Donny And The Great Concrete Elevator

Donn Esmonde just loves the grain elevators, and he loves people who love what he loves. Those crumbling concrete gravestones to a long-gone industrial time might be big and ugly, but by gosh they tell a story

waterfront wasteland

Something about it. Photo by Chris Smith via Flickr

These things matter. 

Esmonde skips through his paean to placemaking, extolling the wondrous things that nostalgia can bring – a buyer for a peeling behemoth on Lake Erie an outfit called FFZ Holdings bought at auction June 7th for just $475,000.

True, they are more beast than beauty, comparatively closer to mastodons than to mermaids. Yet to this Buffalo transplant, they always seemed like concrete dinosaurs, rising from the scrub brush along the Buffalo River plain like frozen-in-time fossils. Their inert mass stamped Buffalo’s broad-shouldered identity and shouted “sense of place” in an increasingly homogenized world. What was not to like?

For decades, [grain elevator aficionado Lorraine] Pierro has been their fiercest champion. “This is our history,” she said. “It seems like there is a new appreciation and recognition of them.”

FFZ Holdings is located at the same 26 Mississippi Avenue address as Savarino Companies, and it was named as a co-developer of some apartments on Ohio Street in the remnants of the “Erie Freight House”. Remember how receptive Esmonde’s friends in the preservation community were to the Savarino-proposed demolition of the freight house? I wonder how much taxpayers will be on the hook with various and sundry incentives and corporate welfare schemes to renovate Mr. Esmonde’s beloved concrete monstrosities. 

Is there a similar preservation movement in Europe to preserve Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks because “sense of place” and historical significance? 

Maybe more people could learn about the historic freight houses of the Erie Canal and the reasons why grain elevators are important if schools weren’t being starved into oblivion by alleged school reformer tea party hacks such as the ones Donn Esmonde now promotes

This is part of a new, ongoing AV Daily series, Donn Esmonde is an Ass.  Email us ways Donn Esmonde is an ass here

Peace Bridge: Back to the 90s

STATEMENT FROM THE

WNY LEADERS FOR PEACE BRIDGE PROGRESS

Like most people in Western New York, we have spent the past two decades watching and waiting for a new, more efficient gateway between our community and Southern Ontario. Instead of progress, we have seen debate, delay and dysfunction. This project is too important to allow ego and personal differences to stall this project any longer.

Instead, we will let ego move the process forward!

The “Golden Horseshoe” around the western end of Lake Ontario has a population of 8.76 million people; that is 68% of Ontario residents and 26% of all Canadians. They come to Western New York to take in Sabres and Bills games, enjoy our ski resorts and other recreational opportunities, shop, and most importantly, to conduct business and enrich the economies of both sides.

The American government, addicted to security porn and anti-immigrant animus, has proposed and/or implemented every barrier possible to keep these people on their side of the border. Furthermore, the state of New York and the various and sundry governmental, quasi-governmental, and charitable entities have not yet decided to, e.g., set up a string of information center/rest areas on this side of the Q-L Bridge, Rainbow Bridge, or Peace Bridge to inform and direct Canadian crossers to WNY businesses, attractions, and communities.

For this population, the main crossing into the United States and the City of Buffalo is the Peace Bridge. More than 4.7 million cars and 1.2 million trucks crossed the span last year alone. The sheer volume makes the Peace Bridge one of Western New York’s most important economic engines, and to prevent the progress of improving the American side of the border crossing is to prevent the growth of business, recreation and friendly relations between the United States and our valued neighbor to the North.

Not only that, but if you expand the bridge and plaza capacity, you can minimize idling trucks and cars, the emissions from which are adversely affecting the nearby residents, according to some.

We need to take hold of our own destiny and move proactively toward embracing plans that will allow our great region, on both sides, to grow and prosper. The plan put forth by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State of New York is the best option to accomplish that. The Governor wants progress for Buffalo and Western New York, and as business people, residents and active members of this great community, so do we.

The Governor? Hasn’t Cuomo ham-handedly allowed his local proxies mercilessly to antagonize the Canadians on the Public Bridge Authority in recent weeks?

Governor Cuomo has promised a beautiful, more efficient plaza in which the PBA and our community could take pride, and one that would improve the border crossing process for both sides. Western New York needs to form a unified front behind the efforts of the people we elected to represent us. That is exactly what we are announcing today.

To be honest, I’m not so sure anyone has described a customs and inspection plaza as “beautiful”, or that anyone has been “proud” of such a structure. I mean, the new plazas on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge and Q-L Bridge are quite nice and efficient, but I think “beautiful” is a stretch. It would, however, be nice if people’s first impression of the United States when crossing from Canada was “hey, these people want me to be here and spend my money”. Instead, they resemble the angry, barely utilitarian, chaotic toll plaza on the Queens end of the Midtown Tunnel.

Western New Yorkers and our guests from Canada should not have to wait for years. They should not have to endure the traffic congestion of maintenance projects only to be followed by years of other projects that don’t actually help move traffic, especially passenger traffic off the plaza more expeditiously. New Yorkers and Canadians alike deserve a better, more functional U.S. Plaza faster.

We’ve gephyrophobically waited for years. I’m not so sure ego will overcome what ego has stalled.

The WNY Leaders for Peace Bridge Progress is a group of community leaders who have joined together to show their support for Governor Cuomo’s efforts to expedite the development of the Peace Bridge US Plaza in a way that maximizes the economic benefit to the WNY economy by reducing congestion and making the plaza more efficient and at the same time improving the quality of life in the immediate neighborhood. The committee is co-chaired by Leonard DePrima, formerly of LiRo Engineers and former Chief Engineer and Deputy Executive Director of the NYS Thruway Authority, Laura Zaepfel, Vice President at Uniland Development and Paul Brown, President of the WNY Building Trades Association.

Sounds like this was pulled together in response to this and this.

The WNY Leaders for Peace Bridge Progress

Co-Chairs: Leonard DePrima, Laura Zaepfel, Paul Brown

Cliff Benson Robert Gioia John Koelmel Jonathan Dandes Anthony Conte Rocco Termini

Mark Croce Doug May Alan Pero Paul Ciminelli Victor Martucci Sam Savarino

Robbie Ann McPherson Matt Connors Colleen DiPirro David Rivera Geno Russi

Joel Giambra Kelly Thompson Robert Kresse James Newman Rev. Michael Chapman

Isn’t that an interesting collection of political, development, charitable, and union leaders? It’s as if someone went around and wanted to ensure that this humble group of leaders had enough juice to offer credibility and a second look at the chronic Peace Bridge stasis.

As far as I can tell, however, the most palpable public health problem affecting the community-at-large is a dire case of Peace Bridge Fatigue. Any excitement or public desire for a signature bridge or a crossing that looks world-class rather than second-rate has been beaten into apathy by lawsuits, arguments, the Common Tern, and general political dysfunction. As I suggested last year, it may instead be time to simply demolish the Peace Bridge altogether.

This all seems so 1999. Thanks for trying, though.

NSA Collects Metadata because it Can

The astonishing thing about the report yesterday that a secret court had ordered Verizon to turn over – en masse – the metadata concerning every phone call placed on that network isn’t that it happened. It’s that it’s probably perfectly legal. If you’re a Verizon customer, file suit. The 4th Amendment is interpreted to protect you from government surveillance, search, and seizure with respect to matters in which you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.  

Because the content of your messages and phone calls are not generally collected by phone carriers, you have an expectation of privacy with respect to what you say. But the metadata is automatically transmitted to the company, so it will likely be argued that you have no similar expectation that this would remain private, since Verizon also has it. 

The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting & Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept & Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), which Congress passed just six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, greatly enhanced the government’s ability to surveil US citizens with respect to their involvement in terrorism, and it was extended in 2011 under President Obama. 

Here, the government sought and obtained a federal court order from a secret court that our government set up through a rushed process immediately after a catastrophic terrorist attack. Furthermore, the order in question was sought immediately after the Boston Marathon attack in April. There’s a possibility it was sought in response to that in order to track any unusual call patterns to determine if there were more attacks in the pipeline. 

I don’t mean to excuse what is obviously a very troubling case of government surveillance.  What I mean to do is point out that this is the world we’ve collectively chosen. In response to 9/11, we turned America into a very weak, cosmetic police state in the name of public protection. We don’t have a Stasi that will arrest you for your political dissent activities based on the warrantless taps on your phone, but we do have a government that indiscriminately collects call data to see if there are odd and suspicious call patterns related to terrorism. 

If you want this sort of thing to stop, you have to change Washington and the whole notion of a department of pre-crime. The NSA, Bush, or Obama didn’t do this to us; we did this to us

Four Chords

Thanks to my former WNYMedia.net colleague Chris Charvella for posting this on Facebook, this Australian trio makes the case that all it takes to make a pop hit is four chords. 

An Education in Education

Speaking of education, here are a few things I learned over the past few weeks. 

1. When Clarence’s school board decided to submit an above-cap budget for 2013-2014, it could only be passed by a 60/40 supermajority. The practical effect of that is that my yes vote is worth only about 5/8th of a no vote. That’s not “one person/one vote” and that’s not fair. There is a bill in the Assembly to right this wrong

2. Elections that are governed by the election law, which includes races for school board, are barely regulated and shadowy groups using untold amounts of money can operate with absolute secrecy. If, for instance, you want to spend more than $25 towards the election of another person who is running for a school board, you’re prohibited from doing so. But the penalty for breaking that law is non-existent. For an ultra-right wing group that wants to take over a school board or defeat a school budget, unlimited people can spend unlimited money to do it. In Clarence, that’s happening right now. 

3. There are no exceptions to the tax -cap legislation to allow for, e.g., paying court orders and school safety.

4. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is based in Maryland and was set up by one of the founders of UPS to, “build better futures for disadvantaged children and their families in the United States. The primary mission of the Foundation is to foster public policies, human service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families.” Frankly, the sort of things a government should be doing. AECF ranks states in terms of the quality of the education children there receive. New York is number 19.  Clearly, there is work to do. 

5. The United States spends over $600 billion on educating its next generation every year. By contrast, our elective war in Iraq cost over $2 trillion.  The difference is that no one got to vote in a referendum on the tax levy for the Iraq war. Using 2007 numbers, the United States spent less than only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries per pupil. 

6. In a recent ranking of education quality, the United States came in as “average”. The top countries are Finland and South Korea. This has an adverse affect on kids’ abilities to compete in a global marketplace where their peers abroad are simply educated better. 

When it comes to education, “rah-rah US is #1” is untrue and just as jejune as allegations that kids can do well in school regardless of the quality of teachers or class sizes if they come from the right home in the right neighborhood with the right family makeup with a nice income. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement; especially if you live in a place like Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, or Nevada. The report which ranks education quality country-by-country comes up with these conclusions

  1. There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

  2. Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

  3. Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

  4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

  5. Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.

Clearly, there is work to be done, and each side in the debate in the US have at least one point, but we’re missing the bigger picture because it’s difficult and time-consuming. Note that American teachers are paid wages below the world average. 

The solution, however, is not to cut teachers or to treat them like fast-food workers. It is not to cut programs that encourage learning, fitness, or creativity. We can work for systemic improvement while not sacrificing the quality of education that kids are receiving now. Testing and more testing isn’t the answer, nor is pitting teachers’ unions against everyone else. 

I don’t know whether Carl Paladino’s baseball bat or AFP’s decimation of public schooling are precisely the right solution.  But one thing I do know – I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having not paid closer attention to these things before, especially as it relates to my own town. 

Unfair Blame and Facile Hypocrisy

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is widely attributed to Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Office of Budget and Management Bert Lance. He coined it to describe a simple way to save government money. 

It’s been a little over a week since Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected a crisis budget for next year, which would have kept spending steady at 1%, but required a one-time above-cap school tax increase of approximately 9.8%. A week later, we learned how deeply the cuts would go – $2 million here, $2 million there, and pretty soon, something that wasn’t “broke” is teetering on the edge of educational insolvency. 30 people are losing their jobs. There is nothing to cheer about here. 

Insult has been added to injury, thanks to one outrageous column from Donn Esmonde, gloating from the millionaire anti-school faction, and a completely misguided editorial from the Buffalo News itself. 

It’s been a bad few weeks for anyone who expects – needs – excellence from the Clarence Schools. 

On Saturday, former union worker Donn Esmonde praised the bright ideas of Roger Showalter, one of the two “vote no” candidates who was elected to the school board this year (both of whom are related by marriage). 

Public records reveal that Showalter lives in a house on Strickler Road that has an assessed 2013 value of $247,000. Thanks to the state’s STAR program, only $217,000 of that is used to calculate school taxes.  In Saturday’s column, Esmonde writes that Showalter has five kids attending Clarence schools. This means that, had the proposed budget been passed, Showalter’s family would have incurred an additional $20 – 30/month in school taxes to ensure that his kids’ teachers and programs remained employed and intact, respectively; that’s $4 – 6 per pupil, per month. If you can afford a $250,000 house, is $20/month to keep teachers employed and programs intact that onerous a hardship? 

Why didn’t they just raise the levy 2% every year, some ask. Well, if they had, the rate would be higher now

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) filed suit against the State of New York, alleging that schools in the New York City area were underfunded, and that this denied kids a quality education. The CFE won its final appeal in November 2006, which ordered the state to spend about $14 billion to improve the quality of New York City schools.  In the meantime, CFE helped enact the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007, which was to ensure proper funding of every school in the state. The law includes a “Foundation Aid Formula”, described thusly, 

to ensure adequacy and equity in state school funding by establishing a relationship between state aid, the needs of students and a district’s ability to raise revenue. It provided for a four-year phase-in of state aid to reach full funding of the formula. The legislation also introduced accountability provisions in its “contracts for excellence,” in order to ensure that the money provided was well spent.

In 2007 and 2008, Albany funded schools pursuant to its own formula, but froze aid in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Albany cut aid by $2.7 billion through the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” (GEA). On top of this, the school tax cap results in chronic underfunding of certain districts, perpetuating existing inequities. 

In the 2012-2013 state budget, the difference between what the reform act of 2007 mandated and what Albany was actually funding exceeded $5.5 billion. If you add in accumulated cuts through GEA, schools have lost $7.7 billion in promised aid and classrooms throughout the state are in crisis. Under Governor Cuomo, class sizes are increasing, services for the most vulnerable students are disappearing, as are programs and teachers.  There is litigation pending to force the state to obey prior court orders and its own legislation.  Clarence has been denied money it was promised.

As with all problems plaguing western New York, the underfunding of our schools is a political one.

Turning back to Mr. Showalter, in March 2012 he wrote this letter to the Clarence Bee

As the parent of four children attending Clarence schools (plus one more to join them soon), I have good reason to want our schools to be “great.” But simply raising taxes and paying our teachers more does not accomplish that (see the Buffalo school system). The fact is that Clarence spends more than $13,000 per student — more than enough for a quality education.

Clarence schools are “great” mainly because of the quality of students we send there, and they will still be “great” after we make the necessary cuts to the school budget. My wife and I spend many nights tutoring our children through their homework because we believe their education is most important. And I believe that many other parents in Clarence do the same — that is why Clarence schools are “great.” That will not change, no matter what cuts are made.

Last year, we heard the same dire warnings from special-interest teacher groups that cuts in spending would “destroy” our schools — but in the end we didn’t notice any decline in the quality of education. I believe that cuts this year will likewise have no real effect on the quality of education provided. While it would be nice if we had no budget restraints on our schools and each of our kids could have individual tutoring, that is not the reality we live in.

It is now time to start living within our means. Doing so will ensure that Clarence schools will continue to be great, not just for next year but for the next 20 as well.

The tl;dr is: Clarence schools are good because of two-parent, white, affluent homes, and teachers are superfluous. 

That letter is shocking in its elitist condescension. The teachers are completely out of the equation, and it presumes that Clarence families are somehow superior to families in any other district.  Does this mean that Williamsville families are superior to Clarence’s? After all, Williamsville outperforms Clarence just about every year in Business First’s rankings. His reductive, ‘it’d be nice if we had 1:1 teacher:student ratio’ argument is childish .

Well, past cuts did affect the quality of education. Clarence lost its two marching bands in last year’s budget, and they were notably absent from this year’s Memorial Day Parade. We’ll have to import one for Labor Day. In 2011, the elementary schools lost most field trips, and $85,000 was cut from supply and equipment budgets across the district. In 2012, in addition to the marching bands, the schools reduced weekend security, fired its PR person, lost assistant coaches in JV and varsity sports, and negotiated deals to share transportation and maintenance with Akron schools. In 2012, Clarence lost the last vestige of its gifted and talented program, the Clarence Schoolwide Enrichment Program and BOCES training for the state’s “positive behavioral intervention and support” program. 

In 2012, the school district was forced to leave the brightest and the most vulnerable students behind. Anyone who thinks that wealth, or family structure immunizes kids from the pressures of contemporary adolescence is woefully misguided. 

On Friday, the Buffalo News’ editorial board lectured the Clarence school board

The tax cap was set up to help force districts to make difficult budget choices rather than automatically raising taxes. In calling for a 10 percent tax hike, the School Board didn’t do that. Credit School Board President Michael Lex for accepting responsibility “for the present board not meeting the needs of our core constituents.” He’s right. 

It’s unfortunate that the board didn’t anticipate the opposition the original budget would generate. The issue divided the community in an acrimonious debate, and now the community has to come together.

At a public meeting held Friday evening, Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks and Board President Lex revealed that during the four public budget hearing/workshops, the voices in favor of going over cap outnumbered the anti-tax speakers by at least a 3:1 ratio. The purpose of these hearings is to listen to the community – they did that. To suggest otherwise is insulting and untrue. 

Courtesy Chris Byrd

Donn Esmonde took a buyout from the Buffalo News in 2011. He’s been freelancing ever since; presumably the writer’s guild has no problem with a retiree taking column inches from a current employee. But during his tenure at the News, he was subject to the protections a union offers; collective bargaining, a good contract with a nice pay and benefits package. Esmonde’s wife, likewise, is a union employee, working as a special education instructor for the Buffalo school system. She’s a member of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation, led by anti-reformer Phil Rumore. Esmonde’s entire adult existence has been eased and enhanced through union membership. 

But what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Esmonde’s entire schtick for the past several years has been, at times, difficult to pigeonhole. On the one hand, he’s been a vocal anti-development preservationist. Tight with the Tielmans and Goldmans of Buffalo, he alternates between aging hippie who hates suburbs to aging, reactionary, resentful tea party hack. It was just recently that he wrote a column expressing disgust at the wholly natural activity of breastfeeding

In two of his last three columns, Esmonde has gone on a tirade in favor of starving the Clarence school district into a shell of its former self. Why might this be? What possible reason might cityphile, suburbophobe Esmonde have to do this? 

He has an animus towards people who move to the suburbs for the schools. 

You needn’t go far to figure it out. Look at this column where he lauds efforts to expand charter schools in Buffalo, 

I have no doubt about his charter-pushing motivation: to bring school choice to parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private schools or to move to the suburbs.

Which is a valid point for charters and even vouchers in failing districts – kids don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t sit and wait for politicians, taxpayers, and administrators to do what’s needed to provide educational excellence. But Clarence’s schools are already excellent.  What is the critical need for reform in Clarence, a district whose annual spending increases (if any) amount to about half the rate of inflation? 

Let’s examine Esmonde’s glowing profile of Mr. Showalter, the ‘we’re rich enough and stable enough that the teachers don’t matter’ guy. 

He sees himself not as a grim reaper, but as a savior. His mission is not to gut the quality of your kids’ education, but to save it.

If Roger Showalter succeeds, it will mark a new way of doing business not just in Clarence, but across the region.

Showalter is one of two anti-tax candidates who soon will join Clarence’s School Board. The district’s proposed 9.8 percent school-tax spike last month blew peoples’ gaskets even in this milk-and-honey suburb. The subsequent beat-down in a record turnout forced school officials to regroup with a 3.79 percent do-over that should prove digestible, but does typical quality-of-school damage: Teacher layoffs, cuts to sports and clubs and larger class sizes.

Showalter thinks it is time to flip the formula. His philosophy is rooted in practicality. The Clarence High School grad (Class of ’89) has five kids, ages 4 to 17. He needs the district’s schools to be good, and to stay good.

“My kids have good teachers,” Showalter told me Thursday in his Depew office. “But we can’t keep laying them off, year after year … That’s what we’re looking at, unless we change the way we do things.”

He is reed-thin, speaks at librarian-approved volume and looks you in the eye. As president of Niagara Refining, an offshoot of the family’s tungsten operation, he balances a parent’s concern with a businessman’s sensibility.

His bottom-line sense tells him the district’s business model is broken. Clarence and nearly every other suburban district suffers from the same affliction: Shrinking enrollments and rising costs, in a region that is bleeding population.

The historic “remedy” is to perpetually raise school taxes, cut newer teachers and deep-six programs. That solution depends on ever-fewer residents continually paying more to get less. Showalter doesn’t think that works for parents, for kids or – ultimately – for teachers.

“That’s why I ran for the board,” he said. “The cost structure has to change.”

There is a vicious cycle. High taxes repel business, so we lose jobs and people. That shrinks school enrollments and forces fewer people to pay more for schools that have failed to put a lid on their largest expense – personnel costs.

According to SeeThroughNY.net, more than 100 Clarence teachers or administrators make at least $90,000, in a district of about 4,600 kids. Showalter said teachers pay no more than 10 percent of health care costs, administrators less.

He wants to stop sacrificing school quality on the altar of ever-rising teacher/administrator salaries, with benefits that disappeared in corporate America with the two-martini lunch. Instead of fewer teachers and worse schools, Showalter’s push includes buyouts for veteran teachers, teachers/administrators paying more for health care, and hiring a professional contract negotiator. Sounds like a plan – for Clarence, and beyond.

As Esmonde should well know, teachers in New York State must have master’s degrees, must be certified and periodically re-certified, and consider what they do both a profession and a calling. It’s not easy teaching kids. A teacher isn’t just an instructor, but a social worker, mediator, negotiator, equipment supplier, counselor, and spends countless hours of their own time revising curricula, writing and grading tests, arranging music, helping kids, developing strategies, etc. Rather than being disposable worker-drones, teachers have the unique ability to inspire kids and touch their lives, every day. Because they’ve eschewed the potential risks and rewards available in the private sector, teachers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and laws that directly benefit them. It’s good enough for Esmonde’s family, evidently, but not good enough for the teachers in Clarence. Stark hypocrisy, that. 

There are no rising teacher or administrator salaries – in their last contract, administrators agreed to a pay freeze. Teachers gave up half of the incremental salary increase in 2012-13, and to freeze the step schedule for the life of the contract, with no additional money added to existing salary steps. These were unprecedented concessions, which restored all personnel cuts proposed that year. Instead of whining about how much teachers contribute towards their health care, ask yourself why you settle for less. In the end, the teachers now pay 8% towards their health care, going up to 10% next year. 

That’s likely more than Esmonde pays.

Esmonde complains about “two-martini lunch” era benefits, but if his own health insurance was through his wife’s employer, he enjoyed benefits rich enough to afford his family elective plastic surgery if they wanted it, and can choose from several different health insurance providers. If it was through the Buffalo News, there are 37 health insurance plans across the different bargaining groups. At the Buffalo News in 2011, Guild members contributed nothing towards their health insurance premiums. Hell, he even advocated for violating a student’s fundamental 1st Amendment rights

Esmonde thinks the benefits he and his family enjoy aren’t good enough for teachers in other districts. 

“For every four veteran teachers who retire,” he calculated, “we can, for the same cost, hire 10 new teachers. Nobody gets laid off, and we can keep the programs our kids need.”

Flickers of change are on the horizon. West Seneca recently enticed 132 teachers and staff to retire and closed a school. Two other districts will share a superintendent. Reality is the mother of reform.

Closing a school means larger class sizes. Buyouts – as Esmonde knows – aren’t targeted towards specific teachers but need to be offered more broadly, and teachers can’t be coerced into taking them. Buyouts also cost money which may – or may not – be recouped elsewhere. There is an undercurrent of dissent whereby people think that one can retain something called a “professional contract negotiator” and suddenly – magically – the Taylor Law will fall, the Triborough Amendment will be repealed, the current contract will be abrogated, and everything will be just fine. That’s not how it works, and a “professional contract negotiator” costs money the district can’t afford, I’m continuously told. 

Meanwhile, West Seneca spends $14,663 per pupil and is ranked 15th in Business First’s rankings. Clarence spends $13,410 and is ranked 2nd in WNY. What is it about Clarence that is spendthrift and wasteful? What needs fixing? 

The cost/benefits adjustment that hit corporate America years ago is, sooner or later, coming to a school district near you. Numbers don’t lie: Virtually every district is caught in the same slow, downward spiral of a shrinking region.

As a company president, Showalter sees how the dots connect. He last week hosted a delegation from another country looking to locate a business here. He showed them a few available sites.

“Then I told them that their taxes would be about $150,000 a year,” he said. “They were like, ‘Whoa, we can go to other states and pay $100,000 less.’”

I’d like to personally thank Mr. Showalter for scaring away potential businesses, if indeed that conversation ever happened. That’s the sort of bold leadership we need to help grow WNY? Perhaps the Clarence IDA would be happy to abate that business’ school taxes for it. Kids don’t need teachers, after all. 

Jobs, schools, taxes – they are part of the same equation. As a businessman, Showalter clearly sees it.

He has no illusions about anything changing tomorrow. There still is a pro-union majority on Clarence’s School Board. He is one man, one voice. But the less things change, the louder his words echo.

Basically, Esmonde’s and Showalter’s idea of reform places no blame whatsoever on broken Albany policies and underfunding of districts, but all of it on teachers. In their world, teachers are expendable – we might as well simply employ unqualified workers at minimum wage and fire them when they demand any benefits. After all, Clarence is wealthy and responsible – these kids will teach themselves! 

But that’s the thing – if Showalter’s kids’ lose a program here or there, they’re wealthy and stable enough to make it up privately. These cuts do the most harm to the kids in Clarence who aren’t well-to-do, and whose parents can’t afford alternatives. It’s a direct assault on the poor and middle-class who do, amazingly enough, exist in Clarence. 

We have this thing in our economy we call “inflation”. For the last 13 years, it’s been about 2.5%. That means the cost of things has increased, and it justifies rises in wages to keep up. Yet the Clarence school district’s budget has grown by about 1% each of the last five years. That’s a conservative’s dream. Or ought to be, if the conservative in question believed in a public school education.

Make no mistake – this is the first salvo in a coming effort to voucherize Clarence schools. Malignant astroturf group “Americans for Prosperity” has recently promoted what it calls “school choice”, which makes no sense in a district that produces cost-effective excellence. To voucherize Clarence, presumably families would get a piece of paper entitling them to a credit to use at any private, parochial, or public school that will take it. At a tax rate of about $15/1,000 of assessed value, a $150,000 household would likely have about $2,250 to spend. That doesn’t go very far at Nichols or Nardin.  

Finally, Donn Esmonde is sloppy and not even trying. Is his column being fact-checked or edited? He used “milk-and-honey” to describe Clarence in both columns – phoning it in on auto-dial. He wrote that Marlese Wacek, 

…was prompted last year by the town’s proposal for a new ice rink to join Clarence Tax Payers, a grass-roots anti-tax group. She went door-to-door in recent weeks, urging a “No” vote on the district budget from neighbors whose annual school taxes can bump up to $5,000.

If you’re paying $5,000 per year in Clarence school taxes, your house has an assessed post-STAR value of $350,000, and a total assessed value of $380,000. Cries of poverty are unpersuasive. 

There is a public hearing on June 10th to discuss the revote budget. The revote itself is June 18th. 

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