When we lived in Poughkeepsie and kept kosher, we would occasionally travel down to Monsey in Rockland County for shopping. There is a strip mall in Monsey in which every shop is exclusively kosher; it was there where we could do our one-stop grocery shopping and get some kosher Chinese. Such a mall can only be supported by a strong and orthodox Jewish community, which Monsey is certainly. Monsey, NY, a hamlet of the town of Spring Valley and part of the E Ramapo school district, is one of a handful of upstate NY villages that have gone majority Hasidic over the years. And, as the taxpayers of E Ramapo school district have discovered, such a situation brings with it a special clash of interests that seems to be upending a social contract that has bonded Americans of all backgrounds for decades.
The story that has touched off this observation has to do with a seemingly boring meeting of the E Ramapo school board on Nov 20. However, this meeting, held at 12:40 AM while most taxpayers were sleeping, was designed to slip a very controversial move through with minimal fuss. That move was the changing of the Board’s legal representation, from the local attorney who had represented the board for the past 33 years, to a new one. The new one, it was revealed, not only would charge 4 times as much for an appearance at a meeting, but also had problems with the Attorney General. And the leader of the Board, Aron Wieder, wanted the change to be confirmed then and there, with no consideration of a transition plan or any other sort of risk management. And this new attorney would be confirmed no matter what that evening. How is this possible?
It was possible because, out of 9 members, the Board has 6 Hasidim. As a rule, the Hasidim [nominally called “ultra-orthodox” in the news – I find that moniker meaningless] do not send their children to the public schoold, but to private yeshivot. They do, however, pay taxes. And, to their dismay, they were seeing their school taxes rise even as the local school population was dropping. So the Hasidim did what we in America applaud: they took action, used their numbers, and got a majority to the school board. This of course is disastrous news to the people who actually use the public schools, now that a majority of the board only has an interest in minimizing their taxes. Now, supporters of the Hasidic community point out that they have not been all about slashing taxes and have, for example, expanded the full-time kindergarten. Further, they, like anybody else, have an interest in quality public schools.
But this latest dealing with the attorney has rightfully set off the anger and mistrust of the non-Hasidic taxpayers. Why would the Hasidic members, who ostensibly only wish to control costs, abruptly switch legal counsel to one that is 4 times more expensive? The answer, it was revealed, was even more disturbing. The new counsel is also the counsel for the school district of Lawrence, NY, which is also controlled by Hasidim, and has successfully diverted public funds for the special needs programs at their yeshivot. There was no consideration of any other attorney. One non-Hasidic board member stated for the record that he never met or interviewed the new counsel: the whole concept of the attorney switch was done behind the backs of the non-Hasidic board members.
The meeting was recorded and put on Youtube; a short contentious part can be seen here:
As awful as the actions of Mr. Wieder are, I cannot fault him nor the Hasidic community. What is happening is purely legal, albeit procedurally improper. But in the grand scheme of things, the Hasidim have it right. They were unhappy with a situation, they used the political process and their numbers to make things how they wanted it. And now they are using their power to divert their tax dollars into causes they want. You and I may not like what happened at that meeting, nor do we like the way Mr. Wieder runs things.
What is insane is the way schools are funded and boards are run. The problem is that Mr. Wieder and his 5 cronies on the board were driven to be there because of what they felt were unfair expropriations of his tax dollars. And now he’s turned it around on his community. There needs to be more oversight from the states on these boards so that arbitrary decisions like those taken by Mr. Wieder could not be possible. Mr. Wieder, through his arrogance and a sense of entitlement, put his board in major legal risk, as the superintendent so clearly points out.
The story did not end there. An interim attorney was hired because of all the mess that Mr. Wieder never thought through, and the decision to hire Mr. Wieder’s attorney is still pending. But the problem remains. What do you do when the majority of your school board, who are backed by a majority of the voters who send their kids to private schools, has no interest in the school? This will be an interesting story to follow.