Bus traffic in East Ramapo continues amid growing shortage as trustee shifts focus to homeless children

By | March 11, 2024

SPRING VALLEY — East Ramapo’s fiscal and cultural tensions were laid bare during a March 5 school board meeting as a contingent of state education department officials looked on.

Although state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa was not present, her staff was, including former acting East Ramapo Superintendent Ray Giamartino, who now oversees state-appointed monitors in the district as assistant commissioner of the Office of Innovation and School Reform.

Speakers still had words for Rosa. They begged her to take action. They also made it clear that they would hold her accountable. “She promised justice,” said longtime school activist Luis Nivelo. He said public school families were prepared to protest weekly in front of Rosa’s home in Tappan.

“Ms. Betty Rosa is an accomplice,” he said.

Bend points included:

  • Families in public schools accuse administrators of not caring about children of color.

  • One board member blames the record number of homeless students for the budget problems.

  • The school board, as proposed by state-appointed supervisors, has proposed an effort to curtail the district’s extensive and expensive universal transportation system, one of the biggest costs to a looming shortage.

Board members also supported setting a $246 million bond to repair shoddy schools, even after tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID funding were invested in repairs.

In a sign of the dire conditions in the district buildings, the board agreed to use limited district funds for emergency repairs to three buildings. “Severely degraded conditions” were found in steel I-beam columns supporting canopies at the entrance of Fleetwood, Grandview and Fleetwood elementary schools. The damage was not mentioned in a July 2023 building conditions survey, which found every school in the district failed.

A neighborhood divided

East Ramapo serves more than 40,000 children, a quarter of whom attend public schools.

The vast majority of the 10,409 students in public schools are children of color. While approximately 54% are new immigrants and are learning the English language, many more students live in households where English is not the primary language spoken and require language support.

About 30,000 children living on the borders of East Ramapo attend private schools, mainly yeshivas that serve Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish families.

The majority of school board members are men who prioritize the needs of yeshiva students in the public school community.

The district’s persistently weak budget situation is fueled by voters’ repeated rejection of budget plans that include even a tax increase. The property tax levy has been functionally frozen by voters for about a decade.

State-appointed monitors have been in the district for several years and have been given increased oversight power as economic and educational conditions deteriorate.

A budget gamble, a built-in deficit

The supervisors are urging the board to create a budget plan that increases property taxes to the 5.38% tax cap.

Even if that budget plan is approved by voters, the district still faces a multi-million dollar deficit next year. While an approved budget would generate an estimated $316.8 million in revenue, projected expenditures, even before the year begins, are $336.2 million. That $19.2 million gap will be filled before any unexpected costs arise.

The board must approve a budget proposal by April 16.

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The district has a shortage of key personnel, including in the facilities department. The district’s transportation director was fired in January. Natalie Espinal, assistant superintendent of business, oversees transportation while working on budget planning. Espinal was hired this week by South Orangetown as assistant superintendent for business and operations.

East Ramapo Schools Interim Assistant Superintendent for Business Natalie Espinal presented the school budget during a school board meeting at the Spring Valley District Administration Building on May 2, 2023.

East Ramapo Schools Interim Assistant Superintendent for Business Natalie Espinal presented the school budget during a school board meeting at the Spring Valley District Administration Building on May 2, 2023.

It was against that backdrop that a trustee representing Monsey’s Ward 5 cast doubt on the district’s homeless rates and suggested that some of the district’s fiscal problems stemmed from those children.

Homeless students

About 14.8% of public school students in East Ramapo, or 1,547, are considered homeless, according to recent statistics shared by the district. That’s more than any other in the Lower Hudson Valley and even surpasses NYC’s estimated 11% reported at the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

At a March 5 school board meeting, the revelation led Trustee Yitzchok Gruber to question why the district’s numbers are so high.

“Why on earth do we have to pay $40 million,” Gruber asked. He stated that families hid their homes in nearby neighborhoods.

“It’s clear that East Ramapo is providing these children with a much better education than neighboring districts,” Gruber said. “Why else would they come here?”

Spring Valley has long been a new immigrant community; The crossings across the southern border have led Central and South Americans, as well as Haitians, to join established communities there. The impact is reflected in the number of students enrolled in the district, sometimes as many as 100 per week. The overwhelming number of enrollees are eligible for English language learning programs.

The definition of “homeless student” is codified in the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Students are classified as homeless if they or their families live in a shelter or other temporary placement such as a motel; not having a stable home and being ‘couch surfing’ in crowded and sometimes dangerous situations; or live outside.

Gruber said school buses pick up children from outside district boundaries. Under McKinney-Vento, a student who lived in East Ramapo but was placed in temporary housing outside the district remains an East Ramapo student.

Trustee Sabrina Charles-Pierre pointed out that about two dozen students are still in temporary housing, including county motels, after a Feb. 25 fire at a large apartment complex on Slinn Avenue in the village.

Board member Sabrina Charles-Pierre during the East Ramapo School Board meeting at district headquarters in Spring Valley, March 5, 2024.Board member Sabrina Charles-Pierre during the East Ramapo School Board meeting at district headquarters in Spring Valley, March 5, 2024.

Board member Sabrina Charles-Pierre during the East Ramapo School Board meeting at district headquarters in Spring Valley, March 5, 2024.

While Gruber questioned the district’s spending on homeless students at this meeting, he warned at a Feb. 15 meeting that any attempt to limit universal busing would result in his Monsey-based Ward 6 constituents undermining the budget plan .

“Don’t even think about it,” he said.

Carole Anderson, a former school board member who attends most of the meetings, was in the audience at both meetings to hear Gruber’s warnings that his district would not pass a budget if they no longer had access to bus transportation, as well as to are questions about whether the district was really responsible for many homeless students in public schools.

“It’s very offensive,” Anderson said.

The Wesley Hills resident questioned whether Gruber’s statements violated his oath of office. “You are supposed to work in the best interest of all the children in the district.”

Cuts have been made to bus traffic

Transport costs continue to rise, but residents are reluctant to cut back on supply to boost the deficit budget. Transport costs for next year are forecast at $76 million, which would consume a fifth of operating costs.

That’s because the district offers universal bus routes — with trips not fully reimbursed by the state — and pays high prices for a complex web of vendors that transport children to dozens of private schools. The district’s public transportation system is the most complex in the state, with the exception of New York’s schools.

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According to district calculations, up to $12 million a year could be saved by limiting bus service to state-mandated parameters. The state will reimburse transportation costs for student trips of 2 miles or more for grades K-8 and 3 miles for grades 9 through 12.

For both the public and private school community, cuts to bus transportation are a concern.

Roads in the district are heavily congested and many areas lack sidewalks. The infrastructure has not kept up with the growth in traffic. If more children walked to school and more parents drove their children, conditions could be even worse.

Two children have been killed in the district by their school buses in recent weeks, a tragedy that East Ramapo Schools Superintendent Clarence Ellis called heartbreaking.

He acknowledged the concerns within both the public and private school communities.

Ellis said he understands why universal busing was implemented decades ago, pointing to a lack of sidewalks and infrastructure issues in the area. But everything has to be on the table. “We are in such dire financial straits…we have to get involved.”

Charles-Pierre, whose child attends East Ramapo Public Schools, said a safety investigation should be done.

When the trustees made their safety concerns clear, state-appointed budget monitor Bruce Singer suggested the board introduce a resolution to reduce universal busing.

Nancy Cutler writes about people and policy for lohud.com and the USA Today Network New York. Reach her at ncutler@lohud.com; follow her at @nancyrockland on X (formerly Twitter), Instagram and Threads.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Tension in East Ramapo NY grows with public school and yeshiva community

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