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Unfair Blame and Facile Hypocrisy

2 Jun

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is widely attributed to Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Office of Budget and Management Bert Lance. He coined it to describe a simple way to save government money. 

It’s been a little over a week since Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected a crisis budget for next year, which would have kept spending steady at 1%, but required a one-time above-cap school tax increase of approximately 9.8%. A week later, we learned how deeply the cuts would go – $2 million here, $2 million there, and pretty soon, something that wasn’t “broke” is teetering on the edge of educational insolvency. 30 people are losing their jobs. There is nothing to cheer about here. 

Insult has been added to injury, thanks to one outrageous column from Donn Esmonde, gloating from the millionaire anti-school faction, and a completely misguided editorial from the Buffalo News itself. 

It’s been a bad few weeks for anyone who expects – needs – excellence from the Clarence Schools. 

On Saturday, former union worker Donn Esmonde praised the bright ideas of Roger Showalter, one of the two “vote no” candidates who was elected to the school board this year (both of whom are related by marriage). 

Public records reveal that Showalter lives in a house on Strickler Road that has an assessed 2013 value of $247,000. Thanks to the state’s STAR program, only $217,000 of that is used to calculate school taxes.  In Saturday’s column, Esmonde writes that Showalter has five kids attending Clarence schools. This means that, had the proposed budget been passed, Showalter’s family would have incurred an additional $20 – 30/month in school taxes to ensure that his kids’ teachers and programs remained employed and intact, respectively; that’s $4 – 6 per pupil, per month. If you can afford a $250,000 house, is $20/month to keep teachers employed and programs intact that onerous a hardship? 

Why didn’t they just raise the levy 2% every year, some ask. Well, if they had, the rate would be higher now

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) filed suit against the State of New York, alleging that schools in the New York City area were underfunded, and that this denied kids a quality education. The CFE won its final appeal in November 2006, which ordered the state to spend about $14 billion to improve the quality of New York City schools.  In the meantime, CFE helped enact the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007, which was to ensure proper funding of every school in the state. The law includes a “Foundation Aid Formula”, described thusly, 

to ensure adequacy and equity in state school funding by establishing a relationship between state aid, the needs of students and a district’s ability to raise revenue. It provided for a four-year phase-in of state aid to reach full funding of the formula. The legislation also introduced accountability provisions in its “contracts for excellence,” in order to ensure that the money provided was well spent.

In 2007 and 2008, Albany funded schools pursuant to its own formula, but froze aid in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Albany cut aid by $2.7 billion through the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” (GEA). On top of this, the school tax cap results in chronic underfunding of certain districts, perpetuating existing inequities. 

In the 2012-2013 state budget, the difference between what the reform act of 2007 mandated and what Albany was actually funding exceeded $5.5 billion. If you add in accumulated cuts through GEA, schools have lost $7.7 billion in promised aid and classrooms throughout the state are in crisis. Under Governor Cuomo, class sizes are increasing, services for the most vulnerable students are disappearing, as are programs and teachers.  There is litigation pending to force the state to obey prior court orders and its own legislation.  Clarence has been denied money it was promised.

As with all problems plaguing western New York, the underfunding of our schools is a political one.

Turning back to Mr. Showalter, in March 2012 he wrote this letter to the Clarence Bee

As the parent of four children attending Clarence schools (plus one more to join them soon), I have good reason to want our schools to be “great.” But simply raising taxes and paying our teachers more does not accomplish that (see the Buffalo school system). The fact is that Clarence spends more than $13,000 per student — more than enough for a quality education.

Clarence schools are “great” mainly because of the quality of students we send there, and they will still be “great” after we make the necessary cuts to the school budget. My wife and I spend many nights tutoring our children through their homework because we believe their education is most important. And I believe that many other parents in Clarence do the same — that is why Clarence schools are “great.” That will not change, no matter what cuts are made.

Last year, we heard the same dire warnings from special-interest teacher groups that cuts in spending would “destroy” our schools — but in the end we didn’t notice any decline in the quality of education. I believe that cuts this year will likewise have no real effect on the quality of education provided. While it would be nice if we had no budget restraints on our schools and each of our kids could have individual tutoring, that is not the reality we live in.

It is now time to start living within our means. Doing so will ensure that Clarence schools will continue to be great, not just for next year but for the next 20 as well.

The tl;dr is: Clarence schools are good because of two-parent, white, affluent homes, and teachers are superfluous. 

That letter is shocking in its elitist condescension. The teachers are completely out of the equation, and it presumes that Clarence families are somehow superior to families in any other district.  Does this mean that Williamsville families are superior to Clarence’s? After all, Williamsville outperforms Clarence just about every year in Business First’s rankings. His reductive, ‘it’d be nice if we had 1:1 teacher:student ratio’ argument is childish .

Well, past cuts did affect the quality of education. Clarence lost its two marching bands in last year’s budget, and they were notably absent from this year’s Memorial Day Parade. We’ll have to import one for Labor Day. In 2011, the elementary schools lost most field trips, and $85,000 was cut from supply and equipment budgets across the district. In 2012, in addition to the marching bands, the schools reduced weekend security, fired its PR person, lost assistant coaches in JV and varsity sports, and negotiated deals to share transportation and maintenance with Akron schools. In 2012, Clarence lost the last vestige of its gifted and talented program, the Clarence Schoolwide Enrichment Program and BOCES training for the state’s “positive behavioral intervention and support” program. 

In 2012, the school district was forced to leave the brightest and the most vulnerable students behind. Anyone who thinks that wealth, or family structure immunizes kids from the pressures of contemporary adolescence is woefully misguided. 

On Friday, the Buffalo News’ editorial board lectured the Clarence school board

The tax cap was set up to help force districts to make difficult budget choices rather than automatically raising taxes. In calling for a 10 percent tax hike, the School Board didn’t do that. Credit School Board President Michael Lex for accepting responsibility “for the present board not meeting the needs of our core constituents.” He’s right. 

It’s unfortunate that the board didn’t anticipate the opposition the original budget would generate. The issue divided the community in an acrimonious debate, and now the community has to come together.

At a public meeting held Friday evening, Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks and Board President Lex revealed that during the four public budget hearing/workshops, the voices in favor of going over cap outnumbered the anti-tax speakers by at least a 3:1 ratio. The purpose of these hearings is to listen to the community – they did that. To suggest otherwise is insulting and untrue. 

Courtesy Chris Byrd

Donn Esmonde took a buyout from the Buffalo News in 2011. He’s been freelancing ever since; presumably the writer’s guild has no problem with a retiree taking column inches from a current employee. But during his tenure at the News, he was subject to the protections a union offers; collective bargaining, a good contract with a nice pay and benefits package. Esmonde’s wife, likewise, is a union employee, working as a special education instructor for the Buffalo school system. She’s a member of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation, led by anti-reformer Phil Rumore. Esmonde’s entire adult existence has been eased and enhanced through union membership. 

But what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Esmonde’s entire schtick for the past several years has been, at times, difficult to pigeonhole. On the one hand, he’s been a vocal anti-development preservationist. Tight with the Tielmans and Goldmans of Buffalo, he alternates between aging hippie who hates suburbs to aging, reactionary, resentful tea party hack. It was just recently that he wrote a column expressing disgust at the wholly natural activity of breastfeeding

In two of his last three columns, Esmonde has gone on a tirade in favor of starving the Clarence school district into a shell of its former self. Why might this be? What possible reason might cityphile, suburbophobe Esmonde have to do this? 

He has an animus towards people who move to the suburbs for the schools. 

You needn’t go far to figure it out. Look at this column where he lauds efforts to expand charter schools in Buffalo, 

I have no doubt about his charter-pushing motivation: to bring school choice to parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private schools or to move to the suburbs.

Which is a valid point for charters and even vouchers in failing districts – kids don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t sit and wait for politicians, taxpayers, and administrators to do what’s needed to provide educational excellence. But Clarence’s schools are already excellent.  What is the critical need for reform in Clarence, a district whose annual spending increases (if any) amount to about half the rate of inflation? 

Let’s examine Esmonde’s glowing profile of Mr. Showalter, the ‘we’re rich enough and stable enough that the teachers don’t matter’ guy. 

He sees himself not as a grim reaper, but as a savior. His mission is not to gut the quality of your kids’ education, but to save it.

If Roger Showalter succeeds, it will mark a new way of doing business not just in Clarence, but across the region.

Showalter is one of two anti-tax candidates who soon will join Clarence’s School Board. The district’s proposed 9.8 percent school-tax spike last month blew peoples’ gaskets even in this milk-and-honey suburb. The subsequent beat-down in a record turnout forced school officials to regroup with a 3.79 percent do-over that should prove digestible, but does typical quality-of-school damage: Teacher layoffs, cuts to sports and clubs and larger class sizes.

Showalter thinks it is time to flip the formula. His philosophy is rooted in practicality. The Clarence High School grad (Class of ’89) has five kids, ages 4 to 17. He needs the district’s schools to be good, and to stay good.

“My kids have good teachers,” Showalter told me Thursday in his Depew office. “But we can’t keep laying them off, year after year … That’s what we’re looking at, unless we change the way we do things.”

He is reed-thin, speaks at librarian-approved volume and looks you in the eye. As president of Niagara Refining, an offshoot of the family’s tungsten operation, he balances a parent’s concern with a businessman’s sensibility.

His bottom-line sense tells him the district’s business model is broken. Clarence and nearly every other suburban district suffers from the same affliction: Shrinking enrollments and rising costs, in a region that is bleeding population.

The historic “remedy” is to perpetually raise school taxes, cut newer teachers and deep-six programs. That solution depends on ever-fewer residents continually paying more to get less. Showalter doesn’t think that works for parents, for kids or – ultimately – for teachers.

“That’s why I ran for the board,” he said. “The cost structure has to change.”

There is a vicious cycle. High taxes repel business, so we lose jobs and people. That shrinks school enrollments and forces fewer people to pay more for schools that have failed to put a lid on their largest expense – personnel costs.

According to SeeThroughNY.net, more than 100 Clarence teachers or administrators make at least $90,000, in a district of about 4,600 kids. Showalter said teachers pay no more than 10 percent of health care costs, administrators less.

He wants to stop sacrificing school quality on the altar of ever-rising teacher/administrator salaries, with benefits that disappeared in corporate America with the two-martini lunch. Instead of fewer teachers and worse schools, Showalter’s push includes buyouts for veteran teachers, teachers/administrators paying more for health care, and hiring a professional contract negotiator. Sounds like a plan – for Clarence, and beyond.

As Esmonde should well know, teachers in New York State must have master’s degrees, must be certified and periodically re-certified, and consider what they do both a profession and a calling. It’s not easy teaching kids. A teacher isn’t just an instructor, but a social worker, mediator, negotiator, equipment supplier, counselor, and spends countless hours of their own time revising curricula, writing and grading tests, arranging music, helping kids, developing strategies, etc. Rather than being disposable worker-drones, teachers have the unique ability to inspire kids and touch their lives, every day. Because they’ve eschewed the potential risks and rewards available in the private sector, teachers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and laws that directly benefit them. It’s good enough for Esmonde’s family, evidently, but not good enough for the teachers in Clarence. Stark hypocrisy, that. 

There are no rising teacher or administrator salaries – in their last contract, administrators agreed to a pay freeze. Teachers gave up half of the incremental salary increase in 2012-13, and to freeze the step schedule for the life of the contract, with no additional money added to existing salary steps. These were unprecedented concessions, which restored all personnel cuts proposed that year. Instead of whining about how much teachers contribute towards their health care, ask yourself why you settle for less. In the end, the teachers now pay 8% towards their health care, going up to 10% next year. 

That’s likely more than Esmonde pays.

Esmonde complains about “two-martini lunch” era benefits, but if his own health insurance was through his wife’s employer, he enjoyed benefits rich enough to afford his family elective plastic surgery if they wanted it, and can choose from several different health insurance providers. If it was through the Buffalo News, there are 37 health insurance plans across the different bargaining groups. At the Buffalo News in 2011, Guild members contributed nothing towards their health insurance premiums. Hell, he even advocated for violating a student’s fundamental 1st Amendment rights

Esmonde thinks the benefits he and his family enjoy aren’t good enough for teachers in other districts. 

“For every four veteran teachers who retire,” he calculated, “we can, for the same cost, hire 10 new teachers. Nobody gets laid off, and we can keep the programs our kids need.”

Flickers of change are on the horizon. West Seneca recently enticed 132 teachers and staff to retire and closed a school. Two other districts will share a superintendent. Reality is the mother of reform.

Closing a school means larger class sizes. Buyouts – as Esmonde knows – aren’t targeted towards specific teachers but need to be offered more broadly, and teachers can’t be coerced into taking them. Buyouts also cost money which may – or may not – be recouped elsewhere. There is an undercurrent of dissent whereby people think that one can retain something called a “professional contract negotiator” and suddenly – magically – the Taylor Law will fall, the Triborough Amendment will be repealed, the current contract will be abrogated, and everything will be just fine. That’s not how it works, and a “professional contract negotiator” costs money the district can’t afford, I’m continuously told. 

Meanwhile, West Seneca spends $14,663 per pupil and is ranked 15th in Business First’s rankings. Clarence spends $13,410 and is ranked 2nd in WNY. What is it about Clarence that is spendthrift and wasteful? What needs fixing? 

The cost/benefits adjustment that hit corporate America years ago is, sooner or later, coming to a school district near you. Numbers don’t lie: Virtually every district is caught in the same slow, downward spiral of a shrinking region.

As a company president, Showalter sees how the dots connect. He last week hosted a delegation from another country looking to locate a business here. He showed them a few available sites.

“Then I told them that their taxes would be about $150,000 a year,” he said. “They were like, ‘Whoa, we can go to other states and pay $100,000 less.’”

I’d like to personally thank Mr. Showalter for scaring away potential businesses, if indeed that conversation ever happened. That’s the sort of bold leadership we need to help grow WNY? Perhaps the Clarence IDA would be happy to abate that business’ school taxes for it. Kids don’t need teachers, after all. 

Jobs, schools, taxes – they are part of the same equation. As a businessman, Showalter clearly sees it.

He has no illusions about anything changing tomorrow. There still is a pro-union majority on Clarence’s School Board. He is one man, one voice. But the less things change, the louder his words echo.

Basically, Esmonde’s and Showalter’s idea of reform places no blame whatsoever on broken Albany policies and underfunding of districts, but all of it on teachers. In their world, teachers are expendable – we might as well simply employ unqualified workers at minimum wage and fire them when they demand any benefits. After all, Clarence is wealthy and responsible – these kids will teach themselves! 

But that’s the thing – if Showalter’s kids’ lose a program here or there, they’re wealthy and stable enough to make it up privately. These cuts do the most harm to the kids in Clarence who aren’t well-to-do, and whose parents can’t afford alternatives. It’s a direct assault on the poor and middle-class who do, amazingly enough, exist in Clarence. 

We have this thing in our economy we call “inflation”. For the last 13 years, it’s been about 2.5%. That means the cost of things has increased, and it justifies rises in wages to keep up. Yet the Clarence school district’s budget has grown by about 1% each of the last five years. That’s a conservative’s dream. Or ought to be, if the conservative in question believed in a public school education.

Make no mistake – this is the first salvo in a coming effort to voucherize Clarence schools. Malignant astroturf group “Americans for Prosperity” has recently promoted what it calls “school choice”, which makes no sense in a district that produces cost-effective excellence. To voucherize Clarence, presumably families would get a piece of paper entitling them to a credit to use at any private, parochial, or public school that will take it. At a tax rate of about $15/1,000 of assessed value, a $150,000 household would likely have about $2,250 to spend. That doesn’t go very far at Nichols or Nardin.  

Finally, Donn Esmonde is sloppy and not even trying. Is his column being fact-checked or edited? He used “milk-and-honey” to describe Clarence in both columns – phoning it in on auto-dial. He wrote that Marlese Wacek, 

…was prompted last year by the town’s proposal for a new ice rink to join Clarence Tax Payers, a grass-roots anti-tax group. She went door-to-door in recent weeks, urging a “No” vote on the district budget from neighbors whose annual school taxes can bump up to $5,000.

If you’re paying $5,000 per year in Clarence school taxes, your house has an assessed post-STAR value of $350,000, and a total assessed value of $380,000. Cries of poverty are unpersuasive. 

There is a public hearing on June 10th to discuss the revote budget. The revote itself is June 18th. 

Not Just a Taxpayer

29 May

I’m going to apologize for my lack of posts lately and in the next few weeks. I’m a Clarence resident and parent of two school-age kids, and last week’s school budget defeat has led me to become an active parent-taxpayer in the town.

For a decade, I had thought that the schools in Clarence were sacrosanct, and people would be willing to do whatever it took to keep the schools excellent. I was wrong. Losing that vote was like finding out your spouse was cheating on you the whole time – the town didn’t love the schools like that; it’s not the schools, it’s us. 

Indeed, at a meeting last night in a packed high school auditorium, people did what people always do when there’s nickel-and-diming afoot; they begged for mercy. 

Here you have one of the most cost-effective districts in WNY, and the number two school district. Instead of discussing what it would take to get to number one, we were talking about the teachers, staffers, and programs that would be cut. I don’t know how you cut your way to excellence, and I don’t know how eliminating teachers, raising class sizes, and getting rid of several modified sports and all freshman sports, firing three music teachers, a social worker, a guidance counselor, and several ELA, math, and science teachers is going to get Clarence to #1. 

What we’re going to find out is how people and things cost money. We’re going to find out that cutting and austerity lead to poor quality and a stressed system. 

But we also learned that there are some very passionate taxpayer-parents in town, and they are united and determined to prevent something like the past couple of weeks from ever happening again.  Nothing will be taken for granted, and never again will we be caught unaware. 

The budget revote is June 18th, so my posting here may be light as I concentrate on preserving the quality of my kids’ schools, and help to ensure the continued brightness of their future. Tea party austerity be damned. 

School Budget & Board Elections: Vote Today

21 May

Today, communities across New York State will be holding their school tax budget referenda and, in some cases, school board elections. Turnout for these votes is always quite low, yet it’s one of the very few times you have direct control over the taxes you pay – in this case, school taxes assessed against the value of your home.

I live in Clarence, where there’s a battle over a proposed 9.8% rise in school taxes. The proposal rolls right past Cuomo’s property tax cap and needs a 60% supermajority to succeed. 

When we moved to western New York in 2001, we chose to live in Clarence for one sole reason – the excellence of its schools. We have grown to love the town and our neighbors, many of whom also made the move to Clarence because of the school system. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the schools are the town’s very foundation, and if you do harm to them, you harm the entire community. 

Over the past 10 years, the school tax rate has decreased while personnel and non-mandated programs have been cut. Because past budgets were only balanced thanks to use of now-depleted savings, a one-time budget in excess of the cap is necessary to maintain the school curriculum. 

The forces opposed to the school budget are vocal and well-funded. One effort in particular that anyone with a Clarence mailbox knows about has been carefully created and funded from outside the area. Koch Industries’ anti-tax fake grassroots conservative activist group “Americans for Progress” has developed the mail pieces and websites urging a “no” vote and manipulating the data to mislead residents about what’s going on. I, for one, don’t take election of advice from people who proudly, and without irony, place massive election signs on derelict eyesore properties in the town

You can read about the AFP mailers here and here. You can read the reasons to vote YES on the Clarence budget here

Vote “YES” For the Clarence School Budget on May 21st

17 May

Of all places, Clarence has become the tea party battleground over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap. An outside, ultraconservative, anti-government lobbying group is using Clarence as a test case to try and defeat school districts’ efforts to pass budgets that will maintain school services. Its propaganda is downright Orwellian in style and content.

On Tuesday May 21st, Clarence voters will go to the polls to vote on the 2013-14 school budget. Turnout is especially important, because it needs a 60% margin to pass. Luckily, most Clarence residents know the importance that the school system has to the town’s identity and growth. Under the proposed budget, a home with $100,000 assessed value will pay about an additional $11 per month. Note that seniors qualify for the enhanced STAR exemption, which exempts the first $63,300 of property valuation from property taxation, easing their overall property tax burden.

Last week, I uncovered the fact that a local leader of the Koch brothers’ astroturf group, “Americans for Prosperity” claimed responsibility for the slick ads urging every Clarence household to vote “no” on the school budget.

For the uninitiated, “astroturfing” is a propaganda effort that is designed to obscure or mask who’s behind it, in order to give off the appearance that it comes from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Through astroturfing, the false sheen of grassroots independence lends credibility to statements made.

In other words, astroturfing is legalized deception used to alter or bring about a specific political outcome. The current edition of the Clarence Bee has a story about it, quoting AFP’s local contact thusly,

…the reason she and others associated with the flier chose to remain anonymous is because many of them have children enrolled in Clarence schools and are concerned about backlash. The reason she agreed to be interviewed was because her name was already out in the open.

Unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers, she said that Citizens for Sustainable Schools is not affiliated with Americans for Prosperity and hopes that the fliers will focus attention on the district’s finances.

Anonymity is the right to be free from accountability. If you won’t publicly stand by your position, what good is it?

While the AFP and its local member deny that AFP funded and produced the mailers, the facts don’t bear that out. The AFP’s Long Island HQ had immediate access to information concerning the local activist claiming responsibility for the mailers. It’s all a construct aimed to keep people in the dark about the outside influence.

At least when the state teachers’ union NYSUT speaks up, NYSUT has the courage to identify itself.

From a perspective of fiscal conservatism, it makes absolutely no sense for the AFP – or a resident – to propagandize for the rejection of a school budget hike of about $11/month for every $100k of assessed value in a very school-oriented town, while likely spending tens of thousands of dollars on slick mailers to every town household, and a shiny full-color, 4-page insert in this week’s Bee.

Those mailers and the accompanying website are professionally done, not the sort of haphazard stuff our local, genuinely grassroots tea party groups come up with. The language they use is as slick as the paper they’re printed on. This entire effort – the language, the quality of the mailers, the timing of the issuance of these materials – underscores that a larger, wealthier organization is attempting to use Clarence as a test case to combat any effort to raise school taxes above the Cuomo cap.

So, I think you’re being lied to.

The reason why AFP’s “local grassroots activist” is “unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers,” has to do with the fact that the funding comes from outside the area and is inconvenient for her. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” isn’t “affiliated with Americans for Prosperity” because “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” doesn’t exist and tried to keep its AFP association a secret.

Turning now to the merits of the debate – outside influence and money notwithstanding, local people who are upset over the increase have presented valid concerns.

Here are the facts:

1. Even with the proposed increase, school taxes are down overallIf the proposed school budget is passed with a 9.8% increase, the Clarence school tax rate will rise to $15.52/$1000. That is lower than 2007 ($15.86/$1000), and over a dollar per $1000 lower than they were in 2003 ($16.85/$1000). In the last 4 years Clarence School District has lost over $13 million in state and federal aid.

2. Clarence Schools are noted for their efficiency and excellence

Business First ranks the Clarence Central School District as the second best in WNY. It is 93rd out of 98 in per pupil spending, and 92nd out of 98 in cost effectiveness. 92% of Clarence HS graduates attend college.

3. Clarence Central School District has cut jobs

The 2011-13 budgets reduced 60 full time employees. The 2013 – 14 budget reduces another 24. It is a lean and efficient organization.

4. What your YES vote means

– Keeping our music teachers, choruses, orchestras, and bands.
– Keeping music instruction in the high school.
– We won’t just offer kids the bare minimum music curriculum mandated by the state.
– Keeping AP classes and electives.
– Keeping athletic programs at their current levels. Keeping nurses in the schools. Maintaining property values.

Rebutting the opponents’ points and questions:

1. Why don’t the teachers contribute more towards their health care? That would eliminate the gap!

Clarence teachers contribute 8% towards their health care now, and that will increase to 10% in 2014-15. That contribution rate is on par with the average for school districts in WNY. In the contract negotiated in 2012, the teachers agreed to contribute more toward health care over the length of the contract. Some argue that even this is not enough, but under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, existing contract terms and conditions remain in place after the expiration of the contract, unless a successor agreement changes those terms. The Taylor Law makes it very difficult to get large concessions in a single contract bargaining cycle. The district has the objective of continuing to press for more contribution to health care, but it has to happen incrementally over multiple contracts. A contract cannot be reopened without the agreement of both sides and even if it could be reopened, the Taylor Law keeps all terms in place until both sides agree on changes. The administrators have agreed to two salary freezes in the last three years. They also agreed to contribute to their health care in the contract settled this year.

Some argue that the union has made no concessions, but that is not true. The union agreed to a lower salary increase this year than would have been in place under the Taylor Law – the first time that has occurred in Clarence. Three years ago, teachers, administrators, and service employees agreed to enter into a self-funded health care system, which is the most cost effective way for the school district to provide health care benefits, saving the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is not accurate to claim that if teachers and administrators contributed 25% to health care that the deficit would be closed. We began this year with a $6.5 million deficit. Even if teachers and administrators paid 50% toward health care it would not close that gap.

2. Why not just cut more from the administrative side?

It bears repeating that Clarence has been ranked as the 6th most efficient school district in terms of administrative functioning. A central office administrative position was cut last year, which should further enhance the Business First efficiency ranking. The central office has fewer administrative personnel than any other comparable district in the area, and is not overstaffed.

3. The District should offer an incentive for higher-paid, older teachers to retire!

The District attempted to negotiate a retirement incentive with the Clarence Teachers Association, but an agreement that would have reduced the deficit could not be reached.

4. The District is spendthrift, with a 50% increase per pupil over the last 10 years!

New York State does not calculate per pupil spending by simply dividing the budget by the number of students.

– General Education Spending: Clarence: $8,493 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $12,377 per pupil
– Special Education Spending: Clarence: $15,192 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $35,924 per pupil
– Total Expenditures: Clarence: $14,551, Similar Schools Group: $22,962
– Budget expenditures have increased over the last 10 years, especially with respect to benefit costs. Clarence is tightly budgeted and when compared to similar schools and based on the NYS average, Clarence is more efficient.
 
UPDATE: 5. Median School Tax Bill in Clarence is much higher than Williamsville!

The AFP flyer in the Bee used this argument. There are many more million dollar homes in Clarence than in Williamsville, so by using the median they basically compared taxes on a $400,000+ home in Clarence to a $200,000 home in Williamsville.  For the real tax information look at the facts from Erie County: Click here to view Erie County’s Real Property Tax Rates

6. Enrollment has dropped and the District hasn’t adjusted for this.

Enrollment has dropped 9% since 2007. Almost all of that drop (288 kids) has happened at the elementary level, and the district has reduced 15 elementary teachers over the past three years, accounting for that decline.  In fact, at an average class size of 23 students, the 15 teachers would account for a decline of 354 kids – so it is not accurate to state that the District has not made adjustments to declining enrollment.  It is not possible to close an elementary school at this time, and elementary enrollment would have to drop to approximately 1800 before closing a school could be considered – this year’s figure was 2,051. The elementary enrollment drop is projected to stabilize in 2016-17 at around 1,900 kids.  The middle school will start to decline in 2015-16 and the high school will remain relatively steady for the next 5 years.  It is not accurate to say the district has not adjusted for enrollment decline.  

7. Wages and Benefits are growing at Unsustainable Rates.  

Pension and health care costs have gone up exponentially over the past 10 years.  Pension costs are established by the State Comptroller and TRS Board – they are based on a state constitutional funding level and are highly influenced by stock market investment.  The school district and state municipal governments have no control over them.  There is a 5-year average of investment income for pension costs and the stock market crash of 2008 is still being factored into the total.  It will be that way for one more year and then the pension costs will begin to come down. Last year, there was a new tier added to the pension system that contained costs for all new members.  10 years ago pensions were 0.36 of payroll, next year it is 16.25% of payroll.  That is a 451% increase in 10 years.  It accounts for a big portion of the budget costs.  This is an issue to take up with the State Comptroller and TRS board.  Anyone promising to fix it at a school board/school budget level doesn’t understand their limitations.        

School Board Election: DePasquale and Andrews

As the signs on lawns indicate, there’s a school board election on Tuesday, as well. A large slate of candidates are competing to fill two empty slots. The well-funded forces opposed to school excellence have identified two candidates, whose absurdly large lawn signs litter the town. I asked Brendan Biddlecom of Keep Clarence Schools Great about the school board candidates, and he noted that the large number of candidates threatens to split the pro-school vote. (Note: this is what a real grassroots website looks like – a Google site and online petitions).

To that end, candidate Matt Stock yesterday withdrew from the race, noting the, “abundance of candidates who share my concerns about the preserving the well-being of the district. In an ordinary election, this would be a great thing. Unfortunately, this year we also have two candidates who do not share my views, or the views of other pro-education candidates”. Stock added, “[t]here is also an unprecedented amount of outside money attempting to negatively influence the election. These two factors mean that there is a real risk of ‘splitting the vote’ and having candidates elected that do not have the support of the majority of voters”

Keep Clarence Schools Great has gone one step further and formally endorsed the candidacies of Tricia Andrews and Joe DePasquale for the school board. In his withdrawal letter, Stock endorsed them, as well. Noting the unique situation this year, Biddlecom wrote that, “for the last three years, the school system has been under a steady assault, and now we’ve reached the breaking point. An overly conservative financial management strategy exhausted reserves and helped create the situation we’re in now.”

By coalescing support behind two pro-school candidates; DePasquale works in IT and volunteers with the little league football league, and his wife is a teacher. Andrews is a former teacher who has been active with the Harris Hill PTO for the last seven years, and has served as its president for three. As Biddlecom once told the Bee, “I think we need to move beyond this sense of self-preservation and look at the schools as being part of the fabric of our community and understand that even if you’re going to look at it again through a completely self-interested perspective, having quality schools should be a concern of yours.”

There is no slippery slope argument at hand, or indication that this is the start of endless cap-busting tax hikes year after year. This is a one-shot deal that’s needed to get the school’s fiscal house back in order. Please vote YES on Tuesday May 21st at the High School Gymnasium. Turn-out is critical. Please make sure you go, and make sure your friends and neighbors don’t forget, either.

The Only Thing That Stops a Bad Guy With a Gun is a 4-year Old With a Gun

12 Apr

A well regulated militia of pre-schoolers being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of toddlers people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

(You know how blogs now offer up “related posts”?  Here’s a related post.)

Nora Šitum: Coming to America

6 Feb

A five year-old Croatian girl, Nora Šitum, is suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia and needs immediate treatment. Although the economic situation in Croatia is in crisis – the country’s debt was just lowered to junk status last week – within just a few days, the family had raised the $590,000 for Nora’s treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is front-page news in Croatia, and the story is proving to be something of a PR headache for a Philadelphia hospital and the American Embassy in Zagreb. Her story made the front page of social media site Reddit Wednesday morning (but was later removed due to an editorialized title). 

After all that money had been raised so quickly, Croatian media reported yesterday that the Hospital had informed Nora’s family that the charge would actually be just over $834,000. That’s aside from the fact that her family and caregivers have been working feverishly to work through the complicated Croatian and American bureaucracies involved with transporting a little girl from a non-visa-waiver country to the US for medical treatment. The process to obtain such a visa is more difficult than just getting a tourist visa – you also need to establish that travel to the US is necessary because the proposed treatment is unavailable in Croatia, and the applicant must be seen by an Embassy physician. You also need to prove that you have an appointment and the financial means to pay the bill. 

Obviously, the United States Embassy in Croatia and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are unable to comment about specific ongoing cases, but I did manage to speak with people close to the situation who agreed to discuss the case on condition of anonymity. 

Under the Croatian national health care scheme, people are able to apply for payment of medical treatment undertaken abroad, and 75% of such requests are approved on an average year. However, the stem cell treatment that Nora is scheduled to undergo in Philadelphia is classified as “experimental”, and as such, the government health care plan will not cover any of it – the family has to come up with cash. 

The Šitum family has been in close touch with the US Embassy’s consular staff, and visas for Nora and her family were expected to be issued Wednesday afternoon. The Embassy has been in close touch with both the hospital and the Croatian Ministry of Health to coordinate the issuance of visas and doing “whatever it takes” to ensure that Nora and her family can travel to the US for these treatments. 

While it is true that the hospital quoted $590,000 as the cost of the experimental leukemia treatment that Nora is expected receive in Philadelphia,  it is also true that an additional $270,000 is to be paid over the course of a two year follow-up treatment. The Croatian government indicated that it would waive collection of the value added tax on any monies donated for Nora’s treatment, and the Mayor of Zagreb promised that the city would pay the difference into the accounts collecting funds for Nora’s treatment.  At a press conference Wednesday, Nora’s mother announced that they had collected in excess of the entire amount the hospital in Philadelphia had quoted to them

The treatment Nora is expected to receive is truly revolutionary – it involves injecting a harmless mutation of HIV into the child’s system, tricking her immune system into fighting the cancer.

To perform the treatment, doctors remove millions of the patient’s T-cells — a type of white blood cell — and insert new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. The technique employs a disabled form of H.I.V. because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia.

The altered T-cells — called chimeric antigen receptor cells — are then dripped back into the patient’s veins, and if all goes well they multiply and start destroying the cancer.

The T-cells home in on a protein called CD-19 that is found on the surface of most B-cells, whether they are healthy or malignant.

Nora’s father wrote a message thanking supporters and people who had so quickly donated money for Nora’s treatment, adding,  

Thank God we live in Croatia – a country with a “junk” credit rating – and sent a message around the world.Maybe we are small and poor, and perhaps we don’t have the same living standards as the West, but for our children, we will empty our pockets of every last penny, because we have a heart and soul bigger than Switzerland’s credit rating. 

UPDATE: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia issued the following statement: 

CHOP treats thousands of children each year, from throughout the region, the country and the world and cares about the health of all children. We know how invested the family, friends, and the community at large is in ensuring CHOP provides the best possible care for all of its patients.

While patient privacy prohibits us from commenting specifically on any individual’s medical condition without consent, we want the public to understand the pricing protocols we follow for all international families.

How the International Medicine Process Works:

·       CHOP’s process estimates the costs of treatment in advance and seeks payment at the time treatment begins.  Additional follow-up clinical treatments are sometimes necessary and can be administered over several years, either at CHOP or back in the patient’s home country.  CHOP does not charge for this follow-up clinical treatment at the time of initial treatment.  If the child is not further treated at CHOP, CHOP will never charge for the follow-up treatment.  However, CHOP does explain those potential costs to patient families at the outset so they understand the financial issues they may be facing.  

·       We try to ensure that all international families understand the difference between the initial costs of treatment charged by CHOP, which does not change, and the potential future costs which will depend on future clinical treatments.

Foreign contributions can be made on Nora’s behalf using the following information: Udruga Hrabro dijete (Brave Child Association)  OIB 58243364080 and through the Zagrebačka Banka at IBAN: HR0423600001102209843 SWIFT CODE: ZABAHR2X

 

Learn Something New, Meet Some People, Be Social at BarCamp Buffalo

30 Jan

Building a regional culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity requires more than capital, it requires a community of like-minded people to foster ideas. To that end, Buffalo’s burgeoning startup and creative technology movement takes another step forward this weekend as members of the tech community will spend Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 at Medaille College. Not to take classes, but to teach them, to each other.  BarCamp Buffalo, a collaborative “un-conference,” gives everybody a chance to teach a session or a “lightning talk” about their work, their hobby, or their esoteric knowledge.

Buffalo-BarCamp

BarCamp Buffalo is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos, and interaction from attendees. No spectators, only participants. All attendees should give a demo, a session, or help with one, or at least strive to meet a few new people. Anyone with something to contribute or with the desire to learn is welcome and invited to join.

In the past, the standard 10-15 minute presentations have covered topics as varied as community journalism, homebrewing, search engine optimization, and programming code. In other words, there’s usually something for everyone. And if there isn’t? Sign up and give a presentation on a topic of your choice.

BarCampBuffalo by Jennifer WOzniak, local writer, web designer and marketing professional in Buffalo

Photo Courtesy of http://jwoz74.com

Steve Poland, one of the event organizers wrote the following on the Buffalo Open Coffee Club Google Group, “The goal of BarCamp is to teach others something, expose them to something, hate something you’re passionate about or been learning yourself, or a project or startup or app you have been working on, etc.  Let others get to know you. You may find others are just as excited as you are.”

Registration is free, and the first 100 registrants at BarCampBuffalo.org receive a free event T-shirt.  Breakfast, lunch, and beverages will be provided for all in attendance, barring overcapacity crowds.  If you attended a prior BarCamp Buffalo, we lacked space and had altered the format — expect the real deal now that we have lots of space (30-min presentations, multiple presentations in different rooms at every moment to give you greater choices).

Follow @BarCampBuffalo on Twitter for more real-time updates about the events. Also check out BarCampBuffalo on Facebook to get updates on future BarCamp events.

Event Details:

BarCamp Buffalo #6

BarCamp Buffalo is February 2nd, 2013 at Medaille College with 5 classrooms for 5 tracks of talks going on all at once. 30 mins each. If you’ve ever been to Rochester’s BarCamp, this will be just like it.

8:00 am: Doors open! Breakfast and registration
9:00 am: Welcome and Intro’s
9:30 am: Talks begin!
5:00 pm: Wrap up and meetup for after party

Parking
When entering Medaille College’s main entrance, follow the signs with balloons on them. You’ll turn left when you enter, and it’ll circle you clockwise around the buildings to the back. Plenty of parking available, look for the balloons for the door entrance.

One Region Forward – Likely Without You

30 Jan

Last night, something called the “Community Congress” as part of a new regional planning effort called “One Region Forward” was held at Babeville. First I heard of it was when I started seeing pictures and Tweets about it as it was going on.

Admittedly, this is partly my own fault, since both the Buffalo News and Buffalo Rising had regurgitated key points from its press release in the last week, but regionalism and regional planning are things that I’m extremely interested in – I think it’s a huge component of what may be WNY’s improvement, if not renaissance. 

So, given that I pay at least marginally more attention to this stuff than the average person, I was genuinely disappointed that I knew nothing about it, and had no idea that it was going on. It was, however, well-attended, so that’s why I’m so surprised. One way the effort could have gotten the word out would have been to follow lots of people on Twitter – the moment you get followed by a local regionalism congress, chances are you’d check it out. Instead, as of this morning, it’s following 39 people. On Facebook, it has a paltry 208 followers.  That’s a crappy job getting the word out, if you ask me. Given that we have more marketing, PR, and social media experts per capita than we deserve, this is amazing to me.

UPDATE: I learned today that no one at the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation knew about it at all. 

So, what’s this all about? 

 One Region Forward is an effort to better plan how we grow or shrink western New York through a collaborative process; a way to reduce wasteful sprawl without population growth that wastes resources and empties existing communities, rather than trying to repair or reverse their stressors. It is a huge issue that is fraught with difficulty related to racism and classism. From the press release, 

The regional vision will help guide development of One Region Forward, an initiative aimed at ensuring long-term economic prosperity, environmental quality, and community strength across the two counties and 64 municipalities of the Buffalo Niagara Region.

“We will face enormous challenges as a region in the 21st century,” Hal Morse, executive director of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council said. “Where we work, how we get around, what kind of neighborhoods we live in, and many other aspects of our daily lives – even where we get our food and water – will be under pressure. One Region Forward is about repositioning our assets to support long-term sustainable growth and development.”

The One Region Forward effort is building on a series of recent planning initiatives aimed at reviving the Buffalo Niagara economy, reducing our regional “carbon footprint,” regenerating core cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, developing the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and growing the University at Buffalo, among others.

“We’re not starting from scratch,” Howard A. Zemsky, chair of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, a leading partner in the effort, and co-chair of the Regional Economic Development Council, said. “Our commitment is to make sure that all the plans for our region are working toward the same ends.”

Discussions at the Community Congresses will build on recent planning work in the region – not just the Regional Economic Development Council strategy, the “Buffalo Billion,” the Buffalo Green Code, and others – but others including more than 160 regional, municipal, and special purpose plans throughout Buffalo Niagara.

“We’ve read all of these plans and abstracted a series of statements about what values are common across them – statements about economic development, parks and recreation, transportation, housing and neighborhoods, climate change, water resources, food access, and more,” continued Shibley

“It will be up to citizens participating in the Community Congresses to tell us whether or not we got these right,” Shibley added, “and how we have to change them if we didn’t.”

Based on this direction from the general public, detailed implementation strategies will be developed by a series of working teams on land use and economic development, housing and neighborhoods, transportation, food systems, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. A subsequent Community Congress will review these strategies later in 2013. Further work will produce a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, a document that will give our region priority status for funding opportunities today and into the future.

One Region Forward will develop more than just a plan, it will build capacity and tools to support local decision-making, conduct public education activities, and launch implementation campaigns for prototypical projects around key issues such as redevelopment of suburban retail strips, strengthening village Main Streets, or rejuvenating urban neighborhoods.

The effort is led by a broad-based steering committee that includes representatives from both counties; mayors and supervisors from across the region, the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, major community based organizations, major public agencies in housing, education, and transportation, and the leading business sector organization in the region.

One Region Forward is funded by a highly competitive, first-of-its kind, $2M federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities Initiative, an interagency partnership among HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is administering the program through our region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council.

 One Region Forward is sponsored by the following entities: Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council (GBNRTC), Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA), Erie County, Niagara County, City of Buffalo, City of Niagara Falls, Association of Erie County Governments, Niagara County Supervisors Association, University at Buffalo Regional Institute and Urban Design Project (UBRI/UDP), Daemen College Center for Sustainable Communities and Civic Engagement (CSCCE), VOICE Buffalo, Local Initiatives Support Corporation Buffalo (LISC), The John R. Oishei Foundation, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), Belmont Housing Resources for WNY, Inc. (Belmont), Buffalo Niagara Partnership (BNP), Empire State Development, Niagara County Department of Social Services, and Niagara Falls Housing Authority.

There will be a second congress held in the Niagara Falls Conference Center on Saturday February 2nd from 2pm – 4pm.  

Peaceable Assembly

21 Jan

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photographs by Flickr user Sunny Hasija, used with permission. 

#BuffCashMob Today at El Buen Amigo

12 Oct

 

What: A cash mob

Where: El Buen Amigo, located at 114 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo NY 14201. (Near corner of Elmwood and Allen) – Cash and credit cards accepted for purchases.

When: Today, 5:30PM

Who: You and Time Magazine, who will be here to profile the idea of Cash Mobs, which started here and have spread around the world. Let’s show Time Magazine what Buffalo is all about and give them a good turnout.

Why: This is a tough economy and many small businesses in Buffalo and WNY are looking for ways to increase cash flow.  That’s where we, the loyal soldiers of the Buffalo Spirit come in.  These businesses are rebuilding this city and working to make it a better place and we should return their investment with one of our own.  The goal will be to get 75-100 people to join the mob and spend $10-$20 each on the goods and services offered.  No discounts, no coupons, no special deals.  Just support our local merchants by spending $10 in their place of business.

El Buen Amigo is the retail operation of the Latin American Cultural Association and features affordable fair trade goods from Latin America, South America, Africa and the Caribbean.  Through their operation, they work to preserve the ancient arts & crafts of many hispanic indigenous communities that wish to maintain traditional ways of life while strengthening North American concern by helping to understand and appreciate other cultures and present day conditions.

It’s an awesome force for good in our city and it deserves our support.

After the cash mob, join us for cocktails across the street at Cantina Loco or make it a full night out and attend this fantastic event at MAIN (ST)UDIOS featuring 17 local artists.

The Buffalo-born idea of cash mobs has now spread to nearly 500 cities on five continents and has resulted in nearly $700,000 of cash being exchanged between customers and local retailers. Pretty cool, eh? . It’s kind of a thing. In Buffalo alone, we’ve generated nearly $25,000 of revenue for local businesses while garnering dozens of news stories which help grow the customer base for these plucky little entrepreneurs.