Transcript

534:

A Not-So-Simple Majority
Transcript

Originally aired 09.12.2014

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. For the internet version of this episode, we did not bleep curse words. Those words remain intact in this transcript.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

With primary elections in five states this week, the last primary elections this year, we have this not very typical example of majority rule and what a mess it can make. Our story takes place in a suburban school district an hour north of New York City, East Ramapo, New York. Picture yards, strip-mall sprawl, box stores. Super diverse-- you've got big Latino and Haitian and African American populations, some white enclaves, working-class and poor and well-off areas.

And for a long time now, Hasids have been moving in in large numbers. Hasids are, you know, ultra-religious Jews. You've seen the ones in the long black coats and the hats. The men have beards. The women keep their heads covered in public. Like the Amish, they prefer to keep to themselves, so they don't send their kids to public schools. They send them to religious schools called yeshivas, where Yiddish is spoken as the primary language. And in East Ramapo, mostly the Hasids are poor or lower middle class.

And here is the situation. Because they're living in the suburbs, they're paying high property taxes, which, of course, are high because they're paying for local public schools, which their kids don't go to. And then they're also paying for these private schools, these yeshivas. So they're getting squeezed, right?

And as the Hasidic population got bigger and bigger, that became an issue. Because in New York, these suburban school district budgets go up for a public vote. As the Hasids' numbers increased, there were enough of them that they could conceivably go to the polls and vote down the school budget, force cuts. Though, kind of remarkably, that did not happen. And it didn't happen because the public schools and the Hasids worked out a deal-- a truce. Steve White is an activist in school board politics in town.

Steve White

The original deal that was made many, many years ago was if we don't investigate whether or not there's education going on in the yeshivas, then the rabbis won't tell their people to vote down our school budget.

Ira Glass

In other words, the school board won't call in the state to check and see if math and reading and history are being properly taught in the yeshivas, like the state mandates, if the Hasids will just stay away from the polls. Jason Friedman was superintendent for East Ramapo schools for eight years. He says the truce actually even cruder than that. He says that the yeshivas are entitled to money from public school budgets for certain things, like buses and books.

He says the deal was to give the Jewish schools as much money as was legal. Friedman says he would regularly meet with Hasidic rabbis and yeshiva administrators. And his pitch was always, we will give you whatever we can. Just don't vote down our budgets.

Jason Friedman

I think that's what we all worked at. We tried to work out a quid pro quo situation. We could probably never ask a non-public school family to come out and vote Yes on a budget. Our hope was that they wouldn't come out, that they would say away.

Ira Glass

So the Hasidic population grew. And here's a curious demographic fact about East Ramapo. Most of the people in East Ramapo were not Hasids, but most of the children were. Two out of three children in the school district were Hasidic.

And the Hasids felt cheated, because property taxes kept going up to pay for these schools that most of the kids in the district did not attend. And also, the monies and services that the public schools were supposed to be giving the Hasidic schools, they didn't feel like it was enough. So the detente ended.

Our story this week is about what happened once it fell apart. And I should say, if you think that you have heard your share of stories about school board fights, what happened next, I totally assure you, was like nothing you've probably seen in any school district anywhere. Because it raised such basic questions.

It's usually, you know, just a given in our country that, you know, people who don't drive still pay taxes for roads, and people who hate the outdoors pay for public parks, and people without kids in the public schools pay for the public schools. Just, that's the deal. We all know it. And so what happens when people who do not want to pay for the public schools take over the school board?

We're devoting our whole hour to this today. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If, by the way, you're listening to this by podcast or internet, there is some cursing in this show, and we have un-beeped the curses in this internet version of the episode. If you prefer a beeped episode, you can get that at our website.

Ben Calhoun has been visiting East Ramapo now and then over the last year, and he tells the story.

Act One. A Not So Simple Majority, Part 1.

Ben Calhoun

The dispute that finally shattered the truce in East Ramapo-- there's no way around this-- it's kind of regulate-y and fussy. But this is what ended the peace, what sent the East Ramapo school district into a political brawl that's lasted years. The dispute had to do with special-ed students, Hasidic special-ed students.

Yossi Gestetner

It was fully in the hands of the district to be a mensch and to do things the right way. They simply refused.

Ben Calhoun

Yossi Gestetner is a political operative, an activist, in the Hasidic communities. He said the problem had to do with the fact that Hasidic special-ed students, like other special-ed kids, they need expensive therapies and services and education. And the government will pay for those, is required to pay for them. But for that to happen, the district would usually require that the kids go into a public school setting.

The Hasidic and the ultra-Orthodox live in closed communities, and the private yeshivas they send their children to are all Hasidic kids. So just picture-- you're a Hasidic parent with a special-needs kid-- maybe with developmental and emotional issues-- and people are telling you, you want to get your kid the help they need, you gotta yank them out of the environment where they're the most comfortable, the only environment they've ever known, and send them elsewhere.

Yossi Gestetner

The parents just want to make sure that the children go to an environment and in a school, an institution, where the language spoken is the language they understand best, the tradition, the religion, and the culture. The way they see it is the state has an obligation to provide education, and some special-needs students get up to $27,000 in funding. Take this $27,000, put it into a different institution, an institution which works for the parent and for the child. A place where it helps the student and the parents best. Especially if it doesn't cost an extra nickel for the taxpayers.

Ben Calhoun

In other words, you're going to spend the money anyways. What do you care if it goes to a yeshiva?

But it's not that simple. You can't do that, because of federal education regulations. The government says if it's going to pay for special-ed students, then they have to be placed in mainstream environments as much as possible. Congress made that the law because, for years, our country had a real problem-- that special-ed kids were being warehoused and isolated. And according to the law, public schools are just considered to be more mainstream than private religious schools.

So in East Ramapo, Hasidic parents would often go to the school district, and they'd ask for their special-ed children to be put in private yeshivas using government money. The school district would say, sorry, we have to follow the law, and the law says no-- which I brought up with Yossi Gestetner.

Ben Calhoun

You know, the law just has a very clear--

Yossi Gestetner

Yeah, but I don't--

Ben Calhoun

And distinct preference for keeping them in a public setting.

Yossi Gestetner

The-- first of all, if the law tortures the children, the law should be changed, you know? So don't-- don't throw around "the law." I mean, law was used to agitate against people all the time. So if the law is broken, don't force the district to spend a million dollars to fight this damn law. Change the law, and finish. It's never an argument to me, like, well, it's against the law. So change the damn law.

Ben Calhoun

These complaints and frustrations grew and grew, year after year. And so did the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox population. Eventually, that population was at a point where it wasn't big enough to do what Gestetner is saying-- change the damn law. But it was big enough to do something else.

Mimi Calhoun

When it started to matter to the Orthodox, I guess, that they would win-- I want to show you some of these numbers.

Ben Calhoun

This is Mimi Calhoun. She's a former East Ramapo school parent, elected to the school board in 2004. She showed me the school board voting results from the last few decades, how things changed around 2007, 2008, when the Hasidim made a move for control of the school system by taking over the school board. I want to just say, when you hear these totals, the numbers are going to maybe sound small. Remember, these are suburban school board elections. People winning with a few thousand or even a few hundred votes-- that's the norm in any district around here.

Mimi Calhoun

I had about 3,000 votes. My opponent had about 2,000. And those were sort of the numbers we had. A total of maybe 5,000 people voted. The next year when Aron Wieder ran--

Ben Calhoun

Aron Wieder was one of the first Hasidic candidates elected to the board.

Mimi Calhoun

He had 6,000 votes, double what I had. That was astonishing. Our numbers stayed about the same, 2,000 or 3,000, and the Orthodox votes tripled. And then their numbers just started increasing.

Suzanne Young-mercer

It was almost scary the way they-- you know, it's like no matter what we did? Like, if we can bring out 5,000 votes, they could bring out 7,000 votes. It was-- it was almost as if they could calculate how many people we might be able to get to, and they could bring out that many more people.

Ben Calhoun

This is Suzanne Young-Mercer. She's another former school board member. And like she's saying, it's remarkable to look at these elections, to see how the totals start climbing after 2007. It makes me think of that Bugs Bunny cartoon with Elmer Fudd, where they're racing up in the barber chairs. Vote totals go from 5,000 to 8,000, 13, 16, 18. You can see both sides turn it up-- though the Hasidic-backed candidate's always a little bit out front.

Lots of people on the public school side talk about this with bitterness and awe. They tell these stories about Hasidic voters dressed in black filing out of buses.

Suzanne Young-mercer

It-- you know, if my husband was here, he'd say, when he was out in front of the schools handing out stuff, he remembers that someone on the religious side got on a telephone and called to say they needed more people out here to vote. And he said, within minutes-- it's like-- he felt like it was a sea of people just showed up and were voting. Organized political takeover. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ben Calhoun

The takeover was gradual. The East Ramapo school board has nine members, but only three seats go up for election every year. By 2008, the majority was six Hasidic/ultra-Orthodox, three traditional public school folks. Once the Hasidic majority took control, at first, many of the ways it started to remake the district were incremental-- changes to personnel and administration here and there.

Kind of quickly, though, restricting the budget and reining in property taxes became a preoccupation. The school board determines the property tax levy when it sets its budget. Controlling taxes meant trimming corners off the budget, dropping extracurriculars, sports teams, cutting music teachers in elementary schools.

Woman

They heard that six of their music teachers are going to be cut.

Ben Calhoun

In response, parents and students started to get involved, showing up at board meetings to criticize and question. Grumbling and grousing spiked in this whole new way when the Hasidic-dominated board predicted declining enrollment for the district and, as a result, it planned to close two schools.

Man

Don't close our schools.

Ben Calhoun

With all the growth in the Hasidic community, people knew there was an intense need for land and buildings for private Jewish schools. So almost immediately, there was speculation the shuttered public buildings would be sold to yeshivas. Gradually the boardroom took on a new dynamic.

Student

(SHOUTING) I am a student here! You need to listen to me!

Ben Calhoun

Eventually, on one side of the room you'd have the public school parents and students, largely black, Latino, some recent immigrants, many poor-- the system is 78% free and reduced lunch. And then up on the dais, you'd have the Hasidic/Orthodox majority governing the future of a school system they would never send their own kids to.

Amid the mounting controversy, the Hasidic majority started this regular routine, saying the board needed to go into executive session-- private session in a back room.

Parent

No executive!

School Board Member

--sustained. It's 5 to 1. We're going to go into executive session.

[LOUD BOOS AND JEERS]

Ben Calhoun

The board would stay locked away for hours on end. Two hours, three hours. And with the board gone, parents and students who had school and work the next day, they'd be left waiting in the boardroom until 11, 12 o'clock at night, waiting for a chance to speak.

Steadily, the wounds and the bruises and the contentious issues multiplied. But if there was a real shot across the bow, one move that transformed a nasty feud into an all-out war, it came down to one particular board meeting. One night, and this dramatic personnel change.

November 18, 2009. This is the board meeting where all this happened. At the meeting, the board did what had become so usual. It called for an executive session and it started walking out. But as that happened, something unusual took place.

The remaining, quote unquote, "public school advocates" on the board-- this is the minority-- they stopped on their way out of the room. Generally they didn't associate with the activists and the parents who'd show up. But tonight, they walked right up to them, and they pleaded. Essentially, what they said was, no matter how long we're behind closed doors, whatever you do tonight, please, do not leave.

School Board Member

Executive session. Going back for the meeting.

Ben Calhoun

The board didn't come back into the room until nearly a quarter to 1:00 in the morning. And when they get back, what gets put on the table is this kind of puzzling proposal to fire the district's law firm of many years and hire a new guy. And I say puzzling, because listen to the specifics.

The old lawyer was a local guy, had gone to school in the district, even. He'd done the system's legal work for years and years. And the administration, by every account that I've heard, they really liked him. He charged $120 an hour.

The new lawyer was a guy named Al D'Agostino. He was from out on Long Island, more than an hour away. And his contract, it would be for $250 an hour, plus $125 an hour for travel.

Add to that this-- the new guy had been caught up in a pension investigation by the state of New York. Not exactly desirable. A confusing move, right? Especially if money is a concern. But people in the room were not confused when this came up. They knew very well who D'Agostino was.

D'Agostino had recently been in the news for representing another school district, one in Lawrence, Long Island. D'Agostino'd been involved in a controversial plan that that board was trying to push through, a plan to close a school.

Reporter

The public school board, made up primarily of Orthodox Jewish members to send their kids to private school. A few months ago, the board voted to shut this elementary school.

Ben Calhoun

Parents out in Lawrence alleged the plan was to close the school in question and then sell it to a yeshiva. And, in fact, it would later be sold to a yeshiva.

Reporter

Attorney Albert D'Agostino says the board has every right to close the school and reassign the kids. And rumors that it will be sold to a Jewish yeshiva are just rumors.

Albert D'agostino

Right now, the only decision that's been made is that it will be closed and mothballed.

Ben Calhoun

So prior to this meeting, people in Lawrence, Long Island had been in touch with the public school crowd in East Ramapo. They said, this lawyer is helping our school board do these controversial things. First, they're shutting this school. And also, he's doing this thing where he's helping them put special education students in private yeshivas using public money. We've heard your district might hire him. We wanted to warn you.

Woman

We didn't know--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

--it wasn't on the agenda and no one--

Ben Calhoun

In the video of this meeting from this night in East Ramapo, as soon as the majority proposes changing law firms, things unravel super fast. Before you know it, pretty much everyone other than the Hasidic majority is trying to stop the hiring of the new lawyer. The superintendent projects that hiring D'Agostino will cost the cash-strapped district as much as $900,000 more per year. Remember, this is already a district that's trimming its budget.

The superintendent and the public school advocates on the board, they ask over and over, just where is that money going to come from? While all that's happening, the half-dozen public school parents and activists left in the room, they heckle the board.

Parent

Crooks!

Ben Calhoun

Sometimes they just shout the board down.

Parent

Shame!

Parent

And you're trying to save the district money?

Parent

Shame!

Parent

How could you even think of that?

Parent

God is watching you.

Parent

That is disgusting!

Parent

God is watching you.

Parent

That is absolutely disgusting.

Parent

And is he going to do the same thing for East Ramapo he's doing for Lawrence, New York?

Parent

I can't believe I'm even hearing this!

Ben Calhoun

Perhaps no one tries more desperately to put the brakes on this whole thing than the superintendent at the time. He argues and he pleads, and he says, we don't have the money. He also says this whole plan is half-baked and sloppy. He points out that there's no strategy to hand off the district's current cases from the old lawyers to the new one.

Former Superintendent

I mean, I've heard nothing about a transition plan.

Ben Calhoun

He says, in disbelief, the district has cases in court tomorrow. There's no reason to do this so hastily.

Former Superintendent

You should table this now. You're talking millions of dollars. You can't, as a board, change attorneys on a night. I take that back. You can.

Man

Mr. Wieder, sorry--

Former Superintendent

You have the right to do that. It would be insane to do it. You're putting this district in major jeopardy. Major jeopardy.

Ben Calhoun

The superintendent is still asking where all the money will come from when Aron Wieder, the leader of the Hasidic majority, cuts him off, calls for vote.

Former Superintendent

Are you going to answer the question, where the money?

Man

No, he's not.

Aron Wieder

All those in favor, say aye.

Ben Calhoun

Five members in the Hasidic majority vote yes. The three other board members present vote no. The motion passes, and Al D'Agostino becomes the board's new lawyer.

With the new lawyer, Al D'Agostino, at the legal rudder, the board forged ahead with the two school closures. Remember, the reasoning had been that the board was predicting a significant decrease in public school enrollment. Enrollment never actually did decline. But the two schools were shuttered and put on the market, and the board eventually sold both to yeshivas.

It also changed its approach to special-ed placements. It replaced the district's head of special education, who Hasidic parents had had a ton of beef with. And then the district started placing special-ed students in private Jewish schools in very large numbers.

You might wonder, how would they do that, if it's against the law? The answer is Al D'Agostino, who imported a strategy he'd used in the other school district.

Now, I won't get into all the gritty details here, but the short of it is that D'Agostino kind of cut a messy loophole into the regulations, one that allowed the board to put special education students into yeshivas using public money. These questionable placements were soon piling up in East Ramapo. And state officials were desperately trying to intervene, warning the district that the practice was against the law.

Also high on the priorities list for the new Hasidic majority was reining in property taxes. And with the levers of power now in its possession, it launched what's pretty much been a systematic defunding of the East Ramapo public schools. To get a picture of how this played out inside the schools, I went to a high school principal named Jean Fields. She just retired last year from one of the district's two high schools, Ramapo High School.

Jean Fields

The yearbooks-- this is 2007, '08, '09, '10.

Ben Calhoun

Field showed me four yearbooks from when the school board really started cutting. You can actually see the yearbooks get thinner and thinner and thinner.

Jean Fields

It's like half the size by the time you get to 2010.

Ben Calhoun

And that's not declining enrollment. That's things disappearing from the school.

Jean Fields

Right, that's things disappearing.

Ben Calhoun

Fields went page by page, showing me what was cut. The business department, that was several pages, all eliminated.

Jean Fields

All of these courses are gone.

Ben Calhoun

There were other departments cut by 80%. Full pages of honor societies, sports, JROTC, AP classes, clubs, dance, home ec, administrative staff. District-wide, the cuts have been sweeping. Here's a partial list from the last five years.

All deans, all social workers eliminated. All assistant principals at the elementary school level, music instruction for elementary school kids, funding for field trip buses-- all eliminated. That came with cuts to administration, guidance counselors, teaching assistants, maintenance, assistant principals, among lots of others.

Kindergarten was reduced from full-day to half-day. System-wide over the last six years, the district's laid off 22% of all its teachers. At one point, Jean Fields says there got to be so few teachers in her building, there was a conversation about whether the school should just let seniors go halfway through the day.

[DRUM LINE PLAYING]

From what I can tell, nothing and no one was sacred. Most high schools have things that are sources of pride. You know, it might be a sports team or a theater program, a debate team. For Fields' school, it was their marching band. It won big awards. It was featured in the Denzel Washington remake of The Manchurian Candidate. In 2012, the board laid off the band's director.

Olivia Castor

We would always complain to the school board about scheduling. And what would happen is, like, the school board would always respond and say, well, that's not true. You guys are making it up.

Ben Calhoun

Olivia Castor went to Spring Valley, the other of the district's two high schools. She was there during the biggest cutbacks. And while she was there, so many teachers were laid off, students started having a hard time filling their schedules with actual classes, a complaint that Castor took to the board, where she was told the problem wasn't real.

Olivia Castor

So I was tired of them saying that's not true. So this is, like, a document that we put together about--

Ben Calhoun

Castor set out to prove the problem was real. She gathered evidence into this eight-page packet that she showed to me. It includes real student schedules from her high school. These are from 2012, so this is a snapshot from later in the cutbacks.

Olivia Castor

And if you look at the schedules, you'll see three things. You'll see study halls, lunches, and community service. Filler periods-- normally during those periods, you'd have electives or classes or APs that you're taking. For this student, they have, like, four lunches and two study halls in one day. And you have eight periods in a day.

Ben Calhoun

And this a grade 12? So this is a senior.

Olivia Castor

Yeah, that's a senior. You have three lunches back to back and a study hall.

Ben Calhoun

Like, this student would have, period one, environmental science. Then they would have a study hall. Then they would have lunch. Then they would have lunch. Then they would have lunch. Then they would have public affairs. Then they would have lunch again. And then they would have algebra and trigonometry.

Olivia Castor

Yeah, so basically, three periods out of the eight are learning. And then five out of eight, more than half, is not learning.

Ben Calhoun

The former principal, Jean Fields, she confirmed this was a problem in her school, too. At one point, she told the administration the problem was so bad some kids might take five years to graduate, because they just couldn't take enough required classes. Just to say, the reason this situation could exist-- New York State education law has no regulations about how many hours of instruction a student actually has to get throughout the school day.

Olivia Castor eventually took the schedules she'd collected and showed them to the school board. I asked her how they responded. She said, they told me those must be fake.

As you can imagine, this course of events, this kind of breakdown, this kind of environment, it's produced a sprawling epic of public confrontation. Year after year filled with all the usual kinds of events-- rallies outside Central Office, press conferences, handmade signs, student walkouts, sit-ins. Though even the predictable events often have these details that seem to speak to the peculiarity of this specific war. Like, say, protests where hundreds of students fill a gymnasium and chant things like, cut the lawyer!

Kids

(CHANTING) Cut the lawyer! Cut the lawyer! Cut the lawyer! Cut the lawyer!

Ben Calhoun

Another unique part of this big, sprawling fight is that with the board regularly shutting itself behind closed doors in executive session, in their absence, parents and students would end up holding these strange, impromptu, non-meeting meetings, where they only had each other to talk to. There's a video that I can't quite shake of a meeting like this. It's from December 2012, a meeting about possible budget cuts. Among the parents, there's a mother. Name is Cassandra Edwards.

Cassandra Edwards

Good evening. I-- I think I come from a different perspective. And I come from the perspective of being angry at this point.

Ben Calhoun

As Edwards takes the mic, she stands in front of this auditorium. She's still in her winter coat, facing the crowd. And as she starts to talk, you can see that the board has left the room. They've gone into executive session. All their empty chairs are on the auditorium stage behind her, one for each public official who won't hear anything she's about to say.

Cassandra Edwards

They're not shooting our kids with guns. They are stealing their education. And we are acting as if it is normal. We are acting as if it's OK. We are allowing them to sit in another room and let the men then come out and speak. Who is the problem? We are the problem! We need to get angry about what's happening with our kids!

[CHEERING]

And we're not angry!

Ben Calhoun

I just want to pause here, because you'll notice, the crowd, they're totally with her. But as she keeps talking, she gets more and more upset, and it turns into this kind of upset that it's hard to cheer for.

Cassandra Edwards

We're losing our kids! And nobody's angry. Nobody's mad! There's not options for our kids. No options. They're setting up prisons for our kids.

Jay Grossman

I'm wondering, is there nothing good about this district and its work? Wouldn't it be nice and productive if you would compliment the board once in a while?

Audience

No. No.

Jay Grossman

Is it really against your nature?

Ben Calhoun

Less often, but occasionally, folks from the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities would show up at board meetings and they'd return fire. In this video, a man named Jay Grossman lays into the public school parents and students.

Jay Grossman

When you utilize this microphone to spew hatred and negativity constantly, you have accomplished one thing. You have accomplished that I, my friends, family, and acquaintances became more involved in what's going on here. And trust me, our presence here in this room is growing and will grow from week to week. When you constantly attack one of ours, we will be here to defend. We will be here to counterattack, if needed. Rest assured--

Woman

He's threatening us.

Jay Grossman

Mr. Wieder is going nowhere, and we're going nowhere.

Ben Calhoun

Gradually, shouting, open hostility, profanity-- that became the norm on the school board. And in terms of how deep the political chasm got, there's a couple artifacts I'll include for you. The first is just an anecdote.

At one point, people close to this situation who thought this breach could be repaired, they tried to broker peace talks, a sort of diplomacy summit. A lawyer that specializes in negotiations was brought in. He was a former sergeant in the Israeli military, and folks thought he could make inroads with both sides.

Someone close to the negotiation says everybody sat down and the Hasidic leadership was blunt. In about these words, a Hasidic board member said, we have all the power. Why would we negotiate? If we do, we only have things to lose.

There's also a candid document, one that points to the political will behind the board and what it was doing. It's this letter written around the time when all this was beginning. A prominent real estate developer in the Hasidic community, a man named Yehuda Weissmandl, wrote a letter to the local newspaper.

"Dear fellow taxpayer in the East Ramapo school district, again and again, I read about how upset you are about the members of the school board, how we bloc-voted them in, how we don't have the interests of the schoolchildren at heart. Well, let's take a closer look at that.

For many years, you took our tax money, year after year, increase after increase, and you never had any problem with that. But when we finally get together and say, that's enough, that is a problem.

I have a solution. How about giving all of us the option to bow out of the public school system and keep our money in our pockets? You want our money and our silence. Sorry, you cannot have it all your way."

The author of that letter, Yehuda Weissmandl, is now the president of East Ramapo school board.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun. Coming up, ugliness gets uglier. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two. A Not So Simple Majority, Part 2.

Ben Calhoun

I've tried to talk to Hasidic members of the board, current and former. I've made multiple requests in person and on the phone to talk to Aron Wieder, the first leader of the majority. I've also reached out multiple times to the current board president. Neither will return my calls.

I've issued a blanket invitation to the whole school board, which is now made up entirely of Hasidic-backed members. I've done that twice via the district clerk, with no takers. The one Hasidic board member who would talk to me is a former board president named Morris Kohn. He sat on the school board from 2009 to 2011, so he was there for some of the most severe cuts. Kohn told me he'd talk to me because he didn't want people to think he'd been, quote, "a madman."

This is how Kohn says the story went from the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox side. He says, flat out, the community wanted control of the board to do all the things we've outlined-- rein in property taxes, change special ed, and to make sure private yeshiva students got all the government money they could for things like busing and books.

Morris Kohn

They were there for that one main purpose, is to make sure the services private students are supposed to get are given, and that the public school was functioning properly.

Ben Calhoun

Is there something inherently uncomfortable about a system being governed by folks who don't use that system, or wouldn't want to use that system? Is there something that's uncomfortable just about that?

Morris Kohn

Well, it's-- it's very understandable people would see it that way. It's uncomfortable, or, you know, unfair. Having said that, every person living in a district, if they're investing money in a business and they feel, OK, the business is not being run properly, then I would get myself in there and try to get those improvements done.

Ben Calhoun

Let me explain the second part of what Kohn had to say, because this is less obvious. Kohn says going into all this, the Hasidic community saw the public schools as a system in trouble, bloated with unions and inefficiency, and a good slap of fiscal conservatism would go a long way.

But then once the Hasidim had control, there were all kinds of external financial factors that came crashing down-- the recession, the state property tax cap. And like school districts all across the state, he says, East Ramapo was suddenly super hard-up.

Morris Kohn

State cuts, government funding-- things were getting increasingly difficult to provide even the most simple services. And the board needed to do, sometimes, draconian cuts, which obviously parents and students alike did not like that, and which is very understandable. And people were feeling, I don't want the school board to do this. I don't want the school board to cut that. Our hands were tied. Like it or not, this is what we need to do.

Ben Calhoun

Kohn says it wouldn't have mattered who was on the board. Cuts were inevitable. But he says there was so much mistrust, nobody could see this.

Morris Kohn

It would always be the private school parents against the public school parents, and I felt, in such an environment, no matter what you will do, in one way or another, eventually you will be blamed for it.

Ben Calhoun

This argument-- that cuts were inevitable in East Ramapo, that they were making the same tough choices as other districts-- it's not supported by the facts. I've analyzed the budgets of all the school districts in the county for the last 10 years. All the other regular school districts in the area, districts that faced the same economy and made it through without the same kinds of massive cuts, the main thing they were doing was raising property taxes. During the five years that East Ramapo was making its biggest cuts, all of the normal neighboring school districts raised their property taxes by an average of more than 25% just to get by. During the same five years in East Ramapo, the Hasidic-controlled board raised taxes by just 9%.

Some more numbers. During the last 10 years, every comparable school district in the county grew its budget by an average of 50%. East Ramapo's budget grew by 33%. Which, to a layperson, you might say, well, oh, the budget grew. How bad could that be? I actually kind of thought that, at first.

But I talked to school administrators and experts who said that the costs the Hasidim and other conservatives say are out of control actually are rising alarmingly fast-- pensions, health care, union contracts, cost of living. Those things grow by so much that a 30-some percent budget increase, that isn't growth. That's devastation.

One uniquely volatile element in this chemical reaction, something unexpected that's become a chapter unto itself, is the outsized role of the board's controversial lawyer, Albert D'Agostino. In some ways, it seems like he was just symbolic, because of how he was hired. In that way, he became a sort of hood ornament for the Hasidic majority.

But in other ways, he became an actual central player. He's functioned as an overt advocate for the Hasidic majority in board meetings. He has become a fixture at the end of the board table, right up on the dais. After months of going to meetings, I found he acts like an unusual combination of attorney, legal architect, consigliere, and bully. A lot of the time, if board members shy away from conflict, D'Agostino steps in as a combatant.

A video of one board meeting that gives you a sense of this-- a few months after D'Agostino arrived, a former student came to a meeting.

Lorenzo Labitigan

My name is Lorenzo Labitigan.

Ben Calhoun

Lorenzo Labitigan was a district graduate in his first year at Yale, and he'd come back because he'd heard there were possible cuts to advanced placement classes. He wanted to plead to keep those. At some point, he makes a comment about D'Agostino, about how the board's paying all this added money for a lawyer.

Then he says something about D'Agostino having stained credentials. He's referring to the fact that the state of New York accused D'Agostino of illegitimately taking a state pension. Anyway, the kid says "stained credentials."

Lorenzo Labitigan

Stained credentials.

Ben Calhoun

D'Agostino jumps in, and the crowd erupts.

Albert D'agostino

Mr. Chairman, if I might-- if I might--

[CROWD SHOUTING]

Ben Calhoun

It's hard to hear him in there. D'Agostino's cutting off the student's comment, saying, "Mr. Chairman, if I might, if I might."

Albert D'agostino

I take great exception to your term, "stained credential." I graduated from an Ivy League college myself, sir, and I don't remember anybody coming up with as ignorant a statement as you just made.

[CROWD SHOUTING]

Albert D'agostino

You know nothing about me. If you want to challenge my reputation, do it to me personally.

Lorenzo Labitigan

Are you threatening me?

Ben Calhoun

Right there, the student's asking quizzically, are you threatening me?

Albert D'agostino

No, I'm telling you. I am not a stained lawyer, and I won't take it from anybody, including a freshman Yalie. You're showing your ignorance.

Woman

Excuse me, sir. You need to have respect for these children, who are graduates--

Albert D'agostino

He's not a child. He's an adult. If you make outrageous, defamatory statements, you're going to have to take a response.

Ben Calhoun

OK, for the record, as far as these pension allegations go, the New York Comptroller's Office accused D'Agostino of taking a $106,000-per-year New York State pension, one the state says he wasn't eligible for because he wasn't a government employee. The matter is still not fully resolved.

There are lots of videos of D'Agostino blowing up, yelling at parents, school administrators, pointing fingers in people's faces. There's a well-known incident when D'Agostino verbally abused one of the public school parents. According to a newspaper reporter who saw this, an Honor Roll student came to the parent's defense, and D'Agostino called the kid a piece of shit, asking the child, "Do you want a piece of me?"

Still, though, the most remarkable example of the bizarro role the school board's law firm has taken on in this conflict, it doesn't actually involve D'Agostino but another attorney from his firm, a lawyer named Chris Kirby. The set-up here is in a board meeting. The lawyer, Kirby, he smirked at a public school parent while she was talking about her special-needs kid. When the lawyer, Kirby, eventually left that meeting, an activist named Tony Luciano, he called Kirby an asshole.

But so Kirby leaves. He's gone. The meeting ends. This group of parents and activists walk out. Luciano, who videotapes every board meeting, is still rolling as they leave. In this video, you see the sidewalk as the parents head to the parking lot. And then a car drives up. I had Luciano, the activist, walk me through what happened.

Tony Luciano

A car's just pulling up.

Woman

Uh-oh. Uh-oh.

Tony Luciano

I didn't know whose car was pulling up. And he gets out.

Woman

Call the police. Call the police!

Tony Luciano

Obviously he-- he laid in wait for us.

Ben Calhoun

The lawyer, Kirby, walks right up to the parents. He's the first one you hear in this next clip.

Chris Kirby

You wanna call me an asshole now? Huh?

Tony Luciano

I already did.

Chris Kirby

Oh, did you? You fucking cocksucker? Huh? Huh? What? You got a problem?

Ben Calhoun

Wait, so can we-- can we just pause it right here? Because all you can see is the front of his shirt. Like, what's going on right now?

Tony Luciano

He's standing directly in front of me.

Ben Calhoun

And in terms of just how far away from you he is, how much space is between, like, your chest and his chest?

Tony Luciano

None.

Ben Calhoun

Oh, he's like actually up against you?

Tony Luciano

Chest to chest, yeah. Yeah. We're touching. And I've noticed that his hands are in a clenched fist. So he's ready to strike me.

Tony Luciano

I don't got a problem.

Chris Kirby

Yeah, you do. I'm standing in your way. You gonna do something about it? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Tony Luciano

No.

Woman

Take a picture of his license plate.

Ben Calhoun

At this point, the lawyer, Kirby, he walks back to this car. Parents are saying, take a picture of his license plate. And Kirby stands next to his car, giving the parents the middle finger. And he keeps saying--

Chris Kirby

Take a picture.

Ben Calhoun

Here you go.

Chris Kirby

Here you go. Take a picture.

Ben Calhoun

Take a picture. Take a picture.

Chris Kirby

Take a picture.

Ben Calhoun

The women get on their phones and they call the cops. And then-- I don't even know. Things just go bananas.

Woman

We're calling the police right now.

Chris Kirby

You gonna hide behind a bunch of women?

Woman

Ramapo police are on their way.

Chris Kirby

Go hide behind your women.

Woman

There is a lawyer who's threatening parents.

Chris Kirby

Look at him hiding behind all the women.

Woman

We need someone here right away.

Chris Kirby

What a man. What a tough guy.

Woman

He's not hiding behind anybody.

Woman

Please hurry.

Woman

Who are you hiding behind, your paycheck?

Chris Kirby

Shut up, you fat cunt.

Woman

Don't tell-- you did-- OK, that-- that--

Woman

Don't let him leave. Don't let him leave!

Woman

That did it!

Chris Kirby

That did what?

Woman

That did it.

Chris Kirby

Come on, that's it. That's it. Fuck you, you fucking bitch.

Woman

Is that how you talk to your wife?

Woman

You're either drunk or high.

Chris Kirby

If I were married to you, I'd blow my fucking brains out.

Woman

Honey, you wouldn't be married to me. You're not man enough. Trust me. You are not man enough.

Chris Kirby

I'm sitting there with a smirk. Fuck you! I could sit there. They're paying me to sit there. I work for the board, not for you.

Man

Chris, whoa--

Tony Luciano

This shows you that the board, they feel like they're immune. And it's a culture that the--

Chris Kirby

You trying to intimidate me? Is that what you're doing?

Tony Luciano

School board members have fostered among the attorneys. Because their disdain for the community has trickled onto the attorneys. They can do anything and get away with it.

Ben Calhoun

After this happened, there was a lot of outcry-- embarrassing coverage, newspaper editorials. The board did say this was too much. It announced publicly it would get rid of D'Agostino's firm-- though it never actually did. This happened in 2013. As of this story, D'Agostino's firm is still representing the district.

If I can, I need to change gears here, talk about part of this story that you may have noticed-- that this whole story treads near some of the most destructive anti-Semitic stereotypes in existence. In the last several years, as East Ramapo is divided into us versus them, questions of anti-Semitism have cut a wide path.

There have been troubling incidents, cases of kids throwing rocks at school buses full of Hasidic yeshiva students. In one case, a rock hit a young boy and fractured his skull. Last summer, three teenagers drove into Hasidic neighborhoods, shooting at people on the street with a paintball gun. They later told police they'd gone out that night to, quote, "shoot Jews."

While a lot of activists, parents and students, have tried to keep anyone associated with them from venturing into anti-Semitism, most people have seen glimpses of it. Olivia Castor, the student with the schedules, she told me about organizing rallies to protest the board.

Olivia Castor

So when we were doing the rally, people would be like, "F Jews," or something like that. And we're just like, you need to get out.

Ben Calhoun

Oh, so like people would actually just-- they would try and make that a chant.

Olivia Castor

Yeah. Like, you-- you know, they'd say it one time, and I'm just like, no. No. Like, I will shut that down. Like, right away.

Ben Calhoun

I heard more than one story about students, some very young, going up to teachers and asking, why are the Jews doing this to us? And this dynamic takes a simple political turf war, a school board fight, and it turns it into something uglier on all sides.

Tony Luciano

You know, they put up their own propaganda videos.

Ben Calhoun

This is Tony Luciano again, the guy who tapes all the meetings, the guy who gets confronted in the parking lot. A few years ago, Luciano ran for school board and someone put up a video against him. I had him show it to me.

Tony Luciano

Uh, let's see. This one.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Tony Luciano

This says, you know, "East Ramapo News, Luciano Running for School Board." I didn't put this up.

Ben Calhoun

The video is essentially an attack ad. A school board election attack ad. In it, there's a clip of Luciano making a comment about Hasidic board members washing their hands of the consequences of their actions. Which for complicated reasons having to do with Pontius Pilate and 2,000 years of Jewish history, this ad says is code for anti-Semitism. And then violin music kicks in.

Man

But to try to absolve--

Tony Luciano

So now they're-- they're showing a picture of Nazi soldiers high-stepping. "Vote no to bigotry and hatred." And again they show the Germans, Nazi soldiers, high-stepping.

Ben Calhoun

So did you say that there was-- there was one that was harsher and more offensive than this one?

Tony Luciano

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Ben Calhoun

What-- wait, how did the other one go?

Tony Luciano

It showed Adolf Hitler talking. It showed people in the concentration camps in Auschwitz. It showed--

Ben Calhoun

One of the other public school activists, Peggy Hatton, the mom who gets cursed out in the parking lot, a while ago someone took a picture of her, put a mustache on it, split-screened it with a picture of Hitler, and that got tweeted through the Hasidic and Orthodox community.

The tension of all of this-- real anti-Semitism, accusations of anti-Semitism, the fear of anti-Semitism, and the fear of being accused of anti-Semitism-- it casts a fog over this whole situation. There's an incident from a school board meeting. It's kind of well-known by people here.

It was the board president at the time, Daniel Schwartz, who was leading the Hasidic majority in 2012. And he gave this eight-minute speech at a board meeting. Public school activists have nicknamed it Schwartz's Rant. He starts out by bringing up a few different troubling incidents.

Daniel Schwartz

The children in our schools are walking up to their teachers, and, apparently in response to the demographic makeup of this board, have been telling their teachers, many of whom are of the Jewish faith, that they hate Jews.

Ben Calhoun

The thing that Schwartz does after this, where things get super complicated, he starts to cast a blanket accusation of anti-Semitism over all the people who had been opposing the school board's decisions. He starts by bringing up a student who'd come to a meeting to challenge the board.

Daniel Schwartz

During another controversial period this past year, a young student stood up at that rostrum there and stated that as far as she is concerned, this board cares more about money and taxes than it does about people. That too raises an age-old anti-Semitic trope of Jewish obsession with money.

I simply won't have it. I will not tolerate, I will not have any such statement ever being made in this district. Suggesting that Orthodox Jews who do not send their children to the public school lack the moral authority to hold this office hearkens back to the admonishments of Saint Augustine, who famously stated that the Jews should be allowed to live but never be allowed to prosper. And that paved the road to Auschwitz and the crematory at Treblinka.

To suggest that we lack the moral authority to sit in these seats? Let me tell you right now, you don't like it, find yourself another place to live. Because this is the United States of America.

Woman

Yes, it is!

Daniel Schwartz

Not only that--

[ONE PERSON APPLAUDING]

Ben Calhoun

To complicate all this even more, consider the racial dynamics of this situation. On one side, the Hasidim, all white. On the other side, the public school families, almost entirely black and Latino. But in school board meetings, in rallies, campaign literature, interestingly, racism doesn't come up the way anti-Semitism does. Activists told me they try to leave it off the table, because they know how explosive it is. But in private conversations, it comes up.

I spent months talking to people on both sides of this situation, and I think whatever role anti-Semitism has in all of this, the bigger split is the chasm between an isolationist religious community and everyone else. I think secular people sense from these religious groups an implied disdain and disapproval for their way of life. And in return, secular people feel a disdain and disapproval back towards the religious community over lots of issues, including things like how these groups often treat women. This animosity, it's ambient and it's hard to pin down. But it's corrosive.

Suzanne Young-mercer

I personally don't see a whole lot of anti-Semitism.

Ben Calhoun

Suzanne Young-Mercer deals with all kinds of people in her job, running the emergency room at Mount Sinai, one of New York's largest hospitals. Again, she served on the school board. And she told me this anecdote that encapsulates a lot of what I saw in Ramapo.

Suzanne Young-mercer

One day I was walking down the street, and there was a Hasidic woman who called me. She said, Miss, Miss? And I looked at her. And she said, I wonder if you could help me. She's in her home. So I walk over and I say, how may I-- what-- what do you need me to do?

Ben Calhoun

Turned out it was Friday, Sabbath, and the woman had a switch that she wasn't allowed to flip on her fridge. Young-Mercer went in and flipped it for her.

Suzanne Young-mercer

OK. And she took out these, like, little fruits or something. And she said, oh, thank you so much. Here, take this. They're really very good. You can take these. And so, you know, I took them, and she said, thank you. Thank you so much. And I left the house.

You know, I don't understand why a little tiny switch on a refrigerator couldn't be pushed down by them without, you know, God sending his wrath down. I don't-- you know, I don't understand that whole part of it. But I was willing to help them, because why not? You're my neighbor. You asked me for some help. As little as that was to do, certainly something I could do.

I know, truly in my heart, that if I needed help, if I was standing on a street corner and I needed help from one of them, they would walk over me before they'd help me. And that's the difference between them and us.

Ben Calhoun

I don't think Suzanne Young-Mercer is anti-Semitic. But I do think any time you say, I know in my heart what everyone from this one particular group thinks and feels, that's trouble. And in East Ramapo, that trouble is all around you.

There are enough Hasidim to control the local school board in East Ramapo, but there aren't enough to control New York State. And increasingly, the board is not just at war with the parents and their district, but with state government. In 2010 and again in 2012, the New York State Education Department reviewed what the district was doing, placing Hasidic special-ed students in private schools using public money.

Both times, the state said, stop what you're doing. It's against both federal and state law. We'll cut your funding. This changed nothing. The district did not comply. What it did was sue the state. The court said the state was right, but the board is appealing.

In 2011, the New York State Comptroller conducted an audit of the district's finances. The audit determined that the board has engaged in inaccurate record-keeping with discrepancies in the millions of dollars, loose monitoring of money going to private schools, sloppy bill payment, and just all kinds of bad management.

The other big category here is the district's real estate deals. The board did close two schools and sold them to yeshivas. One of those deals, in particular, it's been a complete mess. In short, the district got a bid from a yeshiva for the building. The bid was for $3 million. The school building was appraised at $6 million. So that's a hard deal to justify-- until the board rushed out and got the school reappraised for $3 million and sold it to the yeshiva at that price.

Activists challenged the new appraisal, and the state took their side. It nixed the deal. The appraiser recently pleaded guilty to fraud charges.

Just this summer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a monitor to watch the district. The district's response? The current board president wrote a letter saying the state was, quote, "acceding to the demands of bigots and lending official sanction to their prejudice," end quote.

Steve White

So I've never had to write anybody in before. So I'm voting for Governor Cuomo, OK?

Ben Calhoun

This past May, I met up with public school activist Steve White. This was school board election day. I stood in the booth with him as he wrote in "Governor Cuomo" three times for the East Ramapo school board. He had to do that because for the first time since all this started, there were no public school candidates running. After years of not winning a single race, the public school crowd failed to recruit anybody to run.

During much of this fight, Steve was kind of the field general for the public school side. We stood outside his polling place where, in recent years, he says there were huge lines. But today, there was no one. We were the only two people on the sidewalk.

Steve White

If someone wanted to organize this year, they could very well have gotten their candidates together, gotten their signatures signed, handed them in, shown up here today to do battle with your cards in hand and as people arrived to vote. It's just that, uh, no one did.

Ben Calhoun

Does that feel like giving up at all?

Steve White

Um, I guess it does. Yeah, I guess it does.

Ben Calhoun

White says, these days, even if his fellow public school activists organize better than ever, he doesn't think they could win a seat. The Hasidic community is now just too big. He estimates they're half of registered voters now. That door is closed, he told me.

Eventually he stopped the car at Hillcrest Elementary School. This is the school that was appraised for $6 million and sold for $3 million to a yeshiva. The state stepped in and voided the sale, but it eventually went through this summer for $4.9 million.

We walked around the back of the building, and you could see why the school was so sought-after. Directly behind it sits one of the largest Hasidic communities in the area. The only thing separating the two was a field and a small chain-link fence.

Steve White

Yeah, so there's the way you can walk through. We don't have to go any further. You see those buildings out there, the fence? Yeah. And see where people are walking through? That's where they broke a hole in the fence.

Ben Calhoun

As we stood there, a steady stream of Hasidic families made their way through a hole in the fence and towards the school building. Though today, they weren't there for school, for the yeshiva. This was Election Day, and this yeshiva, it doubles as a polling place. The Hasidic families walking towards the building, they were all on their way to cast their votes.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "DON'T THROW MY VOTE AWAY" BY DAVE STEIN]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sean Cole and Ben Calhoun with Alex Blumberg, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder.

Production help from JP Dukes. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Adrienne Mathiowetz runs our website.

Research help today from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damien Graef. Special thanks today to Terry Pratt and Bob Lowry at the New York Council of School Superintendents, David Rubell, Oscar Cohen, Colman Weber, Ira Oestricher, Marisa Nicosia, Megan Murphy, Peggy Hatton, Jim Bay, and Ed Hartley.

This is the last week that Alex Blumberg is working on our radio show. He has been here for over 15 years. Regular listeners have heard him a lot on our air and on the air of Planet Money, which he co-created with NPR News and our show. He is great at small, personal, funny stories, but also, he is an original and groundbreaking reporter when he tackles stuff like the financial crisis in his "Giant Pool of Money" episode.

Behind the scenes, he is a great editor with amazing judgment, and just a really-- like just a really sweet guy to work with. And we are all going to miss him so, so much. If you heard our show last week, you know what he's doing. He's going to leave and start his own business making podcasts. That's what the business is going to do.

You can hear his progress, follow how he's doing in the podcast that he is making about the creation of his podcast company. It's called "StartUp." I just heard Episode 2. It just kills. It kills. You can hear it yourself at hearstartup.com, H-E-A-R startup.com,

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he tries to be supportive. He really tries. But so many weeks, I know he turns on our show and says what he always says.

Woman

I can't believe I'm hearing this! That is disgusting!

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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