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SUFFERN, N.Y. – When his fifth-grade son struggled with a question on primary colors posed by the TV show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader," David Curry saw just how bad things have gotten in the troubled East Ramapo school district.
Divided for a decade between the ultra-Orthodox Jews who control the school board — but don't send their children to public schools — and parents who say their children are the victims of unfair budget cuts, East Ramapo has seen meetings degenerate into shouting matches and a federal lawsuit brought against the district.
Now a former New York City public schools chancellor has been appointed by the state to examine claims of parents like Curry, who have demanded state intervention in a district they say is failing to serve their children.
"Not only did he not know the answer, he didn't know what a primary color was," Curry said. "But then he hasn't had any art classes in third or fourth grade."
Curry said his daughter, a high school student, has suffered from cuts to extracurricular programs.
"She would have been on the track team, junior varsity, but we don't have junior varsity anymore," he said.
Parents blame the board for deep cuts in teachers and programs for the mostly black and Hispanic children who attend the public schools, saying the board favors the private yeshivas the bulk of the district's children attend. The board blames state funding — in particular a funding formula they say isn't favorable to the district — for the problems.
On Thursday, the state appointed former city schools chancellor Dennis Walcott to study the district's finances, watch to see if the board is breaking state law and make recommendations to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
Curry said the appointment has a chance to be a step forward, but there was plenty of frustration and skepticism among the hundreds of others who attended the announcement. The meeting was occasionally disrupted with boos and shouts calling for federal intervention.
Besides arts teachers and half the sports program, the board has chopped many guidance counselors, social workers and advanced placement courses and slashed kindergarten to half a day, parents complain.
Many parents noted that the state had failed to take action after a report ordered up last year concluded board members' concern for Jewish children "blinded them to the needs of the entire community," and called for a monitor who could veto board actions. But the state Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have done so.
Steve White, who went through the East Ramapo schools himself and sent two children through, said, "We need action. We've had monitors and reports before and it hasn't resulted in any real change for the children."
Walcott said that in addition to board meetings and PTA meetings, he'll be going to "barber shops, beauty parlors, hanging out on corners, talking to people" to find out more about the schools' problems and the community's deep divisions.
But Walcott won't be able to countermand board actions, unseat a board member or even attend the board's executive sessions unless he's invited.
Board President Yehuda Weissmandl said he would help Walcott any way he can, but said he didn't know if that would include inviting him to executive sessions.
The board has maintained that a state aid formula hurts East Ramapo because of the district's high proportion of private school students: about 24,000 in private school and about 9,000 in public school. The formula considers only public school enrollment when it divides the value of taxable property by the number of students.
Walcott suggested he and his experts will find ways to sniff out the workings of the district 25 miles north of New York City.
"We know when something's not right," he said. "We know when something stinks."
Walcott said they would make unannounced visits to classrooms and school board meetings. And he said he would talk to schoolchildren, too.
"Students give the honest answer about what's going on," he said.
Elia said she expects a report from Walcott in December.
Veterans of the district war expressed hope and some reservations.
Oscar Cohen, education chairman of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP, wondered how Walcott's street-corner approach would work with the notoriously insular ultra-Orthodox Jews in the district. Walcott said he's "a big believer in respect" and would not be ignoring Jewish concerns.
Laura Barbieri, who represents parents and children in a federal lawsuit against the district, commended the choice of Wolcott, who has also led the Urban League and been a New York City deputy mayor.
"We need to shine a light on the activities of the board that are problematic," she said. "These children are being denied a basic education."