SPRING VALLEY – East Ramapo is touting improvements to its food service at six elementary and middle schools on its website. Food at the schools, which are undergoing kitchen renovations, had been the subject of numerous complaints at school board meetings this year.
Parents and children at an Oct. 3 school board meeting said school meals were bad-tasting, and the cold food was sometimes spoiled and had caused tummy aches. Community activist Luis Nivelo, during his comments, approached the dais and placed what he said were rotten apple slices in front of trustees, Superintendent Clarence Ellis and state-appointed education monitor Mary Fox-Alter.
Nivelo, a Spring Valley resident, was served the next day with an order of protection that limited him from getting within 500 feet of Trustee Simon Koth. In a statement the night of Oct. 3 to Ramapo police, Koth reported that Nivelo grabbed his arm.
Nivelo has confirmed that he will not be in attendance at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. The meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the district’s administration building on Madison Avenue.
Several trustees commented later in the Oct. 3 meeting that the testimony by students, and Nivelo’s actions, had been disturbing. But Trustee Yitzchok Gruber said he believed the children were “very good actors.” He said similar food was served to his children at their nonpublic school without problems.
Problems with kitchens
Kitchens are being renovated at Chestnut Ridge and Pomona middle schools, as well as Elmwood, Hempstead, Margetts elementaries and Kakiat S.T.E.A.M. Academy and ECC.
The work comes after problems with the venting of kitchen exhaust hoods had caused the state to step in. About 6,000 students are impacted, according to district reports.
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The renovations are being done as part of a $90 million systemwide overhaul of buildings that’s being funded through federal COVID aid. The work is behind schedule amid a parts shortage.
The district reported that starting last week, its food vendor, Whitsons Culinary Group, was bringing hot meals once a week to each school.
Whitsons has not returned a request for comment.
“I love it! It has everything in it and the beautifulest cheese!” read one student’s statement on an Oct. 20 posting on the East Ramapo website that announced hot food was being delivered to various schools.
Free speech v. safety concerns
The order of protection served to Nivelo ordering him to stay away from Koth and his family continues until March 1, 2023. By default, it bans Nivelo from attending East Ramapo school board meetings if Koth is there. Koth is serving as an interim board member until May 16, 2023.
Education and open government experts said the situation was unusual. But, they believed, such action could be used, even if it banned Nivelo from public meetings.
Shoshanah Bewlay, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, could find no precedent for the situation in past rulings related to open meetings law. However, Bewlay said, public bodies can create rules that maintain the safety of all in attendance, including board members. As well, a judge signed the order of protection.
East Ramapo’s school board offers remote viewing of the meetings, Bewlay said, and should find a way to accommodate comments from people viewing remotely, including Nivelo, if the protection order does not exclude such interactions.
While people can send in written comments prior to a board meeting, there appears to be no facility for commenting remotely during a meeting. East Ramapo clerk Kathi Kivi did not return a request for comment.
Meetings are streamed live on YouTube and video links are later provided on the district’s website.
Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said he could not speak to this specific incident. But, he said, if a school board member felt their personal security was jeopardized, seeking a protective order is an option. But, he said, it’s “the nuclear option.”
Worona said the protection order’s exclusion of Nivelo from school board meetings would appear to be by design. “That’s precisely where the act happened,” Worona said. “I don’t know how it could be interpreted any other way.”
The district serves about 10,500 public school kids, mostly Black and Latino children, many immigrants. Another 30,000 kids who live within the boundaries of the district attend private schools, mostly yeshivas that serve the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish community.
The district faces a “fiscal cliff” that could lead to a $40 million end-of-year deficit as it banked on federal pandemic aid to cover costs amid repeated voter rejections of school budget plans.
Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.
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