Democracy, like a muscle, must be exercised or else it becomes weak and flabby, and eventually atrophies. Voters in Ramapo, a town in Rockland County just west of the Hudson River about 20 miles north of New York City, have been learning that lesson slowly and painfully in recent years, with the sharpest lesson of all delivered in the East Ramapo school board election last week.
East Ramapo school district voters were the only ones in the entire Lower Hudson Valley region to reject their school district’s recommended budget, despite its $7 million decrease and draconian cuts from the previous year’s budget. At the same time, voters elected additional school board members representing the non-public school segment of the community, solidifying even further the control of the East Ramapo school board by local interest groups actively opposed to the concept of high-quality public schools. The low voter turnout – less than 25%, typical for local elections, although higher than most neighboring school districts – made it relatively easy for this highly motivated bloc of voters, dedicated to minimizing public school expenditures, to control the outcome.
The cynicism of the current school board – dominated by people with kids in private religious schools actively opposed to the interests of public school families – initially voting to accept a “preliminary” budget already cut to the bone, and then having its own constituents turn out in a bloc to vote down that budget so it will have to be replaced with an even more draconian one, is breathtaking. It is also heartbreaking for people in the community whose children have to attend those public schools, or who value a strong public school system as an essential civic institution. Kindergarten, which had been cut to half-a-day and is now expected to be cut out entirely, is just one of the essential programs on the chopping block, along with a host of sports, music, drama, arts and similar activities, as well as counselors, teachers, classroom assistants, and other positions.
Imagine the frustration of parents in the East Ramapo schools, most of whom are middle and lower income, who see their local schools the way countless generations have before them as their children’s ladder to a better life. But they see those schools – and their own kids’ futures – in the hands of board members who have no regard for public schools except as a tax drain to be squeezed down to the lowest level possible, a pot of cash to be siphoned off for their own non-public school purposes, or a source of real estate to be declared “surplus” and then sold to their own voting bloc at “sweetheart deal” prices.
It is no less sad or painful just because East Ramapo citizens have allowed this to be done to themselves and their once excellent schools. By continually failing to go to the polls in sufficient numbers themselves and exercise their right to vote for a school board that would adequately represent them, their children and the broader community, they have handed the keys to the schoolhouse to a smaller but highly focused group with a very clear anti-public school agenda.
Nobody can fault the bloc vote for being undemocratic, if “democratic” is defined broadly enough to encompass religious, economic and cultural coercion to vote mindlessly as a leader instructs. They have organized their voters and exercised their franchise in a manner that would make Boss Tweed and his old Tammany Hall colleagues proud. But there may still be other people in East Ramapo (probably an overwhelming majority, if they bothered to vote) who believe that good public schools are an essential part of a thriving community whether you have children in them or not, and that members of a school board have a moral and public obligation to the entire community, not just to the narrow group they may belong to. But these potential voters have not shown up at the polls in large numbers in recent years, which is why those values have disappeared from the current school board’s agenda. Parents, students and others who value and depend on public education in East Ramapo have to make a choice about whether they are going to accept defeat and just acquiesce in the steady dismemberment of their school system, or whether they are going to do something truly radical: get off their couches and vote in future school board elections.
Is it already too late? Nobody knows. The wolf is long past the door and is well inside the building, feasting on the resources of the East Ramapo school system. But an empowered electorate can do a lot, if it chooses to. Time will tell if East Ramapo voters really want public schools, or not.