Betty Carmand spent years fighting the East Ramapo school district so her four children would receive the type of education she enjoyed while growing up in the district.
She fought when the schools cut music programs, when they laid off hundreds of teachers and when they tried to sell off a public elementary school. And she railed against the school board, paying lawyers millions of dollars in legal fees, money she thought could be better spent addressing the day-to-day challenges of educating children with a growing list of needs.
Three of her children graduated from district high schools — two from Ramapo and a third from Spring Valley. But in 2017, with her youngest about to enter ninth grade, Carmand arrived at a crossroads.
Fight or flee?
“I decided this was the time,” Carmand said. “I wasn’t going to sacrifice another one.”
She and her family moved to New Jersey where her son Sebastian is entering tenth grade.
“It’s sad because you love your hometown and you love your community but at the end of the day it is what it is,” Carmand said. “Politics is politics. Education became politicized. And you don’t really know how politicized education is until you have children of your own and you realize how the system works.”
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Carmand joins a growing number of Black families who in recent years have abandoned an East Ramapo Central School district that once served as a springboard to the nation’s finest colleges — Yale, Brown, Harvard, Howard and Syracuse among them.
Last year, 2,532 Black students were enrolled in district schools, the lowest total in decades and less than half the 5,658 tallied 17 years ago when East Ramapo’s Black student enrollment was at its peak, state Education Department figures show.
Some with the financial means are putting their children in private schools. But more often, parents, educators and religious leaders interviewed in recent weeks say they are leaving in search of a better public-school education for their children.
It’s Black flight more commonly associated with an exodus from city to suburb. New York, Detroit and Chicago have all seen their Black populations move on in search of better schools and an improved quality of life. Rarely do they flee one suburb for another.
But then there’s nothing typical about the East Ramapo school district.
Over the past decade, the district has seen a 22% surge in its white population, from 74,000 in 2010 to more than 90,000 in 2018, according to U.S. Census figures compiled by Rockland County.
And yet in a district that is 71% white, just 16% of its public-school population is white. Of the 11,188 students enrolled last school year, just 1,820 were white, according to state figures.
Another 27,000 white students — many of them Orthodox Jews from places like New Square, Monsey and Kaser — attend some 140 private yeshivas. Their transportation is paid for by the East Ramapo district, which also picks up the tab for textbooks and special education needs of the private school students.
Statewide, only New York City buses more students.
Statistics compiled by Cornell University’s Program on Applied Demographics offer a fuller picture of the dramatic changes the district has gone through.
For the last 20 years, the district’s school population has been made up mostly of minorities. As Black student enrollment started to dip during the early 2000s, the Hispanic population began to surge.
Last year, the 6,443 Hispanics enrolled in district schools represented nearly 60% of the school population. Blacks were 23%, down from a high of nearly 61% during the 2004-05 school year.
And the district has gotten poorer. Nearly 75% or 8,366 students were considered economically disadvantaged last year. Some 70% qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2018, the last year for which statistics were available.
The district’s nearly 4,000 English Language Learners, about 40% of the public-school population, is the third highest percentage in the state.
But in the annual tug-of-war over school budgets, the public schools often find themselves on the losing end. In June, district voters rejected a $247 million budget by a 2-to-1 margin, forcing the district to cut another $2 million.
It was the lone rejection in the Lower Hudson Valley and one of 10 among the state’s 658 school districts.
The interests of private school students are closely guarded by Orthodox Jewish men who’ve dominated seats on the school board for more than a decade. Six of the board’s current nine members are Orthodox. Three are Black women.
In 2009, the board began making deep cuts to the public-school budget, cuts the Orthodox Jewish members of the board said were needed to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Hundreds of teachers lost their jobs, honors courses were eliminated, full-day kindergarten was reduced to a half day and extra-curricular activities were slashed.
Black families, who’d already begun pulling out of the public schools, left in even greater numbers, with steady year by year decreases in public school enrollment.
Graduation rates for a district that once was among the best in Rockland County — the lure that drew Black families up from New York City and southern Westchester County — sunk below the state average.
In 2019, the high school graduation rate was 65%, below the statewide average of 83%. Blacks graduated at an 81% rate while Hispanic rates fell to 53%. And the district’s 15% dropout rate (24% for Hispanics) was well above the statewide average of 6%.
A damning 2014 report by a state-appointed fiscal monitor raised questions about the district’s priorities. “As public-school budgets were slashed, spending on programs benefiting private schools increase,” monitor Henry Greenberg wrote. State monitors were brought in to oversee the district in 2015.
Under Superintendent Deborah Wortham, who took over in 2015, many of the cuts were restored. Wortham plans to resign in October. In her resignation letter, she cited the improvements in elementary schools now considered in “good standing” as well as an uptick in the graduation rate at Ramapo High School to 75%.
But for many Black families, it was too late.
In the high schools, East Ramapo students have been caught using bogus addresses to enroll in neighboring districts.
Pastor Nathaniel Demosthene witnessed the exodus firsthand in his largely Haitian-American congregation at the First Timothy Christian Church in Spring Valley.
Families are leaving for Monroe, Middletown, Goshen and points north, where he says they’re finding newer schools, better facilities and a full slate of course offerings at the high schools.
Many are selling their homes at top-dollar price to Orthodox Jewish families coming up from New York City so they can be near a thriving religious community.
For Demosthene, who taught at his alma mater Ramapo High School, the story behind the Black exodus can’t be told only through the schools.
“There are a lot more options,” Demosthene said. “It’s more complicated than just saying that the quality of the education is deteriorating…We have a strong Ultra-Orthodox contingent that’s also growing here and they’re driving the rising price of homes and unaffordability for communities of color. So if you’re in the Black middle class and let’s say you’re an older parent. You sell your home for a profit and you can still have retirement or college funds and buy another home for your child upstate.”
But as they leave, the unique communities they created in places like Spring Valley, New Hempstead and Hillcrest are slipping away, too.
Carmand remembers a time when she was the only Black student in her mostly white elementary school.
“Not once did I feel different or that a teacher made me feel different or felt that I wouldn’t get an education because I was the only Black person in school,” Carmand said. “No way. Elementary and through high school. You just never felt that. It was just never a thought.”
Demosthene, who went on to graduate from Yale in 1997, said the district wasn’t perfect. There was still racism. But he recalls a place where many Blacks, whites and Hispanics embraced their many cultures.
“There was dialogue, there was interaction,” said Demosthene. “It was really a good preparation for life. When you stepped outside East Ramapo you had a lot of cultural intelligence. That’s broken down now. The communities are really segregated. There is very little integration and dialogue between ethnic groups.”
Micheal Miller’s two daughters were about to enter school and it was time to find a place to send them.
It was 1972, and Miller and his wife Dorothy were living in Mount Vernon.
The Millers were reared in North Carolina during the years of Jim Crow, had participated in sit-ins and Civil Rights demonstrations during the 1960s and were determined to find something better for their children. They went out in search of a home in a high-achieving school district with a mix of whites and people of color.
They found East Ramapo.
“I wasn’t going to move somewhere where my girls were going to go through the same crap that I’d gone through growing up, so we found the East Ramapo school district, which at that time had 18% minority students and was rated one of the best in the state,” Miller said.
But when they went looking for houses, the only homes real estate agents would show them were in rundown sections of town.
Until they ran into Trudy Album, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who remains a friend to this day. Album showed them every listing available. They moved into a house in Spring Valley in 1972 and years later Hillcrest.
Daughter Sonya would go on to Syracuse before getting a Masters degree at the University of North Carolina, while Penelope went to North Carolina Central as an undergrad and Ramapo College for her Masters.
Miller, meanwhile, was busy working his way up through the ranks of IBM, where he would retire as a senior information technology architect.
He didn’t give much thought to the changes taking place around him until his daughters graduated.
He watched as Black families sold homes to Orthodox Jewish families. Their houses were knocked down, with three-story, vinyl-sided dwellings going up in their place. Housing complexes were being taken over and Black families displaced.
“Minorities with any means are moving out of Ramapo because houses are being bought by the religious community and being converted into multi-family dwellings so it’s busting up neighborhoods,” Miller said. “Most people that can afford to move somewhere else, they’re moving.”
Miller helped form a group called CUPON (Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhood)-Hillcrest that has challenged high-density developments. The group regularly pushes the Ramapo Town Board to open the developments to everyone and provide more green space.
“If I had kids in the schools I’d either send them to private school or I’d leave,” Miller said. “We remain here. The old term they use is to give back. We could have left here 20 or 30 years ago if we wanted to but you know we felt that we need to help the community, to be able to help the lesser fortunate to enjoy some of the benefits that we enjoyed.”
The trial in U.S. District Court in White Plains earlier this year centered on the most basic of rights.
Do minority voters in the East Ramapo district have the same opportunities to elect their candidate to the school board as white voters do?
The voting rights challenge was led by the Spring Valley chapter of the National Association, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Latham & Watkins.
District lawyers argued that board elections had nothing to do with race. The district’s burgeoning Orthodox Jewish population preferred candidates who kept property taxes low and looked out for the interests of the private school students.
“Indeed, that is exactly what democracy and citizen voting is all about,” district attorney David Butler argued.
In the end, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel agreed with the NAACP.
“For too long, Black and Latino voters in the District have been frustrated in that most fundamental and precious endeavor,” Seibel wrote. “They, like their white neighbors, are entitled to have their voices heard.”
The district has appealed Seibel’s ruling to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
If it loses, it may be forced to pay the NAACP’s legal fees of $9 million, on top of the $7 million the NYCLU says the district has already spent on its own lawyers. (NAACP lawyers say they will donate whatever money they receive to a nonprofit that benefits East Ramapo’s public-school students.)
And the district would be forced to set up a ward or neighborhood-based vote system, a shift that might increase the chances of minorities electing their candidates to the board.
For many, the trial served as a sounding board for the frustrations of minorities who depend on and support the public schools.
Lawyers for the NAACP revealed how a slating organization led by Orthodox Jewish religious leaders worked behind the scenes to get out the vote for their candidates. The few minority candidates to make it onto the board won because they had the backing of Orthodox Jewish religious leaders who considered them “safe” candidates, they claimed.
And it documented many of the challenges that Black and Hispanic students faced just to get a quality education.
Olivia Castor, a 2013 graduate of Spring Valley High School, told Seibel how students would regularly spend two to five periods per day in lunch or study hall because there was not enough instruction taking place throughout the school day.
“It’s more than about education,” said Castor, who graduated from Harvard University in 2017. “It’s about racial equality.”
For Willie Trotman, the president of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP, that was the point.
For years, Trotman had pushed state officials to do more as the quality of the schools deteriorated.
State monitors brought in to oversee the district told him they shared his concerns but there was little they could do to stop it. The monitors were not given veto power to override the district decisions.
Blacks who could afford to leave began leaving in bigger numbers, beginning in 2006, he said.
He understands they went looking for better educational opportunities for their children.
But some days he gets to thinking about what would happen if Blacks fled the South decades ago.
“I compare it to the ‘50s and ‘60s and the Civil Rights movement and what would happen if those people said ‘You know what I’ve got an opportunity to get away and you know what I’m going. I’m not going to fight,” Trotman said. “Those women in Alabama who walked for a year and a half to stop from sitting in the back of the bus. Suppose they said the heck with it? If they hadn’t done it then we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Each day brings another battle over another issue.
“These are innocent kids and what I tell people sometimes when I know they’re frustrated is they didn’t ask to come into this world,” Trotman said. “And since they’re here can’t we give them a shot at a happy and productive life?
“I don’t want these kids to have the same missed opportunities that I had,” he added. “And I don’t know if we’re winning and that’s what’s sad about it. Because if we don’t win, close to 9,000 kids lose.”
In the weeks before this school year opened, Eric Goodwin faced a dilemma.
Spend $10,000 to send his son Eric to a private school in New Jersey or sock the money away for his college education.
“My son says he wants to go to Duke, which is $78,000 a year,” Goodwin said. “Yeah I would rather keep that 10 or 11 thousand in my pocket but is the quality of the education in East Ramapo adequate enough to get him at least looked at by Duke?”
Goodwin was raised in the Bronx and attended public schools. He envisioned a better life in the suburbs for his son.
He moved to Nanuet in 2011 believing his son would attend school in the Nanuet Union Free School District, but soon discovered his home was in the East Ramapo district.
Soon, his son was coming home from school with outdated textbooks or none at all. He’d bring home worksheets, which made it difficult to help with his son’s homework. In middle school, there were no musical instruments.
Goodwin, a chief warrant officer in the Army, started attending board meetings and in 2017 ran for a seat on the board. He lost to board president Harry Grossman despite winning the overwhelming number of votes from minority voters.
He’s watched as other families have made the move out of the district. “It just feels like it’s falling apart at the seams,” Goodwin said. “The blatant level of disrespect by school board members who blatantly show favoritism for one group over another is troubling.”
In 2017, he signed on as a plaintiff in the NAACP’s voting rights lawsuit against the district.
In late August, with school about to start, Goodwin decided to keep his son at Spring Valley High School. For now.
“I’m going to continue to fight but I still have to make sure that my child gets the best possible education that he’s eligible to get,” Goodwin said.
This spring, Ellen Cola submitted a 20-page paper for her public policy class at Brown University.
She titled it: “A Seat at the Table: Voting Rights, a Ward System, and a Case Against the East Ramapo Central School District.”
In it, Cola argues that the NAACP was right to challenge the district.
“I believe that there is no price tag that can be placed on justice and though the Board divested funds from the publicl schools to fight the case, the return (there being a ward election system in East Ramapo) could be life-changing for the students of East Ramapo,” she wrote.
Cola would know.
When she graduated from Ramapo High School in 2016, the district had the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate in Rockland County.
Her high school years included trips to school board meetings where she argued with adults about cutting programs. At the time she was considering becoming a lawyer and wanted to participate in Mock Trial, a program led by Demosthene that the district wanted to cut.
She and her high-achieving friends managed to find a way to succeed with the help of dedicated teachers who made the best of things despite the budget cuts, she said.
“We were all challenging each other to push harder, helping each other and trying to make sure we were preparing ourselves to be great in high school of course, but even in college,” she said.
When she got to Brown, she encountered students who rarely had to fight for their own education.
“Unfortunately, that’s something that a lot of students I went to college with rarely had to think about,” she said. “They didn’t have to advocate for a lot of what was given to them. That’s one thing I wish we didn’t have to go through in East Ramapo.”
She graduated Brown with a 3.9 GPA and will soon start a job with Microsoft in Seattle.
But Demosthene worries that young people like Cola will have nothing to come back to in a few years. He fears the community carved out by his his parents and Cola’s parents — both the children of Haitian immigrants — will be lost.
He’s raising his own children in Stony Point where they attend North Rockland schools.
“The ultra-Orthodox, for everything that people want to say about them, their leadership is preserving their community and planning for their community socially and politically to make life easier for them,” Demosthene said.
“The only thing that could stem the tide somewhat is an investment in retaining our future graduates,” he added. “We graduate thousands of kids every year but what incentive do they have to come back?”
Thomas C. Zambito is an investigative reporter with The Journal News/lohud. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TomZambito. Read his latest stories here.