A growing number of parents with children in East Ramapo public schools plan to file a lawsuit in the coming days seeking millions in damages from current and former school board members they allege were involved in a pattern of abuse of millions of public dollars used to support private schools.
The lawsuit, expected to be filed in federal court within a week, follows a July 18 petition by 14 parents who are asking the state education commissioner to remove five members of the Orthodox and Hasidic school board majority from office.
“The petition would only accomplish removing these people from office and ensuring against future mis-expenditure of money,” said Arthur Schwartz, the group’s attorney and head of the New York-based nonprofit public interest firm Advocates for Justice. “This lawsuit would seek to recover damages from the people who wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer money.”
Twenty-three individuals, most of whom have children in East Ramapo schools, have signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and the number could grow, attorneys at the organization said Tuesday.
The lawsuit, Arthur Schwartz said, will look back on at least three years of school board decisions, including spending of federal aid, purchases of non-secular textbooks for private schools and real estate deals, among other actions outlined in the July 18 petition.
He said the suit will target former school board members as well as the five addressed in the earlier petition: school board President Daniel Schwartz, Vice President Yehuda Weissmandl, and members Moses Friedman, Moshe Hopstein and Eliyahu Solomon.
Parents want the board members to be held personally liable for up to millions in damages and want to bar them from using district dollars to defend themselves, with the money then returned to the district, Arthur Schwartz said.
Albert D’Agostino, a school district attorney who will represent the board members in addition to two other firms hired for that purpose, declined to comment Tuesday.
As East Ramapo’s legal troubles — and subsequent fees — mount, officials are worrying about how to afford it all, considering there is no real reserve fund or insurance help.
The insurance program that typically reimburses school districts for legal fees refused to cover expenses related to the petition, Superintendent of Schools Joel Klein said. But board members are nevertheless entitled to counsel, so the petition alone could cost the district hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, he said.
The district might consider further budget cuts on top of the $7 million, including 90 jobs, it already slashed this year, Klein said.
“That’s what frightens me at this point,” he said.
Board president Daniel Schwartz did not return calls seeking comment.
Last week, he told The Journal News/LoHud.com a countersuit in response to the Advocates for Justice-backed parent petition wasn’t out of the realm of consideration.
“If there is a way for us to legally recoup our losses … I will vigorously pursue it on behalf of the district,” he said.