The verdict on East Ramapo

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By Joel Petlin

Dennis Walcott, right, greets New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, cener, and New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia before a Dec. 14 Regents meeting in Albany. JOURNAL NEWS FILE PHOTO

Dennis Walcott, right, greets New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, cener, and New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia before a Dec. 14 Regents meeting in Albany. JOURNAL NEWS FILE PHOTO

In a mechanism to ensure fairness, the American judicial system requires a judge to throw out a jury verdict in cases where the verdict was unsupported by the facts or rendered contrary to the law. This simple concept can be applied to the recent report submitted by the East Ramapo monitors led by Dennis Walcott. Of their recommendations, three stand out as uniquely undemocratic and unsupported on both the facts and law.

The first recommendation of the Walcott Jury was the need to pursue legislation for a monitor for the district, with veto power over the decisions of the Board. This is an extraordinary step, unseen in any of New York’s 700 school districts, despite the fact that numerous school districts have persistently failing schools and lower graduation rates than East Ramapo. Mr. Walcott conceded that the Board President “has been accessible”, “listened”, and “implemented suggestions” and “there has been more progress made in the last 17 weeks than in the last several years.”

Yet, despite these facts and no finding of impropriety by the members of the Board, the Walcott Jury rendered a guilty verdict, not for the actions of this Board, or even for the actions of previous Board members, but inexplicably, for the potential actions of future Board members. The Walcott Jury has rationalized this absurd theory of “future guilt” by proclaiming the need to protect the “institution of the Board” from some unknown threat, presumably other more sinister members of the Orthodox and Hasidic community who may one day run for a School Board seat. This offensive concept could easily be applied to any school district but it was reserved for East Ramapo, though teacher layoffs and school closings are occurring all over New York in the tax cap era.

The second recommendation, the appointment of an election monitor, is equally offensive and even less supported by the facts. Though the Walcott Jury has documented the rapid growth of the Hasidic and Orthodox Community and has forecasted their continued growth, they still accept the preposterous claim that election fraud is occurring.

The allegation of improper voting has been recycled and promoted by a handful of disgruntled supporters of failed candidates. If there was any hard evidence of election fraud it would surely have been a front page news story and vigorously pursued by the District Attorney. Instead, the Walcott Jury has accepted this unsupported claim, leaving the impression that the District operates elections like a third world nation. If election fraud is so prevalent, election monitors should be mandated and state funded for all School Districts in New York.

Recommendation #4 from the Walcott Jury is equally perplexing on both factual and legal grounds. Here, they recommend protected Board seats, held exclusively for parents of current public school students. By implementing this concept for one seat at each election cycle, the Board would be guaranteed to have at least 3 public school parents at all times.

Leaving aside the legal implications of excluding residents of legal voting age from performing a civic duty, and leaving aside the disenfranchisement of taxpayers from voting for any eligible candidate, this concept, if applied, would penalize senior citizens, the childless, parents of infants and of course, the intended target, parents whose children attend non public schools. These categories exist among school board members all over New York and each have successfully served their communities on behalf of the students of their districts. The Walcott Jury’s “loyalty oath” for designated school board seats is offensive in its clear but unstated implication – that religious Jews are incapable of serving in this elected office due to a misplaced loyalty.

Moreover, in East Ramapo in particular, the facts demonstrate that the School Board has always had at least three Board members who are “from the Public School Community.” The current Board composition actually has four “Public School Parent” Board members, even more than the quota recommended by the Walcott Jury. Nevertheless, the Walcott Jury wants to use legislative fiat to socially engineer their vision for a perfect school Board.

It’s unfortunate that the three monitors included three recommendations that are unsupported by the facts and the law. Like a runaway jury, their verdict must be rejected by the legislature and the governor, whose job it is to judge these issues on the merits and pass constitutionally appropriate legislation.

The public school students of East Ramapo deserve a quality education. Our leaders in Albany need to find the solution to this dilemma without disenfranchising the majority of East Ramapo taxpayers. Education and voting are both civil rights and both must be protected.

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Joel Petlin is the Kiryas Joel Superintendent, an East Ramapo resident and is a member of the LoHud Board of Contributors

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About Author

Joel Petlin resides in New Hempstead with his wife. They have five children and two grandchildren. Since 1992, he has been employed by the Kiryas Joel School District in Orange County, a public school program serving hundreds of students with special needs. He was appointed superintendent in 2007, and currently supervises a staff of more than 400 employees. His interests include education, law, religion, public policy and seeing the Mets win the World Series.

10 Comments

  1. Chaim Saperstein on

    The writer touches on many points where the report seems inconsistent with his actual findings and impressions.

    I would like to comment further on one of them, the election monitor.

    In these very pages, the community is roundly criticized for “voting as a bloc” and “voting for whom they are told to” taking away their “freedom to vote their conscience”

    Paradoxically, many of these same people also accuse the community of “busing in people from other areas” in order to “help them win”

    For those who need assistance in understanding how those two accusations are contradictory, here goes:

    The community has well over ten thousand families. Counting children living in their homes who are of legal voting age, the number of voters in the community could easily top twenty five thousand voters.

    The community does not need to bus in voters from other areas. The community has more than enough voters right here in the district to win every local election to the degree that it is not even a contest.

    The idea that people accuse a community of having such a stronghold on their members that they vote for whom they are told, yet at the same time accuse them of not having enough votes to win that they have to act illegally and import votes is laughable.

    The fact that Mr. Walcott saw fit – with ZERO evidence of any kind of voter fraud – to dignify the accusations with recommendations when the allegations are so counter intuitive to the point of being nonsensical, is certainly no laughing matter

  2. Pingback: Read: The verdict on East Ramapo | Monsey.com

    • You are correct that transparency is a good thing but we always weigh the cost and benefit of any choice in government. In order to be effective, and calm the fears of those claiming election fraud, you would need multiple monitors at every polling site from opening to closing. The cost of this unfunded mandate would surely come from a budget that’s already strained to cover the cost of mandated programs and services. Aren’t the current poll workers on election day (none of whom are Hasidic) be trained to recognize the signatures of voters and prevent the alleged abuse?

    • An election monitor is fine in principle, even though there is no evidence of any need for one. I don’t like that it validates the views of people who question the legitimacy of elections just because they don’t like the results. And I don’t think having an election monitor will do anything to convince those same people that the elections aren’t fixed. The “Block the Bloc Vote” types will just accuse the election monitor of being another “bought and sold Bloc puppet,” like always. So while I’m not sure what the point would be – fine – appoint an election monitor. As long as the election monitor doesn’t have “veto” power.

      • Why can you say these things about not liking the results of the two monitors you say nothing is wrong so if they say something it’s 100% truth but if anyone else disagrees they are anti Semitic who made the des ions to use the money for lawyers and not secular and courses at the public schools canceled kindergarten to a half day b/c they sent the money to lawyers

  3. It sounds like Mr. Petlin may be coming around to the idea of a monitor with veto power.

    Of course, he wouldn’t say so, but check out the first sentence of his latest commentary cutting down the recommendations of Dennis Walcott, a man he incidentally praised for his “many years of successful educational leadership” just a month ago. Petlin writes: “In a mechanism to ensure fairness, the American judicial system requires a judge to throw out a jury verdict in cases where the verdict was unsupported by the facts or rendered contrary to the law.”

    Petlin is affirming the American democratic system’s checks and balances. Indeed, our government needs to establish mechanisms to stop injustice from occurring. That is exactly why we need strict oversight in East Ramapo.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Andrew. That’s why I support strict oversight over all School Boards to prevent illegal acts. The 3 monitors that are already granted this veto power under the law are Commissioner Elia, Comptroller Dinapoli and Attorney General Schneiderman.

      • Isaac Schnitzler on

        This is the whole matter, the rule of law and civil rights vs. a new veto-powered monitor.

        “…affirming the American democratic system’s checks and balances.”

        Of course we have those, with separate powers of Judiciary, Legislature and Executive. Awesome checks and balances since ‘776, best on earth. Like Mr. Petlin said, state and federal resources abound to monitor, catch and prosecute any factual misdeeds.

        Installing a veto-powered monitor over a duly elected legislative body is simply outside the law, disenfranchising the voters, and a mechanism to destroy the rule of law, checks and balances in the US government system.

        Unfortunately, if you go down the path of a veto-powered monitor, there is no end in sight to the possibilities of using such an un-American tool to destroy the power of any elected body, from the US House of Representatives on down to the Spring Valley Board of Trustees, yes, including the NY Senate and Assembly.

        For if a duly elected School Board can be overruled by a single appointed person, the same should apply to any other legislative body in the country, including the great capital of Albany.

        Ah, you will say, those bodies DO have Veto by the Executive Branch. Perfect. Do the same here in NYS School Districts. Let the people elect a new executive head to go with every Board of every School District in New York State.

        You want checks and balances, great, as long as it complies with the Constitution of the United States.

    • Don’t be silly Andrew. A monitor with “veto power” is the definition of imbalance – not a check and balance. There already exist pervasive checks, balances, and oversight over ERCSD, as there is for all school districts. The Commissioner can overturn board actions that are illegal or irrational (and has done so repeatedly). Board actions can be overturned by state courts if they violate the law or are arbitrary under Article 78. And, of course, there is the ultimate check – the electoral process. Like all elected officials, if the board members defy their constituents they will be voted out. You don’t want checks and balances. You want to seize political control that you cannot otherwise obtain through normal democratic means. This is painfully obvious to anyone who is not emotionally invested in either side of the debate. The reason you want veto power is so that an unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat will have authority to overturn the board’s perfectly lawful, rational decisions, just because you might disagree with them. That is fundamentally illegitimate. I accept that your motivations are the purest kind: you want what’s best for the public school kids. But not everyone agrees with your priorities, and they don’t have to. It just doesn’t matter that you think the board’s decisions might be foolish or not in the best interests of public school students. All that means is you don’t like your elected officials. Get in line. That is no reason to suspend democratic governance of the school district. This may not be the best way to do things, but it is far better than the petty tyranny you are working so hard to impose.

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