Jan 6 — Lead East Ramapo School Board Monitor Dennis Walcott spoke mostly in monotone during his interview on Tuesday. But midway through the interview Walcott began clapping his hands in emphasis. “I’m here for one reason and one reason only, to make sure that the children of the district are getting a quality education,” he said. “I’m working with the individuals. I’m not running for Oval Office, I’m not trying to curry favor anywhere; it’s just on behalf of the students.”
Walcott’s interview with the Journal News Editorial Board on Jan 5 was the first major public follow-up to “Opportunity Deferred: A Report on the East Ramapo Central School District,” issued by his team of state-appointed monitors in mid-December. The report included 19 recommendations — the most contentious of which was implementation of a full-time monitor with veto power over the school board. The Orthodox community — as well as New York State Senator John Flanagan, R-Suffolk — screamed “anti-semitism.” It wasn’t clear who the anti-semite was supposed to be… Walcott? All of the monitors? New York State?… but the thinking went: There are New York districts performing worse than East Ramapo. Why should East Ramapo be the subject of such overwhelming state intervention?
Walcott said that the volatile East Ramapo is unique because of the division between the large Orthodox population sending their children to private Yeshivas and the smaller population of mostly racial minorities in the district sending their children to public schools. “I agree that you have districts that are in worse shape educationally, but I think the challenges this district faces are unique to any other district. You have populations that are growing. You have an English language learner population that’s growing. You have a community with private school students that are growing like crazy [in number]. And as a result of that, there will be challenges — not just now, but in the future — that need to be addressed… You have a community and a district that unfortunately is still very separated, and you have to find a way to bring them together. And I know you have extremes on both sides. And the question is how you bring those extremes together in service of what’s in the best interests of the students.”
Walcott’s report recommended appointing a monitor with veto power over the board as a first step in bringing those extremes together. “I think [the veto’s] something that’s extremely important because we can’t allow what happened in the past, in the selling of buildings or other issues that have surfaced, to resurface again, and harm the students in the long run,” Walcott said.
Walcott was not specific about what feared the East Ramapo School Board, led by Yehuda Weissmandl, might do. He emphasized early in the interview that he thinks “Mr. Yehuda’s been a great leader” and “has set a very good stance in terms of working with the various communities and working with the interim superintendent and making sure some of the past issues were addressed.” The board has made strides; a monitor on the ground with veto power, though, would help rebuild the institution. That was the gist, that the monitors should be a support, rather than a crux, for the board and the community. “The board is very frail,” Walcott said, voice still unwavering, carefully choosing his words. “[It’s] very tenuous, and it shouldn’t rely on one individual.”