The board has named an interim superintendent who will serve through June.
SPRING VALLEY East Ramapo school superintendent Joel Klein has resigned.
The announcement drew strong applause and cheers from the several dozen people attending a special Board of Education meeting Wednesday night.
Residents had waited 70 minutes for board members to leave an executive session before board President Yehuda Weissmandl delivered the news that Klein’s resignation would take effect on Halloween.
Moments later, Klein’s successor, Deborah Wortham, made an energetic first appearance in the gymnasium of district headquarters on South Madison Avenue.
Most recently Wortham served as superintendent in the Roosevelt school district on Long Island — a district that was under state control for a dozen years
Her interim appointment lasts until June 29, 2016.
When introduced by the school board Wortham, who is African-American, grabbed the microphone and pumped up the cheering parents, many of whom have been at odds with the school board and Klein for years.
“I’m excited,” Wortham shouted. “All the way back in the room, are you excited?” She added to one person who gave her a shout out from the audience, “Can you do a happy dance?”
“I’m excited by what we can do together,” she added.
Wortham said she knows about the controversies and divisions within the financially troubled school district, where the school board is controlled by Orthodox Jews who primarily send their children to private schools. There have been hundreds of layoffs of teachers, deans, support personnel and program cuts in the district. The population of about 8,000 students is predominately non-white, and has a private school population topping 20,000.
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Klein has survived countless political and legal storms since the school board hired him in 2011, after years creating Clarkstown schools’ special education programs as an assistant superintendent. One of East Ramapo’s major programs is special education, especially within the religious private school community.
Klein antagonized parents with derogatory comments about Hispanics, waiting weeks to apologize. He had been the target of protests at each board meeting, as well as his home.
Most recently, the district has been under the spotlight of former New York City schools chancellor Dennis Walcott, who is part of a three-person state monitoring team sent to scrutinize district operations. A push to hire a watchdog who could veto board decisions was rejected by the state Legislature.
Walcott, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said Wortham was one of the candidates recommended by his team to replace Klein.
“We had a dialogue with the board and we had a very long detailed discussion and we suggested her,” he said.
Weissmandl said the district reached a separation agreement with Klein, approved unanimously by eight trustees, but did not give any details.
Weissmandl issued a statement that said, in part, that there had been significant changes in the district in recent months with more to come. He said Klein’s departure was “not unexpected,” noting his contract expired in 2016 and the board had recently begun searching for his replacement.
He said Wortham “specializes in complex educational challenges that we face in East Ramapo.” The board finalized an agreement with her Tuesday; she starts work Nov. 2. No details of that contract were released, other than a pro-rated salary of approximately $260,000 a year, the same salary as Klein.
“On behalf of the board and the entire staff of the district,” Weissmandl said, “I want to thank Dr. Klein for this dedicated service. He is a truly honorable man, who did his best under difficult circumstances.”
Wortham worked as superintendent of the York City schools in Pennslyvania from to 2011 into 2013, before resigning with two board members. The school system faced a financial recovery plan.
She then went to the Roosevelt Union Free School District, where she became the first locally-elected superintendent in 11 years. New York state had taken over the district in 2002 due to a high dropout rate, fiscal mismanagement, high teacher turnover and a failure to meet performance standards.
Board member Bernard Charles said Wortham’s hiring “is a great day for East Ramapo.”
District parent and critic Steve White and other parents said they were thrilled by Klein’s departure and hopefully for a change at the hands of Wortham.
“I am overjoyed Dr. Klein is gone,” he said. “He was incompetent. He was disrespectful. Our children deserve better.”
“I’m very hopeful the new interim superintendent will be respectful of our various cultures and have a rapport with our community,” White added.
In July, as rumors swirled that Klein would soon lose his post, he told The Journal News he had no knowledge of any forthcoming action by the board, adding, “Time will tell. Anything can happen. Anything is possible.”
Klein declined the option to seek another year in his contract, which was set to expire at the end of the school year. It included a $250,000 base annual salary and $35,000 in annuities. Klein also receives $85,000 in annual pension payments after retiring from Clarkstown.
Anthony Luciano, a former school board candidate and critic, who videotapes the meetings and posts them on the internet, said he hoped for better days for the children of the district. He took a pessimistic view that Wortham came from Roosevelt, however, which he said “was not a success in the state’s eyes.”
That said, “Anyone is better than Klein,” he said.
Martha Robles, who heads Catholic Charities in Rockland, told Wortham that she looked forward to discussing district issues. Robles’ organization works with poor families.
“This is a move in the right direction,” Robles said. “I am happy about this.”