Freshman Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte‘s recent co-sponsoring of a bill that would appoint a fiscal overseer to the troubled East Ramapo School District in Rockland County has several prominent Brooklyn Orthodox Jews lifting their eyebrows.
Rockland County lawmakers Sen. David Carlucci, and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe, both of whom represent the district, authored the measure after several years of animosity and budget cuts to the public schools – largely attended by black and Hispanics – by the Orthodox Jewish community, which controls the school board.
Complicating the situation is the unusual make-up of the 33,500-student school district, in that only 8,500 attend East Ramapo public schools and 25,000 attend mainly yeshivas and other private Jewish schools. These students are entitled to buses, textbooks, security and other services, which the school board has covered by cutting staff and programs in the public schools.
Bichotte, a Haitian-American, said she signed onto the bill after learning that many of the public school students in East Ramapo are Haitian-American immigrants, and out of her sense of justice. She also signed onto it after reading a state-mandated report that found the board has a habit of not following open meetings laws and has laid off more 400 teachers and support staff, and cut summer school, music and some athletics programs.
“I started seeing what’s going on there and what is equitable,” said Bichotte. “When I put my name on the bill some of the Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn called me to ask me to take my name off. I was open to listening to everybody and when they first approached me they said we needed to talk.”
But Bichotte said instead of talking some of the Orthodox Jews started tweeting bad things about her and how she was brainwashed and disappointed in her without even having a discussion.
“They also started calling my friends to talk to me, and I started calling a lot of members of Jewish community in my district and other organizations,” Bichotte recalled, adding that when she did speak to these leaders and organizations they seemed to understand her point.
“My side is that that we all come from oppression and there should not be a have and have not group, and in this particular case the public school children are being left behind. These schools used to graduate 100 percent and now it’s 60 percent. When you diminish the integrity or quality of education through cuts, institutionaly these kids get prepared to be a failure in society. If you want to make cuts, make cuts across board.”
But one Rockland County source said Bichotte failed to meet with any East Ramapo school officials and that none of the public schools in the district are on the state’s failing schools list.
The source also noted that when an overseer is appointed with power above the school board it violates the taxation without representation laws in that the school board is democratically elected.
“Being from minority community you would think she (Bichotte) would protect voting rights,” said the source. “There is a Haitian community here in Rockland County and they played into her emotions, but there’s also a huge Haitian community that is against this bill.”
Several Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish sources noted that Bichotte signed onto a bill that has nothing to do with her district and it took them by surprise.
“There are experienced veteran members of the state assembly who are well versed in the issues affecting East Ramapo. They have wisely deferred to not get involved without hearing and understanding all of the issues and their ramifications. It is troubling to see a new member from Brooklyn weighing in on an issue that could be damaging to Orthodox Jews in East Ramapo,” said one prominent Orthdox Jewish leader from the borough. “We would hope she would try to hear all sides and seek counsel and advice from her more experienced colleagues and her constituents.”
David J. Rosenberg, a columnist covering local politics for the Flatbush Jewish Journal, said his gut reaction is Bichotte signing on to the bill was a risky move.
“East Ramapo is a very sensitive issue in the Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish community and there are a lot of people feel that the oversight bill should only move forward together with an increase of funding in the district,” said Rosenberg. “I don’t think the East Ramapo issue will be a major issues when she runs for re-election, but if she has her name on it that will feed into the growing perception among among her Orthodox Jewish constituents that she doesn’t take them into consideration.”
Another prominent Orthodox Jewish source issued a veiled political warning to Bichotte.
“Nobody’s openly attacking her, but if she doesn’t reach out to the orthodox community it may be too late,” said the source.
But Bichotte said she’s not the kind to be intimidated.
“I put my name on the bill and a lot of time and energy into what I did. My priority is to represent my district, but being in the assembly means supporting legislation that affects all people,” said Bichotte.
“I can’t deny I am a Haitian and American-Haitian people from all over want me to lend my voice to their issues. I spoke to one Jewish leader and I said, ‘For real. You’re the people of God. You or I should not be fighting about a group of kids not getting anything. We should be coming together because there’s a commonality between Jewish people and minorities,” she added.