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NY Times story on Orthodox school finances ‘misleading,’ says school official

Everything is aboveboard with the way the Kiryas Joel School District educates Chassidic children with special needs, explains district superintendent Joel Petlin.

Sign when entering Kiryas Joel, a Chassidic community in Upstate New York. Source: Screenshot.
Sign when entering Kiryas Joel, a Chassidic community in Upstate New York. Source: Screenshot.

The superintendent of the Kiryas Joel Village Union Free School District in New York is responding to allegations in a New York Times report on Monday that it misused funds the town allotted for the public-school system to fund private religious schools.

The article is “colored and spun unfairly to convey a false narrative of a school board ignoring purported conflicts of interest and inappropriately funneling taxpayer money to religious organizations,” wrote Joel Petlin, the district’s superintendent, in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The 2,500-plus word article reports that the public-school district, which only serves Chassidic children with special needs from Kiryas Joel, sends millions of educational dollars to the United Talmudical Academy, which runs most, if not all, of the village’s religious schools.

“Based on thousands of pages of public records, the review showed that the small public school district is now paying more than $2.4 million a year—about 5% of its annual budget—to companies affiliated with the private school organization, the United Talmudical Academy of Kiryas Joel, a nonprofit that wields enormous influence in the cloistered community in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains,” wrote Times reporter Jay Root.

The newspaper also reports that dollars are going to relatives of school-board members, including one who works in the district as an educator and one who runs a bus company used by school.

Petlin said the Times is taking things out of context.

“We, like all school districts, are required to equitably provide these funds for services to the at-risk nonpublic-school students within our borders,” he wrote. “We have no discretion to keep this money for our public-school students and every dollar spent is approved by the N.Y. State Department of Education.”

“We explained all of this to the Times and spent countless hours educating its reporter about district operations and expenditures,” said Petlin. “Unfortunately, this was ignored in favor of a story that is inaccurate, misleading and we think dangerous, as it comes at a time when antisemitism and attacks on the Jewish community are at the highest level in decades.”

Agudath Israel of America issued a press release titled “18th Article and Counting: Will the New York Times’ Obsessive Demonization of Orthodox Jews Ever End?”

“The report seems determined to find a scandal. But other than reiterating concerns about conflict-of-interest policies, the Times fails to find its smoking gun,” wrote Agudath officials. “Is it nefarious or even surprising that when seeking to rent specialized school space, the district would do so from the nonprofit that supplies the majority of it in the district, and ‘provides schooling for most of the children in Kiryas Joel?’ ”

“Moreover, ominous innuendo notwithstanding,” they added, “is it scandalous that the district repaired the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system in the facility in which children with special-education needs were learning?”

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