The Associated Press
SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. —
School board meetings descend into shouting matches. Accusations of racism and anti-Semitism fly. Angry parents turn their backs on board members in a symbolic stand of disrespect.
Tension in a suburban New York school district is rooted in an unusual dynamic: The families who send their children to public schools are mostly Hispanic and African-American. The school board is almost entirely made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews who send their children to private schools and are bent on keeping taxes low.
“It’s as if the board of directors of Coke only owned stock in Pepsi,” said Steven White, an activist for the public schools.
Public-school parents accuse the board of the 9,000-student East Ramapo Central School District of cutting teachers, guidance counselors, art programs, all-day kindergarten and the high school marching band, while diverting public resources to favored Orthodox institutions.
Peggy Hatton, who co-hosts a radio program that features school issues, said, “It’s just becoming impossible for our students to apply to colleges when the advanced placement classes are cut, the extracurriculars are cut.”
How a public school district that’s 57 percent black, including Haitian, and 29 percent Hispanic, came to be governed by ultra-Orthodox Jews is a case study in changing demographics and the power of democracy.
The district, 25 miles north of New York City in Rockland County, has been settled rapidly in recent years by Jews from the Hasidic and other sects who came from their traditional strongholds of Brooklyn. They quickly built their own schools, or yeshivas, raised large families and became a powerful voting bloc. Though not a majority of the population, they have organized to defeat school budgets that increase taxes and to elect members of their own communities to the board.
At the same time, public-school supporters are less organized; many are believed to be non-citizens who don’t vote. And the area’s older residents have also tended to vote against school budget increases.
At least seven of the nine board members are ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. A man and a woman who represented the public-school community resigned from the board in January, alleging intimidation by the rest of the board. Two men, one black and one Jewish, were appointed to replace them.