SUFFERN, N.Y. (AP) — Former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott was appointed Thursday to monitor a suburban school district in which public school families, mostly black or Hispanic, claim they're being shortchanged by the school board, which is dominated by Orthodox Jews who don't use the public schools.
The division was obvious at the sometimes-raucous public meeting where Walcott was introduced. Some in the crowd shouted for the resignation of the board president or for federal intervention.
"There is clear evidence that for many years the district has not adequately served the needs of its public school students," state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in naming Walcott to oversee the East Ramapo district in Rockland County.
"The hardship these students have endured is reprehensible," said state Regent Judith Johnson.
Many parents have complained that the school board supports Jewish yeshivas at the expense of the public schools. The board blames state funding.
"We will work directly with the East Ramapo school board, but we will not shy away from keeping the district accountable to the community when we identify areas of improvement," Walcott said.
Board of Education President Yehuda Weissmandl said, "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."
Many in the crowd of about 350 people expressed skepticism that Walcott would have enough power.
Elia acknowledged that Walcott would not be able to veto board actions or remove board members and could attend the board's executive sessions only if invited.
But Walcott told the crowd, "I will be a presence in the district." He said he and his team, which includes Monica George-Fields, an expert in school turnarounds, and John Sipple, a Cornell University expert in school finance, "know what to look for."
"We know when something's not right," he said. "We know when something stinks."
When Elia was asked if she could guarantee results, she said, "Rest assured we are here to address the issues that you put on our plate."
East Ramapo has 9,000 children in its public schools but 24,000 in private schools, almost all of them yeshivas. The Orthodox are not a majority of eligible voters, but they have become a powerful voting bloc in school board elections.
In recent years, the board has cut hundreds of staff positions, including guidance counselors, social workers and arts teachers; dropped half the sports programs; and slashed kindergarten to half a day.
Public school parents, mostly poor and many of them immigrants, say those cuts endanger their children's success.
"I'm worried ... that the Education Department and the Legislature will just say, 'OK, we appointed a monitor, checked and done, now that's over,'" said Davis Curry of Spring Valley, the father of a fifth-grader and a high school senior.
"As long as they don't do that," said Curry, "this has a chance to be a step forward."