The sun was shining at 7:00 p.m. last night in Spring Valley, New York's Memorial Park as hundreds gathered in support of public school students.
At stake was the integrity of State Senate Bill 3821. Recently approved by the State Assembly it is stalled in the Senate. It calls for an independent state monitor with an array of powers to oversee the East Ramapo School District.
Despite the desperation of the situation I couldn't help feeling pleased at the diversity of the gathering. Haitian, Latino, African, Jamaican, Portuguese and Caucasian Americans among others were united in a common cause -- to respect and protect the rights of public school students in this beleaguered school district.
As I looked at infants, students of all ages, young parents, baby boomers, senior citizens and a World War II vet hobbling with a cane it was reassuring that there is still hope for our children and grandchildren in a nation that seems to become more divided every day.
There were a number of New York politicians including Kenneth Zebrowski and Ellen Jaffee ardent supporters in the State Assembly as well as many local dignitaries representing a wide swath of the community. Noticeably absent was State Senator David Carlucci who was said to be traveling to Albany for the Tuesday meeting.
The East Ramapo School District is in a state of disarray as school services have been drastically cut including Kindergarten which is now offered only two hours a day.
I grew up in the district and later taught there. During those years people moved from New York City to Spring Valley and the surrounding area so their children could attend East Ramapo's stellar school district.
Now it is decimated, ranks dismally and is besieged with a host of problems. Most of the blame is directed at the democratically elected School Board made up of largely Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. They pay school taxes and understandably choose to send their children to private Yeshivas so they may be educated in their tradition.
What's inexcusable is the Board's treatment of the district's public school children and parents as it oversees the destruction of a once superior system.
The reason for this particular gathering was because the State Senate has crafted its own watered down version of the Assembly's bill that so weakens it as to make it virtually ineffectual. With Tuesday looming as the last day of the Senate's session the community wants the bill passed in its original form.
State Senator Flanagan has suggested that the attempt to turn control of the district over to a state monitor is "draconian." The reality, for him it's partisan conservative politics as usual with total disregard for the needs of the students.
East Ramapo is a unique district with unusual problems including claims that the state's funding formula is flawed. Additionally, unlike many surrounding districts, there is little industry that results in a small tax base and very high school taxes.
Unquestionably, in recent years the school board and its representatives have engaged in egregious behavior and treatment of the community.
Unresponsiveness, long closed door sessions, rudeness to parents including a despicable diatribe from one of the boards attorneys toward a parent are among a few examples of the board's modus operandi.
Unfortunately, they respond with claims of anti-Semitism as the root cause for complaint. The reality, Jewish members of the community make up many of those who oppose the board.
For its part the school board doesn't really seem to care about what the community or state says. It tends to hold a siege and attack mentality and appeals all rulings made against it.
There is lots more to this ongoing saga. In fact a member of the NY State Board of Regents spoke and said they had just released a negative report about the school board's handling on a number of issues and that a copy of its findings would be on every Senator's desk Tuesday morning.
What I want to emphasize is that it was great to see the unity of this diverse community as it gathered in preparation for a march through the village to The Board's office; largely symbolic because they were not in session.
After all the speeches and before the march was to begin Spring Valley's chief of police Paul J. Modica went to the podium to issue instructions for the march. But not before showing support for the bill, praising the community and expressing the hope that one day some of the students would be applying to him for a job.
What really capped the evening were the words of a young man when the marchers reached the board offices. I wish I had his name but I don't.
He said he hoped that all would be resolved peacefully. However, if student's rights continued to be trampled upon he called for "A Season Of Agitation." The words weren't uttered in anger nor was he calling for violence.
He was stating that the community can't afford to wait any longer. He suggested that they might march through the various villages to display their displeasure.
I sensed a faint scent of calling for "civil disobedience" in the purest form of the term. One that demonstrated that civilized democracy could advocate appropriate responses to the abomination that is occurring in East Ramapo.
To hear this young fellow suggest taking measured action to ensure all children receive a quality education served as a reminder of this great democracy in which we live.
Let's hope the New York State Senate gets the message and protects one of our most vulnerable groups and the future of this great nation -- the children!
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