The New York Civil Liberties Union filed an appeal with the State Education Department Thursday challenging the refusal of the widely discredited East Ramapo School Board to seat Sabrina Charles-Pierre for the full two-year term to which she was duly elected in May. According to the NYCLU’s legal papers, this is just the latest example of the board’s dysfunction and consistent disempowerment of the school district’s largely Black and Latino public school community that had actively supported her candidacy. A recent State Education Department investigation found that the East Ramapo School Board had unfairly prioritized the needs of Orthodox Jewish students who attend private and religious schools at the expense of Black and Latino students who attend the district’s public schools.
“Black and Latino children make up over 90 percent of public school students in East Ramapo, but the school board, dominated by the supporters of the Orthodox Jewish community, consistently shortchanges them in favor of white students who attend religious and other private schools,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The board has now ignored the will of the voters and truncated the term of the only Black woman elected to the board who campaigned on a platform to represent the interests of the public school community. The dysfunction, disempowerment and discrimination in East Ramapo schools has to end.”
There are about 9,000 public school students in East Ramapo, 90 percent of whom are black or Latino, while about 24,000 children attend local yeshivas. Since 2005, the board, which is controlled by Orthodox Jewish men, cut 445 public school jobs, reduced kindergarten to a half-day and eliminated many extracurricular programs from the public schools, according to an Education Department report. At the same time, the board has increased spending on out-of-district special-education classes and busing to private schools while also spending the district’s precious resources to aggressively fight lawsuits.
As a result of these longstanding issues, a series of independent monitors have been appointed by the State Education Commissioner to oversee the district.
The NYCLU’s appeal is on behalf of Oscar Cohen, an NAACP official who resides within the East Ramapo Central School District. Cohen voted for Sabrina Charles-Pierre during the annual school board election in May. Charles-Pierre was first appointed to the board in October to fill a vacancy left after a previous trustee resigned. In May Charles-Pierre successfully ran to finish out the remainder of the term, which was set to expire in 2018.
But after its July 26 meeting, the board announced, without explaining why, that Charles-Pierre had not been sworn in on time and could not serve out the rest of the two-year term. Instead, the board appointed Charles-Pierre to serve until the next annual election in May 2017. The NYCLU argues that by removing Charles-Pierre from her properly elected seat, it overturned the election results and rendered Mr. Cohen’s vote meaningless. The board also arbitrarily decided that Charles-Pierre’s term started on a different day than any other person who was elected this year.
“The only woman of color on the board was denied her elected seat because the board misread the law and shirked its administrative responsibilities,” Cohen said. “It is essential that the Commissioner of Education correct this perversion of justice and restore Sabrina Charles Pierre’s duly elected seat.”
“The East Ramapo School Board has singled out Sabrina Charles-Pierre—the only woman on the nine-member board, and the only board member who ran on a slate of representing the interests of the school district’s public school children,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Molly Kovel. “It’s impossible to separate this action from the discrimination that continues to plague East Ramapo.”