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Take NYS Public School Education with a Grain of Salt

The cacophony over what to do about public school education and when to do it and how to do it… is deafening. The disconnects have run absolutely wild.

In Washington, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan propose changes to No Child Left behind, some good some bad; National educational standards are proposed; Diane Ravitch (the former spouse of NY's Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch), once a major champion of choice and accountability recants:; business and thought leaders such as Bill Gates bemoan the quality of education in the US and the quality of output; and California pink slips 36,000 teachers; school budgets across the country are decimated; the charter school fight rages on and on in New York siphoning scarce tax dollars to create select public school enclaves that are free to ignore the state mandates and labor rules by which the rest of the public school system must abide. Teacher bashing ensues unabated on editorial pages and in Newsweek: In New York if the Governor’s and New York State Senate's proposed budget is approved, over 15,000 teachers are slated to be laid off statewide -- with no plan or regard as to what impact that will have in the classroom. Many school budgets being devised by school boards and administrators throughout New York State appear by and large to be coming in at or below 2% over the previous years' budgets. Given the cost drivers school districts must deal with, that's pretty damn good. There is plenty to argue about regarding what ails our educational system -- but in New York, much of the blame lies in Albany -- and the legislature's symbiotic relationship with those who first and foremost put the blind protection of public employees over students.

Yet even in our own dysfunctional New York State -- a rare bit of thoughtfulness and sanity is peeking through -- courtesy of a 25 year veteran of the New York State Senate, Suzi Oppenheimer. It's taken her the better part of a year, but Sen. Oppenheimer is beginning to grow into her role as Chairperson of the Senate Education Committee. Just last week Sen. Oppenheimer sponsored and the senate actually passed legislation to begin to peel back the rampant growth of unfunded mandates on school districts. To be frank, the legislation barely scratches the surface of the need to eliminate reams of existing mandates on school districts. Mandates are among the primary cost drivers that have caused explosive growth in property taxes. The Mandate Relief bill prohibits the legislature from imposing future unfunded mandates on school districts after the start of a school year. This is woefully inadequate -- but like the national health reform legislation – at least it’s a start.

Yet the Mandate Relief bill will likely die in the State Assembly. The reason? A series of laughably ignorant editorials eviscerating a small portion of the bill -- a part of which would have school district contingency budget CPI cap formulations be based on a 5-year rolling average vs. whatever it is year to year:; These editorials – blind diatribes without context - have rocked the Assembly sponsor, Amy Paulin to back off: Remember, in New York, the school tax is the only tax New Yorkers actually get to vote on each year (outside of big cities). If the school budget vote fails, then school districts are mandated to adopt a budget that is no higher than the prior year's budget plus the lesser of 4% or the CPI. This year the CPI was less than zero – so school districts whose budgets that are defeated at the polls will be faced with budgets with zero increases – and in the wonderful world of public school mandates and contractual obligations – heads will roll and students will get screwed.

The rolling average proposal makes sense. Most federal, state and local government accounting use multi-year averages to manage their budgets. And yes, this year such a computation would mitigate catastrophic school budget cuts. But most districts are aiming at or below 2% anyway -- unlike many towns, villages and counties which are hoisting double-digit increases on the taxpayer without the need for a separate vote. In future years when the CPI will skyrocket due to hyper-inflation -- this rolling average will serve to tamp down the inflationary increases that are sure to come. This is nothing more or less than a proposal for sound budgetary management -- and giving school districts, which always have to operate with one hand (or two plus a foot)tied behind their backs some ability to implement sound budget planning.

But in Albany it looks like nothing will change, mandates will run amuck, employee entitlements will be untouched, legislators will run for cover in what is likely to be an anti-incumbent election year, and...oh yeah, kids still need to be educated so they can race to the top. You would think a crisis would finally knock some sense and responsibility into our legislators. But no. Exhibit A: While Rome burns, Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduces legislation to ban the use of salt in restaurants -- no joke:

David A. Singer is a former political consultant/campaign professional and political junkie currently toiling as a lawyer in Westchester and managing real estate and media investments.

Reader Feedback from the Storm

The weekend storm wreaked havoc on Scarsdale, damaging homes and cars and leaving many in the dark. With schools closed, no heat, television or phones, life came to a stop. Fortunately the site stayed up and could be used as a communications vehicle. The Village television channels and email system were down so the Mayor asked us to send out updates to you about what was going on. With roads and communications blocked, it was terrific that users could share information on

Many users sent in comments and photos of the storm to share and here are some of them:

In the words of Ron and Carole Parlato, we were “at war with nature. All we can say is thank you for what we have been given. When you think about the storm on Saturday evening it wasn’t so bad. All of our buildings and toys can be replaced. It makes you think that the most precious assets are our friends, neighbors and family. They are one of a kind and can never be replaced.

We should all appreciate the Scarsdale government, Building Department, Village employees, Police and Firemen who are doing an amazing job to protect the welfare and safety of our community. That you for those wonderful people in our life.” Here is how it looked from their neck of the ‘dale.

Other residents expressed concern for our safety. One reader wrote in, “are the police increasing the patrols of areas that are blacked out? Especially at night during the blackout?”

Some were pleased that was able to keep them informed:

“Thanks so much for your invaluable service in keeping us updated. What a great website and email list you have created. Way to go. Please keep the info coming.”

“What a valuable community service you are providing!”

“Thank you. This is so helpful.” Mayor Carolyn Stevens also sent her thanks "for helping us to get the information out. You have performed a public service."

Other’s sent in pictures of the startling scenes that surrounded them. You can see some of them here.

Thanks to everyone for making your community website.

Governor Richard Ravitch Now More Than Ever

With the political implosion of Governor Paterson; with New York economy reeling; with a State budget deficit of $8.2 billion; with a State where no one has confidence in our government's ability to get anything done or get anything done right, it's time to call for a time out. David Paterson should cede the gubernatorial reigns to Richard Ravitch. And then, both the Democratic and Republicans parties should right now announce that they will cross-endorse Richard Ravitch to be Governor of New York State -- not just through the end of this year -- but for the following four. At 77 years old, Ravitch doesn’t want or need this. But we need Governor Ravitch now. He's the adult in the room. Ravitch has the gravitas, trust and respect of elected officials from both parties. And we need him to pony up for one term for the next four years to salvage the New York ship of state which is in a state of crisis, economically, structurally and politically. He should be a nonpartisan governor, and immediately call for a nonpartisan constitutional convention. The convention’s primary piece of business should be to discard our bicameral legislature, and in lieu, adopt and construct a one-house nonpartisan state legislative body. This can no longer be viewed as some absurd pie in the sky notion -- but the beginning of a path to restore trust in New York State government. There's no rational reason to have two legislative houses in New York State government.

Richard Ravitch has a storied and serious background. In many ways he was responsible for seeding the rebirth of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s that bore fruit. Heading and revitalizing the Urban Development Corporation and then the MTA -- Ravitch had almost as much of an impact on the physical and fiscal revitalization of New York as Robert Caro had earlier last century -- but without the arrogance of power. He's a realist -- and we're already hearing bipartisan calls for Governor Paterson to hand off the budget football to Ravitch now. The other announced pretenders for Governor, Andrew Cuomo and Rick Lazio are dwarfed by Ravitch. And even better, Ravitch doesn't want the job or need it. That's why we need Governor Ravitch now more than ever.

David A. Singer is a former political consultant/campaign professional and political junkie currently toiling as a lawyer in Westchester and managing real estate and media investments.

When Will Power Be Restored in Edgewood

Currently (Mar 15th - noon) there is no visible work anywhere near Edgewood. The Mayor's message appears to try shift potential blame to Con-Ed. Bottom line... half a day Monday has already elapsed and there does not appear to be any visible effort to restore power to homes that have been without since Saturday. The mayor appears to try and shift focus to someone else. Where is the swift action commensurate to our tax bills?

Stephen Fridakis

Testing Days

As the semester comes to a close, SHS students find themselves in a mess of midterms, projects, and presentations.  In response to student complaints about scheduling, the school has come up with a new policy. Enter testing days – a system where two subjects share two days when a test can be given or a project can be due.  This system was devised to alleviate the amount of work a student has each day at the end of the quarter...a time when teachers often give large, cumulative tests.  So how did I end up taking three tests in one day?

The testing day system has loopholes that teachers find and exploit.  For example, a teacher might say “Oh, I’m being nice by giving you a test before testing week starts.” This “nice gesture” results in mass testing the week before testing week, as well as during testing week.  Other teachers say, “We could have this assignment due on my testing day but it’s really better for you to have it due before.  But you guys can pick the due date.”  This leaves students in limbo, wanting to please the teacher but keeping in mind their workload.  And in practice, kids don’t always want to have an awkward conversation with a teacher to let them know they are breaking rules and need to move a test date.

In my case, I had a field trip planned the Tuesday before testing week, and since there are no make-up tests given during testing week, I was forced to take both exams that were planned for that day on one day before the trip in addition to the tests scheduled for that day.  There are also several gray areas in the rules – can larger homework assignments or textbook notes be due on another subject’s testing day? Can you have a reading quiz on someone else’s testing day?

Clearly, the system is flawed, and teacher and students alike know it.  The administration has been trying to find an alternate method of controlling testing, such as the block scheduling system used in other schools. 

In the interim, Mr. Klemme, Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Hamm and Mrs. Peppers have seriously considered suspending testing days for a quarter to see what happens.  Things certainly work out during the quarter without school regulation, and I think most students and teachers will be able to arrange a schedule where no one has more than two tests or large assignments due any given day.  With more flexibility, teachers will be more amenable to changing their schedules to meet student needs.  Also, teachers may be willing to cooperate with students in the hopes of abandoning testing days, which are a nuisance for teachers too.

Melissa Tucker is a sophomore at Scardale High School