Why Donn Esmonde Sucks

Every so often, people ask me when/why/for how long I have been maintaining my Gjakmarrja – my Albanian blood feud – against occasional Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde. Rather than repeat myself, let this act as a sort of compendium of why I wish nothing but ill upon him.

Before 2013, I thought him to be a typically self-congratulating small-town columnist. He is best known for having made common cause with Buffalo’s preservationist community, and he had been a strong advocate for public education, especially as it dealt with the district in the city of Buffalo, but he was a big proponent of charter schools, which have come under heavy criticism from people who see them as elitist and unfairly selective.

I had publicly disagreed with Esmonde often in my own writing, but also gave him kudos when I thought it deserved. After all, that’s what I did for most of my blogging years – comment on stuff that was happening in the news, and at the News.

In early 2013, however, everything changed for me.

I live in Clarence and both of my kids attend public schools there. When we moved to WNY, we specifically bought property in Clarence because the taxes were low but the schools were excellent. Both remain true today.

In 2013, the school district found itself in a fiscal dilemma. Some of it was self-inflicted, but a great deal of it was due to inflated pension costs related to the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown. Pension funds had been adversely affected by the drop in stock prices, and this risk was essentially socialized and spread out over a term of years, and the last bad chunk was happening in 2013. Contributions to the NYS Teachers’ Retirement System essentially quadrupled for up to five years to account for the market crash. The problem wasn’t the pensions – it was the unanticipated and practically unprecedented economic emergency. It wasn’t the teachers who were at fault – they did nothing to precipitate the financial disaster.

Without getting too far in the weeds, the only way that the district could maintain its then-extant level of staffing, classes, and services would be to raise the tax levy in excess of the recently implemented tax cap. At the time, the cap was about 5%, and the district wanted to raise the levy by 9.8% for that year only.

The tax levy is not the same thing as a tax rate, it was a one-time emergency measure, and it was a test by the Board of Education to determine whether the community would support going over the cap in order to maintain the schools’ excellence. A couple of groups, very well-funded by a local developer, popped up and flooded people’s mailboxes with flyers accusing the teachers of greed, the district of being spendthrift, and predicting doom and horror. The measure was defeated by a huge margin.

We’re still fighting this same battle every year, even with the budgets back to normal, emergency over, and within cap.

The parents and residents who didn’t want budget issues to be resolved on the backs of their kids’ educations never had a chance. They had a losing message, no funding, a nascent organization, and honestly never saw it coming.

There was a re-vote to keep funding at the cap, which passed in June, but the damage had been done. Here is what Esmonde’s advocacy accomplished:

  • Since 2011, the district had cut 113 full-time positions; 53 of them in 2013 alone.
  • In 2013, the high school lost art, math, English, tech, and business teachers. The entire family & consumer science department was cut, and we lost a guidance counselor.
  • In 2013, the middle school lost an art, English, and science teacher.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 3 K-5 teachers, two librarians, and 12 teacher’s aides.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated four music teachers, the last social worker, and summer school.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 23 high school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 15 middle school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • In 2013, all the elementary school librarians were let go.
  • When these clubs are eliminated, parents must find privately funded alternatives. This hurts the poorest families  – that 8.7% – hardest.
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all HS freshman sports, affecting 90 kids.
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all modified sports in the middle school, affecting 225 kids.

Also these electives:

To call that devastating is an understatement.

Part of the reason why the anti-tax people were able to out-do the pro-school people? These two columns by Donn Esmonde:

Overstuffed with School Tax Excess on May 23, 2013, and Clarence Reformer Has Solution for District’s Failing Formula on June 2, 2013.

I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe either one. Here was a columnist who was well-known for his suburb-bashing columns going out of his way to insert himself into a public school crisis that had real consequences for real kids. I know they’re mostly white, mostly well-off kids, which is why Esmonde likely felt comfortable advocating for the dismantling of their educational opportunities, but (a) not all of them are; and (b) public education should always be strengthened, not weakened.

Clarence, of all places, is not “overstuffed” with excessive taxes. Here is the breakdown over the past several years:

I wrote an open letter to Esmonde on May 24, 2013. You can read it here, and I still can’t believe I had to write it. I sent it to his email address, but typically never heard back. He did lay bare his anti-suburb bias, though, shortly thereafter.

Drew “Wing King” Cerza helped mediate a truce for the Clarence June 2013 re-vote, and Esmonde wrote about here. Here was my response.

It was amazing to me that Esmonde – a member of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, and whose wife was a member of the Buffalo Teacher’s Federation – would denigrate the salary and benefits of teachers who had been in the profession for over 20 years. If you think they don’t deserve it, ok, but at least explain why.

Here’s what is especially galling about Esmonde’s arms-length trilogy about a subject that directly affected me – for him, caring about education is merely a pretense.

Make no mistake: Come budget-approval time, officials in every school district are masters at pushing parents’ emotional buttons and propping up false choices. It goes like this: Vote for the budget, or you will force us to cut (choose your poison) sports/music/field trips/foreign language.

It wasn’t false at all, though. He wrote glowingly about all the anti-school activists who were working to prevent non-existent runaway spending and runaway taxes, which were also fictional. All the threatened cuts to teachers, programs, sports, classes, and electives took place.

Families had to scramble to raise money to restore some of what we lost. He could have written about the effort to restore some programs that came about via private donations, but that would have meant he’d have to confront the real-world effects of his own advocacy in the area’s sole daily paper.

Within a year after the 2013 election, one of Esmonde’s “reformers” was linked to an effort to ban a laundry list of books from the English curriculum. I wrote to him about it, sarcastically congratulating him. He never responded. He shouldn’t have to confront the real-world effects of his own advocacy in the area’s sole daily paper, after all.

The Buffalo News published a story that Esmonde wrote, detailing the woes of spending a lot of money to rehab a building he bought so that he could add “petty landlord” to his resume. I have no sympathy for him. I wish him nothing but ill – every check he writes is a win.

On Twitter, I wrote that I hope his ultimate tenants are grifters who trash the place and skip out on the rent. Well, this was just too much for a local librarian and the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus!

and

Donn Esmonde’s advocacy in the sole regional daily paper resulted in the firing of librarians and the elimination of choral programs in the Clarence schools. But if you attack their golden boy, Donn Esmonde, the Buffalo elites pounce.

Fuck Donn Esmonde.

 

Pity Poor Donn Esmonde

Colin Dabkowski 2015-05-15 05-41-10Brad Riter, David Anderson, and I recorded a podcast on Thursday over at Trending Buffalo, where we examine and discuss the recent slew of Facebook videos from disgruntled Buffalo News staffers over their contract negotiations.

Anderson took issue broadly with the entire, “we’re asked to do more with less” argument, but I reserve my ire for Donn Esmonde, who has the audacity to whine about his pay at a paper from which he took a buyout and was then re-hired part-time. I reserve my bile and vitriol for Donn Esmonde, whose ruddy Robert Redford looks and Long Island accent are as annoying and grating as his hypocrisy. Long-time readers will recall that, two years ago, Esmonde denigrated and mocked Clarence teachers for earning pay and benefits. He portrayed them as greedy bastards who should basically make what a McDonalds burger-flipper makes.

You can listen here. It’s filled with expletives. So sorry. 

Donn Esmonde’s School Vandals

When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal. – Garrison Keillor

Maybe Donn Esmonde is too busy with his new hobby of trying to be a retiree version of Bernice Radle, rehabbing dilapidated investment properties on the West Side of Buffalo, but his opinions and pronouncements on the issue of education have reached the status of self-parody. On Sunday, he published a column praising a proposal to set up a charter boarding school, because some Buffalo kids’ home life is so dysfunctional, the only way they can get a fair shot at advancement is to get out of their neighborhoods and homes.

That is, of course, a horrific indictment of the effects of poverty, fear, and crime that pervades some families and neighborhoods in Buffalo. It is also evidence of how poorly any and every effort by society, faith, government, or community to change that status quo has worked. I don’t know whether it is appropriate for the public school system to spend upwards of $25,000 per boarding school pupil to give them a chance to succeed, but we live in a time of public school privatization and student compartmentalization in districts like Buffalo, and the school board has a majority now that is in favor of privatization and charter expansion.

It’s amazing that Esmonde and his charter proponent allies are so comfortable spending tax money on a quasi-private, selective boarding school, but he spits fire and hatred at the notion of adequately funding suburban districts. To Esmonde’s mind, suburbs = bad and city = good, and those basic equations inform everything he writes.

In Clarence, which spends just over $14,000 per pupil, Esmonde sided with the people who would dismantle public education. After all, suburbs = bad. He wrote two columns – here and here – that could only be characterized as Esmonde’s way of punishing suburban students and teaching them a lesson for the crime of being born to educated or well-to-do parents, and for what he considers to be poor geographics.

In that first article that Esmonde wrote, he praised “reformer” Roger Showalter, who is now a member of the Clarence school board. In fact, Showalter has been a member of the board for almost two years.

Where is his “reform”? What proposal has he put forward to fundamentally change, “the cost structure”?

Currently, an influx of state aid has helped Clarence out. Instead of raising the local levy to the 4.7% cap, the Superintendent proposes a rise of 3.9%, and restoring 11 positions out of the 113 that have been lost through budget cuts and attrition since 2011. Yet “reformer” Showalter is reportedly refusing to consider these 11 positions – 2 ELA and 2 math teachers to meet state mandates and serve students who need intervention, a special ed teacher to meet state mandates and serve elementary students, freeing up the special ed teacher they share with the middle school, 1 Elementary teacher at Harris Hill to address class sizes and rising enrollment, 1 technology and 1 business teacher at the CHS to serve needed electives to prepare students to be competitive in our global economy, 1 districtwide music teacher to alleviate class sizes, and 2 elementary librarians to restore full-time librarians at all elementary schools.

None of that is fluff, excess, or unnecessary – all of these positions are needed.

Esmonde’s “reformer” Showalter argues that it doesn’t matter what the board or administration “want”, or what would be “nice to have”, but, “what is financially viable in the long term.” He adds that he believes that this restoration, “sends us down the same path that got us into budget trouble before and is not fiscally prudent. I won’t support it.” This is a fundamental re-write of history, and his logic is faulty. Furthermore, his position – I can’t in good conscience call it an argument – is an outcrop of the standard argument from the typical Clarence anti-school activists: the teachers are the villains.

Donn Esmonde and Roger Showalter believe that Clarence schools are great because we have involved, concerned parents, and families send good “quality” students (whatever that means) to the district, so the excellence of the schools can be maintained, no matter how much is cut. He believes that we can’t “throw money” at education, because Buffalo spends far more than Clarence and produces far worse results. In 2012, Showalter claimed that cuts wouldn’t affect his kids, and that he was for more cuts to “get rid of the extra fluff” in the curriculum.

Indeed, he brushes off the curriculum as unimportant – only “core” classes that prepare kids to compete in the “global economy” matter. Small class sizes – unimportant, too. He believes that the value comes not from extracurriculars, but from our lower tax rate. Likewise, Mr. Showalter is unconcerned with teacher morale and workload. Specifically, he thinks that teacher morale can be improved by instituting a system that rewards teachers for good performance, and getting rid of teachers who “do not perform”. He claims that the tenure system removes “incentive for good teaching”.

Socioeconomics

It’s true that Clarence’s socioeconomic reality translates into an easier job for our schools. Because Clarence – as a town – attracts families who are looking for quality, low-tax public schools, our families have an especial interest in the education their kids receive. We have far less poverty in our town, which is one of the wealthiest in Erie County. Despite that, as recently as 2013 it was revealed that 8.7% of students were receiving benefits under a free federal lunch program for families in poverty. In 2007, only 4% of kids were on that program.

No matter what the school board does – it has a duty to do right by those kids who have the least.

Socioeconomics have an affect on our schools – that’s why our cost per pupil is the 2nd lowest in Erie County, and 6th lowest in the entire state. That’s why we’re the third most cost-effective district in the 8 counties of western New York, and 6th in administrative efficiency. Clarence is third in academic rankings in WNY. We have been first before, and we should be first again. Striving for anything less does a disservice to students and taxpayers. Are we teaching kids that third is good enough? Back in 2012, Mr. Showalter told whomever would listen – including Donn Esmonde – that people were playing Chicken Little by claiming that additional cuts would cause the sky to fall. How wrong he was. If he was that wrong then, how can we trust anything he says now?

  • Since 2011, the district has cut 113 full-time positions; 53 of them in 2013 alone.
  • In 2013, the high school lost art, math, English, tech, and business teachers. The entire family & consumer science department was cut, and we lost a guidance counselor.
  • In 2013, the middle school lost an art, English, and science teacher.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 3 K-5 teachers, two librarians, and 12 teacher’s aides.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated four music teachers, the last social worker, and summer school.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 23 high school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 15 middle school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • When these clubs are eliminated, parents must find privately funded alternatives. This hurts the poorest families  – that 8.7% – hardest.
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all HS freshman sports, affecting 90 kids.
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all modified sports in the middle school, affecting 225 kids.

CSEF was able to restore sports and clubs. But that isn’t how this should work.

Weaning the District From State Aid

We can concede that perhaps not all of the 113 lost positions must be restored, but certainly some should. Mr. Showalter wants the district to “wean” itself off of state aid, but that makes no sense. For starters, the district has “weaned” itself off of the $16 million in state aid that Albany owes – but hasn’t paid – thanks to the gap elimination adjustment.

Perhaps Mssrs. Showalter and Esmonde think that it benefits local taxpayers to shoulder a greater town tax burden thanks to state aid stolen from kids to balance the state budget, but most people would disagree. It is, in actuality, a fiscally obnoxious accounting gimmick resulting in schoolkids plugging holes in the state budget. Our school districts are subsets of the state education system, and why shouldn’t taxpayers throughout the state share in the cost of educating children within the state? Where does this limited thinking end? Should Erie County “wean” itself off of funding and maintenance provided by the State DOT and instead demand local funding of local roads?

This parochial “only Clarence money for Clarence kids” mindset is not only unrealistic and shortsighted, but would bring about two completely unacceptable results: shift all of the funding burden on local taxpayers, wildly increasing the tax levy and rate; and/or making permanent the sorts of district-killing cuts that came about in 2013. Neither alternative is acceptable.

Path of Fiscal Imprudence

Mr. Showalter will have you believe that it was the teachers who are to blame for the crisis of 2013. This is false, and while he will accuse this of playing “victim” politics, his characterization doesn’t make it any less untrue. Facts are facts. The global financial economic meltdown brought about an historic stock market crash. Few people recall this:

The teacher’s pension system invests in the stock market, and the state pension fund must continue to pay out benefits regardless of how the market performs. When the stock market crashes and the pension fund loses money, taxpayers have to make up the difference.

In the wake of the 2008 – 2009 crash, analysts at the Manhattan Institute estimated that contributions to the NYS Teachers’ Retirement System would have to quadruple for up to five years to account for the market crash. The problem wasn’t the pensions – it was the unanticipated and practically unprecedented economic emergency. It wasn’t the teachers who were at fault – they did nothing to precipitate the financial disaster.

Before anyone assails the pension system itself, consider that every dollar spent on New York City’s pension benefits results in almost $2.00 in local economic activity, and they’re administered 40% more cheaply than defined contribution plans or 401(k)s. But the “path” that led to the budget crisis of 2012 and 2013 is long gone – the chart reveals that the Dow is now at record highs.

What happened was that the federal government, through President Obama’s stimulus package, provided financial aid to local school districts to alleviate pressures caused on budgets due to the crash. When that money dried up, but the pension issues were still ongoing, the district found itself in dire financial straits. But all that is now behind us. It wasn’t teachers or social workers or guidance counselors or librarians who brought about Clarence’s financial crisis.

Instead, it was matters entirely out of anyone’s control. These are facts, not theories. Restoring 11 positions won’t result in the Dow plummeting back to 8,000 and another five years of taxpayer hurt. Instead, it will help students and the district, and in turn provide taxpayers with a direct benefit. They’re not just wildly spending money, they’re making an investment – an investment in their homes and community, and an investment in the next generation.

Esmonde and his “reformer” ally – whose only reform seems to be voting “no” – continue to blame teacher salaries and benefits.

Extracurriculars and “fluff”

Is music education “fluff”? What about athletics? Art? The business academy? The various clubs and teams? What, precisely, would he comfortably eliminate? We could counter by asking what sort of a world this would be without music, art, and athletics, but let’s keep it to school curricula. Teaching kids how to be musically and artistically creative trains their brains to think creatively in all aspects of their lives. An arts curriculum results in improvement in

…math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork.

That doesn’t sound like unnecessary fluff. A music curriculum throughout a kid’s school career has myriad cognitive pay-offs, including enhanced language skills, increased IQ, a more efficient brain, and improved test scores. Time and again, studies have shown the importance of a strong music curriculum on kids’ overall development.

Of course, strengthening our STEM curriculum is important, but if our kids have a solid foundation in the arts, they’ll perform better in those areas that help them compete in the global economy. By the way, the schools’ job is to educate all kids in the system, and frankly, some of them want to become professional artists or musicians, and we owe them a duty to provide them with that opportunity.

Teacher Morale and Performance

Teacher morale is important because a happy teacher means a happy classroom and happy students. Treating teachers like fungible commodities isn’t going to do anyone any favors – not the taxpayer nor the district. Almost 85% of Clarence teachers – in management speak – “exceed expectations”; are “highly effective”. The remaining 15% are “effective” or “meet expectations”.

There are no teachers in our local district who “do not perform”. His central premise is completely manufactured out of thin air. Clarence, of all places, doesn’t need lectures about getting rid of ineffective teachers. Furthermore, he argues that tenure serves as a disincentive for “good teaching”. Tell it to Valerie Acee, who was a tenured music teacher who was fired in the 2013 cuts. Tell it to Michael Vertoske – a prolific composer and caring teacher – whom Clarence fired, and whom Williamsville quickly snapped up to its benefit and Clarence’s detriment. Tell it to the eager, younger teachers who were let go in 2013, completely undermining Mr. Showalter’s point.

But here’s the thing, if he truly thinks that we need a system that rewards teachers for good performance, where is it? He’s been on the board for two years, and I have not seen a single proposal – from him or anyone – to implement a system to reward the 85% of teachers who exceed expectations and are highly effective. By his own logic, an overwhelming majority of Clarence teachers are eligible for his reward system. Where is it?

Conclusion

The emergency is over, and the outlook is good. It is time to rebuild our district, and restore some of what we’ve lost. We’re not saying we need to go back to the 2005 status quo, although it would be great if we could restore the enrichment program. We’re saying that scaremongering over the tax rate is false, and the people who are against restoration (not to mention the outside school “no” opponents) are wrong. Why? Check the data:

We’re not even close to the exorbitant tax rates we had a decade ago. Donn Esmonde is a liar, and his “reformer” Showalter has reformed nothing. He hasn’t even proposed any sort of reform.

Clarence’s school budget vote is coming May 19th, and the final form is still being worked out. Follow along at this link for news and information.

Donn Esmonde Should Just STFU about Teachers

As a general reminder, please reacquaint yourself with the notion that Donn Esmonde – the News columnist who won’t leave – is an unethical, morally repugnant, tea partying  ass.

It was just last year that Esmonde (whose wife is a Buffalo Public School teacher, and who has actively shilled for his charter-school running business partner) regaled WNY with tales of greedy teachers gorging at the public trough. (I love how his business partner’s daughter wrote a glowing paean to Esmonde in Buffalo Rising in 2008). 

Now, we’re supposed to believe that teachers are good? That they can be people’s “favorite“? That they are not only professionals and educators, but also reliable, trusted adults to whom kids can turn for aid and comfort? Was Joe Finucane one of those greedy suburban teachers? I mean, he made $90,000 at Williamsville North

Donn Esmonde owes too many apologies to count at this point, but one thing is for sure: while his tea party friends continue their privatization and dismantling of Buffalo’s school district, with no one asking, “cui bono?”, Esmonde should probably just stop writing about educators. He is unworthy of them. 

The Curse of the Donn Esmonde Column

What better way to explain away systemic failure than to do what they did in the Middle Ages and just blame it on some supernatural curse? 

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy first articulated the concept of the Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino” in a book released in 1990.  It soon became lore – during fall Sox games, the “Reverse Curve” sign on an overpass on the outbound Storrow Drive became “Reverse Curse”. 

So Donn Esmonde, a semi-retired Buffalo News columnist/asshole, came up with a “curse” for Buffalo. This is, naturally, not at all original. Some believe that Buffalo is cursed because President McKinley was assassinated here. It’s much easier than, say, absorbing the details and lessons from Diana Dillaway’s “Power Failure and addressing longstanding ways in which Buffalo continues to stand in the way of its own progress. 

Esmonde’s way of cheering the Pegula family’s purchase of the Buffalo Bills reads more like the rantings of an obsessed geek fanboy writing erotic fanfiction featuring Karen Gillan and Kari from “Mythbusters“. 

If the stars and fates were – for reasons unknown – lined up for decades against the city, those fortunes indisputably have changed. The U-turn has been so dramatic – and the reversal so long overdue – that the dark cloud may have lifted for generations to come.

Note to Fate: It’s about time.

It’s not fate. There is not a single thing about Buffalo and WNY that has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years, except perhaps locals’ attitudes about the city. When the governor throws a billion dollars at your city for economic development, good things would happen anywhere. The funding of ECHDC with money from the power authority helped bring about Canalside, and that was thanks to smart politicians exercising their clout. But do we really need NYPA? Shouldn’t WNY have been benefiting from cheap hydropower for the last century? Couldn’t Albany do something about making it easier to start and do business in New York State instead of just making it rain cash? Our recent election results show just how same old same old our area is.  Lucking into finding a sports-fan billionaire is just that – luck. His purchase of the Bills changes none of the fundamental, underlying problems that we face. 

Any “curse” is of our own creation, and we maintain it lovingly every time we “participate” in our electoral system. 

If indeed there was a dark cloud hanging for decades over our sporting teams and civic fortunes, it’s safe to conclude it has been mugged, mauled, pummeled and smothered into submission.

The way things are going, there will be a shiny Stanley Cup in our trophy case and a Super Bowl parade down Main Street sometime in the next decade. Crazy talk, I know. But who could have imagined that a Pegula would suddenly appear, as if brought to life by our collective wishful thinking?

We suffered the misfortunes of Wide Right, four straight Super Bowl losses, No Goal and various other sporting calamities. The supposed prior salvation of the Sabres – and a downtown-reviving Adelphia empire – offered by the Rigas family vaporized in false promises and prison sentences.

The sports calamities pale in comparison to our social, economic, and political calamities, all of which continue apace. Another article in the News details the process whereby amateur, unqualified “planners” dictate the future of the Outer Harbor by passive-aggressive sticky note.  Don’t tell me that any curse is lifted when we have people whining about people living in gorgeous new housing near the Lake. I mean, just look at what waterfront development did to those unlivable hellholes like Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Singapore, and Chicago! We’d never want to be like those places! By God, that Outer Harbor has been a contaminated wasteland for the last 80 years, and by God a contaminated wasteland it should stay!

Apart from Silicon Valley, newly minted billionaires don’t generally fall from the sky – particularly around here. Pegula, in essence, emerged from the earth – or, at least, the source of his billions did. Advancements in the technology of natural gas extraction, called fracking, in recent years turned natural gas deposits mile-deep in shale into 21st-century treasure. Though environmentally controversial, fracking transformed Pegula seemingly overnight into a multibillionaire. With decades in the industry, Pegula – a native Pennsylvanian whose Western New York roots are nearly 40 years deep – saw the coming technology early on and acquired massive stretches of shale-rich land. He has, over the last five years, sold pieces of his stake for billions of dollars.

Luckily for us.

This one is fantastic. Esmonde is glossing over the environmental disaster that is natural gas extraction through hydrofracking. The modern fracking they do in Pennsylvania and other places is not yet allowed in New York, and while some think it would be a boon for economically depressed parts of central New York – mostly around Utica and Binghamton – it comes with huge environmental risks. 

You need look no further than this Donn Esmonde column from 2011, wherein he recounts how fracking rigs in Springville made a young family sick, and turned their well water suddenly flammable. Heartbreaking:

“I couldn’t understand why my kids were getting sick,” said Brant. “Are they going to have health problems for the rest of their lives? I have six girls, will they be able to have children?”

One could argue that fracking may have “cursed” that family, because looking at it all scientifically, empirically, and objectively is far too complicated and difficult. But what’s a little poisoned water, poisoned kids, and geological trauma when a billionaire can buy our sports team? 

I understand that we’re willing to hold our collective civic nose and ignore how Pegula made his billions, but to gloss over it and cheer the lifting of a “curse” is going a bit too far, even for Tea Party Donn

With Pegula’s emergence, Buffalo really stepped in it – but this time, instead of stomping into something odoriferous, we walked into a bed of roses. Mesh the reversal of our sporting fortunes with the ongoing repopulation of downtown, the development of the waterfront, the revival of the West Side, the emergence of Canalside and the rise of the Medical Campus, and there is just one rational rhetorical question begging to be asked: Curse? What Curse?

Buffalo’s population continues to decline. Our politics remain hopelessly dysfunctional and corrupt, and all of these things are happening in spite of that. Buffalonians and WNYers may have more optimism and hope, but it’s not because one billionaire bought the Bills – it’s because in the last 20 years, we’ve been forced at last to get past our post-industrial malaise and figure out a path to the future. We may not always agree, and we may fight and argue about the details of how to move forward, but it’s because of the work of visionary businesspeople, tax credits and incentives, activists, volunteers, and organizations that our region seems to be moving forward. For every billionaire sports team owner, the real hard work is being done by people who live paycheck to paycheck, or freelance check to freelance check. It’s being done by entrepreneurs who put their talent and passion into various projects. It’s not the grand shopping sprees that make Buffalo better, it’s all the little things that people do with minimal fanfare and very hard work. 

As for me, I’m convinced that Buffalo’s “curse” won’t be lifted until Donn Esmonde stops writing trite, humorless nonsense in the local paper and retires to his suburban tract home in Florida

Donn Esmonde, Ass and Other Things

1. The Buffalo News’ Jerry Zremski has an interesting piece about Williamsville native Andrea Bozek, the current head of communications for the National Republican Campaign Committee. Tagged as fighting a war on the “war on women”, the actual substance of the piece reveals something quite different. Rendered an embarrassment by the ignorant mouth-noises of some Republican politicians and commentators, the Republicans realize that they need to attract women by, e.g., not repelling them. So, she’s not so much going after Democrats as much as she is counseling Republicans to tamp down any misogynistic utterances or actions they might be contemplating, and to focus on a handful of issues affecting contemporary women that won’t offend any Republican principles. 

The fact that this sort of thing is novel or revolutionary is the story, here. 

2. Back when a few Clarence parents put together a hit list of “offensive” books, (articles here and here) I wrote this to Donn Esmonde, the tea party retiree who inexplicably continues to write for the Buffalo News: 

Mr. Esmonde, 

Last year, you threw every Clarence family who believes not just in public education, but excellence in public education, under the bus. Specifically, you wrote about Marlene Wacek, Lisa Thrun, and the Showalters in glowing terms about how hard they were working to prevent runaway spending (which didn’t exist) and runaway taxes (which was, at best, a wild tea partyesque oversimplification of the facts).  You told all of us working diligently to maintain funding that they wouldn’t really cut anything – that these threats were part of a  “false choice”. 

They weren’t false at all, but you never corrected yourself.  All the threatened cuts to teachers, programs, sports, classes, and electives took place. Families had to scramble to raise money to restore some of what we lost. 

You never addressed how wrong you were about the emptiness of the threats because you saw everything through your facile suburbs-suck lens. 

Well, the Showalter-Lahti family (Roger Showalter and Jason Lahti are related by marriage, and both are now on our school board) are creating a brand-new crisis out of whole cloth. Showalter’s sister & Lahti’s wife Ginger Showalter-Lahti has circulated a letter demanding the banning of certain books and texts, and her husband has added this as an item on the agenda. 

These are the people whom you so uncritically promoted as a new breed of school reformer. I hope you’re satisfied. 

(Here is the letter Mrs. Lahti has circulated to certain, selected local families: http://www.scribd.com/doc/211263269/Clarence-School-Curriculum-Letter-March-2014  Here is the letter I sent to the school board: http://blogs.artvoice.com/avdaily/2014/03/09/clarence-schools-urged-to-ban-books/

Some “reformer” you’ve found.

Surprisingly, Donn Esmonde never replied to me. He can dish it out, but can’t take it. Mostly because he’s an asshole who can’t be bothered to defend himself or admit he’s wrong, but also because the whole debacle was an acute embarrassment for him. 

Here’s another one. 

Detestable creature that he is, Esmonde whines about how – boo hoo – a lot of suburban electeds aren’t going to show up for the new urbanism conference that’s being held in Buffalo this coming week. So, he’s trying to shame them.

“It’s disappointing,” said George Grasser, urbanologist and co-chairman of the CNU host committee. “These are the people who can change zoning laws to spur development, who foot the cost for sprawl. This is all about making their communities more livable. They should be here.” Tell it, George.

If our village mayors, town superintendents and council members drop in on even a few of the dozens of CNU events, tours or presentations, they will be less likely to sign off on awful, neighborhood-assaulting hotels; ugly strip malls; Lego-like office buildings; stores fronted by parking lots; and vehicle-first, people-last communities – all of it hard-wired by zoning laws from a previous, car-centric century.

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “Liveable”? It used to be “walkable”. Who is to determine what is and isn’t “livable”? Isn’t the homeowner the best arbiter of what is “livable”? Who would move to our suburban ticky-tacky if it wasn’t “livable”.

Zoning codes and design standards aren’t sexy. But they make the difference between walkable, people-magnet neighborhoods like Hertel Avenue or Hamburg village, and irredeemably ugly stretches like Harlem Road in Cheektowaga or Niagara Falls Boulevard. A numbing succession of boxy buildings fronted by parking lots is an awful, inedible fruitcake of a “gift” that gets passed from generation to generation. So is the corrosive cost – in tax dollars and urban abandonment – of sprawl.

If sprawl is so horrific, why does it lead to “urban abandonment”? Perhaps it’s a more complicated equation than whether you can walk to the local quinoa stand. 

If nothing else, there is a bottom line that should speak to elected officials: The more livable a place, the higher the property values and greater the tax revenue. It’s no coincidence that values in Elmwood Village soared in recent decades, as more people grasped the appeal of back-to-the-future commercial/residential neighborhoods.

“Livability” involves a lot more than mere walkability and mixed use. It also has to do with functioning government and school district.  It can’t just rely on whether you can walk to the store to buy a pack of gum, but also whether you’re going to need to scramble to enter a lottery for your kid’s school, or pony up for private.

New Urbanism already has traction here. Such villages as Hamburg and Williamsville are recapturing their micro-urban essence. Buffalo is reshaping its future with a progressive “green” zoning code. The downtown waterfront’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” mantra is a CNU staple. What we’ve got, from waterfront grain elevators to walkable villages to a resurrecting downtown, lured CNU here. Many events are open to the public.

Not everywhere wants or needs to be Hamburg and Williamsville. Niagara Falls Boulevard and Transit Road serve their own purpose, just like Delaware Avenue is different from Hertel is different from Elmwood is different from Broadway.

New urbanism is great. Walkability is great. 

But people like Esmonde who proselytize new urbanism to neanderthal suburbanites are like that nightmare friend everyone has who aggressively shoves veganism down everyone’s throat.  There are ways to be something, or to believe something – and even to promote something – that don’t sound like a condescending lecture from an annoying evangelist. 

I wonder what sort of genuine outreach took place between the CNU organizers and suburban electeds – was it an email invitation and a shaming column from Donn Esmonde, or were there visits to planning boards and town boards? Were there in-person pitches or just “your town sucks, you should really go to this”? 

Elmwood Avenue gets a lot of ink and pixels, held up as the model for new urbanism and of what generally should be. But Elmwood Avenue today is not significantly dissimilar from Elmwood Avenue of 10 years ago. The storefronts that aren’t vacant (thanks to short-sighted landlords who demand exorbitant rents and use the empty locations as a tax hedge) are mostly independent local shops.

If we had a vibrant economy, those Elmwood vacancies would be filled, and indies slowly replaced by chains. (Replacing a Blockbuster with a Panera hardly counts). The Gap, Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, and other mall staples would be filling in the spaces and pushing independents out to new frontiers like Grant Street or Broadway.  We have that small-scale gentrification taking place in fits and starts on Grant, but without the concomitant economic and population growth that happened in places like Brooklyn or Boston’s South End. 

The key to making Buffalo better isn’t to shame suburbanites or laud buildings, but to attract people and their money. While the real estate market is hot in certain Buffalo neighborhoods, we still haven’t tackled the systemic problems that help to prevent population decline or spur population growth and attract wealth. These are people problems – political problems – that no volume of urban planning hand-wringing will solve. 

I get that some town and village executives have day jobs. But there are night and weekend CNU sessions, and a roster of talent that is worth missing work for.

What a condescending ass. 

3. If the new owner of the Buffalo Bills wants a new stadium, he, she, or it will likely build a new stadium. If such a stadium is built, it will likely be done with some contribution from the public through subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives. The hope is that the Bills will stay somewhere in the region, mostly because of the blow it would deal the local psyche if they were to move somewhere else. Esmonde wrote pieces about how Bills fans would shun the team if it moved out of town, and that the Bills need a new owner who “values loyalty over greed“.

So, Esmonde believes that the community values the Bills, and that we should find an unusually ungreedy billionaire to buy the team. If the new owner decides that there’s value to, say, moving the stadium to a different location – perhaps one more convenient to fans from Southern Ontario and parts East – why not examine and support that? Where is the fundamental flaw? If the new owner decides that a retractable roof would draw in more crowds, then this should be looked at closely. If the new owner decides that the best way to keep the team in the region is to fundamentally change the location and design of the team’s physical plant, then do it. 

If moving the stadium so that it can attract big business and big money from the greater Tor-Buff-Chester megaregion, then moving away from the Southtowns might make a lot of sense. 

Neither Esmonde nor the professors whom he cites own or operate an NFL team, so maybe leave that decision up to the people who are taking the economic and political risk of doing that.

Donn Esmonde Is An Ass: Culverts and Charters

Another week, another opportunity for the Buffalo News’ most retired columnist to bring up regionalism and hatred of suburbs. 

Friday

HAHAHAHAHA Donn Esmonde is a card. He wants you to think he’s got a sense of humor via Friday’s column about a bridge in Lancaster that needs fixing, yet no one wants to fix. 

Love me, it cries. Do not forsake me. Do not leave me to fend for myself against rain, sleet, snow and ice.

Help me to help myself. Patch my wounds. Fill my holes.

If concrete and asphalt could talk, these are the pleas this crossing would utter.

It is the cry of an orphan. It needs care, commitment, concern. Yet no one will claim it.

Why, it’s downright Shakespearean, isn’t it? To top it off, he morphs an intergovernmental dispute about whether it’s a bridge or a culvert into a tome on regionalism and abolishing village government. Great. Issue nostalgia

Many of the suburban villages we have – e.g., Williamsville, East Aurora, pay a surtax for the privilege. Recent efforts to abolish the villages and wrap them into the adjacent towns failed; people voted to maintain what they like and know, and to pay more tax. I don’t care – good for them. 

If there was no village government in Lancaster, the town would simply take care of the Erie Street span. One less orphan, one less absurdity.

Point : repetitive argument : restated point. The bridge or culvert or whatever the hell it is will eventually be fixed. Also, if you have two putative parents fighting over whose responsibility the bridge is, it’s not an orphan. So, dumb metaphor, too.  

Sunday

Oh, God, not the schools again. Esmonde returns to whitesplain to everyone why the schools in Buffalo are failing. As best I can manage, here are the points he makes: 

1. State Education Commissioner John King was speaking directly to Donn Esmonde when he “lashed out” last week in a “conference call with the Buffalo News editorial board” when someone (Donn) pointed to socioeconomic factors to “excuse” Buffalo’s failing schools. (Let’s remind ourselves for a moment that the very best high school in the entire region – public or private – is a Buffalo public school). 

2. Esmonde spends a paragraph fending off strawmen, insisting that Buffalo teachers are good – just as good as those in the suburbs! 

3. Donn then attacks state testing, which is “one size fits all” and unfairly judges inner-city districts. We also spend a little time hearing about how bad the teachers’ union (of which Esmonde’s wife is a member & he fails – again – to disclose, although he does bother to mention that she is a “nonclassroom” Buffalo teacher) is, and how it’s perfectly reasonable to require professional teachers with masters degrees to also play janitor and clean up after their kids have breakfast in the classroom, rather than a cafeteria. Maybe if his wife was in a classroom and being asked to clean up breakfast, he’d have a different opinion of the policy. 

4. Charter schools are great, because they enable kids without special needs who come from parents who care to escape the kids from homes where parents don’t care, and to get a better education – i.e., Donn thinks charter schools are great because they help to provide certain kids a suburban school experience in a non-suburban environment. As much as Donn hates the suburbs, it’s clear that he loves everything about them, except location.  

5. Some parents just don’t care. 

I have heard countless stories – and seen a few myself – of houses where kids are barely spoken to, much less read to. Where there is not a book to be seen, including a coloring book. Where a blaring TV doubles as a baby sitter. Where kids grow up without leaving the neighborhood, much less going on a vacation. What ought to be seen as a national crisis is instead shrugged off as a fact of life.

But ignoring reality does not make it go away.

“Failing” urban schools, to my mind, are largely a symptom of a society that essentially warehouses its poor and broken families in inner cities. The concentration of poverty and problems only intensifies the dysfunction.

Here’s the thing about the “warehousing” argument. Our society doesn’t warehouse anyone anywhere. What our society does is provide some people with a choice, and others with none. To use the term “warehousing” is, first and foremost, offensive beyond measure – people warehouse goods, and to say society “warehouses” people is to reduce those people to little more than chattel.

I don’t think that’s a reasonable or fair thing to do – to literally dehumanize an entire population to assuage one’s conscience. It’s completely backwards. Someone genuinely concerned about the socioeconomic plight of people in the inner city would likely choose a different terminology to describe the fact that most of our poorest and least privileged fellow citizens are caught in a spiral of poverty, family crisis, crime, and economic despair. They’re not chattel – they’re people in desperate need of help. Calling them things isn’t helping them. 

And who better knows the plight of the inner city than a white baby boomer surrounded by people just like him. As much resentment as Esmonde has for suburbanites, he is guilty of everything he hates about them – choosing to live in and around people with a similar way of life. 

“Warehousing” implies that someone has made a conscious decision or grand plan to place people in the inner city. It’s not that – it’s that other people exercised a choice to leave that location. The great challenge is to help lift up the people left behind, not to reduce them to things. 

6. Here’s more misguided suburbophobia: 

The roadblocks of home and car ownership, along with high rents and little lower-income housing, have for decades barred poor people – many of them minorities – from upscale suburbs and their schools, which predictably are not on any “failing” list. It is not mainly a matter of “better” superintendents, principals and teachers. It is because those schools are filled with the offspring of higher-income, college-educated parents. It’s a built-for-test-success clientele. If you are blind to that reality, whether your name is John King or John Doe, I think you are missing the larger picture.

Reformers from regionalism guru David Rusk to economic-integration advocate Richard Kahlenberg say the only way the school dynamic changes is by lightening urban America’s load of poor people. That happens either by busing kids to economically balanced schools, or by building more mixed-income housing in the ’burbs. I don’t see either happening here anytime soon. The walls already are up, and they’re high.

Just because the barriers are invisible does not mean they do not exist. Those “walls” explain a lot, for those who can get their minds off of test scores.

Right. This is why Esmonde went out of his way to advocate for disinvestment in Clarence schools. So deep and burning is his hatred and resentment, he wants to systematically make the suburbs less desirable by doing harm to the people who live there.  And their kids. But the people “warehoused” in the inner city – he cares about them, despite the fact that the per-pupil rate of spending in those poorer districts is almost double that of Clarence. 

Successful people with good educations place a high value on education and work hard to make sure their kids get a good one, too. Let’s assume (a complete fallacy, but whatever) that every family in WNY started out in Buffalo. Some choose to keep their kids in the regular public schools. Some want their kids to go to a charter, or maybe a parochial or private school. Some decide to move to a particular neighborhood to get a shot at a particular school. How the hell is that different from moving to Amherst?

And Esmonde capitulates on the never-uttered notion that many inner-city poor people want their kids to do better and have things that they themselves could never have. He rejects by omission any notion of social mobility – the American dream itself. You want to talk about prejudice and racism, which is the oft-silent undercurrent of Esmonde’s suburbophobia? How about the fact that you “warehouse” yourself with other white professionals in a particular part of the city, and reject even the notion that your poorer counterparts could want better? Notice he’s talking about the test scores Albany wants, and throws up his hands and complains about the poor that we “warehouse”. He never suggests that any affected families want better, or are doing what they can with nothing. And what of the teachers? Seems as if Esmonde takes a very complicated equation, dumbs it down, and denigrates teachers and poor families as hopelessly stuck. 

His answer is to invoke David Rusk (again) and that the government impose a Stalinist master plan with quotas and governmental orders as to who can live where. Bus inner-city kids to the suburbs, because every kid will excel with a 2 hour daily commute, right? And force those mean suburbanites to relocate to the inner city (of course, white people who “warehouse” themselves within walking distance of the Bidwell Farmer’s Market or Spot Coffee would be exempt). 

Donn Esmonde is such a disingenuous, hypocritical Ass.™ 

Donn Esmonde Makes Kevin Gaughan, Poor People Unlikeable,

Friday

Because Donn Esmonde is such an ass, everything is somehow magically about him. Everything. Including the Erie County Democratic Committee’s decision to ask regionalism and downsizing advocate Kevin Gaughan to run on for County Comptroller on the Democratic line. The ECDC has finally come around to Donn’s way of thinking, so smell the told-ya-so snark waft through the air. Esmonde’s egotistical descent into self-parody is hilarious.

Me, me, me. Me. I did this. I am the seer – you are the unwashed mouth-breathers. That’s Esmonde’s political thought about Gaughan, in a nutshell.

Don’t hurt your back patting it so damned hard, Donn.

Pigs have sprouted wings, lost souls have donned parkas in Hades, and lambs have lain down with lions.

The day many thought would never happen has come: Kevin Gaughan – eternal maverick, inveterate outsider and longtime critic of the political establishment – was endorsed last week as a candidate for Erie County comptroller by the Democratic Party.

To steal a line from sportscaster Al Michaels: Do you believe in miracles?

I am not sure if local Democrats finally came to their senses or if Gaughan – whom I have known for a quarter-century – has lost his. I suspect it is the former.

The fact of the matter is that Gaughan hasn’t been taken seriously before because he hasn’t performed all that well in any campaign in which he’s been involved. Part of it has to do with the fact that he is professorial in his demeanor – something we just don’t get in politicians around here. Part of it has to do with the fact that the size and political activity of his base of support is small – he eschews the quid-pro-quo with political clubs, which, on the one hand, help with petitions, canvassing, and calls; and, on the other hand, provide a well of ready and willing patronage hires. That’s not a criticism of Gaughan, whom I respect, but a reality. He’s a thinker, a philosopher, a tinkerer, but he’s just not your typical politician. This is a blessing and a curse.

The tone of the article is so unbelievably condescending – as if all the rest of you backwards-ass cretins have finally seen the light that Esmonde has been shining for nigh these many years.

Granted, he replaces the party’s original choice, who withdrew for health reasons. Even so, I think this day has been too long in coming. Gaughan’s government-reform efforts in the last two decades even prompted futile endorsement offers from rival Republicans. Only now have fellow Democrats opened their arms.

Credit County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who took over last year at age 34, for bringing Gaughan, 59, in from the cold to run against Republican incumbent Stefan Mychajliw.

“From Day One, I said I wanted to make the party more progressive,” Zellner told me. “Some, in years past, maybe would have shut Kevin out. I think this shows that the thinking of the party is changing.”

Given our grandstanding comptroller, who has absolutely zero financial background and has worn out his shoes running to the nearest microphone to declare today’s reasonable sounding of alarms, it is imperative that the Democrats put up a challenger who has some bona fide experience in trying to find ways to dramatically improve the efficiency of government in both macro (regionalism) and micro (board downsizing) ways. Frankly, putting up Mychajliw’s red coat against Gaughan’s decade and a half of efficiency activism is brilliant, and Gaughan has done all of that for very little reward. Also, Donn Esmonde had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.

The reed-thin, Harvard-educated attorney and civic activist has for years carried the smaller-government flag. He has done more, in my view, to help the community than most elected officials. Instead of seizing the voter appeal of a no-strings reformer, the party – under the likes of Len Lenihan and Steve Pigeon – for years slammed the door.

The rejection said more about the party’s march-in-place myopia than it did about Gaughan. Although, in fairness, he did little to endear himself – thrice taking on party favorites in primaries and generally avoiding party functions and parades he wasn’t leading. His style attracts some people, repels others. With a patrician air that seems at odds with a common-man philosophy, Gaughan often sounds like he is reading from a civics textbook.

Gaughan has rankled the unions, which make up much of the Democrats’ base. Gaughan has upset many protectors of the inefficient, wasteful status quo. He wants to kill the job in a place where job number one is to not kill the job. Esmonde’s condescending “f you” to past party bosses completely ignores the reasons why Gaughan has been a tough sell in Democratic circles. To ignore that is to ignore facts.

Like him or not, there is no arguing with success. His 1997 Chautauqua Regionalism Conference helped to turn “sprawl” and “consolidation” into household words. His subsequent public “Conversations” hammered politicians for a lack of post-Chautauqua reforms. His downsizing crusade led to the shrinking of seven town and village boards and the County Legislature – angering numerous politicians for threatening their power bases.

Eight downsized boards are palpable achievements. The introduction of two words into the WNY vernacular, and that’s over the course of 16 years. The only phrases missing from this Esmonde lesson are, “lighter, quicker, cheaper” and “placemaking”.

His stabs at elective office were a different story. Gaughan’s failed efforts underline how tough it is for an “outsider” of modest means – despite name recognition and a core following – to take on an endorsed candidate with a legion of party workers, money and institutional backing. He lost Democratic primaries for Congress, mayor and the Assembly.

Gaughan seemed resigned, after getting pounded in the Assembly race last year, to a future of practicing law and digging into academia. But a recent courtesy call to Zellner led, to his surprise, to an endorsement offer.

After decades of separation, the historically fractured Democratic Party has discovered its foremost progressive. Check the thermostat in Hades.

I’m not sure whether Gaughan is progressive or conservative. Isn’t “less government” typically seen as a conservative thing? Perhaps that explains why his is a hard sell in true-blue New York and union-friendly WNY. And what do Gaughan’s “modest means” have to do with anything? If anything, it points to a dramatic need for a fundraising blitz, and that’s something you recruit people to do – people who are good at it.

But Esmonde misses a key point that Gaughan will be asked about – one that has nothing to do with the fact that Gaughan was once sued for a debt owed to the Buffalo Hyatt – for someone who is so opposed to the political class, why is he so eager to join them? Congress, Mayor, State Senate, Erie County Clerk – Gaughan went for all of them in just the last 23 years. That drubbing he took when he primaried a perfectly reasonable progressive Democrat for the Assembly Sean Ryan? Ryan is also an attorney and has made his bones working his way up the party ranks, doing the grunt work and getting the eventual party nod. He is uniquely close to the unions in town and there’s simply no way you can, as a Democrat, outflank Ryan on either end of the political spectrum.

So this isn’t about people finally seeing the Esmonde light about Gaughan – this is about Gaughan finding a race where Democrats are left with no other choice.

Sunday

Also, there was a Sunday column where he was able to tsk-tsk the fact that the city of Buffalo has a lot of bad students populating its schools, and that a kid’s educational output is largely predetermined by his socioeconomic reality and the educational output of the parents. If a parent dropped out of school pregnant and with failing grades in 9th grade, chances are pretty good that the child’s experience will be similar. Rather than addressing the complete breakdown of society that accompanies that sort of spiraling descent into intergenerational poverty and despair,

Esmonde figures we should just bus inner city kids to the boondocks and vice-versa. Because nothing helps education more than an hour-and-a-half bus ride, twice a day, right? This “solution” also gets to avoid one of the most troubling components of this reality – that some people just place no value on education whatsoever. How do you convince someone with that mindset to change anything? Isn’t this the same Esmonde who blamed these negligent parents for chronic student absences? Does he think shipping such a student to Sardinia is going to magically reduce truancy?

Esmonde’s concern-trolling of the extremely complicated and difficult issue of school reform is counterproductive. His tired, prejudicial pablum (underscored by him quoting racist anonymous emails as indicators of widespread suburban opinion), is only made worse by his constant advocating for de-funding suburban schools, incessant charter-fellating, and hypocritical good-enough-for-me-but-not-for-thee union scapegoating. There are probably ways we can help break the pattern of poverty and devalued education in America’s inner cities, but Esmonde looks at putting band-aids on the symptoms, and completely ignores the underlying disease.

Maybe education is devalued because Buffalo was always a manufacturing town. Maybe the loss of manufacturing over the last 40 years has completely devastated families without the means to leave and go where the jobs are. Maybe decades’ worth of demolishing the very socioeconomic foundation of entire communities have led to despair and poverty and despair. Maybe these are the issues we should focus on if we want to lift people up and not lose yet another generation of people who really just need a job and some hope for social mobility.

Donn Esmonde Looks at things Backwards

Donn Esmonde is an Ass” is the name of the series, and he seldom, if ever disappoints. In Friday’s column, he devoted about 550 words to talking about how lame Byron Brown is and how Bernie Tolbert sure is swell for trying.

Bernie Tolbert doesn’t need or want my sympathy. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Taking on Byron Brown is like trying to grab a puff of smoke or lasso a shadow. Nothing sticks to the Teflon Mayor.

On Brown’s two-term watch, Buffalo lost another 20,000 people. Schools went deeper into the dumpster, while he watched the charter school revolution from the sidelines. His anti-poverty “plan” for America’s third-poorest city was a lame, idea-absent rehash. Buffalo is basically a ward of the state, which covers a third of its budget and the bulk of its school costs.

The “charter school revolution” is city people suburbanizing city schools. Pull kids and money out of the traditional public schools, so your kids can have a Williamsville experience without moving to Williamsville. Esmonde has an especial hard-on for suburban schools, and has spent three or four columns advocating for the decimation of what had until recently been one of the best districts in the region. Esmonde’s concern-trolling about schools is utter nonsense, given his complete transformation into a tea party Sith lord.

Brown backed a proposed Bass Pro store that would have smothered the downtown waterfront, and a Seneca casino that experts say does us more harm than good. But mostly, he is mum – even on obvious causes such as expanding ECC’s downtown campus. Nearly two-thirds of respondents rated him no better than average in a Buffalo News leadership survey. He is vision-lite, cliche-heavy and largely uninspiring.

You would think that the man would be fighting for his political life. Instead, the mayor is livin’ easy.

2/3 of respondents in a poll rated Brown as “average”. The Siena Poll that the Buffalo News and Channel 2 commissioned, the cross-tabs for which have never been released.

Polls show him far ahead of Tolbert, who is barely known and fights a 6-to-1 dollar disadvantage. The Democratic primary in September decides the race, as city Republicans are an endangered species. My wish to see a progressive, idea-driven mayor in this lifetime may never be granted (in lieu of that, I’d settle for a Super Bowl). Pollster Steven Greenberg can’t explain Brown’s cushy lead, given abysmal marks on schools and job creation.

Esmonde uses the word “progressive”. It is to laugh. But while city Republicans may be an “endangered species”, you’d think that the underdog candidate, Sergio Rodriguez, might merit a mention. I mean, the guy has ideas, he’s saying a lot of what Esmonde is saying in this piece, and he has a name!

Which brings us to Brown’s political genius – he has mastered the art of low expectations. By keeping his head in the foxhole, by not championing big ideas and sweeping reforms, he has conditioned people not to expect much. So he can take credit for anything good that happens – even when, like the waterfront or downtown revival, it doesn’t have much to do with him – while avoiding blame for problems. It helps that Brown was preceded by three-term Mayor Tony Masiello, who, if possible, set an even lower bar.

At least Jimmy Griffin had an executive temperament, along with a temper.

A bolder, tougher, more visionary mayor would lobby for a regional planning board, to slow sprawl and funnel new business into the city. He would protect one of the city’s few resources – its stock of great old buildings – by data-basing historic properties and hammering negligent owners. He would push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to lighten the city’s heavy poverty load. He would embrace the choice of charter schools, while demanding accountability from traditional ones. And on and on.

How exactly does the mayor of the City of Buffalo “push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs”? Does he ask nicely, or is there some interjurisdictional power he has that I’m not aware of?

But Esmonde is partially right – to have Byron Brown record ads touting Geico, which is hiring way the fuck up in North Amherst somewhere, is an obscenity of the highest order. The city of Buffalo is precisely the place that Geico should have located its sprawling call center, but instead it went to North Bumfuck because it got a swell deal from whatever IDAs had handouts at the ready. It is the people who live in the city of Buffalo who are in desperate need of $30,000 entry-level white-collar cubicle jobs like the ones at Geico, because the manufacturing jobs are gone and working at McDonalds frankly sucks.

Byron Brown and Warren Buffett and the Buffalo News all think locating Geico up near Quebec was a swell idea.

A decent wage, a decent job, and some semblance of an opportunity are the very foundation on which you build a better future for young, underserved and underprivileged city residents. Not your “stock of great old buildings”.

Esmonde and his preservation-first cohorts have it backwards. Fixing up great old buildings doesn’t turn around the local economy, but turning around the local economy will help spur more fixing up of great old buildings. The focus on Buffalo’s hardware is well-managed by exquisitely touchy people who think that attracting “cultural tourists” to see the Darwin Martin house and other buildings is the antidote to a half-century of decline. Our town is replete with ultra-wealthy foundations sporting the names of the founders of businesses that long ago abandoned Buffalo, all of which seem to think that their deep pockets provide an avenue for them to tell everyone how they’re doing it wrong. Meanwhile, the best thing anything with the name “Oshei” in it could do is open a Goddamn windshield wiper factory in Buffalo.

Regular people will rehab your pretty old buildings when it makes economic sense to do so. People will do it when you don’t have to retain a preservation activist to help navigate your way to tax credits, and around demonstrations and litigation. People will preserve our “great old buildings” when they have money to do it. And how do you create wealth in a shit economy? You make sure you have a decent educational system, and that there are available jobs to help lift a generation out of poverty and into the economic mainstream.

Instead, we applaud the fact that Geico brings thousands of jobs to the sticks – just a few bus transfers and a commute that would make Long Islanders cringe! It’s appalling. It’s sickening. It’s a disgrace.

His city is on life support, yet Brown shows little passion and champions few causes. What, me worry?

Granted, the mayor has strengths. He is likable, projects concern and looks good – all political pluses. The streets get plowed, and the garbage is picked up. And his timing is good. He is in office while the waterfront is shaping up and downtown is repopulating. Albany and Washington dollars, not city money, stoke the waterfront, and downtown revival is traceable mainly to market forces and momentum. Still, the rising tide lifts his boat. As numerous insiders have told me, Brown stays out of the way and shows up for the ribbon-cuttings.

Brown stays out of the way? The stories of institutional, tolerated bribery and corruption within City Hall are legion.

In Buffalo, the city of low expectations, it goes a long way. A lot further, I think, than it should.

An irony here is that Esmonde does so much to keep those expectations low and stupid.

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

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