Don’t just eat food, give it

It’s time for the annual Concerned for the Hungry Thanksgiving Food Baskets. They are looking for volunteers to sort food, pack boxes, and deliver food to families starting next Wed, 19 Nov. Check out their website for more information. It’s a little hard to find, so I copied it at the end too.

Every day I am constantly shocked by the level of poverty in Schenectady. Food security is one of those topics that shouldn’t be an issue in the US, yet it is such a problem in Schenectady that when free breakfasts and lunches were provided to all students, attendance jumped by 38% in the high school and 50% in the middle school. Almost 43% of those who responded to the UMatter Health survey last year are using SNAP, and I see food stamps used at the grocery store every time I go.

The food insecurity contrasts with the proliferation of a food culture where people like Michael Pollan suggest food “rules” without consideration for price. Yelp abounds with reviews of restaurants, cool new food trucks, and gourmet culture. Even Price Chopper, the only grocery in Schenectady, will be changing its name to Market 32 to better appeal to the gourmet crowd. I should note here, that I generally agree with the criticism that the true cost of much of the cheap food is being felt in other ways, e.g., polluted waterways.

I also love good food, so I struggle with how to rectify the juxtaposition of high food culture with urban poverty. I don’t expect I’ll be able to change agricultural policy or any of the other structural issues that result in the largest level of inequality in the developed world; but what I can do is support the efforts of organizations, such as Concerned for the Hungry, that focus on alleviating the food needs of Schenectadians throughout the year. I hope you can join me in volunteering next week, and if it doesn’t work in your schedule (we’re all busy, right?), then I hope you can consider supporting efforts to meet the immediate local food needs.

Volunteer Information 2014
Volunteers are needed for the 2014 Thanksgiving Food Drive!! All are welcome on the following dates/times.
** Individuals do not need to sign up to volunteer. Simply come to the school at indicated dates/times.

***Groups of 10 or more, please send us an email indicating the date and timeframe you would like to volunteer.

Volunteer Location:
William C. Keane Elementary School
1252 Albany Street
Schenectady, NY 12304

Dates/Times/Activities:

Sat Nov. 15, 9-2pm: Sorting Boy Scout food donations
Weds Nov. 19, 4-8pm: Assembling Boxes
Thurs Nov. 20, 9am-3pm: Pick-up/unload food
Fri Nov. 21, 9am-4pm: Sorting food
Sat Nov. 22, 10am-5pm: Packing Food Baskets
Sun Nov. 23, 9am-6pm: Distributing Food Baskets
Mon Nov. 24, 8am-4pm: Agency Pick-up/Deliveries

** Please enter through the side entrance ONLY, the main entrance will be locked **

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Is East Ramapo Central School District the Future of NY Schools?

Ever since I listened to the This American Life story about East Ramapo Central School District (A Not-So-Simple Majority #534), I have been wrestling with what this situation means for other school districts throughout the state.

I think it’s important to note that much of what is reported to have happened by This American Life and other sources is extremely disturbing. The actions reveal a violation of the social contract and a level of disdain for the public by a government body that is extremely troubling.

And yet, I couldn’t help but think that a larger structural impact is at work that threatens to make the budget cuts of East Ramapo the leading edge of a tidal wave of school budget pressures across NY. While East Ramapo is an extreme case, school districts across the state will begin to face additional budget pressure because of a confluence of an aging population, rising taxes, and loss of middle class jobs.

For those who aren’t familiar with East Ramapo’s story, I’ll summarize it briefly here (you should really listen to TAL or read one of the many articles about the district). Essentially, a large orthodox Jewish community who does not send their kids to public school decided to fill the school board with their candidates and reduce the budget to reduce taxes, cutting programs along the way. I am not going to describe in detail my initial caveats of the board’s unsavory actions.

While the loss of programming and classes is certainly disturbing, especially the multiple lunches in a single day, the board still increased the budget by 33%. To quote from the story

Some more numbers. During the last 10 years, every comparable school district in the county grew its budget by an average of 50%. East Ramapo’s budget grew by 33%. Which, to a layperson, you might say, well, oh, the budget grew. How bad could that be? I actually kind of thought that, at first.

But I talked to school administrators and experts who said that the costs the Hasidim and other conservatives say are out of control actually are rising alarmingly fast– pensions, health care, union contracts, cost of living. Those things grow by so much that a 30-some percent budget increase, that isn’t growth. That’s devastation.

This quote captures my concern that East Ramapo is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the largest recession since the Great Depression, a large increase in unemployment, and a significant loss in home values which, coincidentally, are taxed to support the schools. Yet, the costs that are out of control “are rising alarmingly fast.” Needless to say, the current rate of growth in education spending is unsustainable in the current system. I’ve written before how school districts in NY create a structure that exacerbates social inequality, and I question the ability of a school district like Schenectady to continue to fund the budgetary growth in a community with so many children qualifying for free and reduced lunch that free food is provided to all students.

The rising costs are leading to social friction. In this last year’s budget discussion, the district held a series of meetings to get community input on where to cut to meet the $10MMUSD shortfall. One of the options was to eliminate a pay raise for staff. At my table, not only was this option emphatically supported, but it was coupled with resentment, anger, and in one case resignation that it wouldn’t happen because of the strength of the unions. Is this a prelude of an East Ramapo revolt?

According to the NEA, the percent change of average teacher salaries in NY from 2001-2011 in current $ is 41.1%. That rate compares with a private industry average salary change over the same years of 34.3%. Now, teacher salaries are not the only expense a school district faces, so I compiled the district expenditures for Schenectady, East Ramapo, and Albany School Districts for comparison (Sources: Expenditures, Median Home Price)

School District Expenditures and Median Home Listing Price
School District Expenditures and Median Home Listing Price

A couple of things to note: East Ramapo has similar expenditures (even per pupil) as Albany, and all districts have been increasing spending dramatically over the last 10 years despite a dramatic downturn in 2008. The typical caveats to the data apply, but it’s clear that unless district expenditures fall in line with broader economic growth, rightly or wrongly the extremism that happened in East Ramapo will appear in other districts, especially given the loss in the tax base. It doesn’t have to.

While set against a Jewish-Secular divide, the tragedy about East Ramapo is that the current students suffer because of unsustainable expenses that resulted in a tax payer revolt. To prevent this situation from occurring elsewhere in NY, schools should be funded by a large tax base, e.g. the state, to ensure that teachers and education staff can be paid competitively in districts, such as Schenectady, where more than 50% of students live below the poverty line. As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, the Schenectady School District is underfunded by the state by 46%. But costs need to be brought in line as well. NY state pays teachers more than any other state according to the National Center for Education Statistics, so pay and benefits should reflect market forces and cost of living. I’m not suggesting that the pay for a teacher match the median income because that would hurt poorer districts, but failure to normalize public employee salaries with private sector realities breads the sort of radical actions seen in East Ramapo. The Daily Gazette has a good article from 2012 that summaries the teacher salaries for districts in the Capital Region.

Finally, school districts need to do a better job of reaching out to those who do not have ties to the school. As the average age for starting a family increases and the population as a whole ages out of schools, districts will have to work even harder to convince voters in NY to approve tax increases. I want to see a larger presence for the students in the community. Have displays at Proctors of student art, give public performances at neighborhood meetings, and/or incorporate positive community projects into the curriculum and improve the city while teaching students.

School districts across NY state are on an unsustainable budgetary path. Unless district leaders, politicians, union leaders, and the public make compromises, the drastic cuts to school programs seen at East Ramapo will become more common; we all, not just future generations, will be worse off because of it.

If I want to vote for Cuomo, which Cuomo do I choose?

People seem to be sick of this election. Even though in Schenectady we don’t have a highly visible contested election. Perhaps I’m just oblivious to the election because I don’t watch cable TV, which is a fantastic way to avoid political ads and binge watch my favorite show-du-jour on Netflix.

But today is election day, and it’s time to vote. I always make a point of voting in these non-presidential years and any other small election because my vote counts that much more.

Which brings me to an odd thing about NY ballots…the same candidate is listed multiple times? (at least I was surprised the first time I saw it).

Let’s take a look at this year’s ballot for Governor:

NY state ballot for Governor 2014
NY state ballot for Governor 2014

Andrew Cuomo is listed 4 times? Rob Astorino comes in second with 3. Even if I know which candidate I’m supporting, how am I supposed to know which candidate to vote for? As an aside, I’m questioning just how real these parties actually are. The Stop Common Core Party? Sounds like a ploy to be listed one more time on the ballot. Apparently, the Women’s Equality Party is equally dubious. I have never voted in a state before where it is important to not just vote for your preferred candidate, but also for your preferred candidate AND party.

You see, NY State lists candidates by party by order of votes received in the last Gubernatorial election. Having never voted in a state before that did this, I decided to look into how states vote.

Ballot Sorting By State

As you can see from the pie chart, the most popular way to sort candidates is randomly (or through some sort of rotation). I was surprised to see how many states sort candidates by party, but perhaps it’s just a format I’ve never experienced before. I would have thought more states would have sorted candidates alphabetically. All the data were taken from this site.

The interesting thing is how different each state is with respect to ballot order. As I looked through the list, however, one state stuck out: Minnesota. Sure, they sort candidates by the number of votes a party receives, but they do it in reverse. Imagine a NY ballot with Cuomo and Astorino sharing the spots where the Stop Common Core and Libertarian Parties now reside. Unfortunately, it won’t stop the sort of political games going on in this election where Cuomo is actively trying to remove the Working Families Party from the ballot because they ran Ms. Teachout against him in the primary.

At least for those who are tired of this election, after tomorrow it will all be over and all those yard signs will be removed. I can dream, right?