Category Archives: Politics

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?

It’s time to eliminate school districts…and reduce segregation in the process

It’s back to school time again, and with it come the supplies sales, the end of vacation, and a return to the normal routine. Schools these days are very political, and the poor teachers always seem to be the scapegoat du jour. The typical sentiments are that America’s schools are failing and bad teachers are to blame. The national academies issues a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that addressed America’s need to reform its education system. Meanwhile, charter schools are being embraced by the right as a weapon against, what I can only assume is their greatest existential threat, the teachers unions.

But I think these arguments miss the point. We do not need charter schools to improve the education in our schools. Most studies show they do no better than regular public schools.

The charter school discussion is important because schools have a large impact on every aspect of peoples lives even if they don’t have children.

Over the past several years, I have had discussions with many people explaining why they live where they do. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: they moved for the schools. Or, more accurately, they moved because of the perceived better quality of one school district over another. These decisions are important because the very existence of school districts, zones where inhabitants all attend the same schools, has a profound effect on where people choose to live, the price they pay for homes, and the homogeneity of the larger society.

School districts in the Capital Region are separating society instead of integrating it.

The reason for this negative effect is largely due to a positive reinforcement loop. When I ask people how they know their school district is good, more often than not, I get a lot of back tracking. We “know” intuitively that some school districts are better than others and, for lack of a better indicator, we rely on test scores to show this. We rely on test scores even though research has consistently shown that factors outside the school are the primary driver in student performance.

And so the cycle begins. Parents with the means to choose where to live select a home in a “good” school district and maybe pay more than they’d like to support their children. These parents, because they chose where to live based on the schools, are going to be more involved in their children’s education and will produce well performing students. These children go on to sustain or improve the test scores of their district, thus encouraging more involved parents to move into that district.

This sort of reinforcing loop hurts everyone involved. Parents who want to ensure their children receive every possible benefit probably pay more for their home than they should, while children from poor families are segregated into “poor” performing school districts without the opportunity to interact with a large diversity of socioeconomic statuses. We see this effect on a national level with a widening gap between rich and poor students (but a declining gap between white and black students), and we also see this effect on a local level.

I created two figures using the property value listings on Zillow for an area of North Schenectady and Niskayuna. In the first picture, I am only showing homes for sale or recently sold that are smaller than 2500 sqft. In the second picture, I add a filter to remove those homes that are less than $200k. The difference is stark, and for those of you not familiar with the Capital District, the dividing line in home prices is the border between the Schenectady School District and Niskayuna.

Homes for sale or recently sold 2500sqft or less
Homes for sale or recently sold 2500sqft or less
Homes for sale or recently sold for >$200k and <2500sqft
Homes for sale or recently sold for >$200k and <2500sqft

The interesting thing about these price differences is that these homes were all built around the same time, sit in the same neighborhood with equivalent access to amenities, and are of similar size, yet the homes in Niskayuna are significantly more expensive. This difference is the tax imposed on families who want to send their kids to a good school. The loss of involved parents makes Schenectady schools worse, and the divide further grows between the haves and have-nots.

Which brings me back to charter schools. If we had a system in which the state provided money to send your child to whichever school you wanted regardless of where you lived, then the arbitrary division between Niskayuna and Schenectady would disappear. Parents who want what’s best for their children can live more cheaply, and any student will have access to a diverse and well performing student body regardless of their ability to move. But all of these changes require that the funding come from a larger domain than a single school district, the funding must be given to students on a need basis to account for transportation and other needs, and schools must be restricted by socioeconomic status to ensure no school is a ghetto.

It’s what’s right for Schenectady, it’s right for NY state, and it’s important for social harmony. Our democracy depends on our ability to live together. Let’s start by eliminating school districts.

Stop idling…it’s time to raise the gas tax

I am constantly amazed at the number of people in the Capital Region who leave their cars idling while they walk into Stewarts, the bank, or some other place. I see these cars year round, not just in the dead of winter when one could possibly (but not really) justify leaving the heat on with no one in the car.

Perhaps people do this in other areas of the country I’ve lived, but to me, it seems that it’s no where to the extent that I encounter an idling car here. Not only is it a waste of money, but it’s bad for the environment. It seems ridiculous to pass a law prohibiting idling, although it’s currently in the works, since it will be difficult to enforce and there’s an exemption for remote starters. It’s not clear from the proposed bill for how long a remote start exemption would apply, either.

It’d be far better to raise the gas tax, which will strongly discourage wasting precious fuel without the need for another law that’s difficult to enforce while encouraging the use of public transportation, walking, biking, and other activities that will promote sustainable living. Not to mention that it will provide a sustainable revenue stream to fix the transportation budget, unlike the accounting tricks currently being employed in Washington.

The negative impact to low income individuals can be mitigated through direct money transfers based on income while still discouraging idling and other fuel consumption. How can we not support a policy that will reduce pollution, promote public transportation networks, and fully fund our transportation infrastructure needs without the costs of additional enforcement?

Why the casino process is a blow to democracy

When I was younger, my family took a vacation to the Caribbean, and while we were there we had the opportunity to take a free trip to a special beach to go snorkeling; but there was a catch. We had to sit through a presentation to buy a time share in their property. While this exchange is not remarkable in itself (I do, after all, constantly trade many inconveniences for “free” things), the tactics used during the visit were well designed to convince the highest number of people to sign up.

The presentation started with a personal pitch from one of their salespersons touting all the great benefits and how the time share wouldn’t cost us anything, since if we didn’t use it, it could be rented to another person. Of course, after hearing all the benefits of the time share, we are told that the offer is only available while we are at the table, and we should jump at the opportunity before someone else does. This type of time pressure is not unique to this particular operation, as we have all seen commercials with phrases such as, ” Act now before it’s too late!” or “This offer is only available for the next hour” or in today’s online shopping marketplace, the limited quantity sales on Amazon’s daily deals.

Most recently, we see these same tactics as developers try to sell casinos in upstate NY.

The applications are due June 30th, and the Daily Gazette summarized the Capital Region proposals in Sunday’s edition. Any child studying for Common Core would quickly realize that every casino proposal is projected to bring in the same amount of money: $5.7 million to the city and county. Why would casino proposals ranging in size, location, and scope bring in the same amount of tax revenue?

It’s because the numbers are baseless.

The estimated tax revenue comes from the state gaming board’s presentation on the impact of casinos. This presentation cites as its source the NY State Division of the Budget. Yet, when I contacted the NY State Division of the Budget to determine how this number was determined, I received the following response:

Do you mean this presentation, which is on the Gaming Commission’s website?

There is no report published by the Division of Budget with the name you asked about.

When pressed further, the NY Division of Budget referred me to their press release, and have since stopped responding to requests for the basis of these numbers.

The Gaming Commission presentation is citing the numbers that the Division of Budget put forth in this press release, available on our website.

In other words, don’t put much weight behind these numbers.

The whole casino process is another example of aggressive sales tactics. Cities are being asked to support the casino based on information that is without basis to the site or scale of the casino. A good process would use time and research to come to an informed decision instead of a rushed decision based on a sales pitch.

I’m sure the company selling time shares found many takers that day, but an aggressive sales pitch is not the way to run the government. It’s a disservice to the citizens of the state and region and blow to democratic governance.