The fact that some parents are excluded from participating in Dobbs Ferry School District elections — as candidates and as voters — was the subject of a discussion during the Dobbs Ferry Board of Education meeting on Feb. 9.
These parents, who are almost all Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), work for Children’s Village (CV) and live at the D’Assern housing complex set aside for members of that residential treatment center’s staff.
Technically, those families reside not in the Dobbs Ferry School District (DFSD), but in Greenburgh Eleven, a “Special Act public school district” serving students at CV. That district has its own board of education.
According to the Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (SWBOCES) website, special act districts, created by the State, “provide unique educational and therapeutic opportunities to students who have experienced difficulty or failure in previous school settings. Special act districts are located on the grounds of residential child-care facilities licensed by the Department of Social Services.”
Greenburgh Eleven’s geographic boundaries align with CV’s. Greenburgh Eleven pays about $600,000 annually for D’Assern children to attend Dobbs Ferry’s three public schools.
On Feb. 9, members of the Dobbs Ferry PTSA’s Diversity Committee told the board of education that the inability to participate in elections renders D’Assern parents unable to advocate for their children, some of whom walk to school due to a lack of busing, and that such conditions are an issue of equity and inclusion. The DFSD provides busing only to Springhurst Elementary School, which is adjacent to the D’Assern housing.
According to the school district’s attorney, David Shaw, of Shaw, Perelson, May & Lambert, LLP, in Valhalla, New York State set up the current arrangement, and only the state can amend it. Education law requires a school board candidate to reside in a school district for at least one year.
Board member Tracy Baron asked Shaw how the state could be encouraged to change the law. “You would start with your state assemblyperson and senator,” Shaw said. “The governor would have to approve the bill.”
Board member Jean Lucasey asked about the possible effect of a school board resolution on the legislative process. Shaw replied that passing a resolution would not change the law, but could “create a path for your legislative representatives” to determine what’s viable.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, 20 people spoke.
Jennifer Cadenhead, mother of a high school senior and a graduate of the high school, stated, “As a Black woman, I was shocked this exists in Dobbs… We still have a racist system. There should be more investigation.”
Ali Moss, a mother of a second grader and an incoming kindergartner, pointed out, “Given that this property [D’Assern] sits within the boundaries of the Village of Dobbs Ferry, that leaves DFSD as the only district that can reasonably be expected to provide those children with an appropriate public education… and the DFSD students who live there are treated as out-of-district students.”
She described D’Assern parents as “disenfranchised,” and their lack of representation on the board of education as a moral and equity issue.
Rebecca Pitts, a member of the Diversity Committee, and the mother of a kindergartener and third grader, proposed that the district extend busing eligibility. “This is especially urgent in the absence of safe paths or sidewalks between the CV and Springhurst campuses,” she said.
Jean Horsfield, a mother of a high school student and three graduates of the high school, said she was surprised by social media posts about D’Assern parents being unable to participate in district elections. “I think there’s some vital information that’s missing,” she stated. “It makes it look like the school district is doing something wrong.”
She pointed out that the D’Assern complex is on tax-exempt property, and that the agreement between Greenburgh Eleven and the DFSD had been made with stipulations and wasn’t racist. “I hope the information will be presented in more accurate form,” she added.
Paulette Rivers-White, a clinical social worker and program manager at CV, as well as a PTSA member and mother of a fourth grader, asserted “We want to be able to have more say.” She cited the lack of access to busing and the need for sidewalks. She has lived in D’Assern housing for 24 years and worked at CV for 25.
The day after the meeting, White described the special act policy as “an outdated regulation that closely resembles the practice of redlining,” and concluded, “There is inequity in limiting my influence as a result of my address based on a policy that was designed to both protect and segregate society’s most vulnerable population.”
D’Assern resident Marjorie Zuniga, the adoption and foster care office manager at CV, co-chair of the Diversity Committee, and member of CV’s Undoing Institutional Racism Committee, stated, “The existence of these kinds of rules is extremely unethical and leaves our entire community voiceless in the educational decision-making that ultimately impacts our children.… This is the definition of systemic oppression and should not be happening in this day and age.” Zuniga is the mother of a third grader and pre-schooler.
Following the meeting, Dobbs Ferry Schools Superintendent Lisa Brady explained to the Enterprise that “Greenburgh Eleven and other Special Act districts serve the most vulnerable students in New York State.” Regarding the possibility of redrawing district boundaries, she said, “This is a multilayered and complicated issue.”
Brady said she invited Shaw to the meeting because she was concerned about misinformation she saw on social media. “I thought it was in everybody’s interest to have the lawyer there,” she explained. She echoed Shaw’s statement that a board resolution “wouldn’t mean anything, other than saying, ‘If you want to pursue it, go ahead.’”
“It’s an interesting conundrum,” Brady said, “and there are a lot of moving parts to this. It’s not an easy solution.”