Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance at BOCES

Everyone by now should have received the mailing from BOCES promoting their upcoming 2/13/07 $38+ million bond referendum. Pay close attention, but don't think too much about what you read: the "cognitive dissonance" may give you a headache.

We are told in one paragraph that Alternative Education students cannot be housed in their home school districts because they "tend to pose significant emotional and behavioral challenges," yet are told in another paragraph that they, along with special education students, will be educated "in an integrated environment with non-disabled peers," and be in "a less isolated environment closer to opportunities ... " What???

We are told that "many BOCES-operated special education classrooms" will remain in their home school districts, but that the BOCES Special Education department "committed to keeping center-based programs for students with intense management needs," i.e., the difficult-to-manage students will be kept at the BOCES facility. Therefore, these must be the students that BOCES plans to integrate with their "non-disabled peers" (see paragraph above) . . . Right?? (This begs the question, if the difficult-to-manage disabled students can be "integrated" with the non-disabled at BOCES, why can't this be done in their home districts?)

We are given numbers to show that BOCES' enrollment is increasing to justify the expansion project. The number that we are not given is a population statistic: the fact that Oneida County has lost more than one quarter of its population since 1970 (about the time the BOCES facility was built) . . . and we know that the loss of young and family-rearing-age adults has been even more precipitous.

The alleged "need" to expand BOCES after losing a quarter of our population is probably the biggest cognitive dissonance of all.

Instead of expanding BOCES, we should be asking ourselves "Why is BOCES growing?"

We will ponder that question in a later post. In the meantime, New Hartford Online is blogging about the project's effect on tax rates and the mailing's veiled threat, so be sure to read that post. You also might want to read this blogger's discussion of how the project hurts students and taxpayers and a possible no-cost alternative.

More later.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hey, Big Spendahhhh . . . . .

"Griffo details college incentive plan" -- Just what we need . . . Another program to fund with our tax dollars. So much for Mr. Griffo being a "fiscal conservative."

How about solving some real problems, Mr. G., like the runaway spending of state and local governments and school districts, like the highest tax burden in the nation, like some of the highest utility costs in the nation, like some of the lowest rates of job creation in the nation? You've only been on the job 4 weeks, but already you've fallen right in line with the Albany giveaway mentality . . .

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Closing the Barn Door . . .

Yesterday's O-D Edict-orial, "Preswick shouldn't be tax exempt" exhorts "Town, school district, county must remain unified." Few of this region's beleaguered taxpayers would disagree with either the OD's conclusion or direction. Prestwick's clientele are screened by the entry fee to be well-heeled and certainly do not need a tax break.

In reviewing the issue, the editors were careful to point out that the exemption in-issue stemmed from an agreement entered into by "a previous Town board." Perhaps this is a veiled criticism of a previous administration?

Mme. Publisher's husband, Jerome Donovan, was not so veiled, however, during his appearance on WIBX's "First Look" yesterday. (Please note the synchronization with the editorial, as well as his occupancy of the entire program between 8 and 9 AM, and that no calls were entertained. Being part of the region's elite apparently brings privileges in getting one's point across.) Mr. Donovan quite plainly accused former officials of failing to exercise "due diligence" and implied that the Town's counsel was guilty of malpractice.

The criticism is unfair (and the motivation for same is questionable). Town consultation with its attorney IS "due diligence," and an attorney's failure to predict how a future court would rule on a legal "gray-area" is NOT malpractice. As we noted a few days ago, although perhaps wrong in hindsight, and although we do not like it now, the Town 's original decision was rational because it guaranteed that the Town would receive a stream of income from Prestwick.

If the implications of the Prestwick Glen project had been brought to the public's consciousness 5 years ago, perhaps the potential customers would have let it be known that they do not want to be perceived as avoiding their fair share of taxes. Perhaps Presbyterian Homes would have realized that their reputation (as opposed to tax status) as a charitable institution would be threatened. Perhaps other local charities would have pressured Presbyterian Homes to rethink its proposal, because of a potential negative reflection on all charities. P
erhaps no agreement would have been made.

The editorial is correct, but it comes too late to make a difference . . . Like closing the barn door after the horse escapes.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Administrators salaries: shocking rates of increase

The Observer Dispatch has published the salaries of the Utica School District administrators on its website. What a shocker! It's one thing to be told of a 46% increase in administrative costs, but it is quite another to actually see the rates of increases for individual persons over the last 5 years. A sampling

Elementary Principal Albany Sch. $77,881 to $100,008
Jr. High Principal - JFK $71,919 to $105,366
Academy Principal - Proctor $77,330 to $106,066
Elementary Principal Columbus $76,381 to $100,008
Director Magnet Schools & early Childhood Programs $69,507 to $103,066

The rates of increases represented above far outstrip most public employee's salaries which usually track the rates of inflation. There is simply no justification for these increases ... They certainly are not a reward for a "job well done" since too many children still graduate functionally illiterate, and schools can't even get students' schedules right. What is obscene is that the increases for some people are greater that what the average family in Utica brings home for total income in a year. The fact that Utica's salaries are actually lower than other areas in New York State points to a system that is wildly out of control.

A big problem is inbreeding. The administrators' certification requirements essentially make this a closed system, artificially limiting the potential candidates -- which creates a "shortage" which drives up salaries. While some may argue that certification requirements are necessary to keep unqualified candidates from running our schools, the opposite seems to have happened: we are forced to employ candidates who don't seem to have a managerial clue. The proof is in the pudding. The dissatisfaction rate with school performance is at an all time high, cost is at an all time high, and the situation has gotten so bad that the federal government felt it had to step in with "No Child Left Behind."

It's time to rethink how we choose the people who run our schools ... how we train them ... and how we pay them.

Monday, January 22, 2007

An overwhelming sense of entitlement . . .

An overwhelming sense of entitlement is the feeling that came through yesterday's O-D Story "Utica administrators' pay up - Total salaries increased 46 percent in 5 years."

"It is contractual and it's not like we're giving them the money. It's money they've earned by working for the district for so many years," School Board President Barbara Klein is quoted as saying.

So we have an elementary principal whose pay is now over $100,000 after increasing 30% in 5 years, and a "director of instructional media" whose pay is almost $110,000 after increasing 24% in 5 years. How many other people in the community have had such lavish pay raises? Most are happy if they can just keep their jobs.

While the Utica pay scales actually look a bit reasonable when compared with other school districts, the fact is that people all over New York are paying far too much for education. It is why school taxes have grown more than other taxes, why STAR was implemented, and why jobs and businesses are driven away.

The rate of pay increases noted above far exceeds the rate of inflation and is probably about double the rate of pay increases among other public employees: those working for the state and federal governments. There is simply no justification for these groups of public employees to be treated differently -- But there is an explanation: strong unions and a Public Employees Relations Board (that does NOT oversee the state or federal workers) that is apparently not interested in the taxpayers' ability to pay and routinely approves pay increases. The operations of PERB need to be examined. Additionally, while "competition" is cited as a justification, the "competition" has been limited by the requirement of an "administrators certificate" -- so it has all been contrived by insiders.

As alluded to in yesterday's post about Prestwick Glen, there is selfishness behind all of this.
And selfishness hurts us all.

Friday, January 19, 2007

In Defense of New Hartford and The Ungrateful Guest

New Hartford is having second thoughts over the Town's Tax-Exemption Agreement with Prestwick Glen, Inc. and Presbyterian Homes Foundation, Inc. , now that a court has ruled that a similar retirement community in Westchester County does not qualify for a tax exemption because its clientele are "wealthy and healthy senior citizens." As they say, "Hindsight is 20/20."

In defense of New Hartford, the decision to enter into the Municipal Services Agreement with Prestwick, et al., had a certain rationality. Whether or not the proposed retirement community actually qualified for a tax exemption was unknown. New Hartford was placed in the position of either taking a chance that the project would qualify for a total exemption (and get nothing), or enter an agreement that would allow it to at least guarantee some income to offset the cost of town services; it opted for the latter.

Nevertheless, just because the Town's decision may have been reasonable, it does not make the situation acceptable. While the public focuses concern and frustration on the Town Board, there is the other party to the transaction that must be held accountable:
Presbyterian Homes.

Just because something may be legal doesn't make it "right." The "system" or "government" cannot anticipate all possible situations people will dream up, so there will always be "loopholes" and "gray areas." And it is such a "loophole" that Presbyterian Homes appears to have pursued as an added benefit that it will pass on to its well-heeled clientele at Prestwick Glen: freedom from property taxes.

New Hartford has been a gracious host to Presbyterian Homes for many years, but the "thanks" it got in return was Presbyterian Homes' pushing the envelope of its existing tax-exempt status ...

Hardly what one expects from a good corporate citizen, much less a "charitable organization."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Flight of Fancy from "UCA"

Appointed Oneida County Executive Picente wants to sell the Old Oneida County Airport (UCA) land to the State. People in Whitestown are not happy.

"Bill Barry, who was chairman of the reuse committee for the former airport, said he hoped to see the roughly 1,800-acre parcel used for businesses . . . "That's the largest single-owner piece of property in the state of New York, and there's documents around that say there are individual companies that are interested in a large piece of property in the Northeast.""

Yes, Mr. Barry, there are companies looking for those few-and-far-between large parcels --- companies like AMD.

And we did not read of any substantial monetary commitment to the Homeland Security Training Center when it was announced, so where is the money to purchase the old airport going to come from? Senate discretionary money perhaps?

Is Mr. Fiorini trying to kill off Rome's competition? Is Mr. Bruno trying to kill off Luther Forest's competition? Is this all just a "flight of fancy" (the only kind of flight leaving UCA these days)?

Who knows? But with announcements like todays coming seemingly out of left field, and people like Mr. Fiorini who appear to speak on behalf of an entire county legislature but also cut off discussion, the public has been given a license to speculate.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

BOCES: Focus on Issues and Facts -- Not Personalities

A letter to the editor this week, "BOCES expansion deserves support" by Mr. Bottini, was an attention-getter with the line:

" If the project was not justified on its own merit, and it is, the support of Mettleman, Danella and Markley warrants our vote of confidence. "

To be sure, Supt. Mettleman, Ms. Danella, Ms. Markley, and Mr. Bottini himself, are passionate, compassionate, determined and capable administrators and educators. There appears to be no reason to doubt their interest or sincerity.

However, the vote on a $39 million dollar project should never be turned into a popularity contest or a "vote of confidence." Instead, it should be based on reason and facts.

This blog has already pointed out that institutionalization of "Alternative Education" at BOCES may harm students and taxpayers alike by allowing local school districts to escape solving a problem largely of their own creation. If the public demands that their local schools solve the problem represented by Alternative Education, the need for Alternative Education would go away. From that perspective, keeping Alternative Education in their rented facilities makes sense; -- if the paint is peeling, go out and buy a bucket of it!

This blog has also already explained how the expansion plan could harm the prospects for Special Education students (and possibly even run counter to the "mainstreaming" or "education in the least restrictive environment" federal rules); further contribute to a "gulag" or "concentration camp" image of the BOCES facility; while doing nothing to alleviate existing disincentives for students to take up vocational/career education subjects.

While consolidation under one roof is believed to be more cost-effective, where are the numbers to support the conclusion? Some costs may be avoided, but others will be incurred. If classrooms are created, others may be left behind -- where are they and who will pick up those costs? This blogger understands that BOCES may be currently renting space with local school districts such as Westmoreland. Consolidation may not only increase those districts' costs, it would make services less convenient to students located therein. As Ross Perot used to say, "the devil is in the details." The details need to be provided to the public. One detail we can be sure of: when debt-service and associated costs are added in, the taxpayers will be paying out a lot more than $39 million.

How about alternatives? The Utica City School District seems hell-bent to blow $300 million of our state tax dollars supposedly at little to no cost to local property taxpayers . . . How about doing something that many have said is needed? Why not team up with BOCES and build a vocational education facility for BOCES in Utica, integrated into Proctor? It would relieve BOCES' space problem and its need to tax for the expansion, bring career education to where the greatest demand exists, allow for voc-ed to be integrated with academic courses (because the cross-town bus ride would be eliminated), and effectively remove the "stigma" currently associated with BOCES.

For the sake of the students and the communities who will pay the bill, these are concerns that must be addressed squarely, and not avoided by letters to the editor focusing on personalities, generalities, and appeals to emotion.

Friday, January 12, 2007

At Least They're Consistent . . .

Consistency is a virtue, so we could say that the New Hartford Town Board is virtuous. Somehow we just knew that a meeting billed as "informational" would be used to conduct official business ... which is exactly what happened last night.

One curious thing that we noticed this morning, the links to certain stories this week about the NH Bond vote no longer function -- particularly the one we provided below where we quoted the newspaper quoting the Supervisor. The newspaper's 7-day index has been revised to eliminate the story and (as of this hour) even mis-reports dates (the 10th being listed twice). Interestingly, the link back to a story from the OD's Story Chat forums also exhibits the same lack of function (at this hour). View Story Chat item at
http://forums.uticaod.com/viewtopic.php?t=685 and try clicking on the link" to
N. Hartford to discuss $4.6M bond resolutions Special meeting called to provide information and the same thing happens.

As Alice would say, "Curiouser and curiouser."

Is this a case of removing links to inaccurate stories so as to contain the damage, or
Is this a case of trying to rehabilitate someone the editors have just scolded, but who is now prepared to obey and do the editors' bidding.

Shouldn't there be a difference between reporting the news and making the news?

[Update 10:00 PM - For those who still have Tuesday's paper, both links refer to the same 1/9/07 O-D article which appears on page 1A, titled as indicated above. The Town Supervisor's quotation appears on page 5A.]

[2nd Update 1/13 11:00 AM - The O-D's 7 day index currently leaves out all of this week's New Hartford stories. Besides the one discussed above (which appears to have been removed entirely since even Google could not pull it up), here are other non-indexed stories, some of which may still be accessed thru StoryChat or Google:

  • 1/12's Page 1B headliner "Board officially postpones bond vote" (see Story Chat)
  • 1/11's "New Hartford Postpones Bond Vote" (see Story Chat)
  • 1/11's Page 1A "N. Hartford to promote delayed bond vote" (see Story chat)
  • 1/10's Page 1A Headliner "School Bond May Exclude Land Buy" (Story Chat link broken; access thru Google)
  • 1/9's Residents question Oxford Crossing (see Story Chat)

. . . . Are these "New Hartford-centric" computer glitches? or Not?]

[3rd Update 1/15/07 9:30 PM: New Hartford Online apparently attended last Thursday's "informational" meeting at which official business was conducted, and reports on an apparent discrepancy between what the Town alleges it told the Observer Dispatch and what the OD actually reported. Who said what to whom and whether the OD's reporting was accurate could easily be determined by comparing a copy of the press release issued by the Town with a copy of the release received by the OD (this blogger trusts neither party), and compare those with the story. Regardless, it makes the missing links even more interesting because something seems to be going on between the OD and NH Officials.]

Thursday, January 11, 2007

More Behind-The-Scenes Action in New Hartford . . .

Wow, things are unfolding so rapidly that heads are spinning. With the bond referendum looming on 1/16, the Town Board decides to cancel it. But . . .

HOW WAS THE CANCELLATION DONE?

How can the Town Board decide Anything unless it is by vote in an Open Public Meeting? (See this blog from a few days ago about the requirements of the Open Meetings Law).

Was this done in another one of the Town's Super Secret Special Meetings . . . or maybe some kind of "virtual meeting" via phone or e-mail? Where is the ADVANCED Public Notice? Where is the Public Debate?

Or is the Town Board going to use tonights "informational" meeting to do the dirty work?

Concerned citizens want to know.

Like the spoiled child who upsets the checkerboard when he appears to be losing, the Town Board cancels the game and wants to start over.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Yes, We Have No Bananas . . .

Today's OD editorial "N.H. bond information too vague" must be leaving readers scratching their heads.

On the one hand, the editors tell us that the Town presented them with a "sound plan for investment in the town's future." On the other hand, the editors urge the town residents to scurry around at the last minute and "use every alternative possible" to get "critical information" on the plan before they vote because the Town leaders failed to communicate with them.

From this should the reader think:

(1) that the newspaper is holding back from the public the facts that convinced the editorial board that the borrowing was a good thing; or

(2) that the newspaper is too lazy, or unable, or unwilling to dig up the facts that the Public is asking for (a newspaper's JOB); or

(3) that the newspaper is biased toward this particular agenda, but is now upset with Town leaders because there is a possibility of defeat?

Maybe it's a bit of all the above.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"We are never able to satisfy them. They are against us."

"We are never able to satisfy them. They are against us," said the New Hartford Town Supervisor when told of residents' concerns over the lack of information on proposed bonds.

The quote offers an interesting insight into what this elected official thinks of his constituents.

Read the whole story in today's Observer-Dispatch.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Disgusting Feeding Frenzy by Wannabee Profiteers in Utica

A "Feeding Frenzy" seems to be the only way to describe what is happening in the Utica City School District over a proposed capital improvement [non]plan. The $100 million figure previously mentioned is apparently no longer enough -- District officials are now talking about $100 million to $300 million in today's OD.

Ms. Skermont has had architects touring Utica's schools and is soliciting ideas from them. But isn't engaging architects at this stage a bit premature? Architects are employed to design facilities. Determining the need for facilities is the School Board's responsibility. That needs to be done first -- very carefully and methodically and with lots of public discussion.

Of course, the architects will profit from what ever designs they can sell . The bigger/more elaborate/more expensive the project, the more money they will make. Can anyone guess what kinds of projects these people will recommend?

There seems to be only one way to describe Ms. Skermont's approach: Stupid.


--

Giving the Public the Finger in New Hartford

Another day, another story illustrating New Hartford Town government's disdain for the public it was elected to serve . . . the public who is paying their salaries. From short Town Meetings where everything has apparently been decided privately beforehand, to meetings called at odd times on short notice, to bonding resolutions with vague language, to information disappearing from the "official" town website - - now we have the Town Board failing to provide absentee ballots for residents who will be out of town during the upcoming bond referendum.

Whether or not the Town may legally deny absentee ballots (which may be decided in court) is not as important as the apparent lack of interest by Town Officials in doing so.

Quoting from today's OD:
"The town is within its rights by not adopting absentee ballots, said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York state League of Women Voters.
"But that seems a poor public policy," she said. "Participatory democracy demands that citizens have the right to vote where their dollars are concerned.""(emphasis supplied)

Poor public policy, indeed! That New Hartford Town government is not interested in "participatory democracy" is evident not only on the absentee ballot issue but from the other incidents listed above.

Simply put: New Hartford Town officials do not display the respect for the public necessary for them to hold public office. They either need to make an adjustment in their attitudes or resign.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Special" Meetings Need Special Scrutiny in New Hartford . . .

Other signs that things may not be all well in New Hartford Town is the recent announcement that Town Board meetings will be reduced to once per month and the concern expressed by New Hartford Online that "Special Meetings" might be used as a substitute.

Meetings called upon short notice and with little knowledge by the Public open all kinds of possibilities for abuse of governmental power. Indeed, unless there is truly an emergency where advanced arrangements for a meeting are impracticable, the use of Special Meetings can be regarded as Suspicious and intended to hide governmental action from the Public.

Special Meetings need to be subjected to special scrutiny to ensure that the provisions of the State's Open Meetings Law are observed. It is our understanding that some Town officials may believe they do not have to give the public any more than a 24 hour advanced notice of a Special Meeting (and only via a message posted in Butler Hall ) and that they do not have to inform the news media. If that is the case, they are mistaken.

Open Meetings Law (OML, Public Officer's Law Article 7) §104 "Public Notice" states:
"1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least seventy-two hours before such meeting.
"2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a reasonable time prior thereto."

The Committee On Open Government, which has the responsibility for overseeing implementation of the law, has already commented on numerous occasions about OML's requirements. In our age of electronic communications, notice to the media, "to the extent practicable," has already been interpreted as requiring at least a phone call. [Since the Town already has an Official Website, we would suggest that an additional notice on the Home Page would not be too much to expect.]

More importantly, the propriety of scheduling meetings less than a week in advance has already been found by the courts to be dependent upon the actual need to do so. Advisory opinion OML-AO-3248 quotes from several cases with full citations given. Additionally, other OML advisory opinions abound, which can be searched at the COOG Website.

Our Town Leaders need to familiarize themselves with OML's requirements.

The Public will be watching.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sprawling Pains . . .

It is only common sense that if your population is relatively stagnant, but you spread it over a larger area, it will cost more to provide it with services: the cost of urban sprawl. Whitestown is now finding this out in figuring out how it will afford to provide fire protection to increasingly far flung residents. Will the Town now stick its village residents (who already pay for their own protection) with the cost of providing services to the outlying areas, or will those in outlying areas bear the true cost of their own services? Who knows? It is anyone's guess what the exact response will be. However, if the past is a reliable predictor, whatever the response will probably mean more government and higher costs for everyone in the region.

The sprawl without growth that we see in the Greater Utica area is the product of piecemeal decision making made by different levels of government and different municipalities that are competing with each other instead of working together as a whole.

"Regionalization," as opposed to a true merger of governments, has contributed to this. For example, where development takes place is often a function of where water and sewer lines are available. Water lines have now been given to the Mohawk Valley Water Authority and sewage treatment and collecting lines have been given to the Part-County Sewer District. Both entities look upon themselves as mere service providers, but their decisions actually control where development takes place and the whole range of cause-and-effect responses that follow. In that sense , the water authority and sewer district are planning agencies for the entire region -- but they don't have that as their responsibility. Their decisions have encouraged development in outlying areas and caused a need for other services (such as fire protection, road maintenance, snowplowing, police protection, classrooms) in these other locations -- which services are the responsibility of "someone else" but wind up being paid for by "everyone else." Development in New Hartford has brought in tax revenue to New Hartford, but has resulted in sewage overflows to the Mohawk River that everyone in the Part County Sewer District will pay for.

Whitestown's problems of paying for fire protection will be repeated in other areas and for other services until we put an end to the fractured nature of our local government.