State DOE asks county to take charge of fire inspections; Nyack Attorney Dennis Lynch leads yeshiva effort to stymie new rules

Day faces surprise resistance to new state mandate for county fire inspections of private schools

According to a ruling by the New York State Department of Education, private schools across Rockland County were scheduled to get a thorough checkup for fire safety by certified state fire inspectors, operating under the auspices of Rockland County government, beginning last Friday, May 27.

But many yeshiva leaders of Ramapo are not content with the county having authority over the matter and have joined together to form the School Religious Freedom Coalition. According to Hamodia, a daily Jewish newspaper, influential Nyack attorney Dennis Lynch represents the yeshiva leaders. 

Hamodia reported that Lynch sent a letter to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia stating the yeshivas will not let Rockland inspectors into their buildings because New York State Education Law “only authorizes inspection by the county at the invitation of the school administrator,” and no SRFC administrators have approved of the inspections. 

According to the County Executive’s Office, New York State Department of Education commissioner MaryEllen Elia filed a request specifically asking that Rockland County inspect 26 schools that had not filed safety reports despite being asked to do so. She also asked the county to re-inspect 23 schools that had been inspected by the since demoted former Town of Ramapo fire inspector Adam Peltz. Four of those schools that were given passing marks by Peltz were found by the state to have serious fire safety violations.

Master of Disaster-- Dennis Lynch knows a good municipal fight when he sees one
The mercurial Dennis Lynch is often aligned with contradictory forces within local politics

Four top-rated inspectors will continue working until every school that has not complied with state law is thoroughly inspected, county officials announced last week. The scrutiny of private school inspections has been rising for months as yeshivas and other private educational facilities ignored safety codes, despite thousands of students in grades K-12 inside the buildings.

In a meeting on Thursday outside Pomona’s County Fire Training Center, County Executive Ed Day, along with Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski and two fire officials, discussed how the county got the green light to go into schools that have exposed students to broken outlets, extension cords running across classroom floors and a bevy of other fire code violations that have been routinely ignored or “missed.”

“We needed this resolved,” Day said. “The State Board of Education has stepped up to the plate and we are moving forward to make sure these schools comply with code…if they lock the doors, we have laid out the process with our county attorney to jail people who fail to cooperate—and knock down those locked doors. Must we see children taken out in body bags before anyone acknowledges the level of risk they are being exposed to?”

Day and Zebrowski said schools failing to pass the new inspections will be closed—and the intensive investigation by the county’s top fire safety inspectors is at no cost to the taxpayers. If anything, they will lose any funding from the Department of Education they have received until they are in full compliance with the state’s codes.

“The people who run these schools are unbelievable,” Zebrowski said. “Should kids be in structures deemed unsafe? Why wait till we have a tragedy?”

The 49 schools in question will face financial and possible criminal charges if they refuse to cooperate. Eighty percent of the schools in question are in the town of Ramapo; the remaining 20 percent in the Village of Spring Valley.

Despite the protestations of yeshiva owners, News 12 reports that 15 schools have already been found in violation of code, led by Bais Mikeoh with a whopping 45 code violations.

While Day and Zebrowski spoke, two Orthodox men were on the sidelines showing a “compliant private school” video on an iPad (without naming the school) and handing out information from Agudath Israel of America stating, “Yeshivas in Town of Ramapo Show ‘Impressive Resolve’ to Ensure School Building Safety.”

Signatures of the yeshiva leaders who signed it are purportedly on file with Yeshiva Association of Rockland County and Agudath Israel of America.  The two men plead their case but refused to identify themselves as they spoke to many media outlets.

Day said all of the questionable private schools will be thoroughly inspected and either allowed to remain open or be shuttered by mid-June 2016. “My stance from day one has been, ‘Equal treatment for all—special preference for none,’” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”

Two heads of local yeshivas told Hamodia that they fear Day is trying to “gain control” of the school system to stem their community growth. They claimed the fire safety issue is not out of control and said the problem stems not from neglected safety protocols, but failure to fill out paperwork.

Lynch has been a lightning rod at times over the course of his career. His representation of yeshiva bosses vs. the county executive could prove controversial in light of his role as special counsel for the Town of Stony Point, which voted over 2-1 for Day in the 2013 election.

The Town of Ramapo and the Village of Spring Valley utilize Lynch as assistant town attorney and special counsel, respectively, even while dealing with hundreds of yeshivas within their boundaries. Should a lawyer representing a town or village dealing constantly with yeshivas be allowed to also take a job representing those same yeshivas?

While Lynch represents the yeshivas, his partner in the law firm Feerick, Lynch, MacCartney and Nugent, Donald Feerick, Jr., is representing “preserve”-minded partisans who are interested in creating a Village of Pearl River, partly to insulate the neighborhood from any takeover by religious communities in Ramapo. In the past, Lynch himself has represented Michael Hull, one of the most influential citizen crusaders of the Preserve Clarkstown and Preserve Rockland movements.

More on Lynch and the yeshiva bosses’ attack on Day can be read at Hamodia:

Rockland County Times op-ed on Lynch’s role as counsel for Spring Valley and Ramapo can be read here:

Snippet of News12’s report that 15 schools already have been found in violation of fire code:

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