Heavy rains, roof leaks and the appearance of mold have created a torrent of criticism in the East Ramapo School District.
The way one teacher delicately put it recently, a school there actually has ducks hanging out on rooftops -- in ponds collected after heavy rains.
While that hardly seems like a major problem when you consider all the other financial, cultural and social turmoil facing this school district, the presence of web-footed water birds may be a harbinger of much bigger problems: Where there's roof water, there are leaks. Where there are leaks, there's mold.
And that ain't good for anyone in a classroom, especially kids with asthma, allergies or sinus problems. Any teacher can tell you how hard it is to teach under more normal circumstances, let alone when you have to deal with lousy weather -- inside the building.
The state Department of Labor recently cited the district for having mold in two of its schools -- Pomona Middle School and Ramapo High School. The state gave the district until mid-July to clean it up (the district says it already has done so), and state and local officials maintain that the schools are safe, and the air is clean.
But skeptics say this duck has an all-too-familiar waddle, and they're not buying the district's response.
"Our schools are disgusting," said Peggy Hatton, a mother of two children and longtime critic of the district, who says East Ramapo has for years neglected building repairs. "They've cut maintenance and grounds-keeping staff for four years."
There are rust stains and discolored ceilings all around and some corridors rival a dingy New York City subway station, she says.
Students last month held a walkout to protest the conditions of the schools, railing against the presence of rodents and trickling water.
The district has, in fact, trimmed the number of custodians by more than 50 during the last decade, so it has roughly 72 workers taking care of 13 schools for roughly 8,000 students. And there's been plenty of belt-tightening in the wake of three consecutive failed budget votes, including the most recent rejection last month.
Now the public, which includes a substantial bloc of the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities that don't send their kids to the schools, next week has to decide on a $205-million proposal that is $452,000 less than the one that went down May 21. The district already sent out 54 termination letters and says there is the possibility of 32 more should this budget fail.
You can be sure there aren't buckets of cash lying around for a rainy day.
Schools Superintendent Joel Klein acknowledged that the district must use bins to collect water coming through ceilings and that some buildings do need new roofs, but he adds that many of the other complaints are overstated. Nonetheless, repairs and replacements are expensive.
"If we had extra money, there would be more improvements," Klein told Newsday.com reporter Meghan E. Murphy during a recent walk-through of facilities.
Without cash, or a multimillion bond referendum, repairs will be continue to be hodgepodge and on the cheap. And a Band-Aid approach may actually cost taxpayers more in the long run.
"If you don't fix [the problems] quickly, the cost to repair them escalates," said Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network, an Albany-based not-for-profit organization that advocates for children on health issues.
To be fair, East Ramapo isn't the only district dealing with dwindling dollars -- or mold and mildew. Many others across New York have similar problems, and have been trimming their capital and maintenance budgets.
Too often, school officials are left with tough choices that can pit teachers, programs, students and taxpayers against each other.
There are, no doubt, difficult decisions that must be made.
But the bill eventually comes due.
Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.