The following letter was sent to NYSUT President Andy Pallotta:
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) recently filed a lawsuit challenging the way in which Board of Education members are elected in the East Ramapo School District, claiming that the current system effectively denies Black and Latinx voters the equal opportunity to elect school board members.
96% of public school students in the East Ramapo Central School District are Black and Latinx while 98% of the students attending private schools are white with most attending private religious schools. Only one of the nine Board of Education seats is held by a public school parent. Needless to say, the Board of Education has NOT acted in the best interest of East Ramapo’s 8,500 public school students.
The New York Civil Liberties union found that between 2009 and 2014 the East Ramapo Board of Education slashed funding to public schools and eliminated 200 teaching positions in addition to cutting numerous social workers and other key personnel.
According the the NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, “The East Ramapo school district has effectively disenfranchised the Black and Latino community and allowed white residents to hijack the school board in service of the lily-white private schools. The East Ramapo school board has brazenly diverted taxpayer funds to bankroll white private schools and destabilize public schools. Their policies have compromised the education and well-being of thousands of Black and Latino children. The disenfranchisement and degradation must end.”
What is happening in East Ramapo is tragic. I have seen it with my own eyes.I will not enumerate the ways in which thousands of students are being systematically denied a high quality public education but you can learn more about what is happening to the children of the East Ramapo School District here, and here.
The NYCLU lawsuit demands that the board stop holding elections until a “ward” system is adopted. This would introduce voting on the basis of geographic districts; there would be nine individual districts, with one member elected to the board from each district.
This idea is not new. Bill A.8163 was introduced in the NYS Assembly in June of 2015 by Democratic Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther. It was referred to the Ways and Means Committee in May 2016 and today it remains mired in committee. The companion bill in the Senate, S5846 passed the Senate almost unanimously with bipartisan support in June of 2016.
In response to the growing tragedy in East Ramapo, local unions have urged legislators to pass A.8163 or similar legislation that would address the dire situation in East Ramapo and prevent similar situations around the State. I work in a school district adjacent to East Ramapo and my own local (Ramapo Teachers Association) proposed a resolution at the 2017 NYSUT RA urging NYSUT to support this legislation. The resolution reads:
Whereas, NYSUT represents the interests of public school teachers and publicschool students; and
Whereas, NYSUT’s legislative department supports laws that benefit public school teachers and students attending public schools; and
Whereas, in certain school districts in the state of New York non-public school parents have taken direct control of the public school board of education; and
Whereas, the proliferation of non-public school parents and wedge groups controlling public school systems is occurring in several areas in New York State; and
Whereas, in cases where non-public school parents control the budget of a public school system, public school students receive less opportunity and fewer resources; and
Whereas, in cases where non-public school parents control the budget of a public school system massive layoffs of teachers and program cuts have occurred; and
Whereas, proportionate representation on school boards is essential so that all district residents are represented; and
Whereas, A.8163/S.5846 authorizes union-free and central school boards of education to establish wards for the purposes of school board elections; and
Whereas, S.5846 was passed in the Senate in 2016; and Whereas, A.8163 has not been voted on in the Assembly; and
Whereas, A.8163/S.5846 was supported by the New York State School Boards Association;
Therefore be it RESOLVED, that NYSUT will support legislation to voluntarily allow school boards to create wards for the purposes of school board elections and will actively pursue the resubmission of bill A.8163/S.5846 and/or actively lobby for any similar bill that gives school districts the flexibility to create wards for the purposes of school board elections.
Members of the committee that debated this particular resolution at the 2017 NYSUT RA report that members of the Unity Caucus argued passionately that a ward system could adversely impact school districts that do not want a ward system. Given that the resolution clearly supports legislation that leaves this decision at the discretion of the individual school district, and given that NYC does not even have local Boards of Education, this is an odd argument. Ultimately, this resolution was voted down. Regardless, it is time for NYSUT to rethink this position.
At the end of the day, NYSUT has shown its ability to effectively mobilize around important issues that it deems a priority. Take for example, the Constitutional Convention.
We need NYSUT leaders to leverage the Union’s power to stand up for the children of East Ramapo who are not receiving the high quality public education that they need and are entitled to. This is an opportunity for NYSUT to reaffirm its commitment to social justice and to reaffirm its opposition to a privatization agenda that hurts the most vulnerable communities and students.
The struggles of our students are our struggles and now more than ever it is critical that the voice of rank and file teachers be at the forefront of movements for equity and social justice. By standing with the public school parents of East Ramapo and by supporting the work of local unions and rank and file teachers working to end what the NYCLU calls “the degradation” of thousands of Black and Latinx students, NYSUT can make a difference.
I urge NYSUT leaders to dedicate every available resource to support legislation that would give school districts the legal right to implement a ward system to ensure equitable representation of historically marginalized communities on their local Boards of Education. It is my hope that in the coming weeks we will receive text message alerts, emails, and blasts from the MAC urging rank and file teachers to take action on behalf of this critical issue.
Please consider writing to NYSUT leaders and your own local union leaders and legislators to share your concerns.
Andy Pallotta, President – firstname.lastname@example.org
Jolene DiBrango, Executive Vice President – email@example.com
For more information, background, updates, and actions, check out the local advocacy group Strong East Ramapo, a coalition of current and former students, parents, community leaders and concerned citizens, http://www.strongeastramapo.org/.