Wednesday, December 27, 2006

How BOCES' Expansion Will Hurt Students and Taxpayers

An editorial in yesterday's OD praising the proposed BOCES expansion plan was long on rhetoric and short on logic. While the shortage of skilled tradespeople in the area is used to justify the project, no attempt whatsoever is made to determine the CAUSES of the shortage, much less than determine whether the project addresses them. If the project does not address the causes of the shortage, the project should not be expected to relieve the shortage, and the shortage should not be used to justify the project.

While there are likely many causes for the shortage of skilled tradespeople in our area, school leaders should at least acknowledge and rectify how they may have contributed to the situation.

Possible cause #1: "The stigma":

People are often judged by those they associate with. Some students avoid going to BOCES (and are deterred from the trades) because the local BOCES has a stigma of being the place where "dummies" are sent. While this is an unfair characterization of many BOCES students, the perception nevertheless exists and must be dealt with. Although the OD editorial acknowledges the stigma's existence, merely calling the stigma "unfounded" does not make it go away, does not make it less a deterrent, and does not address its cause. BOCES may have earned its reputation by encouraging itself to be used as a repository for problem students . If this is recognized, then it becomes easy to see that the plan to ship special education and alternative education programs to BOCES will only contribute to and reinforce "the stigma," further deterring some students from entering the trades.

Possible cause #2: Wasted Time:

While unavoidable for some students, riding a school bus to and from BOCES is still a waste of time, perhaps a lost class period in each direction. Undoubtedly, the cross-town bus ride to BOCES discourages many from entering its programs. The proposed project does nothing to reduce or eliminate the need for cross-town busing.

Possible cause #3: Scheduling Difficulties and the "Sieve" Effect:

A product of cause #2, to reduce some of the going back-and-forth travel students often must spend half their day in regular school, and half at the BOCES campus . Since most academic subjects would have to be squeezed into half a day, students might be forced to choose between those subjects that will help them get into college and those that would prepare them for a trade. Unintentionally, the situation acts as a "sieve" with the better prepared students taking the college track while the poorer performers going to BOCES -- contributing to the "stigma" of cause #1 above. Again, the proposed project does nothing to address the difficulty of integrating academic with vocational courses.

Deterring students from trades is not the only harm.

We explained a couple days ago how the "alternative education" program represents a failure of the local school system that should not be rewarded with institutionalization at BOCES. Schools need to address the root causes of their need for "alternative education" instead of being allowed by BOCES to escape their responsibilities.

Similarly, isolating special education students at BOCES will encourage more laziness among the local school districts in addressing these students' needs, and possibly may violate federal regulations which require that special education students be educated in the "least restrictive environment." Forty years ago special education was reserved for those who were truly disabled (the blind, the deaf, the crippled). There was no such thing as being "educationally disabled" or "learning disabilities" -- because they would have been seen for what they are: the products of laziness on the part of the school system. Those students used to learn in the regular classroom. It not only is wasteful to pay for more of the same, it is unfair to students who are, quite literally, being systematically deprived of an education. Few students in the special ed system ever graduate with a regular diploma. Isolating them in a BOCES "gulag" not only sweeps the problem with our local schools under the rug (out of sight -- out of mind), it is cruel and inhuman.

Students, taxpayers, and society will be harmed by this proposal.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Consolidation Not . . .

We are a bit late in commenting about the story of New Hartford and Whitestown sharing a financial officer, but New Hartford Online did a nice job of analyzing the situation.

While it's nice to see two municipalities cooperating with each other, no one should get the idea that this represents the government "consolidation" that many are seeking. No one is proposing that the two towns rid themselves of their current financial employees and replace them with this new officer -- much less than contracting with the county to perform the services. Rather, this is proposed in addition to what each town already has and, therefore, represents an expansion of local government - - while the population holds steady or declines. It's more government and more taxes being spent -- more "same old same old."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Visitors from Utica are the Toast of the Town

The arrival of four visitors from Utica has been heralded as "something of an event" in the New York City press. The four visitors are the four paintings by Thomas Cole, "The Voyage of Life," which normally reside right here at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute but are currently being displayed at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in Manhattan. If you have not seen this series before, the Sun's article gives a good description . . . but be sure to see them in person when they return.

Sometimes we take what we have in Utica for granted. It's nice to be reminded just how lucky we are.

[P.S. Here is a link to the exhibition's website.]

Monday, December 18, 2006

BOCES Bigtime Spending (Here We Go Again) . . .

Following close on the heels of New Hartford and Utica Schools, it's now BOCES' turn to pitch for more construction spending.

BOCES Empire Building is more like it.

Chipped steps, water damage and peeling paint in the middle school gymnasium is justification for spending almost $39 million? (Some new paint, concrete and sheet rock are cheaper.) And the "growing enrollment" also cited as justification actually decreased last year in spite of BOCES' moves to expand into lower and lower grades.

Put this in perspective folks, $39 million is more than what the Millenium Project at Proctor cost -- and that was at a facility serving well over 2,000 students. $39 million is enough to construct almost a $170,000 home for each of the students they want to move out of town.

The answer to No Child Left Behind is to Send the Child Away?

That seems to be the approach the local school district and BOCES are taking. Because the local school district failed to educate these students, BOCES uses that as an excuse to spend more of your money.

Instead let's get to the root of the problem.

School staff were accommodating and understanding when students had problems, said Derfuss, 20, who now works as a cook."

By implication, staff in regular school were not accommodating and did not understand when students had problems. Maybe it's time for a little "attitude adjustment" or training for the staff in the regular school.

We've heard this song before to justify an alternative school in another school district. We found out that students had been permitted by the regular schools to fall years behind their peers -- making it unlikely that they would be getting anything out of class in the higher grades. To be years behind is clearly a system failure. What do you think it does for that student's behavior? When the students become mature enough to understand that they have been ignored for years, they become disruptive. To make matters worse, we also found out that these same students were ridiculed in the classroom by teachers and other students for their poor performance. Naturally, such students would want to get out of the regular school. But warehousing these students out of the mainstream at such a great cost does both the student and the tax payer a disservice.

There are other things wrong with this spending plan -- and better things that could be done with the money if it really needs to be spent. These will be the subjects of future blog entries.

Fix what is wrong with regular school and you eliminate the need for alternative school.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

NYRI News . . . and Lack Thereof . . .

On November 28 NYRI requested that the Administrative Law Judges of the Department of Public Service appoint a mediator to seek consensus on various issues (involving the scope and methodology that would be used to analyze visual, threatened /endangered species, routing alternatives and cumulative impacts) and that all parties submit written proposals on these issues no later than 12/20.

On December 4 the DPS Staff requested that NYRI submit its proposals first before the other parties would have to respond.

On December 6 the Department of Environmental Conservation objected to the appointment of a mediator, that "invoking the mediation process now would place an undue burden on State agencies to essentially formulate an application on NYRI's behalf."

On December 7 the City of Utica objected to the appointment of a mediator, calling mediation "most premature when the parties do not have a complete application before them and when they have not had an opportunity for discovery . . . Mediation only makes sense when there are well defined issues that are susceptible to compromise. Here we do not have any single issue that is well defined because of the paucity of information supplied so far by NYRI."

On December 13 Communities Against Regional Interconnect objected to the appointment of a mediator, noting that the topics of NYRI's mediation request overlap the deficiencies in its application and arguing that the parties do not have the legal authority to negotiate away the requirements of the Public Service Law or PSC regulations.

On December 14 NYRI responded to "clarify" its request and propose an extended timetable for response. With regard to the PSC's order that NYRI supply additional information: "Although NYRI cannot, at this time, provide a definitive timetable for providing the supplemental information, NYRI’s current estimate is that it will be able to file the supplemental information in approximately 6 months."

On December 15, the mediator announced her appointment.

This is another troubling sign that state government is abdicating its responsibility to protect the public.
(The first sign was the government's apparent lack of interest in who NYRI is). While DEC may be correct that the mediation would burden others to formulate NYRI's application, what really seems to be happening looks worse. NYRI, DPS/PSC and the Administrative Law Judges appear to be looking to mediation as the way to set the standards by which this project will be judged. This presents a big problem for the many who believe that there is nothing to mediate because the project is unacceptable under all present circumstances. These people will avoid mediation.

An example of the limitation of this approach is that the alternative routes to being considered are only those already developed by NYRI or mentioned by other parties. State Government has taken no lead. If State Government had at least required NYRI to research an alternative route that "avoids populated areas to the maximum extent practicable," perhaps the parties might have something to discuss in mediation.

DPS/PSC (and by implication, the State Legislature) have effectively relinquished their role in setting appropriate standards and state policy to private companies and monied interests. Is there any question what the outcome of such a process will be?

In the "lack of news" department, we still are awaiting the outcome of the OD's court action to compel OCIDA to disclose the NYRI-Railroad lease under the Freedon of Information Law. We had expected an answer on this long before now. FOIL is not rocket science.

= = =
12/20/06 Update: It looks like we will hear from Judge Tormey next year. (At least next year is only a few days away!) :-)

Christmas in Utica . . .

A great time to come home !
Christmas in Utica Train Station/Children's MuseumGenesee @ LafayetteBaggs SquareBank Place during Christmas

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Is the Tide Turning in New Hartford?

The voters have spoken, defeating a multi-million dollar building plan in the New Hartford School District. Although only about 40 votes decided the issue, this was quite an upset considering how many residents are employed by the school district and/or would have a vested interest in the project. While media has painted the proposed purchase of land (with no definite plans for it) on Tibbits Road as the main point of controversy, this blogger thinks it is more.

The bulk of the proposal (almost $16 million) would have been for a "Community Performing Arts Center" to replace the auditorium. Why? There are already plenty of venues in the area easily accessible to New Hartfordites including brand new ones (at MVCC) and ones under construction (Players). To put this part of the proposal in perspective, it almost equals the amount being spent (via grants and private donations) on the Stanley "World Stage" Project , a facility that seats 3,000 and serves a regional population of 200,000+. To spend such a sum on a high school auditorium in a town of 20,000 seems ridiculous. One almost gets the impression that New Hartford's leaders are using the Town Residents' wallets to compete with Utica and the rest of the area instead of making the Town part of the regional "whole." (This is a recurring theme that will be discussed in future blogs).

While at first blush the Math Science and Technology Wing might seem like a worthy investment, one has to consider that it is a NEW WING -- meaning new classrooms -- meaning old classrooms will be left behind. The New Hartford School District 's enrollment has actually been declining, so there is no need for new classrooms. They will only increase maintenance costs. And the "it will serve as a community resource" argument, again, does not hold water because this area is blessed with an abundance of venues for adult education. Residents have already been burdened with supporting a Town Library on Oxford Road -- a library that is actually LESS accessible to parts of New Hartford than the Utica Public Library located only about 2 miles from NH Village. Perhaps they now see there is no need to pay for duplication.

We will not even get into the "astroturf" proposal.

If the School District wants to renovate class space and its auditorium, that's fine an dandy. Do just that. Such a proposal would probably pass in an instant. Expansion, however, would be a NO.

Perhaps the tide has turned, and the public is now starting to realize that continued expansion of facilities in a region of declining population is unsustainable.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Just Give Us the Money Now and We'll Figure Out What to Do With It Later.

There were no specifics given when the Utica City School District announced this past week its $100 million capital plan. It now appears this was because THERE ARE NO SPECIFICS. "What should city schools tackle next?" the OD asks today, and from the article it appears that everyone has their own ideas on how to spend the money and the School Board has yet to decide.

UCSD's approach to spending money is like New Hartford's: "Just give us the money now and we'll figure out what to do with it later." This is a serious flaw in the characters running our school systems that ultimately will lead to higher operating costs and school taxes. Salivating contractors will dream up all kinds of things to sell to the schools, most of which will not result in any improvement in the quality of student graduates. Learning does not require fancy buildings with sophisticated gadgets. However, poorly designed or located buildings, and gadgets, can waste time and distract from learning.

As long as everyone is putting in their 2 cents on how to spend money, here is
Strikeslip's plan:

  1. Re-establish neighborhood schools, particularly at the elementary level.
  2. Re-establish on-site vocational education in high school.

In short, roll back
the decisions that destroyed the structural advantages that the Utica City School District traditionally enjoyed over its suburban rivals.

Get off the bus. While unavoidable in the suburbs, Utica is populated densely enough that most busing could be eliminated. Buses are a bane. Students waste time riding them, don't get enough exercise because of them, and are discouraged from seeking after-school help by having to stick to their schedule. Each neighborhood would again have its own school, allowing students, parents and community to know each other. Eliminating busing and re-establishing neighborhood schools will make students healthier, smarter, and better behaved.

Make vocational education part of regular education. Unlike the suburbs, Utica has enough students by itself to support voc-ed programs right in the high school rather than busing the students to BOCES in New Hartford. Immediately the students would gain at least a class period of time by eliminating the cross-town trip. Scheduling voc-ed subjects with regular academic subjects would be easier because all coursework would be on-site. The BOCES "stigma" (that it is for "dummies") will be eliminated. Easier access and elimination of the stigma will encourage more students to take voc-ed. The result will be more (and more knowledgeable) voc-ed graduates and trades people.

Hopefully UCSD will make the right choices.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

One Hundred Million . . . .

Wowie ... $100 million in school construction spending is announced in Utica. Add that to another $26 million proposed in New Hartford. Add that to another $36 million proposed for BOCES. Add that to another $37 million just spent in Utica on Millenium. Add that to $50 million just spent in Rome on their high school at an airport ... Lots of new facilities . . . lots of new maintenance costs being taken on.

All this spending in a region of declining population.

No wonder about where the high taxes in the region come from. No wonder about our "well educated" children having to leave the region to find jobs.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Unmandated Funding in New Hartford . . .

Last month it was the Town Board deciding to borrow and spend money with few details given on many of the projects. Now the New Hartford School District is doing the same thing. The OD has an article this morning about it. Cathy at NH Online has gathered a lot of information and been doing some thinking. Well worth a read if you are in the NHSD and are wondering about the upcoming vote. Our only comment is that with a declining enrollment and a declining economy, why is there a need to expand facilities and purchase luxuries such as artificial turf?

BTW, if you are in the New York Mills section of New Hartford, NH Online has a special message about your upcoming Town taxrate.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Public Impacts, Private Profits, and Piloting Nuisances

What would be your reaction if someone told you that a company was going to build a facility to produce a product that you already had enough of, that the facility would be in your backyard, that the facility would forever mar your neighborhood's appearance, that it might affect your health, and that it definitely would make your property less desirable on the market and reduce its value? Chances are if you could stop it by just saying no, you would. What if the facility would produce a handful of jobs, would that change your mind? What if the facility would produce a reliable source of income for your neighbor down the road, would that change your mind? What if the facility would reduce your local property taxes by one-third, would that change your mind? What if the facility would result in a reduction of emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere, would that change your mind?

No, this isn't about NYRI (though it is related). This is about windmill farms to produce electricity, discussed yesterday in three articles in the Observer Dispatch here, here and here. The above questions are probably swirling about in the minds of Herkimer County leaders in deciding whether or not PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) agreements should be given to the companies involved.

It was the PILOT aspect that got this blogger's attention. A PILOT agreement means that these facilities would pay less to local government than they would have had they been taxed like everyone else. PILOTS are usually used to entice a facility to come to a community where they otherwise would not locate.

Does Herkimer County need to entice windmills?

Herkimer County has no shortage of electricity, and wind power is more expensive than what is currently available. So, from a power aspect, Herkimer County has no need for the windmills. The need resides elsewhere.

After a temporary jump in jobs during construction, few jobs would be created for the long term. Thus, the windmills are not needed for job creation.

Maybe it is about money. While these facilities will not be paying their full share of local taxes, they still would bring in a lot of new revenue. Certainly, local government people would like the windmills because they will make it easier to spend money without a tax increase and to even enable a tax cut. This might ensure re-election of local officials. But is this a reason to give a PILOT? Will the future live up to the promise? In this regard a windmill is similar to an animal feedlot: both are nuisances to their neighbors. While the landowners participating in the project will benefit financially, their neighbors will get an eyesore and a reduction in their property values. More importantly, development on surrounding properties will be discouraged into the future. Additionally, windmill farms create a need for more long-distance power lines (like NYRI) to deliver the product to market. That only increases the negative environmental and financial impacts and the number of people affected. Financially, the long term net result of the windmill projects is not clear .

The articles indicate that if PILOTs are not given, the projects will not be built, implying that the projects are not financially viable without local government help. If true, then what is happening is that the public in Herkimer County (with incomes far below the national average) is being asked to subsidize the projects both financially and by accepting negative impacts to their environment, in order to produce benefits for people elsewhere. But if people in the benefited regions need the power bad enough, should they not be willing to pay off all the people negatively impacted? Herkimer County's true value as a site for wind farms should become more evident as time goes on -- and that value is probably a lot more than what it is being offered now.

Viewed from that perspective, the answer to whether or not PILOTs should be given for windmills should be obvious.