AFP Takes a Victory Lap

AFP’s Victory Lap in Clarence

It takes a lot to get me to join something. Between work, my kids’ school and afterschool activities, time is not a luxury. But I became a joiner last week. 

I have joined hundreds of other dedicated and concerned taxpayer-parents of current, future, and former Clarence school students, who have united not just to maintain, but to improve, the quality of Clarence schools. You can find us at www.keepclarenceschoolsgreat.com, and we’re putting our names behind our effort. We aren’t funded, advised, or otherwise working with any union, special interest group, or lobbying organization anywhere – especially not Albany or DC.

On May 21st, an overwhelming majority of voters rejected the Clarence Board of Education’s proposed 2013-2014 budget, which contained a school tax hike of 9.8%. Because of that defeat, several more dedicated, professional educators will be summarily and unceremoniously fired. The district is losing its last social worker. Several sports programs will be eliminated. We aren’t happy about this outcome, but we accept it. We’re going to make sure that the upcoming revote budget does as little harm to the students as possible. We certainly don’t see anything about which to gloat or cheer. 

Our group extends its thanks and best wishes to the teachers, librarians, and staff who will soon find themselves out of work. We know that budget cuts aren’t just abstract theory, but that they affect real people and their futures. Make no mistake – these cuts will adversely affect the quality of the education Clarence’s children receive. What is there to applaud? 

We had hoped that people would see past the slick propaganda, and would vote to maintain the quality of the schools for current and future generations. The schools have undergone many cuts in the last decade, and simply aren’t what they used to be. Thanks to prior years’ cuts, there’s no marching band, no enrichment program, music and art programs have been reduced, and with the most recent round of cuts we’re looking at larger class sizes and elimination of freshman sports and half of of the modified sports programs.  Reduced opportunity benefits no one. Where’s the good news? 

And when is it enough? While we should be discussing how Clarence can regain the #1 spot in Business First’s rankings, we’re scapegoating teachers and harming students’ opportunities. The district’s spending is well under control, and administrative costs represent 6% of the budget.  The truth is that  the district is already run efficiently – “like a business” – and we won’t ever cut our way to excellence.

But if the rejection of the budget and the loss of dedicated teachers and staffers had one silver lining, it’s that we’re awake now; energized to ensure that the excellent Clarence schools our kids deserve aren’t just maintained, but improved.

We think the schools are sustainable already; they’ve been sustainable this whole time. The cutting, however, is unsustainable.

As taxpayers, we demand value for our money, and the Clarence schools are the best value in WNY. We get Cadillac quality for the cost of a Chevy, and we won’t have our schools hijacked by a phantom group claiming bipartisan “concern” for our students’ educations, while spending tens of thousands of dollars to do them harm. Don’t presume or pretend to be on the side of the schools or the students if you’re not.

Above, you see another slick insert included with everyone’s issue of the Clarence Bee this week. It is a victory lap – gloating over the firing of teachers, over the reduction in programs for our schoolkids; cheering higher class sizes and fewer resources. Applauding a curriculum that provides fewer opportunities for current students. Who died and made our local AFP stooge the queen of the schools? What election did she win to give her the right to dance on top of the rubble she helped create? Look at that flyer – as if the phony bipartisanship wasn’t enough of a lie – she has the chutzpah; the gall; the unmitigated shamelessness to presume that she is on the same side as the taxpayer parents whose kids now have to make do with less than her kids had to. To say this is appalling and classless is an insult to appalling classlessness. 

By improving the quality of the schools, you protect your investment – your tax investment, and your investment in your own home. Great schools make a great community. 

We’re your neighbors. We’re your friends. We pay taxes, too. We’re awake now, and we’re just getting started. 

 

Not Just a Taxpayer

I’m going to apologize for my lack of posts lately and in the next few weeks. I’m a Clarence resident and parent of two school-age kids, and last week’s school budget defeat has led me to become an active parent-taxpayer in the town.

For a decade, I had thought that the schools in Clarence were sacrosanct, and people would be willing to do whatever it took to keep the schools excellent. I was wrong. Losing that vote was like finding out your spouse was cheating on you the whole time – the town didn’t love the schools like that; it’s not the schools, it’s us. 

Indeed, at a meeting last night in a packed high school auditorium, people did what people always do when there’s nickel-and-diming afoot; they begged for mercy. 

Here you have one of the most cost-effective districts in WNY, and the number two school district. Instead of discussing what it would take to get to number one, we were talking about the teachers, staffers, and programs that would be cut. I don’t know how you cut your way to excellence, and I don’t know how eliminating teachers, raising class sizes, and getting rid of several modified sports and all freshman sports, firing three music teachers, a social worker, a guidance counselor, and several ELA, math, and science teachers is going to get Clarence to #1. 

What we’re going to find out is how people and things cost money. We’re going to find out that cutting and austerity lead to poor quality and a stressed system. 

But we also learned that there are some very passionate taxpayer-parents in town, and they are united and determined to prevent something like the past couple of weeks from ever happening again.  Nothing will be taken for granted, and never again will we be caught unaware. 

The budget revote is June 18th, so my posting here may be light as I concentrate on preserving the quality of my kids’ schools, and help to ensure the continued brightness of their future. Tea party austerity be damned. 

An Open Letter to Donn Esmonde

Dear Mr. Esmonde,

With today’s anti-school piece about Clarence’s difficulties with its school taxes, you’ve hit a new low. Frankly, given that you’re usually a reasonably progressive thinker who may have more than a passing interest in education, it’s appalling.

Did you speak with your anti-tax friends how the school tax rate – even with the 9.8% hike would have been significantly less than it was in 2003? 2005? The rate would have risen to $15.52/$1000.  In 2007 it was $15.86.  In 2003 it was $16.85. Did you know that in the last 4 years, Clarence has lost $13 million in state and federal funding?  No, you didn’t. If you did, you ignored it.  

Did you happen to mention to them that the tax rates in other highly-ranked districts like East Aurora, Williamsville, and Orchard Park are in some cases 2x the ~$15/$1000 it is in Clarence?

Did you mention to them that Clarence has the 2nd best district and is ranked 6th most cost-effective in the region by Business First?  Did you know it’s 93rd out of 98 districts in WNY in per-pupil spending?

Did you mention to your tea party friends or your readers how the district cut 60 full-time staffers since 2011? That the proposed budget that failed would have cut another 24? 

Ever heard of the Triborough Amendment or the Taylor Law? Did you know that the union agreed to a lower salary increase in its most recent contract than they would have received under Taylor? Did you mention to anyone that, even if the teachers and administration contributed 25% or 50% towards their health care, it wouldn’t close this year’s budget hole? 

Did you happen to question whether they knew that state pension costs are completely outside of the control of the local district and the teachers (and their union)?  Did the issue of the pension and the recent recession’s affect on it come up at all? Did you know that pension costs take into account the past five years’ worth of investment income, which includes the crash of 2008-2009? Did you happen to mention that the district had basically played Giambra-type games with the budget in past years, leaving us with a green/red budget type situation now?

Did you happen upon the fact that the so-called “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” is a local front group for Americans for Prosperity?

Why are we comparing what an educator makes to what someone at DuPont makes? In what way are they similar, except for the fact that they are “jobs”?

Did you happen to ask your friends what they think an appropriate salary for a tenured teacher with 20 years’ seniority should be?

Did you happen to speak with anyone who supported the tax hike and could have explained why it was deemed necessary? If so, why wasn’t that included in your piece? Why did you simply digest as fact what you were told by opponents?

Welcome to the tea party.

Alan Bedenko

Open Letter to the Erie County Legislature

Greetings.

I am a constituent of Mr. Rath’s but am writing to you to inquire about a resolution sponsored by Mssrs. Lorigo, Rath, and Hardwick, which will oppose Governor Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate the “Wilson-Pakula” law, which enables party bosses to endorse other parties’ candidates.

I submit that eliminating Wilson-Pakula is hardly enough to reduce the power of money and patronage in politics, and our entire system of electoral fusion should be abolished, full stop. Electoral fusion and Wilson-Pakula are not used for good; they are used for political advantage and power. The Independence Party is essentially controlled by one marginally intelligent character from Long Island, and exists to enrich and employ him and his close followers. Its name is constructed so as to confuse low-information voters who think they’re registering as unenrolled.

The Conservative Party is controlled locally by Mr. Lorigo’s father, and has shown itself to be exquisitely flexible – when convenient – with respect to the “principles” on which it purports to base its endorsements.

In my town of Clarence, the Conservative endorsement for Supervisor was allegedly withheld not on any ideological grounds, but partly due to personal animus, and partly due to private business interests. That’s the stuff of petty banana republics.

Political decisions and government leadership should be based on merit, not on personal vendettas or misinformation. The system of electoral fusion should be well known to the legislature, as the Independence Party was intimately involved in the so-called “coup” which took place in early 2010 whereby the Republican caucus joined with several breakaway Democrats to create an ersatz “majority”.

That was one of the most embarrassingly tumultuous periods for the Legislature and cheapened it and its mission, such as it is. If the Conservative and Independence Parties want to participate in New York or Erie County politics, Mr. Lorigo and Ms. Dixon have established that members of those parties can run and win.

But if anyone’s goal – at any point – is to establish a cleaner, more honest, and less corrupt political environment, then eliminating Wilson-Pakula is a great first step. Banning fusion altogether is an ultimate goal.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Alan Bedenko

Clarence Voters Teach Students a Lesson

Perhaps we should retain the services of 20 year old Y counselors to “teach” kids at or near minimum wage with no benefits? Is there a way we could outsource teaching to Bangladesh? Should we eliminate music education, art classes, electives, and advanced placement – fire those teachers? Because all of the gloating I’ve seen Clarence school opponents express in the last 7 hours is packed with thinly concealed animus towards the teachers and their labor union.

The teachers. In this country, at this time, we demonize and defile the educators.

Last night, Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed 2013-2014 school budget, and elected two of the so-called “pro-taxpayer” board candidates. A tax that is wholly deductible from federal income taxation is rejected. The curriculum will suffer. Teachers will be put out of work and stop contributing to the local economy. There is no win here, and the school opponents’ gloating is disgusting and unseemly.

The most direct way to personal achievement and success? An education. The key to unlock a better future for WNY? An education. The reason why families have flocked in recent years to Clarence? The schools. A huge source of pride – at least until yesterday – in the town? The schools. First, do no harm.

So why did Clarence families come out in unprecedented numbers expressly to reject a crisis budget that sought to address a fiscal shortfall? I don’t have the answer to that. I’m just really angry and disappointed about it.

I guess I should be amused by the fact that not a single media outlet, except the Bee, picked up on the fact that the tea party astroturf group spent tens of thousands of dollars of outside money to defeat this budget. If AFP was so concerned about the taxpayers, they could have just donated the money to the district or maybe the band boosters to keep the music programs afloat. They could have directed that money to the Advanced Placement programs or electives that will likely be eliminated from the curriculum. But because AFP is about helping people express their frustrations over federal or state taxation at the students of Clarence, it was more important to spend huge sums on slick propaganda.

People complained about the teachers and their union, claiming that they were completely unreasonable and wholly to blame. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the product – look at the outcome. We get (got) what we paid for. Our taxes in WNY are high, but Clarence’s are among the lowest. The proposed levy may have been steep, but the result still would have been a lower payment than the checks families cut in 2003. The overall rate is down even as budgets and property values have gone up.

But the parents of Clarence students didn’t have a massive billionaire-backed lobbying and propaganda group to help them agitate in favor of the budget. The teachers’ union didn’t send 3 slick mailers to every home in Clarence and a 4-page full-color insert in the Bee. Big, bad NYSUT has nothing over the AFP’s access to money.

No, the truly grassroots pro-schools effort was barely funded, relying on Facebook, e-mail, leafletting, and word-of-mouth. There were no big 9′ tall signs on any vacant eyesore properties placed in favor of the budget – only “summer portrait of a lovely grandma” was placed, and defaced.

And I suspect that the budget opponents did the defacing in order to earn free media attention and to portray themselves as victims. WGRZ didn’t report on the mailers that came from Long Island, but they did report on the supposed vandalism. WGRZ didn’t do a story on the consequences of this no vote, but did you see what they did to that sign?!

So, now what? Another $2.4 million in budget reductions will need to be added in order to bring the levy within the tax cap. The revised budget will be submitted to the taxpayers who may very well reject it again, in which case a contingency budget with no increase will be imposed. Either way, kids get shafted.

I’m obviously angry because I have a personal stake – I have two children in the system and we moved here for them. But when they leave the Clarence school system, I understand that it’s important to continue to maintain the system’s excellence (perhaps even to improve it) for future generations. Just because I’ve got mine doesn’t mean I will withhold it from you.

My kids’ – your kids’ – education isn’t some hypothetical or theoretical thing to be used as a pawn in a tea party showdown. It’s their only chance, and they should get the best education possible. Clarence just showed me that it doesn’t really much care. In unprecedented droves. Right now, my decision-making is whether I make this a personal cause or if there’s no point and I should just stop caring, move, and give up. The fact that the value of my property likely plummeted yesterday makes that a difficult decision.

But yesterday near the high school at Gunnville and Main Street, hundreds of students excitedly and hopefully held signs, sang songs, and urged passing motorists to vote yes on the budget. The voters didn’t just vote no – they really showed those kids! Because for all the rhetoric about how the teachers make more than doctors and drive to school in gilded Rolls-Royces and furs, the reality is dramatically different, and it wasn’t the teachers who were taught a lesson.

One of my (Republican) friends on Facebook wrote,

It is a shame that voters took all of their National and State tax frustrations out on the local kids in Clarence with this vote. AND shame on you parents with kids that voted against the budget as well as those of you that have already benifitted from this great school system. I know that their was a lot of you. F…ing selfish and stupid! This is the saying… Be careful what you wish for. Wait until you see what happens to the kids and the school district now. I bet you wish you could do it all over again. For $300-$400 (tax deductible) a year was this worth it.

In another thread, a current Clarence HS student writes,

As a student of Clarence High School I almost can’t stand to see the argument that has ripped this town apart. True, I wholeheartedly support the budget because it is my education and I have worked hard recently to try and get people educated on the actual facts of the budget. As an active member in the school’s music department and an avid participant in the electives and AP courses our school offers I am extremely worried about this budget because I know if this budget doesn’t pass these classes will be cut, my high school education will be highly deprived, the prestige of the Clarence community will go down and the number of colleges that will accept me will decrease. I know that it is now to late to change your minds but I’d like to thank those of you who voted yes and ask those of you who voted no what will happen over the next few years as with out a stabilizing budget this year how will taxes and the schools be affected. Staff cuts will run rampant and our schools will be reduced to teaching only the core concepts required by the state with high class sizes and an increasingly unstable budget so taxes will continue to need to increase.
That is all I have to say

Taxpayers? I’m a taxpayer, too. I’m also someone who knows that you get what you pay for. If frugality was the key to everything, we’d all live in a 500 SF apartment and drive a Smart forTwo. Being frugal isn’t the key – getting quality, value, and a good return on investment is what’s important, and Clarence schools excel at that. For one of the lowest tax levies in WNY, we get one of the best educations in WNY. How much of a school tax abatement did the town IDA give to a German niche car company to build a new dealership across the street from its current dealership? How much in school tax abatements has the IDA given in the past, say, 5 years, further burdening residents and – now – punishing students?

My wife told my kids this morning that the vote failed. “Why?” asked my 1st grader. “There won’t be a musical next year. No show choir, no voce” because the teacher will be laid off, said my 7th grader. They’re surprised and sad.

The huge turnout of no votes taught a lesson, alright. They taught the kids a lesson about lies, propaganda, and punishing them for daring to want to learn. They taught them that it’s better to load up on outside money, cloak it in secrecy, and invest in mailers and signs rather than schools.

School Budget & Board Elections: Vote Today

Today, communities across New York State will be holding their school tax budget referenda and, in some cases, school board elections. Turnout for these votes is always quite low, yet it’s one of the very few times you have direct control over the taxes you pay – in this case, school taxes assessed against the value of your home.

I live in Clarence, where there’s a battle over a proposed 9.8% rise in school taxes. The proposal rolls right past Cuomo’s property tax cap and needs a 60% supermajority to succeed. 

When we moved to western New York in 2001, we chose to live in Clarence for one sole reason – the excellence of its schools. We have grown to love the town and our neighbors, many of whom also made the move to Clarence because of the school system. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the schools are the town’s very foundation, and if you do harm to them, you harm the entire community. 

Over the past 10 years, the school tax rate has decreased while personnel and non-mandated programs have been cut. Because past budgets were only balanced thanks to use of now-depleted savings, a one-time budget in excess of the cap is necessary to maintain the school curriculum. 

The forces opposed to the school budget are vocal and well-funded. One effort in particular that anyone with a Clarence mailbox knows about has been carefully created and funded from outside the area. Koch Industries’ anti-tax fake grassroots conservative activist group “Americans for Progress” has developed the mail pieces and websites urging a “no” vote and manipulating the data to mislead residents about what’s going on. I, for one, don’t take election of advice from people who proudly, and without irony, place massive election signs on derelict eyesore properties in the town

You can read about the AFP mailers here and here. You can read the reasons to vote YES on the Clarence budget here

The State Assembly Reminds you that Albany Remains Dysfunctional

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com

And to this point, it’s high time the Democrats in the Assembly grow a pair and unite to overthrow Speaker Silver’s “bossism”. To that point, the Daily News’ Bill Hammond yesterday penned the most persuasive and succinct primer on how the Assembly works and why Silver wields the power he does. It is a must-read, and the only reason why the redundant, pointless State Senate is marginally more small-d democratic has to do with the tight electoral margins and breakaway factionalism. 

By the same token, I can’t name a single, solitary accomplishment – or attempted accomplishment – that my Assemblywoman Jane Corwin has undertaken since joining that body in 2009. Indeed, her website’s welcome page refers to herself as “newly elected”, yet she’s already been re-elected once. Collect a paycheck (even though you’re a Spaulding Lake millionaire), get your health insurance, and go home. 

Albany is broken and it’s set itself up in such a way that it’s exceedingly difficult for you to do anything about it. 

Your Concerned Stock Photo Neighbors in Clarence

On Friday, Clarence households received yet another ultra-slick mailer from astroturf organization Americans for Progress opposing the school budget. This time, thanks to a tipster’s suggestion, I ran the images through a reverse image search. Who, exactly, are these Clarence residents and neighbors depicted on the flyer? After all, I’d love to speak with them about their concerns. 

As it turns out, they’re pricey stock photographs. 

(I have written about the 2013 – 14 Clarence school budget on two occasions; here, and here). 

This woman earnestly looks into the camera and tells us that local AFP astroturfers are conservatives and/or liberals – just like you and me! 

Except she’s as phony as the claim that “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” is a plucky local effort of concerned citizens with a PR department, a graphic design department and six figures to spare. 

Is she a former Maryland-based drug addict

Is she a joke in the Onion

Did she win big in an Alabama lawsuit

A reverse image search using Tineye reveals that this woman is a stock photo from istockphoto.com. She is described as “Forty Something Hispanic Woman” and if you want to use her image for your slick Clarence mailer, you have to pay about $70.  

The others are as phony as she. 

There’s hardhat guy. 

Hardhat guy has also been used on other websites.  Hardhat guy is also identified via TinEye as an istockphoto.com image, except the stock photo company that sells him describes him as “manual worker in hard hat and safety glasses.” He’s also a bit cheaper than his “forty something hispanic” female counterpart, above. 

The anti-school brigade has been especially concerned about seniors, and uses two pictures of local Clarence seniors. Who are they? 

You guessed it – she’s a stock photo, too. She’s the alliterative “serious senior woman supermarket shopper makes selection“. 

Finally, the senior on the front of the flyer – 

She is “Summer portrait of a lovely grandma”,

…and here she is in a story sponsored by Liberty Mutual

As I wrote late last week, it is critical that you vote yes for the Clarence school budget on Tuesday May 21st at the High School gym (Gunnville at Main). In order to right past wrongs and to ensure that the budget can maintain a steady course within the tax cap in years to come, these measures must be taken. 

The efforts of tea party activists using outside materials paid for with outside money, falsely asserting their “local” or “bipartisan” nature must be strongly rejected. Indeed, to compare the slick use of stock photography and glossy card stock from Long Island with a simply despicable sign that’s been popping up around town: 

That’s the sentiment, boiled down to a nutshell. It’s not as slick, and no expensive, tested PR department vetted the message or language, but it reflects the true grassroots effort to decimate the schools. 

Unlike the proud patriot with the black sign, the AFP’s effort is a form of concern-trolling; they pretend to be supportive of the schools, but bring up their “concerns”, masking the fact that they are not at all supportive. If they had genuine concerns, they could have picked four photographs of actually concerned Clarence residents. Instead, we have “forty something hispanic woman”, “manual worker in hard hat”, and “serious senior woman supermarket shopper”.  This is a sophisticated, media-savvy effort – not one that’s done in Clarence by local activists

This, on the other hand, is a genuine grassroots effort made in support of the school budget: 

The “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” is a group made-up and paid for by the Long Island-based Americans for Progress New York chapter, but that doesn’t justify vandalizing their signs. Not if they depict the “summer portrait of a lovely grandma” or anyone else. It doesn’t justify damaging a massive sign costing hundreds of dollars that’s conveniently sited on an abandoned eyesore motel across from the high school. It also doesn’t justify the myriad pro-budget signs that have been ripped from people’s yards and discarded. 

A teacher writes, 

Lisa Thrun needs to be exposed for what she is.  She had three children attend Clarence schools…I taught two of them …  All three then went on to higher education and have done pretty well, from what I understand …  So basically their kids had a great experience (they were all very involved in the school) at Clarence…but too bad for everyone else now?  My kids are done so now screw you?!  And then she has the audacity to say “she and her people have to remain anonymous for fear of backlash?!”  How horribly insulting I find that to the teaching profession and to Clarence…our teachers are wonderful, caring people of character …  Clarence is a small, tight-knit community…and they are destroying it…but I would never ever hold that against a student, past or present.  It goes against everything a teacher stands for.  Shame on them for those comments.

Dr. Coseo and the Board of Education also need to be called out for getting us into this disaster… so much bad decision-making and poor planning.  The Board always did pretty much what (prior Superintendent) Dr. Coseo told them to do…all “yes” people…don’t rock the boat.  

(Edited to omit identifying information)

Although the Clarence Republican Committee’s executive board decided to stay out of the school vote issue, AFP puppet Lisa Thrun has now reached out to them in a desperate cry for help. To read her own words is to be disgusted: how dare schoolkids advocate for the schools?!

From: Greg and Lisa Thrun <EDIT>
To: Greg and Lisa Thrun <EDIT> 
Sent: Saturday, May 18, 2013 3:18 PM
Subject: Your help is needed

Dear Clarence Republican Committeemen and Committeewomen,
I am writing you today, to ask for your help in the upcoming school budget vote on Tuesday, May 21st at the Clarence High School Gym on Main St. from 7 am-9 pm.
 
As you know, many in our community are very upset about the 9.8% school property tax increase and how that will affect their families and businesses.  It is not just the higher tax rate that is the concern, but the unwillingness of the Board of Education and the Clarence Teachers Association to take the necessary measures to avoid cuts to student services and teaching positions in the very near future.
 
The issues and solutions outlined by Citizens for Sustainable Schools (EDIT) have started the conversation about ensuring the quality of education with a tax rate we can all afford.  The path the district is on is unsustainable and measures must be taken now if we are to continue to offer a Clarence education our town is known for. 
 
There have been some lawns signs and emails circulating that are meant to distract from the conversation and claims that the funds for the efforts are coming from outside sources.  The truth is that we heard from seniors that are worried about losing their homes, families that are considering moving out of state because they can no longer afford to pay the high taxes, and small business owners that are concerned that a 10% increase will force them to pass the costs on to customers and make them less competitive.  They offered their services, money, and time to help educate the public about the issues and to stop this excessive tax increase.
 
The district and the union has been organizing for months prior to the budget being formally adopted.  An art show, an all elementary school track meet, and a chicken dinner has been lined up which will make it very difficult for others to get into the polling place.  Superintendent Hicks and BOE President Mike Lex have been holding meetings with every PTO, Booster Club and even the Post-Prom Party Committee.  They added a last minute concert where only a few songs were played but a pro-budget pitch was included.  There are PTO Facebook pages that have posts with accusations and links to articles with wrong information and have gone so far to word emails that can be construed as endorsements for specific candidates.  Now you may have received a knock at the door by students asking for your YES vote.
 
We do not underestimate the organization of the union or the advantage the district has with communicating with the school community.
 
The GOP is the party of lower taxes and limited government, understanding that those principles lead to the betterment of a community, state, and nation.  Although the executive board has decided not to tackle this issue, we are asking for all of you as individuals to help with phone banking and door to door efforts.  Your neighbors, business associates, and fellow residents are taking a stand —please join them.
 
We will be holding a phone bank from 5:30-9pm on Monday at an office location to make GOTV calls.  Phones are limited so please call for a time slot and location.  If you would like to make calls from home, we can email call lists.  We can also make arrangements to drop off flyers and maps.
 
We understand that this is a controversial issue, but how can any of us stand on the sidelines when members of our community will be hurt by this and while the education of our children will face future risk?
                                   
Sincerely,
Lisa Thrun
H: 741-****
C: 604-****

As soon as I find out which office hosts this phone bank, I will expose it, and I will urge people never to patronize it. Guess what? Also, I suspect that our local AFP stooges vandalized their own sign in order to get on TV and make budget proponents look like thugs. AFP has spent tens of thousands – maybe more – to try and defeat the school budget. The schools are a huge part of what makes Clarence what it is. Your property values reflect that. 

Vote yes on Tuesday, and vote DePasquale and Andrews. The reasons why are here. 

Vote “YES” For the Clarence School Budget on May 21st

Of all places, Clarence has become the tea party battleground over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap. An outside, ultraconservative, anti-government lobbying group is using Clarence as a test case to try and defeat school districts’ efforts to pass budgets that will maintain school services. Its propaganda is downright Orwellian in style and content.

On Tuesday May 21st, Clarence voters will go to the polls to vote on the 2013-14 school budget. Turnout is especially important, because it needs a 60% margin to pass. Luckily, most Clarence residents know the importance that the school system has to the town’s identity and growth. Under the proposed budget, a home with $100,000 assessed value will pay about an additional $11 per month. Note that seniors qualify for the enhanced STAR exemption, which exempts the first $63,300 of property valuation from property taxation, easing their overall property tax burden.

Last week, I uncovered the fact that a local leader of the Koch brothers’ astroturf group, “Americans for Prosperity” claimed responsibility for the slick ads urging every Clarence household to vote “no” on the school budget.

For the uninitiated, “astroturfing” is a propaganda effort that is designed to obscure or mask who’s behind it, in order to give off the appearance that it comes from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Through astroturfing, the false sheen of grassroots independence lends credibility to statements made.

In other words, astroturfing is legalized deception used to alter or bring about a specific political outcome. The current edition of the Clarence Bee has a story about it, quoting AFP’s local contact thusly,

…the reason she and others associated with the flier chose to remain anonymous is because many of them have children enrolled in Clarence schools and are concerned about backlash. The reason she agreed to be interviewed was because her name was already out in the open.

Unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers, she said that Citizens for Sustainable Schools is not affiliated with Americans for Prosperity and hopes that the fliers will focus attention on the district’s finances.

Anonymity is the right to be free from accountability. If you won’t publicly stand by your position, what good is it?

While the AFP and its local member deny that AFP funded and produced the mailers, the facts don’t bear that out. The AFP’s Long Island HQ had immediate access to information concerning the local activist claiming responsibility for the mailers. It’s all a construct aimed to keep people in the dark about the outside influence.

At least when the state teachers’ union NYSUT speaks up, NYSUT has the courage to identify itself.

From a perspective of fiscal conservatism, it makes absolutely no sense for the AFP – or a resident – to propagandize for the rejection of a school budget hike of about $11/month for every $100k of assessed value in a very school-oriented town, while likely spending tens of thousands of dollars on slick mailers to every town household, and a shiny full-color, 4-page insert in this week’s Bee.

Those mailers and the accompanying website are professionally done, not the sort of haphazard stuff our local, genuinely grassroots tea party groups come up with. The language they use is as slick as the paper they’re printed on. This entire effort – the language, the quality of the mailers, the timing of the issuance of these materials – underscores that a larger, wealthier organization is attempting to use Clarence as a test case to combat any effort to raise school taxes above the Cuomo cap.

So, I think you’re being lied to.

The reason why AFP’s “local grassroots activist” is “unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers,” has to do with the fact that the funding comes from outside the area and is inconvenient for her. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” isn’t “affiliated with Americans for Prosperity” because “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” doesn’t exist and tried to keep its AFP association a secret.

Turning now to the merits of the debate – outside influence and money notwithstanding, local people who are upset over the increase have presented valid concerns.

Here are the facts:

1. Even with the proposed increase, school taxes are down overallIf the proposed school budget is passed with a 9.8% increase, the Clarence school tax rate will rise to $15.52/$1000. That is lower than 2007 ($15.86/$1000), and over a dollar per $1000 lower than they were in 2003 ($16.85/$1000). In the last 4 years Clarence School District has lost over $13 million in state and federal aid.

2. Clarence Schools are noted for their efficiency and excellence

Business First ranks the Clarence Central School District as the second best in WNY. It is 93rd out of 98 in per pupil spending, and 92nd out of 98 in cost effectiveness. 92% of Clarence HS graduates attend college.

3. Clarence Central School District has cut jobs

The 2011-13 budgets reduced 60 full time employees. The 2013 – 14 budget reduces another 24. It is a lean and efficient organization.

4. What your YES vote means

– Keeping our music teachers, choruses, orchestras, and bands.
– Keeping music instruction in the high school.
– We won’t just offer kids the bare minimum music curriculum mandated by the state.
– Keeping AP classes and electives.
– Keeping athletic programs at their current levels. Keeping nurses in the schools. Maintaining property values.

Rebutting the opponents’ points and questions:

1. Why don’t the teachers contribute more towards their health care? That would eliminate the gap!

Clarence teachers contribute 8% towards their health care now, and that will increase to 10% in 2014-15. That contribution rate is on par with the average for school districts in WNY. In the contract negotiated in 2012, the teachers agreed to contribute more toward health care over the length of the contract. Some argue that even this is not enough, but under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, existing contract terms and conditions remain in place after the expiration of the contract, unless a successor agreement changes those terms. The Taylor Law makes it very difficult to get large concessions in a single contract bargaining cycle. The district has the objective of continuing to press for more contribution to health care, but it has to happen incrementally over multiple contracts. A contract cannot be reopened without the agreement of both sides and even if it could be reopened, the Taylor Law keeps all terms in place until both sides agree on changes. The administrators have agreed to two salary freezes in the last three years. They also agreed to contribute to their health care in the contract settled this year.

Some argue that the union has made no concessions, but that is not true. The union agreed to a lower salary increase this year than would have been in place under the Taylor Law – the first time that has occurred in Clarence. Three years ago, teachers, administrators, and service employees agreed to enter into a self-funded health care system, which is the most cost effective way for the school district to provide health care benefits, saving the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is not accurate to claim that if teachers and administrators contributed 25% to health care that the deficit would be closed. We began this year with a $6.5 million deficit. Even if teachers and administrators paid 50% toward health care it would not close that gap.

2. Why not just cut more from the administrative side?

It bears repeating that Clarence has been ranked as the 6th most efficient school district in terms of administrative functioning. A central office administrative position was cut last year, which should further enhance the Business First efficiency ranking. The central office has fewer administrative personnel than any other comparable district in the area, and is not overstaffed.

3. The District should offer an incentive for higher-paid, older teachers to retire!

The District attempted to negotiate a retirement incentive with the Clarence Teachers Association, but an agreement that would have reduced the deficit could not be reached.

4. The District is spendthrift, with a 50% increase per pupil over the last 10 years!

New York State does not calculate per pupil spending by simply dividing the budget by the number of students.

– General Education Spending: Clarence: $8,493 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $12,377 per pupil
– Special Education Spending: Clarence: $15,192 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $35,924 per pupil
– Total Expenditures: Clarence: $14,551, Similar Schools Group: $22,962
– Budget expenditures have increased over the last 10 years, especially with respect to benefit costs. Clarence is tightly budgeted and when compared to similar schools and based on the NYS average, Clarence is more efficient.
 
UPDATE: 5. Median School Tax Bill in Clarence is much higher than Williamsville!

The AFP flyer in the Bee used this argument. There are many more million dollar homes in Clarence than in Williamsville, so by using the median they basically compared taxes on a $400,000+ home in Clarence to a $200,000 home in Williamsville.  For the real tax information look at the facts from Erie County: Click here to view Erie County’s Real Property Tax Rates

6. Enrollment has dropped and the District hasn’t adjusted for this.

Enrollment has dropped 9% since 2007. Almost all of that drop (288 kids) has happened at the elementary level, and the district has reduced 15 elementary teachers over the past three years, accounting for that decline.  In fact, at an average class size of 23 students, the 15 teachers would account for a decline of 354 kids – so it is not accurate to state that the District has not made adjustments to declining enrollment.  It is not possible to close an elementary school at this time, and elementary enrollment would have to drop to approximately 1800 before closing a school could be considered – this year’s figure was 2,051. The elementary enrollment drop is projected to stabilize in 2016-17 at around 1,900 kids.  The middle school will start to decline in 2015-16 and the high school will remain relatively steady for the next 5 years.  It is not accurate to say the district has not adjusted for enrollment decline.  

7. Wages and Benefits are growing at Unsustainable Rates.  

Pension and health care costs have gone up exponentially over the past 10 years.  Pension costs are established by the State Comptroller and TRS Board – they are based on a state constitutional funding level and are highly influenced by stock market investment.  The school district and state municipal governments have no control over them.  There is a 5-year average of investment income for pension costs and the stock market crash of 2008 is still being factored into the total.  It will be that way for one more year and then the pension costs will begin to come down. Last year, there was a new tier added to the pension system that contained costs for all new members.  10 years ago pensions were 0.36 of payroll, next year it is 16.25% of payroll.  That is a 451% increase in 10 years.  It accounts for a big portion of the budget costs.  This is an issue to take up with the State Comptroller and TRS board.  Anyone promising to fix it at a school board/school budget level doesn’t understand their limitations.        

School Board Election: DePasquale and Andrews

As the signs on lawns indicate, there’s a school board election on Tuesday, as well. A large slate of candidates are competing to fill two empty slots. The well-funded forces opposed to school excellence have identified two candidates, whose absurdly large lawn signs litter the town. I asked Brendan Biddlecom of Keep Clarence Schools Great about the school board candidates, and he noted that the large number of candidates threatens to split the pro-school vote. (Note: this is what a real grassroots website looks like – a Google site and online petitions).

To that end, candidate Matt Stock yesterday withdrew from the race, noting the, “abundance of candidates who share my concerns about the preserving the well-being of the district. In an ordinary election, this would be a great thing. Unfortunately, this year we also have two candidates who do not share my views, or the views of other pro-education candidates”. Stock added, “[t]here is also an unprecedented amount of outside money attempting to negatively influence the election. These two factors mean that there is a real risk of ‘splitting the vote’ and having candidates elected that do not have the support of the majority of voters”

Keep Clarence Schools Great has gone one step further and formally endorsed the candidacies of Tricia Andrews and Joe DePasquale for the school board. In his withdrawal letter, Stock endorsed them, as well. Noting the unique situation this year, Biddlecom wrote that, “for the last three years, the school system has been under a steady assault, and now we’ve reached the breaking point. An overly conservative financial management strategy exhausted reserves and helped create the situation we’re in now.”

By coalescing support behind two pro-school candidates; DePasquale works in IT and volunteers with the little league football league, and his wife is a teacher. Andrews is a former teacher who has been active with the Harris Hill PTO for the last seven years, and has served as its president for three. As Biddlecom once told the Bee, “I think we need to move beyond this sense of self-preservation and look at the schools as being part of the fabric of our community and understand that even if you’re going to look at it again through a completely self-interested perspective, having quality schools should be a concern of yours.”

There is no slippery slope argument at hand, or indication that this is the start of endless cap-busting tax hikes year after year. This is a one-shot deal that’s needed to get the school’s fiscal house back in order. Please vote YES on Tuesday May 21st at the High School Gymnasium. Turn-out is critical. Please make sure you go, and make sure your friends and neighbors don’t forget, either.

Why Policy Matters

It sure has been a crappy few weeks for the Obama Administration, right? Starting with the Senate refusing to pass a really minimal gun control legislation – carefully crafted in a bipartisan fashion, we now have revelations of the IRS targeting tea party groups, and the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records via subpoena.

It’s funny, because one of the attacks on Obama is that he’s perpetually in campaign mode. Problem is, he wins campaigns; if he was in campaign mode, none of this stuff would be a big dealIts messaging has sucked, lately, and Congressional Democrats tend to suck, as well. 

The background noise during all of this is the right-wing’s incessant attempts to manufacture a scandal out of the 9/11/12 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi.  Literally every single allegation-cum-conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked to the point now where (a) it’s palpably all about Hillary 2016; and (b) chief scandal author Darrell Issa has finally reached a last-resort argument, whereby calling the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” is an impeachable offense, because the Administration should have called it a terrorist act. I kid you not.  

The CIA and State Department’s editing and re-editing of a post-attack talking points document is not a cover-up or a scandal – it’s what diplomats and spies do. This is why the Wikileaks publication of secret diplomatic cables is, in my opinion, a bad thing. We oughtn’t broadcast what our diplomats or spies are doing. In an interesting twist, the Republicans demanding the public release of Benghazi-related information were quite outraged by the Wikileaks diplomatic cable release. 

The Republican narrative – despite all evidence to the contrary – has been that the White House intervened to make Obama look good. The evidence reveals that the CIA and State were squabbling over post-attack documents so as to provide information without compromising any extant interests or missions. 

The AP investigation and the IRS targeting are brand-new stories, the details of which are not fully hashed out, but they certainly look bad, and the Obama Administration is uniquely susceptible to outrageous criticism because of the right-wing narrative that Obama is a tinpot dictator, despite being limited to two terms and a do-nothing Congress. 

The IRS absolutely should not be targeting tea party groups or liberal groups, for that matter. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of what happened. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, it quickly became chic to set up a tax-exempt political advocacy group. I want the IRS to look into the activities of those groups to ensure that they comply with extant regulations on maintaining tax-exempt status, just as much as I want the IRS to crack down on, e.g., tax-exempt “churches” that overtly engage in campaigning and politics. As long as it’s done in an evenhanded, non-partisan way.  The Treasury Inspector General reports that the IRS scrutinized certain 501(c)(4) applications using “inappropriate criteria”. 

Targeting tea party groups is as bad as targeting AARP, safe sex advocates, Greenpeace, the NAACP, and Emerge

In fact, a few left-wing groups were subjected to the same scrutiny as right-wing groups, and while some tea party applications for a government tax-free subsidy were delayed, only Emerge – a left-wing group – had its application denied

What’s nice is that everyone hates the IRS, Obama demanded the Treasury Secretary seek the resignation or dismissal of the acting IRS Commissioner.  

As for the phone records scandal, there is a legitimate debate to be had about government access to journalists’ source information, and the balancing of equities between investigating leaks of classified information and shield laws. But you can’t have a legitimate debate in a climate of alleged scandal.  Because this isn’t a “scandal”.  This is what law enforcement does, every day – gather information as part of an investigation using whatever legal means possible, and the law allows this when all other avenues to learn the information have been exhausted.

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

The May 7 story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. They and their editor, Ted Bridis, were among the journalists whose April-May 2012 phone records were seized by the government.

Brennan talked about the AP story and investigation in written testimony to the Senate. “The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made … when someone informed The Associated Press that the U.S. government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it,” he wrote.

He also defended the White House decision to discuss the plot afterward. “Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this al-Qaida plot,” Brennan told senators.

These are stories about tone-deaf executive branch overreach. Yet what the government did in this AP phone records case is likely completely legal. The government didn’t spy or snoop on the AP – it obtained phone records from the phone company. Under the law, the government is allowed to obtain information from third parties, and there is no 4th Amendment problem.  Furthermore, you don’t hear a lot of Republicans in Congress making noise about it – how do you demonize the mainstream media every hour of every day for years, then suddenly pivot to its defense to score a few points against Obama? The right’s animus for Obama is only matched (or exceeded) by its animus for fact-based reportage. 

This is why elections matter, this is why policy matters, and this is why legislation matters. This is why whom you send to Congress matters. 

For instance, in 2007, a bill in Congress called the “Free Flow of Information Act” would have required the DOJ to first obtain a court order before obtaining phone records or otherwise pursuing journalists’ sources to investigate criminality. Although it passed the house, it failed to make it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate to a vote. Put bluntly, Republicans killed the media shield law that would have prevented the DOJ from doing what it did to the AP. 

Benghazi? Republicans have consistently voted to de-fund the security for diplomatic missions abroad

For fiscal 2013, the GOP-controlled House proposed spending $1.934 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program — well below the $2.15 billion requested by the Obama administration. House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012. (Negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate restored about $88 million of the administration’s request.) Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.

Ryan, Issa and other House Republicans voted for an amendment in 2009 to cut $1.2 billion from State operations, including funds for 300 more diplomatic security positions. Under Ryan’s budget, non-defense discretionary spending, which includes State Department funding, would be slashed nearly 20 percent in 2014, which would translate to more than $400 million in additional cuts to embassy security.

So, facts matter, and policy matters, and you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. 

Oh, also this week, Congress voted for a 37th time to repeal Obamacare. So, you know, jobs & growth agenda? Not so much. 

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