Updated on November 17, 2017.

As is the case in districts across the country, the racial composition of a school board in the New York City suburb of Ramapo doesn’t look anything like that of the predominantly nonwhite student population it serves. The news Thursday of a lawsuit challenging the district’s school-board election proceedings in attempt to change that might just seem like another effort to challenge the status quo.

But this case is a little different. It’s not just an equity-minded attempt to reform a seemingly flawed policy—it’s also an explosive development of a chaotic tale of cultural collisions and political dissonance that has been simmering for at least a decade.

The lawsuit, which was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Latham & Watkins LLP in federal court, targets the election methods for board members in the East Ramapo Central School District. The lawsuit argues that the current system for electing school-board members denies the district’s black and Latino citizens the opportunity to fairly elect members.  

The district has for years been the site of intense animosity around some of education’s most controversial issues: public versus private schooling, the infiltration of religious interests into the public-school system, and decisions over how to divvy up funds in financially strapped communities. As of 2014, the area was home to an estimated 50,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their numbers have swelled so much over the years that they now make up the majority population of several villages in the town of Ramapo, which lies west of the Hudson River near the New Jersey border. It’s also home to populations of black and Latino residents.

But the situation in the East Ramapo Central School District is more complicated than the kinds of tensions typical of such demographic divides: Very few of the Jewish residents’ children attend public schools. About 27,000 students who live within the district’s borders attend private schools (mainly Jewish yeshivas), while just 8,500 or so—over 90 percent of whom are children of color, mostly black or Latino, and many of whom are English-learning immigrants—attend public schools. Despite that distribution, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish majority has remained in control of the school board for over a decade; just one of the current board’s members, according to the lawsuit, is a member who was voted in with the support of public-school parents.

The result: a school board in which the people making decisions about public-school proceedings have very little if any stake in those proceedings. Not surprisingly, debates have abounded over whether the body really has the public-school students’ interests at heart. Financial difficulty has made these debates all the more urgent; roughly three in four of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Tensions consistently run high at school-board proceedings —so high as to have attracted the attention of the national news media. A 2014 This American Life episode was dedicated to the district’s unique situation and dramatic infighting.

Under the current voting protocol, known as an at-large system, each school-board member is elected by all of the district’s voters rather than only by members of the geographic area in which she lives. Under this system, the NYCLU alleges, the district’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish majority has effectively managed to fashion a school-governing body that prioritizes private-school needs. “Communities of color have not seen their candidates of choice win a contested seat since 2007,” the press release states.

And the racial chasms that the situation has both illuminated and exacerbated aren’t just about white privilege and minority disadvantage. Adding even more complexity is the fact that the white students in question are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Charges of anti-Semitism have regularly emerged amid the infighting, and the controversy has evolved into a particularly thorny collision of identities. This latest legal development is a reminder of just how fraught school-board elections can be, especially when they involve a power struggle that places race—and, in this case, disparate cultures and ways of life—at center stage.

The NYCLU lawsuit was brought by eight plaintiffs, including the Spring Valley NAACP and seven black or Latino voters. Two of the plaintiffs are parents of public-school students who ran for seats on the board in 2017 but didn’t win. The lawsuit charges the current voting structure with violating Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race or other minority statuses. According to the NYCLU, to prove that the voting structure is in violation of the act, the plaintiff must only prove that racially polarized voting is taking place, not that there is discriminatory intent. The lawsuit demands the board stop holding elections until the town adopts a “ward” system, which would introduce voting on the basis of geographic districts; there would be nine individual districts, with one member elected to the board from each district.

The NYCLU has taken action against the district’s school-board decisions in the past. In 2016, the organization filed an appeal with the State Department of Education to keep the school-board member Sabrina Charles Pierre, a black woman, on the board for her entire term. Officials had cut Pierre’s two-year term in half because of an administrative error that prevented her from being sworn in on time. The NYCLU argued that cutting Charles-Pierre’s term short overturned the results of the election. Ultimately, a bill signed into law by Governor Cuomo this year restored Charles-Pierre's full term.

In fact, the school board’s operations have garnered criticism ever since the ultra-Orthodox Jewish majority took control of the body in 2005. Public-school parents have fought tirelessly against the board’s budget cuts to arts programming, staff positions, and other student services. At one point, funding reductions forced the district to cut the kindergarten day in half. (Some have stressed that a variety of factors, such as New York state public-school funding cuts and tax caps, have wielded just as much influence over budget decisions.) Fights have also ensued over the allocation of publicly funded vouchers to the Jewish special-needs students who attend private schools.

Overall, the complainants argue that the board members have effectively diverted significant public-school funding to private schools. Hank Greenberg, a monitor appointed by the state in 2014 to investigate the district, echoed these concerns, arguing in his report that “as public school budgets were slashed, spending on programs benefitting private schools increased.” And while state grants have allowed the district to reinstate some programs, the NYCLU says that past budget cuts have already led to poor outcomes for many students. Achievement rates have declined in recent years, and today just one in five public-school children in grades three through eight is proficient in English and math.

School-board election proceedings and their outcomes are often characterized by racial inequality. “The toxic combination of at-large election systems and racially polarized voting,” said the NYCLU senior attorney Perry Grossman in a statement, “often prevents minority voters from holding school boards accountable for providing their children with quality public education services.”  

Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University who has researched school-board elections, said that these sorts of lawsuits have become very common in recent decades, in part thanks to the Voting Rights Act. One recent example is in Ferguson, Missouri, where the ACLU won a lawsuit challenging the at-large voting structure of the district’s school board, which it argued deprived black community members of the opportunity to effectively elect representation. While ward systems have become common in urban districts in the past few decades, Reckhow added, anecdotal evidence suggests that pushes to introduce these systems are becoming increasingly common in diversifying suburban districts.

An East Ramapo Central spokesperson, Patricia Lynch, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit, noting the body’s lawyers still need to review the latest complaint. She emphasized, however, that any change in the voting structure would require that New York State pass legislation given that the state determines election law. New York State School Boards Association officials suggested, though, that the federal court could potentially compel the district to adopt a ward system if the lawsuit is successful. A bill, introduced this year to allow districts to establish election wards, passed in both houses of the New York State legislature and is awaiting action from Governor Cuomo.

To the plaintiffs in the NYCLU’s case, the clearest solution to the district’s turmoil is to abandon the current voting structure. “We need people on the board with a vested interest in what is best for our public-school children,” said Eric Goodwin, a plaintiff in the case and a public-school parent. “That’s the only way that students like my son will be given the tools they need to succeed.”