A group of parents from East Ramapo have sued the school district, saying that the at-large voting system used to elect members to the school board has led to a lack of representation by minorities.
Filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, the suit demands no further school board elections be held until a ward system made up of nine single-member districts is in place.
The plaintiffs, including seven black or Latino voters, as well as the Spring Valley NAACP, claim East Ramapo is in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act. In addition to the school board, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is listed as a defendant.
“We see at-large voting elsewhere in the state, but nowhere have the consequences been so devastating and nowhere have we seen a school board so hostile to public education,” New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said at a news conference Thursday morning.
The majority of school districts in New York use an “at-large” approach, which means voters can select for any candidate in the district, though some districts have slight variations to allow for a mix of members from wards and picked at-large.
In East Ramapo, which has been under state oversight for about two years, some 24,700 children are spread across more than 140 private schools, mainly yeshivas. About 8,500 students, mostly black or Latino, are enrolled in the public schools.
Currently, eight of the nine seats are held by parents who send their children to private schools. Despite a number of candidates from the minority community running for school board in recent years, not one has won a contested seat since 2007.
Trustee Sabrina Charles-Pierre, the lone public school parent, was appointed following a resignation and ran unopposed for the balance of her term in 2016.
Despite minorities making up more than 95 percent of the public school population, Lieberman said they are not represented on the school board. The at-large voting system, she said, has allowed for the majority, a population she described as “white, lives close together and tends to vote as a political bloc favoring private school education,” to maintain control.
Over the last decade, the board has “severely slashed the public school budget” and transformed East Ramapo from one of the top-performing districts in New York to one that is “almost dysfunctional,” Lieberman said.
Parents of public school children in East Ramapo, as well as local education advocates, have continually called for the need to bring the interests of public school families to the board. But opponents have said changes, such as creating a ward system, would ensure the fractured district stays divided.
Two of the plaintiffs — Chevon Dos Reis and Eric Goodwin — both mounted unsuccessful school board campaigns this past spring.
Goodwin, whose 12-year-old son attends public school, moved to the district in 2011 with his family, expecting “the whole package: Good communities and a good school system.” After a few years here, he decided to run for school board because he wanted to make a difference.
“But, because of the current voting system, my voice was stifled,” he said. “We need people on the board with a vested interest in what is best for our public school children.”
In their most recent report, the district’s state-appointed monitors say progress has been made to strengthen academics and finances in East Ramapo. Actions taken over the last year include restoration of all-day kindergarten as well as some music and arts classes and passage of a $58 million capital improvement bond.
But, Lieberman said, “Despite the attention from the state and infusion of money from the state, things have not changed nearly enough and the voting structure has led to the decimation of the East Ramapo public schools.
“It’s time for us to say ‘enough is enough,’” she said.
“No matter how many doors we knock on, how many fliers we pass out, we just haven’t been able to win,” said plaintiff Dorothy Miller, whose children have graduated from the public schools. “The parents who have kids in the school district today are not able to elect people who represent them and the interests of their children.”
“There is insufficient representation of public school advocates on the board — especially considering 90 percent of the schools are of color,” said Willie Trotman of the Spring Valley NAACP branch. “We’re seeking to change that system.”
Since the board shifted to control of “private school advocates,” Trotman said the impact “has been drastic.” Besides cuts, the district has seen a drop in graduation rates and lower math and reading scores, he said.
The students in East Ramapo schools “deserve a good education and the resources to learn,” he said.
A copy of the complaint is available on
A district spokeswoman said the board had no comment on the lawsuit and it was being reviewed by the school board‘s attorney. A spokeswoman for the state Education Department said the department does not comment on litigation.
Legislative fix proposed
Previous reports by state-appointed monitors concluded the district favored the needs of private school children over those at public schools and managed the district poorly.
Among the first batch of recommendations from 2015 was a law to require that a parent of a public school student serve on the school board.
In the report, the monitors wrote: “Due to the unique demographics of East Ramapo, the majority of the members of its board are more representative of the families who send their children to private schools and may not be motivated by the same focus on the public schools as a traditional school board member.
“The monitors recommend that the Legislature and governor enact state law to provide for a unique mechanism for the East Ramapo school district to ensure that the public school community has representation on the board, without hindering the democratic process,” the report said.
Last year, several local lawmakers sponsored a measure that would allow school boards to pass a resolution allowing voters to decide if they wanted to create wards for elections.
The bill was sponsored by state Assembly members Ellen Jaffee, Kenneth Zebrowski and James Skoufis; and state senators William Larkin and David Carlucci. It is awaiting action from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
An inquiry Thursday to the governor’s office as to when he’ll consider the measure was not answered.
But Perry Grossman, a senior attorney with the NYCLU, said the bill was a moot point.
“School districts have the power to create wards right now if they choose based upon a commissioner of education decision from 1997. Under that decision, they can adopt wards themselves,” he said.
The newly filed lawsuit would compel East Ramapo to do so.
What’s happening in East Ramapo, Grossman said, “is an extreme example of a common problem facing racially diverse school districts nationwide.”
Across the country, concerns have been raised in recent years that the at-large voting system paves the way for one group to dominate a local board. Several lawsuits have challenged the system, claiming the method violates a federal law aimed at prohibiting discriminatory voting practices.
“The toxic combination of at-large election systems and racially polarized voting often prevents minority voters from holding school boards accountable for providing their children with quality public education services,” Grossman said.
Last fall, a U.S. district judge found that the system to elect school board members in the Ferguson-Florissant school district in Missouri deprived blacks of the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and was in violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act, and ruled that a new way was needed.
Although the ACLU has several voting rights cases pending around the country, the Ferguson-Florissant ruling is notable because it strictly applied to school-board elections.
“Ferguson is kind of a spotlight case in terms of highlighting racial polarization and how the system disenfranchises minority students,” Grossman said.