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.