SPRING VALLEY, New York (AP) — Meetings on education turn into shouting matches. Accusations of racism and anti-Semitism fly. Angry parents turn their backs on board members in a symbolic show of disrespect.
The tension in this New York state school district comes from an unusual dynamic: The families who send their children to public schools are mostly Hispanic and African-American. The locally elected school board, however, is almost entirely made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews who send their children to private schools and are intent on keeping taxes low.
"It's as if the board of directors of Coke only owned stock in Pepsi," said Steven White, an activist for the public schools.
How a public school district that's 57 percent black, including Haitian, and 29 percent Hispanic, came to be governed by ultra-Orthodox Jews is a case study in changing U.S. demographics and the power of democracy.
The district, 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of New York City, has been settled rapidly in recent years by Jews from the Hasidic and other sects who came from their traditional strongholds in the city. They quickly built their own schools, or yeshivas, raised large families and became a powerful voting bloc. Though not a majority of the population, they have organized to defeat school budgets that increase taxes and to elect members of their communities to the school board.
At the same time, public school supporters are less organized. Many are believed to be non-citizens who don't vote. And the area's older residents tend to vote against school budget increases.
Public school parents accuse the board of the 9,000-student East Ramapo Central School District of cutting programs and teachers while diverting public resources to favored Orthodox institutions.
"Do I think racial discrimination is at the core of this? Yes I do," said Laura Barbieri, a lawyer with Advocates for Justice, which is suing the district on behalf of public-school parents and other taxpayers. She said the board is catering to Orthodox parents who "do not want their children educated with children of color."
At least seven of the nine board members are ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. A man and a woman who represented the public school community resigned from the board in January, alleging intimidation by the rest of the board. Two men, one black and one Jewish, were appointed to replace them.
The stark division has led to a flurry of lawsuits and petitions, and New York State has intervened, blocking the sale of a public school building to a Jewish congregation and warning the board to change the way it uses public special education money for private schools.
While state law provides for a school district to pay some private school expenses, for transportation, textbooks and special education, the state alleges that East Ramapo has been too quick to move children — mostly Jewish children — from the public schools into special education schools run by the Orthodox. Each case funnels thousands of taxpayer dollars to the private schools.
A board meeting Tuesday night illustrated the apparent disdain each side has for the other. About 20 residents shouted in protest, then stood and turned their backs on the board when it decided that students could address the board only at the end of meetings.
"You're not doing right by these children!" shouted Mae Davis. "What about freedom of speech?"
Daniel Schwartz, president of the board, has said public comment has become insulting.
"I think there are people who want to be abusive to the board, and when it starts we're not going to tolerate it," he said Monday.
Some parents have petitioned the state Education Department to remove the school board, a rare step. Department spokesman Tom Dunn would not comment specifically about East Ramapo, but said the commissioner has the authority to remove local officials "for willful violation of law or neglect of duty or willfully disobeying a decision, order, rule or regulation."
The board denies any wrongdoing. It announced at Tuesday's meeting that it is suing the state in federal court, seeking a judge's declaration that its methods for special education placement are legal.
"Nobody has done anything to deprive anybody of anything," Schwartz said.
He said the district's problems stem from its being " a district that has about 9,000 public school children and an estimated 20,000 in private schools, almost all of them Jewish.
"You show me another district where at least two thirds, if not possibly more than that, of the total student population is private school as opposed to public school," Schwartz said in an interview. "You show me a district like that anywhere."
Asked if he felt anti-Semitism played a part in criticism of the board, he said only, "I can make my assumptions." Last year he said some critics were engaging in "an age-old anti-Semitic trope" that Jews were interested only in money.
State Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski has proposed instead that East Ramapo be divided into two school districts, one for public schools and one for private schools.
"This is an unconventional situation and we need an unconventional solution," Zebrowski said.
Associated Press writer Jim Fitzgerald contributed.