Esmonde’s Exceptional Ethics

Let’s get something clear, here. Donn Esmonde is a hypocrite. He is a semi-retired former-and-current City/Region columnist for the Buffalo News. Donn Esmonde thinks your kid deserves a quality education, including (but not limited to) charter schools; however, that right to a quality education miraculously ceases to exist, in his mind, at precisely the borders of the city of Buffalo. To Donn Esmonde, there is no greater sin in the world than the sin of “choosing to live outside Buffalo city limits.” The evidence for this was most starkly measured when he devoted two or three columns specifically to convince Clarence taxpayers to do genuine harm to the quality of that town’s school district. He succeeded in this mission. 

Make no mistake – the “Donn Esmonde is an ass” series stems directly from that, and if I wasn’t writing for Artvoice it would be named something profoundly more profane. Esmonde went on and on about the evil, greedy teacher’s union while failing to disclose that his wife belongs to one. He went on and on about how unconscionable it is for union workers to enjoy good wages and benefits, given that he and his wife have enjoyed union benefits for most – if not all – of their work-lives. He went on and on about these things without disclosing his own conflicts and biases. 

I don’t write about stuff in which I have a personal financial interest without disclosing it. 

Part of Esmonde’s shtick has been to promote the advent and growth of charter schools within city limits. In some instances, charters help kids in underperforming traditional schools to get a good education. In some instances, charters help the wealthy and well-connected families living within the city to provide their kids with a suburban school experience without packing up boxes and renting a U-Haul. In some instances, charters simply fail

Whatever. You do what’s right for your kids and their education if you care enough and have the means to do it. There’s no second chances, and you don’t have the luxury of waiting around for stuff to get better. You move to where schools are good, you apply for a charter school, you get your kids to take entrance exams for schools that need it, you go parochial or private, or you just stay put and try hard to make sure that your kid’s education – and every kid’s education – is as good as it can possibly be.  These are not just personal choices, but societal ones – as a general rule, we want well-educated kids because the alternative is horrible. For everyone. 

I don’t begrudge any parent’s choice regarding what he thinks is best for his kid. So, what does undisclosed bias have to do with anything? 

In 2000, Esmonde wrote a column about the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s effort to help charter schools in Buffalo start up.  

The Tapestry Charter School was one of Buffalo’s three finalists, but didn’t make last month’s final cut. Tapestry’s Steven Polowitz said their grass-roots effort could have used a Partnership loan fund.

“I can’t say for sure it would have made the difference (in getting a charter),” said Polowitz. “But it would have eliminated a significant question.”

In 2007, he wrote a column blasting a tax incentive given to big-money waterfront condo owners

“This is not a marginal neighborhood where you’re trying to induce people to buy [with tax breaks],” said community development attorney Steven Polowitz. “How do you reconcile giving away the store for high-end condos in a coveted area?”

In 2011, Esmonde again pimped the charters as a way to bypass failing Buffalo schools. 

“Charters are the only option that lets you make the fundamental structural changes that give these schools the best chance for success,” Steven Polowitz said.

Polowitz is a longtime charter advocate who 10 years ago co-founded the successful Tapestry charter. He is now with Chameleon Community Schools Project, a nonprofit that develops charter schools. Polowitz laid out a charter turnaround plan for James Williams just before he left as superintendent. Interim successor Amber Dixon said she is open to the charter option. I think she — and the School Board — ought to be.

These seven schools need more than cosmetic surgery. That translates into — among other things — a longer school day; smaller class sizes; an expanded school year; more classroom aides; social workers and counselors on staff; and keeping the building open for everything from after-school tutoring to child care. It will not happen in a district where contract rules stifle options and slow-track change. It only comes with restriction-lite charters.

“You can interchange parts,” Polowitz said, “but if the fundamental structure remains, it won’t make much difference.”

In fairness to Buffalo teachers, counteracting the baggage of broken homes and battered neighborhoods these kids carry into the classroom is a near-impossible job. Schools, to some degree, don’t “fail”; they simply get overstuffed with desperately needy kids. Which is why it makes sense for hurting schools to be taken over by the academic version of a SWAT team: flexible, fast on its feet and able to use every educational weapon, from alternative curriculums to business partnerships.

If schools are reinvented as charters, kids stay in the same building. Teachers either move to another school or reapply for their jobs, likely with similar pay and benefits — but without seniority and job protection. Granted, charters are only as good as the people running them. But if you need change — and these seven schools are at cliff’s edge — charters are the Extreme Makeover.

In 2012, Esmonde effectively dedicated an entire column to Steven Polowitz hagiography

“We are concerned about education in the city,” said Steve Polowitz, “and have been for years.”

Polowitz is part of the pack of reformers who are trying – against all odds – to transform two of Buffalo’s 28 failing schools into public charter schools. The folks behind the nonprofit push are taking fire from a Board of Ed that has yet to grasp the enormity of its failing-schools crisis. On the other parapet is a teachers union determined to protect its ever-shrinking turf.

If every verbal blow the reformers have taken were a punch, Polowitz would be a walking bruise.

He is 61, a rail-thin attorney with silvery hair and impeccable school-reform credentials. Eleven years ago, he and four others founded Tapestry Charter School. It is arguably the most successful charter in Buffalo. The public charter school, which since expanded through high school, last year got 1,200 applications for 200 spots.

Here’s a dissenting voice

After all Polowitz and Co. are all ready running Tapestry Charter School, you know the one with the fewest students receiving reduced price lunches of any school in the city limits, the school whose students must have private transportation, wink nudge, and we know who that’s going to keep out of the lottery don’t we ? Essentially this guy and his crew are running a private school full of middle to upper middle class kids with the ever present charter spectre of “counseling out” a.k.a. “expelling” any kid who shows a learning, emotional or behavioral issue. If you can shoot fish in a barrel your aim doesn’t have to be all that good.

Who is Steven Polowitz? Damned if I know, except from these Esmonde columns, a guy who helped start Tapestry Charter School, and someone who is a “community development attorney.” Just, y’know, random school advocate guy. 

Random guy? 

Donn Esmonde and Steven Polowitz (and their wives) are co-owners of a property in Spring Hill, Florida, just north of Tampa. 

While Esmonde touts his city-resident cred, he co-owns a very suburban, very sprawltastic single-family home in a subdivision outside of Tampa, Florida. It’s unit 12 in that particular subdivision, and has a market value of around $86,000, but possibly as low as $75,000 – it’s okay, though – the mortgage is for $66,000. With an area of just over 2,000 square feet, the house was placemade in 2004 and began to matter for Esmonde and Polowitz in 2010.  The annual property taxes are a low $1,400, and the home has 3 bedrooms. Here it is: 

Could use some better landscaping. Maybe some flowers or something. 

Sadly, the previous owners bought the place for $210,000 – Esmonde and Polowitz got it for a steal, and the prior owner took a hit of $130,000 at the time – in fact, Deutsche Bank moved to foreclose on the property in 2009.  The previous owners were a husband and wife from Buffalo who owned a paving company here, and their 2005 mortgage was for $168,000 – twice what the property is now worth. 

I don’t care about Donn Esmonde’s sprawly vacation home, or that his kids went to an exam school (away from the riff-raff), or that he is a massive hypocrite who harbors a geographical animus towards children. But one would suppose that, if I was to write a glowing blog post about someone with whom I co-owned a vacation home, I’d let you guys know about it one way or another.

Donn Esmonde hates the suburbs, except when he lives in them.  


  • WOW!Alan you just outed the News.I wonder if anybody at News knew about the conflict of interest?

    • This is 2013….it doesn’t matter anymore…..

      • The HELL it doesn’t!

        • Poor buckles doesn’t seem to know Donny stepped in some serious shit and just got called out for trying to track it through his lameass failing newspaper.

          • This is 2013 and nothing will come of it………..there is no accountability involved for these people anymore……now watch nothing happen……

          • And if we let Hitler have Poland he will be happy and knock it off. Defeatism is no way to run a blog mon frere.

          • Then start your revolution and do something about it. Otherwise sit back and watch what happens……nothing… the way the allies did let Hitler have Poland prior to giving it to Russia a few years later……

          • I’ve been revolting for a looong time friend. Its a death by a thousand cuts we’re going for and we’ve got a lotta cutting to do still. Feel free to sit on your arse and continue your nattering as Spiro Agnew might’ e said.

      • If it doesn’t matter then the next time a teacher, former teacher, or spouse of a teacher runs for his or her local school board it shouldn’t matter either. But we know that in that instance it will matter.

    • One of my 2 blog readers informed me of the Ed Reform love nest late last Spring and I know I have mentioned it in Nooze comments

      Like this one. Not only does this failing newspaper know about the conflict of interest, the fact that it serves their addled editorial manifesto and all of their anti union pro-corporate Patrician horseshit guarantees that they will do nothing about it. The next real question is how do Donn and Sampson get their ed reform on? Since we know Donn isn’t obliged to disclose such trivia to the proles.

  • Well…as much as the pizza klatches were nice, I’m glad you and Artvoice are here to look into stories like this. Well done. (You’ll never hawk fire roasted pizzas in that fishwrap again!)

  • donnyougotknockedthefuckout.gif

  • Tapestry Charter School “….which since expanded through high school, last year got 1,200 applications for 200 spots.”
    That simple little statement pretty much is the sum total of why a charter school so often outperforms a public school.
    There is no magic. There is no mystical college of education graduating charter school teachers that outperform public teachers while accepting very much less of a total employment package.
    There are no “Great Wizard” administrators like Polowitz who have some sort of lock on “effective education.”
    There is only this: Charters require applications. That, in and of itself eliminates all the public school problems of students with parents who plain and simply don’t give a shit. That couldn’t be bothered with “applying”. And don’t you think that if a charter has an application process garnering 1200 applications for 200 spots…that the charter actually uses those applications for something…such as weeding out the worst prospective students? You bet they do.
    So, as the charters roll along all those students of parents who don’t give a shit become more and more concentrated in the public schools…and predictably their results get poorer and poorer.
    No magic.
    This is just dumb common sense. Except the part where we then blame the public teacher, the public union and the public administration.

  • Alan you made some great points. I am not an Esmonde fan. But you lost me on your rationalization for encouraging suburban flight. Frankly, this argument of move for the schools has left Buffalo and many other cities a shells of themselves. You also choose what type of lifestyle you want your kids raised in. Schools aren’t everything. Studies show home life determines more success than school life. With the suburbs you are choosing a cultural of racial and economic segregation. With the suburbs are also choosing to live and die with the automobile. I know the city schools aren’t great but I find the lack of diversity in the suburbs stifling to my children. And why not stay and fight a good fight for better schools in Buffalo?

  • Donn, Mr. Urban Cool.

    A glimmer into his fraudulent hipocracy. I love how these gentrified urbanites look down on suburban life. As if it some bland homogenius wasteland devoid of culture. So blind. Last time I got a taco at Lloyd at EH mall, it tasted the same as the one I ate downtown. What exactly is the difference between driving to Mothers and catching the Sabres game and walking to Mothers and catching the Sabres game….about 10 minutes and 100 times less a chance of your house being broken into.

    Zjc…..choosing segregation, stifling…….really…..walk the halls of Williamsville South, Kenmore, Cheektowaga, Amherst, Sweet Home. Very diverse, and I would argue, more diverse than the Delaware District, Parkside, Elmwood, and even some gentrified parts of Allentown for that matter. Spare us the cityotic rhetoric and I’m so darn progressive and evolved nonsense. Suburban life has much to offer as does city life. A choice, lest we not judge……over 2/3rd of your fellow man in this region choose this lifestyle….I guess were all living in Mcmansions, eating macaroni and cheese, and watching Fresh Prince reruns right.

    • Please, wake-up! Next time you think all of the Buffalo suburbs are the land of diversity. Drive around with an African American male and count with a stop watch the time before the police pull you over. Been there done that.

    • By the way lets look at real numbers not hearsay.

      As per your example Williamsville South- Diversity

      White students(%): 89.0%Here:89.0%
      State average from 4363 schools:55.4%

      Black or African American students(%): 4.0%
      This school:4.0%State average from 4343 schools:22.0%


      Is that diversity in your book?

      • zjC:

        Cheektowaga Central – 29% African American

        Amherst -16%

        Sweet Home-18%

        Cleveland Hill – 29%

        Lockport -16%

        Maryvale -8%

        Williamsville-20% non white, not counting Middle Eastern and Indian decent which count as white in educational data.

        Kenmore 14% non white

        Buffalo -22% white city-wide, yet City Honors only has 21% Black students cohort. Where is the outrage given this blatant disproportionality happening right in your own garden walk back yard?

        I highly doubt Amherst/Cheektowaga is pulling over 20 to 25 % of their citizenry. In 1980 perhaps, present day, not so much, an urban myth. Lets have an honest debate sir, not based upon hyped up anecdotal story telling. Growing up in Amherst/Cheektowaga, I was pulled over more times than I would like to mention. It had more to do with the color of my taillights that were not working, not my skin color.

        Why can we not recognize progress?

        • stifling right? I guess if you lived on the corner of Harlem and Cleveland Drive, 3 wood distance from the city line you would be oppressed by the racial and economic lack of diversity. Frankly, I feel more stifled walking into any establishment on Hertel Ave. in N. Buffalo.

  • Donn should also disclose his close friendship to Kevin Gaughan before he spouts about how great he is at least twice a year in the News. Having said that, Alan is apparently running out of material since we need to read about how much he hates Esmonde twice a week.

    • Esmonde writes twice a week.

      • your point?

        • Several.

          1. As always, if my content doesn’t suit or please you, stop reading.

          2. On a good week, I’ll post at least one thing every weekday morning. That’s 5/7 days. Sometimes I’ll throw in a Sunday post, as well.

          3. Donn Esmonde writes two things per week.

          4. Your thesis is that the guy who writes 5-6 things per week is “running out of material” because part of what I write about has to do with a guy who writes two things per week – and you’ll note that usually I combine the two things he writes into one relatively short catch-all post once per week.

          5. You get what you pay for.

  • I have never read your blog before (or, honestly, even heard of it)…

    Not much of an art guy but I am a big sports fan…

    However, Donn Esmonde once wrote a big column about how he was happy that the Verizon Data Center project was scuttled in Niagara County because of one person (who lives in Williamsville) suing over something…

    Since the State was going to kick in a bunch of money to help build the data center in Somerset (a place where no one lives or does anything… basically just an empty field)… He was against it…

    However, most of those 200 people who got jobs there would have probably moved into Lockport (my small city) because that’s the closest grocery store, movie theatre, restaurant and other stuff to that empty field named Somerset.

    At that time, The Lockport School District had just laid of more than 40 teachers, cancelled all sorts of extra activities, clubs and sports for the kids, voted down a new athletic facility and closed 2 of our 8 elementary schools…

    Those 200 people, had they indeed gotten jobs in Somerset and moved to Lockport, might have helped with our School Budget problems and given our tax base a bit of a boost…

    I sent Donn an email saying just this and never even got an acknowledgement of my taking the time to write to him (which I did respectfully)…

    Donn Esmonde, is indeed, an ass… Now that I know he is an unethical, lying ass as well, I will make it a point to read your blog (DEIAA) every chance I get…

    I will also try and email links to it and post on Facebook until the Buffalo News does the right thing by firing Esmonde and cutting off his pension…

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