Budget & Finance

N.Y. State Picks Ex-NYC Chief Walcott as Monitor of East Ramapo Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — August 13, 2015 4 min read
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Former New York City schools chancellor Dennis Walcott was appointed Thursday as the state monitor of East Ramapo school district, the troubled school system in Rockland County, about 30 miles outside of New York City.

Walcott will oversee a team of experts that “will monitor district operations and provide recommendations to ensure that students have access to appropriate programs and services, and that the district is on a path to fiscal and programmatic stability,” the state department of education said in a press release on Thursday.

Walcott served as schools chief under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The team will include Monica George-Fields, a school turnaround expert, and John W. Sipple, a professor at Cornell University. They will have oversight of the district’s fiscal operations and educational programming, and will submit a report with recommendations and plans for improvements, or corrective actions, in December to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and the state Board of Regents.

Elia, Walcott, and others traveled to Rockland County on Thursday.

“Dennis Walcott’s appointment and the district’s stated commitment to working in partnership with the State Education Department are crucial steps toward reversing the district’s disastrous decline and repairing the deep rifts in the community,” Board of Regents Chancellor, Merryl H. Tisch, said in the announcement. “We must act now to make sure that the civil and educational rights of a community of overwhelmingly low-income minority children are not denied.”

Elia said in the press release that she and the Board of Regents recognized how dire the situation was in East Ramapo and that she was acting swiftly to protect the educational rights of public schools students.

“There is clear evidence that for many years the district has not adequately served the needs of its public school students,” she said.

Under the Microscope

The East Ramapo school district has been under intense scrutiny in recent years. Even before the state appointed Henry Greenberg as the district’s fiscal monitor, a 2013 New York Magazine article, entitled “Them and Them,” detailed what it called the gutting of the public school system under the increasingly Orthodox Jewish school board.

The public school district is made up of approximately 9,000 students, about 91 percent of whom are of African-American, Latino, and Haitian backgrounds. About 78 percent qualify for free and reduced price lunches. East Ramapo’s private school population is 24,000, with 23,778 attending 52 Yeshivas. (Eight other Yeshivas served an unknown number of students, according to Greenberg’s report.)

When Greenberg completed his report last year, seven of the nine members on the school board comprised of members from private school community. According to the report, the board’s decisions appeared to favor private schools over public schools as it cutting spending to public schools while increasing expenditures to private schools.

The financial mismanagement and severe cuts to the district’s budget over the years “ripped out the heart of the academic program,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

From The New York Times on Thursday:

“The district’s’ public school students are also struggling academically. This year, only 14 percent of third through eighth graders passed the state reading tests, and 16 percent passed the state math tests, compared with 31 percent and 38 percent for students statewide. The statewide passing rates for black and Hispanic students ranged from 18 to 20 percent in reading and 21 and 25 percent in math.

The State Education Department said in June that East Ramapo’s two high schools were not providing English language learners with access to courses that were required for graduation, instead putting them into lower-level classes that gave them only elective credit.

In June, Tisch and David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, wrote in The New York Times that East Ramapo school board had “utterly failed” its students.

Board Pledges Cooperation

Greenberg called for a fiscal monitor with the authority to veto decisions made by the school board. But Walcott and his team will not be able to override school board decisions, according to The New York Times.

Walcott and company will, however, have the board’s cooperation. The board’s president, Yehuda Weissmandl, pledged to work with the education department.

“The board and I are eager to begin our work with Mr. Walcott and the monitoring team to identify and implement improvements in the district’s educational programs and services,” he said in the statement.

The state said on Thursday that Walcott and his team will maintain a regular presence in the district and report directly to Elia. They are expected to attend school board meetings, meet with school board members, community members, and district staff, and provide updates to the department of education.

Dennis Walcott , then New York City Schools Chancellor, second from right, speaks with senior students at the Bedford Academy High in 2013 in New York.

--Bebeto Matthews/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.