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