NEW YORK (AP) — Public schools in a highly segregated community near New York City were being overseen for years by a school board elected in violation of a law protecting fair voting rights, a federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday.
The decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan came in a decade-old dispute over schools in East Ramapo, a community 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of New York City in Rockland County.
About 98% of the 29,000 students attending private yeshivas there are white, while 92% of the 8,800 public school students are Black or Hispanic, the court noted.
Yet, the appeals court said, decisions about the public schools are made by a nine-member board controlled by an influential Orthodox Jewish rabbi and other private-school advocates to the benefit of mostly Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish residents whose children are educated at the yeshivas.
The decision came after the East Ramapo Central School District appealed a May 25 ruling in which Judge Cathy Seibel in White Plains concluded that the federal Voting Rights Act was violated by a school board election system that diluted black and Latino residents’ votes.
After a six-week trial, Seibel sided with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and four individuals who are minorities and registered voters in the school district.
In a ruling written by Judge Rosemary S. Pooler, the 2nd Circuit cited “scant evidence” supporting the school district’s claim that policy preferences such as leaner budgets rather than race produced elections in which white candidates nearly always won.
The appeals court also noted “the Board’s blatant neglect of minority needs,” and the white-dominated group of individuals that selected candidates, along with evidence suggesting that the school district acted in bad faith throughout the litigation.
The three-judge panel said a state-appointed monitor investigating the school board’s activities in 2014 concluded that private schools were favored over public schools, especially after the board made severe budget cuts a decade ago to public schools while boosting spending on private schools.
The monitor found private-school bias was compounded by the school board’s failure to run transparent meetings, where accommodations were made for Yiddish-speaking parents but not Spanish-speaking parents, the 2nd Circuit said.
The monitor also observed that the district’s leaders branded critics as “anti-Semitic” and “political opponents,” the appeals court said.
The 2nd Circuit said the board closed two public schools over minority opposition before making a sweetheart deal to sell one of the closed schools to a yeshiva.
In a footnote, the 2nd Circuit said it was “deeply troubling” that a lawyer for the district purportedly urged that a Black candidate enter a school board race to boost the district’s position in the lawsuit.
“It is bad legal advice. More disturbing, however, is that the advice appears to be directed at aiding the District in flouting the well established and clear intent of the Voting Rights Act,” the appeals court said, adding: “Such deceptive posturing has no place in the legal profession.”
A message for comment was sent to lawyers for the school district.
Attorney Andy Clubok said the plaintiffs were gratified with the “well-reasoned and thorough” opinion.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that voters in the school district will get to vote fairly for board members for the first time in a generation at a court-ordered Feb. 2 special election.
“Today’s ruling reaffirms what’s been clear all along: The white private school community hijacked East Ramapo’s school board and its elections,” she said. “The board used Jim Crow tactics to violate the voting rights of Black and Latino residents and wreak havoc on the education and futures of a generation of public school students.”