“But government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience. The nation’s founding fathers were no more enthusiastic towards the powers of democracy.
“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine,” Thomas Jefferson
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide,” John Adams
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” Ben Franklin
There’s no way these men could’ve anticipated the events of the last ten years in East Ramapo. However, the way that East Ramapo’s legally elected school board, controlled by a religious community which doesn’t send their children to public schools, has systematically dismantled the district over the course of the past decade, surely qualifies as suicide of democracy by John Adams’s definition.
At this juncture, the story’s been widely documented. Comprehensive tales in New York magazine and This American Life, respectively, are like noxious tonics of adrenaline and noradrenaline, causing the blood to boil and the heart to bleed pathos. In short, the Orthodox community in the area began voting in blocks, won control of the school board, and diverted money away from the public schools, to transportation and special education services for their children who attend private yeshivas; the public schools, comprised predominantly of racial and ethnic minorities, subsequently have, put mildly, suffered.
The first significant action by the state came in June of 2014, when Hank Greenberg was appointed by Governor Cuomo as the district’s fiscal monitor. In November 2014, after five months of monitoring the board, Greenberg issued a comprehensive report that, among its chilling findings, recommended a monitor with veto power be appointed to review and overturn any “bad decisions” by the local school board.
The NYS Assembly approved a bill granting veto power to a state appointed monitor in June 2015. However, New York Senate Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, (R-Suffolk County) declined to bring the bill to the Senate floor.
“I think [the bill]’s an important first step to rebuild trust in the community,” said one of the bill’s foremost proponents, NYS Senator David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown). “The divide in the community is growing. By having a monitor on the ground with veto power, it would restore that trust. We can move on to the important issues of moving education policy into the 21st century and making sure all of our students get the best education possible.”
Following the setback last June, former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott was hired to lead a new monitor team for the East Ramapo School District. After their own five-month review period, Walcott presented “Opportunity Deferred: A Report on the East Ramapo Central School District” in mid-December. He made 19 recommendations in the report. The foremost was the same as Greenberg’s: East Ramapo needs an independent monitor with veto power.
Reaction from the East Ramapo Board and their Orthodox constituency have been predictably hostile. “Suggesting that the state-appointed monitors should have veto power over the democratically elected board, and effectively disenfranchise its voters who elected the board…is openly discriminatory against the Orthodox board and voters,” wrote Kalman Weber, a Monsey resident and president of the South East Taxpayers Association, in a Journal News op-ed on December 14.
Definition: Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren’t really alike in the relevant respects, the analogy is a weak one, and the argument that relies on it commits the fallacy of weak analogy.
Example: “Our honorable president of the USA sends his children to private schools in Washington, D.C., not to public school; the previous New York State education commissioner did the same. Is the monitor suggesting that the president and commissioner should not be trusted with public school education?”
Appeal to pity
Definition: The appeal to pity takes place when an arguer tries to get people to accept a conclusion by making them feel sorry for someone.
Example: “The East Ramapo School Board members are upright, honest American citizens and are entitled to sit on the school board. They are volunteers who do not get paid and do an amazing job with the limited available resources.”
Definition: The arguer claims that a sort of chain reaction, usually ending in some dire consequence, will take place, but there’s really not enough evidence for that assumption. The arguer asserts that if we take even one step onto the “slippery slope,” we will end up sliding all the way to the bottom; he or she assumes we can’t stop partway down the hill.
Example: “So the voters have absolutely no say in running the district, so in effect, the monitor would run the district, not the school board.”
Though Weber’s argument contains enough fallacies for a day’s lesson in one of East Ramapo’s high schools’ English composition classes, he’s got a point. If Walcott’s recommendation were to come to fruition it would be a check on the district’s unfettered democracy. But to borrow Ben Franklin’s analogy, in East Ramapo, the Orthodox voting blocs have acted like lions, and currently there’s a lamb that needs protecting: the thousands of mostly black and Hispanic students who attend East Ramapo schools. Democracy isn’t working for these students. They consistently fall far below the state average in every testing metric. They are being educationally short-changed and unfulfilled.
When Weber concludes that the imposition of a monitor with veto powers “is openly discriminatory against the Orthodox board and voters,” he is trying to turn a widely accepted societal norm – providing a free, quality education to everyone – into a religious discrimination complaint. It is not the Orthodox board members’ religion that has drawn the ire of their neighbors and the eye of the State; it is the separatism inspired by that religion.
Greenberg’s report documented that three out of four students in the East Ramapo School District attend private schools. Most of these 32,000 children are Orthodox and attend Jewish yeshivas.
Over the last ten years, the predominantly Orthodox school board has consistently made budget decisions that benefited private schools at the expense of the public schools. For example, East Ramapo spent more money on bussing than any other non-NYC district in New York State. They spent lavish amounts on lawyers to defend their decisions, increasing school district legal expenditures 668% from 2008-2009 to 2013-2014. And all this was done with minimal public discourse. The board, Greenberg reported, “routinely spends 60% to 70% of meetings in executive session, not complying with open meetings law.”
To be presented with such data and then argue that the school board members “do an amazing job with the limited available resources,” that the problem is simply that the district is receiving insufficient state funding, is, frankly, indicative of a perspective not worthy of attention or indignation.
But Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s perspective does matter. He and his Republican cohort are the greatest obstacle to the passage of this vital bill. And Flanagan’s explanations have been frighteningly similar to Weber’s. Flanagan’s position has devolved from not wanting the elected officials’ powers to be usurped, to telling a group of Jewish leaders that one of the reasons he wouldn’t support legislation to give a monitor a veto was because he sensed “racial overtones” and “anti-Semitism” in the Assembly. Senator Flanagan’s office declined to respond to a request to back up these statements.
Although the mess in East Ramapo might be dire, it isn’t without precedent. New York State has taken over districts, such as Roosevelt, in Long Island*, because of poor performance. And no doubt, those districts’ school boards objected. The state, though, decided that the needs of their students came first. Given this precedent, it’s hard to make the case that the East Ramapo School board should receive any special treatment just because of their religious convictions. Yes, Mr. Flanagan, there is discrimination in East Ramapo… but not against the group that you are so ardently defending.
Each bad decision by the East Ramapo school board deprives thousands of students of an adequate education, and compromises their future. Voice your support for a monitor veto by writing Senator Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling his Albany office at 518-455-2071.
*This editorial has been updated to correct a sentence claiming that 700 school districts in NYS had been taken over at one time or another. It is, in reality, quite rare for districts to be taken over by the state.