By Damien LaVera
School board elections are always important, but the ones coming up on May 16 for the East Ramapo Central School District have taken on a special importance this year. As shown in great detail in a story first published by The Tablet and reprinted here in this issue of monsey.com, the district has been the target of a multi-year legal and public relations campaign aimed at restricting the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community in the area.
A small group of local activists filed a class action lawsuit filled with outlandish and false allegations against the district and the Orthodox Jewish members of the school board. After four years of costly litigation, the case—called Montesa v. Schwartz—finally ended earlier this year when the plaintiffs abandoned their claims, acknowledging that they could never back up their baseless allegations.
But the damage was done. Not only had individual board members who volunteer their time to serve their community and the district as a whole been the victims of almost four years of terrible news stories that took the words of these activists as truth, but the lengthy and baseless lawsuit cost taxpayers in the district millions of dollars in legal fees. That is money that could have been spent on teachers, books and educational programs.
Now, the same group that backed the lawsuit is backing a slate of candidates for the school board in next week’s election. They all repeat shopworn bromides about the need to make sure the district represents the interests of all the students it serves and preserving the “character” of the community. We all know what they mean by that.
This is the first school board election since this litigation was finally abandoned, and East Ramapo simply cannot afford to elect candidates to the board who share the goals and vision of the plaintiffs in Montesa v. Schwartz. Rather than tell you the names of the candidates to avoid, let’s focus on three terrific candidates who are running and who deserve your support.
The first is Harry Grossman, who is currently serving his first term on the board and has been its vice president. He has lived in the district for 19 years with his wife and children. His focus has been on rebuilding trust between the multiple communities that live in the district. Rockland County’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, but the only way to ensure every child in the district gets the support they deserve—whether they attend public or private schools—is to work together to find a common voice and common solutions.
He has been fighting to ensure the district receives appropriate funding from the state. According to both the State Monitor installed to oversee the district’s finances and the Alliance for Quality Education, East Ramapo is being short-changed between $10-$20 million every year.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Mr. Grossman has never voted for any cuts in services and has constantly strived to restore services and improve the educational opportunities available to children in the district. He has earned another term on the board.
He is running alongside Mark Berkowitz, who served as a special education teacher in the area for more than 46 years—including 40 years in the public schools. As a lifelong educator, he is familiar with all of the schools in the area and would bring a valuable voice to the board.
He understands that the current atmosphere imposed by the state, which sees children as ID numbers and statistics on a spreadsheet, is not good for children, staff or parents. We must empower teachers to be able to innovate and have the flexibility to give the children “free range” lessons that can make connections with all the students in their classrooms.
While this would be his first elected office, Mr. Berkowitz has shown his deep commitment to the community through his years of volunteer service that has benefited people from every community in the area. He supervised the Summer Youth Employment Program in Rockland County through the Rockland Community Development Council (RCDC), which found summer jobs for about 250 youth in public and nonprofit agencies based upon their individual employment interests.
Berkowitz spent seven years volunteering with the Immigration office of RCDC, helping individuals throughout the county receive assistance in preparing and filing for Green Cards, citizenship and bringing family to the United States—at no charge to the clients. He has also served on several East Ramapo community committees addressing issues like redistricting, restructuring of programs and bilingual education.
This slate of candidates is rounded out by Joel Freilich, a parent of four young children—including three in the private schools in the district. Freilich has lived in the district since 2007, along with his wife who has been an elementary school teacher in the district for the past 11 years.
His focus has been on the communication challenges plaguing the district. This is something of a family tradition for Mr. Freilich, whose father, Bernard, has served as the Jewish liaison to New York State and New York City for 20 years and was employed by the New York State Police for 25 years under the Pataki, Patterson, Spitzer and Cuomo administrations as the connection between government officials and the broader community.
This community needs leaders who are willing to communicate with one another to find common solutions to the challenges facing the district. He is the perfect antidote to the negativity that comes from organizations like the ones that backed the Montesa litigation.
There are three great candidates this year. One serves on the board and understands the issues facing the administration, one is a proven voice for public and private school teachers, and one is a terrific voice for parents and students. Next week, let’s elect these three so East Ramapo can put the ugliness of the past four years in its past and embrace a future that benefits every child in the district.
Damien LaVera is a communication consultant who works with a variety of yeshivos and non-profit groups in Rockland County.