning had a negative impact on school attendance across the state. However, no other school district in Rockland County had similar outcomes to East Ramapo. Across the county, districts addressed connectivity issues and chronic absenteeism remained below 15 percent for high school students and below 12 percent for elementary school students, with several districts performing even better.
Graduation and Drop-Out Rates (2019-20)
Excluding East Ramapo, between 86-96 percent of Rockland County high school students graduate in four years. High school students in East Ramapo graduate at a much lower rate of 65 percent. Graduation rates for Black and Latinx students in East Ramapo trail all other districts in the county.
Rockland County School Districts' Graduation Rates (2021)
Between 34-74 percent of students in the seven Rockland school districts excluding East Ramapo received an advanced diploma. Only 17 percent of students in East Ramapo did the same.
East Ramapo schools also have a higher dropout rate than the other seven school districts: 20 percent compared to between one and six percent for all other districts in Rockland County. A 20 percent dropout rate—meaning one in five students does not graduate— is a major cause for concern. This problem could be mitigated if every student had access to a counselor who could help create an engaging schedule and identify goals to help them stay in school. But because of East Ramapo’s fiscal situation, counselors are in short supply.
Dropout rates for Latinx students are much higher in East Ramapo than any other district in Rockland County: 29 percent compared to between two and 16 percent in neighboring districts. And the rate for ELLs is even higher: an astounding 52 percent - one in two - of these students drop out. Across the other seven districts, 33-45 percent of ELLs drop out.
Rockland County School Districts' Dropout Rates (2021)
While New York faces a statewide challenge to improve services for ELL students, it is especially remarkable in a place like East Ramapo, which is home to diverse immigrant communities that are aching to work with the district to create better outcomes. Spring Valley, the center of the East Ramapo school district, has a foreign-born population of almost 40 percent.7 If immigrant community members were reached in their home languages and invited to participate and contribute to their children’s education, East Ramapo would have a rich base of support to help its high-needs students. Instead, immigrant families report that they are ignored, denied services, and struggle to communicate with the district.8 In just one example, parents regularly have to fight to get district communications translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole, the two most common non-English languages spoken in the area.
English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Proficiency in Grades 3-8 in Rockland County (2020-2021)
There are many reasons to doubt the validity of results on high stakes standardized tests. For one, research has demonstrated that students whose life experiences most closely parallel those of the test creators will get the highest scores.9 Test scores are not a measure of student intelligence or potential, and they are especially harmful when used against students with disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. For these reasons, the NYCLU advocates for standardized tests to be used sparingly, and never with high-stakes decisions, like grade promotion, graduation, or funding attached to student test performance.
Nevertheless, the state has determined that English Language Arts (ELA) and Math test scores are a valid measure of a school’s performance. And we recognize that parents often use these scores to glean information about teacher quality and available resources for their kids.
In 2020-21, East Ramapo student proficiency on math and ELA exams trailed the rest of Rockland County. In fourth through eighth grade Math, the average proficiency rate for other Rockland County districts was four to seven times higher than in East Ramapo. In East Ramapo, less than a quarter of elementary and middle school students were proficient in Math; in fifth, seventh, and eighth grades the numbers dropped to 10 percent or less.
2020-2021 Rockland County School Districts' English Language Arts and Math Test Scores Grades 3-8
In ELA, in grades three to eight, other Rockland County districts had average proficiency rates that were at least two to three times higher than East Ramapo’s. In some grades, fewer than one in five East Ramapo students were proficient in ELA, and in no grades did more than one-in-three students score as proficient.
Again, the problem is most severe for English Language Learners. In almost every grade and on almost every test, fewer than 10 percent of ELLs reached proficiency.
In almost every school district in New York, resources are limited and maintaining ideal student-to-staff ratios is a challenge. This is especially true when it comes to counseling staff, who are in short supply in many schools.
While the New York State Board of Regents recommends a maximum ratio of 250 students to each school counselor10, in East Ramapo, the ratio is an astounding 695:1. For the other districts in Rockland County, the average ratio is 409:1 (the National average is 415:111). While all fall short of the recommended staffing ratio, East Ramapo is way behind.
Rockland County School Districts' Student to Counselor Ratio (2021)
Inadequate access to school counselors can translate into higher absenteeism and dropout rates, and more behavioral problems. Counselors can help students select courses that are most interesting to them and can keep them on a path to graduate. Counselors can also help students handle emotional needs that – if left unaddressed – could lead to conflicts with fellow students or staff.
Counselors often act as the glue that helps keep the school community together. Yet in East Ramapo, they are almost nowhere to be found. With caseloads of nearly 700 students, it is no surprise that counselors are unable to fill the gaps for East Ramapo kids.
East Ramapo’s chronic absenteeism, rising dropout rates, and abysmally low test scores – especially for ELL students –prove that the state’s interventions within the system are not enough. Students still leave the district without a constitutionally guaranteed sound basic education. It is past time to take bold action to correct the broken system of power and privilege in the district.
Local legislators and the State Education Department have passed into law an unprecedented monitoring program to try to restore transparency and accountability to the East Ramapo school board. It is essential to continually improve its implementation to make as much progress as possible while work continues on long term solutions. State-appointed monitors have the power to end or prevent some of the worst funding drains on the district and re-establish the goals of the public school system. Given the especially pronounced struggles of ELL students, we recommend that at least one of the monitors be an expert in educating English Language Learners, and that the monitors be provided a budget for translation and interpretation.
Under existing law, the East Ramapo monitors should:
Veto any contracts or contract extensions that pay for professional services at more than the prevailing rates for neighboring school districts.
Establish precise, public guidelines for balancing the district’s budget, and prioritize spending that focuses on teaching and learning, rather than administrative services.
Enact a board resolution to end the practice of door-to-door transportation, which is a primary contributor to the district’s financial hardship.
The Board of Regents – which is responsible for education in New York – should adopt policies to explicitly ensure all public-school parents can vote in local school board elections, regardless of citizenship status. One reason the white population in East Ramapo has managed to dominate school board and budget votes so completely is that a large proportion of non-white adults in the district are not citizens and cannot vote. In fact, our current system of school board elections prioritizes the voting power of people who have no connection to public schools over noncitizens who themselves may work in public schools and whose children attend those schools.
All residents who live in the district should have a say in district decisions, which impact the health of their community, their taxes, and property values. Documented and undocumented immigrants and Permanent Residents pay taxes and are likely to send their children to public schools. It is wrong to create a supposedly democratic structure that shuts out their voices.
In New York City, all public-school parents can vote to elect representatives to their Community Education Councils, and this could be the system all over the state. There are at least 14 jurisdictions across the country with noncitizen voting, including San Francisco, Montpelier, Vermont, and suburbs of Washington, D.C. Even where noncitizen voting would not change the composition of the school board, it creates a pathway for parents to better understand and get involved in school district matters.
School bus services are an enormous drain on East Ramapo’s finances. For many years, the district has paid for every public and private school student to receive door-to-door bus service, no matter how close or far away they live. Included in this is the astronomical cost of providing gender-segregated busses to private school families—something that is not only economically unsound but constitutionally suspect. After adopting universal bussing, ERCSD private school transportation costs exploded from 2010 to 2014, rising more than 76 percent12. This service costs the district tens of millions a year even as it has started to disappear for public school families. Busing has been interrupted, delayed, and denied due to staff shortages and vendor issues13. As recently as May 2021, the state comptroller has faulted the district for overspending its transportation budget when it exceeded the amount it had allotted by more than $5 million14.
The state should establish an independent body to take over transportation contracts and arrangements for districts like East Ramapo, where the enrolled private school population equals or exceeds the public school population. This body would be responsible for making school bus contracts more consistent and transparent. It would also be able to use the fact that it is bigger and has more bargaining power than a single school district to bring down costs. Importantly, doing this would remove the responsibility for transportation costs from the budgets of local districts with big private education costs, freeing up much-needed funds.
Under state and federal law, certain costs associated with educating students in private schools must be borne by the public. In addition to transportation within a certain mile range, these costs include textbooks (which are loaned to private schools), federally-funded educational supports for low-income students (known as Title I funds), and special education services for students with disabilities.
The district has spent exorbitantly on these services, however, and provided disparate services to public and private school students. Between 2003 and 2017, the school board cut 15 public school special education teachers , while increasing private school special education funding by a third. While it is not improper for a district to provide for special education services for private school students, it should never pit one student group against another for scarce services.
An independent statewide authority to manage mandated services would free up local budgets for public school necessities. It could also ensure better quality control over how funds are distributed and how they’re spent.
As a good-government measure, and to ensure that education dollars actually support teaching and learning, New York should establish a reasonable limit on hourly rates for professional services purchased by school districts.
The East Ramapo school board has paid astoundingly high fees for outside legal counsel and other professional services. For example, in 2021, the board retained a law firm, Morgan Lewis, at $450-650 an hour15. In 2016, the board also paid a private lobbying firm $42,000 to fight increased state oversight16. While State Monitors in East Ramapo are working to reign in legal fees in the current budget, this is not a permanent solution17.
While long term solutions are necessary to improve East Ramapo schools, current students need a life raft. They need a new option that can expose students to engaging curriculum and staunch the flow of dropouts. One such option is to increase the number of students who attend programming provided by the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES.
Throughout the state, BOCES provides students in participating districts with services like special education instruction, occupational education, information technology training, and more. Rockland County’s BOCES has a well-deserved reputation for providing innovative, high-quality, and challenging educational programming for students throughout the county. For example, its Pathways in Technology Early College High School gives students the chance to graduate high school with an associate’s degree at no cost.
East Ramapo’s monitors should work with BOCES to educate more high school students who are currently underserved. The monitors have the authority to transfer funds from the district to BOCES to cover the cost of educating these students. Ultimately, this could cover the entire district and place the education of East Ramapo into the hands of a more responsible entity. At minimum, BOCES could provide a fresh start for more students in East Ramapo.
1. The source for these calculations is this data set from the New York State Education Department: https://www.oms.nysed.gov/faru/Profiles/Masterfiles93-94to19-20_final_consistentformulasnopivot.xlsx. The relevant columns are column AV Combined Wealth Ratio and column BJ Local Revenue Effort Rate. The Combined Wealth Ratio (CWR) measures a district’s wealth by looking at both income and property wealth (as explained on p. 76 of the 2021-22 State Aid Handbook published by NYSED). East Ramapo’s CWR ranks in the top 25% of school districts. The Local Revenue Effort Rate provides a comparative measure of local school districts’ contributions to local schools by “dividing local revenue by the actual property value of the district” (as explained by the Fiscal Analysis and Research Unit of NYSED). East Ramapo ranks in the bottom 25% of school districts on their Local Revenue Effort Rate.
2. Office of the New York State Comptroller, “DiNapoli: 23 School Districts Designated in Fiscal Stress,” 27 Jan. 2022, https://www.osc.state.ny.us/press/releases/2022/01/dinapoli-23-school-districts-designated-fiscal-stress.
3. Zambito, Thomas. “East Ramapo votes no on school budget, the lone rejection in Lower Hudson Valley.” The Journal News, 19. Jun 2020, https://www.lohud.com/story/news/2020/06/19/east-ramapo-rejects-247-m-school-budget/3224017001/.
4. East Ramapo Central School District Teacher Salaries and Benefits, https://jobs.teacher.org/school-district/east-ramapo-central-school-district/ (2022).
5. Attendance Works: Advancing Student Success by Reducing Chronic Absenteeism, https://www.attendanceworks.org/chronic-absence/the-problem/.
6. East Ramapo Central School District: 2020-2025 (Long-Term) Strategic Academic and Fiscal Plan, 27 Oct. 2021, http://www.nysed.gov/common/nysed/files/programs/accountability/ercsd-revised-strategic-academic-fiscal-plan-2020-2025-english-version-10-27-2021.pdf
7. Spring Valley, NY, https://datausa.io/profile/geo/spring-valley-ny.
8. Cutler, Nancy. “Hundreds show up to criticize East Ramapo board for bus mess that leaves kids stranded.” The Journal News, 14 Sept. 2021, https://www.lohud.com/story/news/education/2021/09/14/east-ramapo-meeting-crowd-school-bus-shortage/8329917002/; Zambito, Thomas. “Students go absent and East Ramapo's Latino parents blame school board.” The Journal News, 10 Jun. 2021, https://www.lohud.com/story/news/2021/06/10/east-ramapos-latino-parents-challenge-school-district-do-better/7092072002/.
9. Testimony of the New York Civil Liberties Union before The New York City Council Committee on Education: “Breaking Testing Culture: Evaluating multiple pathways to determine student mastery,” 24 Sept. 2019, https://www.nyclu.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/high-stakes-testing-gifted-testimony.pdf.
10. New York State Education Department Board of Regents, 16. Sept 2015, https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/meetings/SchoolCounselor.pdf.
11. American School Counselor Association, School Counselors Roles & Rations, https://www.schoolcounselor.org/About-School-Counseling/School-Counselor-Roles-Ratios (2022).
13. Solis, Marcus. “East Ramapo schools face bus driver shortage as students return to class.” abc7.com, 14 Sept. 2021, https://abc7ny.com/east-ramapo-bus-driver-shortage-new-york-schools/11020429/.
15. Berg, Lauren. “Judge Says School District ‘Greatly Overpaid’ Morgan Lewis.” law360.com, 5 Mar. 2021, https://www.lw.com/mediaCoverage/latham-naacp-awarded-millions-attorney-fees-east-ramapo-central-school-district-pro-bono-victory.
16. Lerner, Jane. “East Ramapo hires lobbyist despite controversy.” The Journal News, 12 Jan. 2016, https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/2016/01/12/east-ramapo-puts-plan-lobbyist-hold/78695254/.
17. In 2016, a new provision of Education Law required the East Ramapo Central School District to develop and implement a long-term strategic Academic and Fiscal Improvement Plan. ERCSD developed a set of goals, measures of student progress, professional practices, and educational strategies as they pertain to the academic and fiscal health of the district.