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.
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.