RAMAPO – The Highview Road yeshiva raided during the FBI’s computer technology fraud investigation has long frustrated residents who now fear a potential proliferation of more yeshivas and some dormitories in the surrounding neighborhood.
Talmud Torah OHR Yochanan went into business one morning in October 2009 when several busloads of children were dropped off at 97 Highview Road, a single-family house with a narrow one-car driveway.
The school has yet to get final approval from the Ramapo Planning Board, yet it receives tuition and state assistance for more than 200 students as it operates under a temporary certificate of occupancy. The school added 93 and 97 Highview Road to its campus, plus two classroom trailers and converted the second floor into classrooms.
Wednesday afternoon, the school was among the 22 places raided by FBI agents and Rockland District Attorney’s Office detectives armed with search warrants demanding vendors and yeshivas account for computer-related equipment allegedly bought by religious schools with millions in federal subsidized education technology dollars. No one has been arrested and no criminal charges have been filed.
No one was at Talmud Torah OHR Yochanan on Thursday, The rabbis who operate the school have declined comment in the past.
Residents said the federal involvement gave them hope that other agencies were looking at Ramapo, even though local development plans and illegal schools are not federal issues.
“I think it’s kismet,” said Edie Williams, who has lived for 24 years on the corner of Spook Rock Road at Stemmer Road. “I think it’s a long time coming. It should have happened the long time ago.”
She and her neighbor, Alice Biancaniello, a 14-year resident, said their concerns are not based on religion but on the integrity of the neighborhood.
“If they are doing something illegal,” Biancaniello said, “they should be held accountable. I am glad to see someone is taking action.”
The larger issue for the neighborhood is two development plans, including yeshivas and dorms proposed for 294-296 Spook Rock Road and 86 Highview Road.
The Ramapo Planning Board heard public comments Wednesday night on the dormitory plan as more than 100 people packed the Town Hall meeting room.
Williams and Biancaniello said they and their neighbors won’t give up the fight, though they feel the planning is fixed and Ramapo officials are not sensitive to the needs of the non-religious neighborhoods.
Williams said the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals are dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews and it’s a conflict for them to vote on yeshivas.
Biancaniello said the Spook Rock neighborhood is diverse and a dormitories for 50 men 18 and older doesn’t fit the area. She said the school for 250 girls ages 3 to 12 at 86 Highview Road would add to the traffic congestion.
“I prefer schools weren’t added, but I can live with a school,” she said. “I don’t want the dormitories, I feel one with men is inappropriate. We’re a community. People don’t want to lose their sense of community.”
Diana Rodriguez, who rents a house at 294 Spook Rock Road, said the New Jersey owner has told her family it will have to leave as the house is being sold to people planning to use it for a school.
She said she’s lived there for seven years with her husband, three children, ages 11, 7 and 3, and two in-laws. She said the family just spent $5,000 on a driveway and won’t be reimbursed.
“We feel bad,” she said.
Separate corruption probes
Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe emphasized Thursday that the E-rate investigation and raids had nothing to do with the corruption probes his office, the FBI and federal prosecutors have been conducting.
No imminent arrests are anticipated as investigators pore over the documents in this complicated case, Zugibe said, adding, “It’s inappropriate to speculate on the outcome of the investigation.”
Peter Katz, a critic of over-development and the Ramapo administration and chief technology officer for PKA Technologies in Suffern, said “it’s always disappointing when there are allegations of corruption and financial malfeasance around government programs that are designed to benefit the greater educational community.”
He said E-Rate rules and requirements are strict and require constant corporate vigilance that service providers understand.
“I know that the vast majority of E-rate service providers do not engage in unlawful behavior and illegal activities when conducting their normal day-to-day business operations,” Katz said, “and it’s shameful that there are some amongst us who would attempt to defraud the government for their and their clients’ illicit benefit. ”
Steve Lieberman – lohud.com