Real-life trials are rarely the stuff of TV courtroom drama. But, in the New York Civil Liberties Union’s case against the East Ramapo School District in Rockland County, sparks flew.
A frustrated judge called the credibility of East Ramapo School Board officials and local power brokers into question. And stories of both bravery and intimidation marked the first days of the trial.
The case revolves around the NYCLU’s challenge to the deeply flawed election system, under which all East Ramapo School Board members are elected on an at-large basis by all the voters of the District rather than representing each community within the District. This allows the white majority in the District – which tends to vote as a political bloc – to control every seat on the School Board, which controls the East Ramapo public schools.
As a result, the East Ramapo public schools – where almost all the students are Black and Latinx – have been subjected to drastic budget cuts and the diversion of millions of dollars to white private schools. The cuts have jeopardized the futures of thousands of Black and Latinx students.
To ensure Black and Latinx voters have an equal opportunity to elect candidates who truly represent them, the NYCLU is asking the court to order the School Board to establish a ward system that would allow voters to choose representatives from geographically defined neighborhoods.
Here are six key moments from the trial.
Judge to the district: “I’m offended by what I’ve seen here today”
East Ramapo School Board President Harry Grossman took the stand on Thursday. After about an hour of his testimony, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel had had enough.
“I’m offended by what I’ve seen here today,” Judge Seibel said. “And I think anybody who reads plain English would feel the same way.
“I cannot tell a lie,” Judge Seibel continued. “I do think this witness is not credible.”
At another point during his testimony, Judge Seibel told Grossman, “I rarely say this, but you did take a solemn vow to tell the truth—under penalty of perjury.”
The judge’s comments came after Grossman was asked about his 2017 text conversations on WhatsApp. The texts help establish that the white community in East Ramapo uses a “slating organization” that chooses their slate for the school Board, gathers signatures to get them on the ballot, and whips votes to get them elected.
Grossman’s responses to questions about the texts drew Judge Seibel’s frustrated response.
Key figure held in contempt
On Monday, Judge Seibel held Rabbi Yehuda Oshry in contempt of court after he failed to respond to a subpoena. A warrant was later issued for his arrest.
He is referenced in School Board President Grossman’s 2017 texts repeatedly and is widely acknowledged to be the political “king maker” in the white community’s slating process. He’s also reportedly a highly successful matchmaker, credited with pairing together hundreds of married couples.
“If he doesn't show up today, at any moment he could be brought here in handcuffs, which is something I do not want and I'm sure he does not want," Judge Seibel said in court Monday.
Oshry finally testified on Thursday and admitted that he's worked behind the scenes to help the campaigns of several candidates preferred by the white community.
The School Board decimates the public schools
Between 2009 and 2014, the white-controlled Board eliminated more than 445 professional positions, including 200 teachers. Those cuts led to a precipitous decline in the education provided to the almost entirely Black and Latinx students in the public schools. Test scores dropped as did graduation rates.
One of the first witnesses in the trial was former East Ramapo student and Harvard graduate Olivia Castor, who testified about the impacts of those cuts on Spring Valley High School. She recalled classrooms packed with students because of a lack of teachers, students spending some days in two to five periods of lunch or homeroom, and a dearth of extracurricular activities.
When Castor went to the School Board to describe what the budget cuts were doing to her school, Board members accused her of lying and falsifying students’ schedules. One Board member even threatened to fight one of Castor’s fellow students.
Undeterred by the hostile reaction, Castor later went on to lead a student walkout.
Castor also testified about what she found when she visited the white private schools in East Ramapo, which had much nicer facilities.
“You see the students and they’re all white,” Castor testified. “And you say, well, is that about policy or the color of my skin?”
A story of intimidation
When she moved to Spring Valley, Jean Fields – who recently retired as principal of East Ramapo High School – testified that she and her husband, who are both Black, decided to explore their new community and take a ride to the white village of New Square.
“We had only gotten in a few yards when our car was stopped and surrounded by men,” Fields testified. The men interrogated them about what they were doing there and told them to get out of town.
That experience stuck with Fields when she decided to run for a seat on the School Board. She was afraid to campaign in white areas.
“Being a Black woman, I didn’t feel comfortable going there,” Fields said.
The white majority in East Ramapo can stop any candidate they don’t like from winning a School Board seat. But sometimes, the slating organization runs token people of color as candidates.
The WhatsApp texts showed that the District’s lead trial attorney, David Butler, had actually told Board President Grossman to try to help their legal case by supporting a minority candidate against an incumbent.
“Spoke to David Butler today,” Grossman wrote. “He asked me to convey message that it would be good for the case to have a minority run … that the community could support.”
At another point in the trial, former Board member Pierre Germain, who is Black, was asked to account for his comments in a 2014 Tablet Magazine article where he explains why he wore a yarmulke.
“When you work for them, you gotta dress like them,” Germain was quoted as saying.
Germain testified he could not recall making the comment.
A broken system
Dr. Matt Barreto, a voting rights expert and political science professor at UCLA, testified about the specific problems with the East Ramapo election system.
Dr Barreto and his colleague, Dr. Loren Collingwood, used several different methods to analyze every contested School Board election in East Ramapo from 2013 to 2018 to determine whether there is racially polarized voting in the elections.
The analysis showed that white people were voting as a bloc and voting for different candidates than Black and Latinx voters. And in every election, candidates supported by Black and Latinx voters lost.
The combination of at-large elections and racially-polarized voting produces a situation where a cohesive white majority can effectively determine the winner of all Board seats. In East Ramapo, that has meant candidates can only win if they are supported by white voters.
The trial will continue into next week, but the facts laid out so far in the case paint a portrait of public schools that are hurting and an election system that must be fixed.
The scandalous hijacking of the East Ramapo Public School Board, the huge budget cuts to public schools that followed, and the block voting of the white community are well known to just about everyone in the area. But proving it in court takes enormous resources. We are grateful to our co-counsel, Latham & Watkins LLP, for their essential work on this case.