East Ramapo: Closing a school needs thoughtfulness, transparency

January 23, 2009  Community View appearing The Journal News

Peggy Hatton

Several important issues were omitted in a Jan. 13 editorial, "Schools for the times."

As the editorial references, "Consolidation is not a dirty word." Most people would agree with that statement. I agree that one school could be closed in East Ramapo, but it should be the right school, and for the right reason. Why were Lime Kiln and Hempstead Elementary Schools targeted to be closed? Why not close the Freshman Center, which is only about 50 percent occupied by public school students? I think the answer to that question is simple, those schools are the most northern elementary schools in our district, those schools are also the closest to the controversial proposed Tartikov Rabbinical College. The proposed college may house as many as 9,000 people, including adult students and their families. If this rabbinical college is built, that community will need schools for their children and East Ramapo Superintendent Ira Oustatcher has the answer to their problem - give them our public schools. Of course, this rabbinical college would be yet another tax exempt property in the East Ramapo school district.

A major problem facing East Ramapo is taxes. There are 647 tax exempt properties in Monsey and 384 tax exempt properties in Spring Valley (data from www.taxexemptworld.com, effective April 19, 2008). That's a whopping total of 1,031 tax exempt properties that don't pay into the East Ramapo school tax base. Then, of course, there is the duplicity that plays a major role in district politics. Did you know that Richard Stone sits on the East Ramapo Board of Education and the Ramapo Planning Board? What's wrong with that? Mr. Stone recently voted for a variance for yet another tax exempt yeshiva with housing to be built in the East Ramapo school district. Just what we need in East Ramapo, another huge tax exempt building! More people to vote down our budget, since they don't use our public schools. The private schools sure do use services though - busing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, health services, resource room, psychology, educational testing, etc.

In 2006, residents voted to accept a bond for $14 million to be spent on building upgrades - the money was reimbursed by the state, so it was a good deal for East Ramapo. Extensive upgrades were done at Lime Kiln and Hempstead schools. Do you really think that the state will allow the district to sell a school and pocket the profit? The answer is no! The district would most assuredly have to reimburse the state, so the district could find itself owing more money than the windfall from a building's sale. Not such a good deal for the East Ramapo taxpayer or the public school kids.

Where does the superintendent plan on putting the 800 kids who will be displaced from Lime Kiln and Hempstead? The editorial stated: "But the class sizes will likely go up - especially in the first couple of years." Which years of your child's education would you be willing to sacrifice? The children to be most impacted are the elementary school kids to be displaced from Lime Kiln and Hempstead. They will be shoehorned into the remaining elementary school buildings. Clearly, a child just beginning to learn to read and write will suffer for the rest of their lives. Increased class size will be an irreversible handicap for our youngest students.

Ask yourself why it costs $22,292 to educate a student in East Ramapo and it costs $17,703 to educate a child in Ramapo Central School District. Do we have better facilities, a swimming pool, more sports programs, more class trips, foreign language classes in elementary grades, more Advanced Placement classes, more technology or a better education? No. We have less of all of the above. Something is drastically wrong here.

I believe that we can close the budget gap without closing two schools. I feel certain that the principals of each building and the administration can find 5 percent that could be cut from the budget. These tough choices should not be made in a vacuum at the administration building. It would be helpful to include the public in the decision-making also. This time, the committee should not be held in secret with many committee members being high-level employees who are beholden to Oustatcher for their jobs.

We need full-day kindergarten. We can sacrifice dedicated art, music and gym in each building. Close one school if you must, but let it be the right school. We are not just playing with numbers here, we are affecting the lives and futures of our children. Look at your own kids and ask what you would want if it were your child?

The writer, a Chestnut Ridge resident, is a parent of two East Ramapo students.