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How Local School Boards Abuse Their Power

Local control of public education is a cherished tradition in this country.  But sometimes boards of education shortchange students who attend public schools in their districts. The latest example involved the East Ramapo Central School District located 30 miles north of New York City ("Veto Power Needed Over East Ramapo School Board: Report," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 14).

A report by a state team of monitors found that the board, which has long been controlled by Orthodox Jewish men who send their own children to private religious schools, had violated its constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all students by mismanaging the district's finances and educational programs. Specifically, it had eliminated more than 100 teachers, dozens of teaching assistants, guidance counselors and social workers, as well as many key administrators. While doing this, it had vastly increased public spending on private schools ("When a School Board Victimizes Kids," The New York Times, Jun. 3).  

Negatively affected were 8,500 mostly poor and black or Hispanic students enrolled in public schools in East Ramapo.  The beneficiaries were the 24,000 students there who attend religious schools, which are mostly yeshivas.

East Ramapo is not alone.  The Lawrence Union Free School District that is located about 18 miles from New York City on Long Island has been the scene of repeated controversies centered on its school board over budgets. The huge growth of the Orthodox Jewish population over the past two decades pitted Orthodox Jews against the old-guard, liberal Jewish community. ("Jew vs. Jew Struggle in N.Y. School Board Election," Forward, May 20, 2005). The district is more than half Orthodox, with about 3,100 of the district's 7,000 students attending public school. District voters have rejected increases in the school budget time and again, voting only a "contingency budget."

I realize that school boards are elected and that in a democracy the majority rules. But school boards are still legally obligated to provide a sound education to all students.  I don't think anything but state monitoring can change the way public-school students are shortchanged in these communities.  Even then, however, outside oversight will be resented by local residents. The monitors are seen as invaders.  It's not a hopeful picture to contemplate.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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