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. 

New Suburbanism

The Congress for New Urbanism came to a city to talk about how great cities are. It went out to some of the suburbs that are on the urbanist-approved list, and apparently engaged in some interesting discussion about how prosperous people like their development and planning. 

We’re talking, of course, about a Buffalo that is overwhelmingly poor; joblessness and underemployment are wildly popular careers. But we’re meant to believe that “bad development” and “parking lots” are the real socioeconomic plague in western New York

Celebration, FL

This is a city where the weekly Monday columnist writes about the city’s “strategy” for dealing with scores of vacant lots – not surface parking mind you, but straight-up grassland. The East Side of Buffalo was liveable and walkable. It was compact and diverse. If it’s what everyone wants, why did everyone leave? 

It wasn’t just racism, you know? It was the postwar American dream – to abandon noisy, crowded cities, slums, and tenements to chase the American dream. To have a little patch of land and a house and a quieter existence. To this day, some people like living in a suburban environment for a variety of reasons. To each his own. 

I agree that New Urbanism can do a lot to improve the ways suburbs develop, grow, and change. I would love for every town to resemble Celebration, FL, the Disney-developed New Urbanist model. It has sidewalks, mixed use communities, a distinct downtown, it’s bike-and-pedestrian friendly, the garages are in the back and not fronting the street. Houses are closer together. It’s very nice. It would be great to have a development like that locally. 

Buffalo, though. This is a city where the Monday paper reveals how the at-war school board is so feckless and incompetent that 1,000 families have no idea where their kids are going to school next semester. That doesn’t matter to the childless, though. 

Through Colin Dabkowski, we learn some more about the CNU

But something [CNU speaker Jeff] Speck said toward the end of his presentation gave me serious doubts about the movement’s claims to inclusivity and its interest in improving life for all urban residents. Speck espouses a theory of urban development he calls “urban triage,” a term that means infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.

In explaining that philosophy, Speck said cities need to “concentrate perfection” in certain neighborhoods, distribute money in a way that favors those neighborhoods and focus primarily on downtowns in an effort to increase the health and wealth of citizens.

“Most mayors, city managers and municipal planners feel a responsibility to their entire city,” Speck wrote in his book “Walkable City,” a follow-up to “Suburban Nation,” the so-called “Bible of New Urbanism” that he co-authored with Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek. “As a result, they tend to sprinkle the walkability fairy dust indiscriminately. They are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive.”

Interesting concept. As someone on my Facebook page pointed out, the point of triage is to identify and treat the people who need it the most, not to follow the path of least (and wealthiest) resistance. 

As a movement, New Urbanism seems primarily concerned with making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous and then hoping against hope that the benefits of that prosperity magically extend into sections of town untouched by their charming design sensibility. Hence “urban triage,” a term that connotes a lack of concern for the human occupants of those neighborhoods deemed unworthy of infrastructure investments.

On a recent bicycle tour through the East Side led by activist and East Side resident David Torke and local planner and New Urbanist Chris Hawley, it’s obvious that this neighborhood needs infrastructure development and that local activists and urbanists recognize this need. To suggest that we need to choose between developing our downtown and improving the lives of residents in blighted neighborhoods, as New Urbanists’ “urban triage” philosophy would suggest, is beyond irresponsible.

You need to read the whole thing, right down to the time that another speaker – Andres Duany – casually threw around “retarded” to describe things he doesn’t like. 

Celebration, FL

The underlying ideas of New Urbanism are great – who doesn’t like pretty New Urbanist places like Seaside or Celebration? Who doesn’t like East Aurora or Hamburg’s new downtown? Who doesn’t like pretty things over ugly things? Right? Who doesn’t want to eliminate ugly surface lots and replace them with some nice infill development, right? 

But consider this: 

 She later (Tweet since deleted) argued that many people she knows who live in the suburbs are depressed as a result of being “bored shitless”. Of course, depression is an illness – a treatable disease. It’s due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, which explains why it can be treated with medicine. To suggest that depression is triggered by some sort of mystical bored shitlessness is ignorant and helps to perpetuate the myth of depression as mental weakness rather than disease. 

And that’s a lot of what I find from Buffalo’s urbanists – new and old. They don’t like the suburbs (or the people who live there), so they denigrate them and the people in them. At some point yay cities becomes boo suburbs. I don’t quite understand why that is, but whatever makes you feel better about your choice, right? 

You don’t like the suburbs? Bully for you. I do. Bully for me. But I don’t have to justify my choice by denigrating yours.

Welcome To Buffalo, You Philistines

WINTER

By Patrick Blake via the AV Photo Daily Flickr Group

I literally cringed while I read this. Not figuratively – but “for real”. 

The title of the piece itself is cringeworthy in its clumsiness – “Welcome to Buffalo, folks, you’re in for a nice surprise”. People will be swarming into town to watch the basketball.  Many of them have never been here. Certainly some are thinking, “Buffalo? Really?” For those reasons, I wouldn’t at all blame the local convention & visitors’ bureau from retaining the services of an ad agency to develop a slick handout to direct NCAA spectators to places and things to do whilst not watching the basketball. 

But the Buffalo News’ most insufferable nominal columnist, Donn Esmonde, couldn’t resist getting into the act. Knowing Buffalo, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they took today’s column and reprinted it in the “welcome to Buffalo NCAA people” brochure. Esmonde can’t help himself – he is a scold even when trying to put a welcoming face on an embarrassing downtown.  And it reads like a 7th grader’s book report. 

Congratulations, NCAA visitors. You have drawn the long straw, hit the proverbial jackpot. An extended weekend in Buffalo may not seem like an ideal destination. Yet what awaits you is not just a basketball-filled 72 hours, but a journey of discovery.

Welcome to Buffalo, the best-kept civic secret in America. By the time you leave Sunday, you will have been enlightened, transformed, rebirthed and metamorphosed. OK, maybe we can’t promise a complete epiphany. But we can guarantee you a good time – and I suspect your perception of our city will change for the better.

The set-up here is interesting because it jokingly oversells what these visitors are going to experience, which is somewhat limited in scope.  They’re not coming to Buffalo to come to Buffalo, they’re coming here for the basketball, to eat food, drink beverages, and to sleep.  Everything else – wings, Falls, transformation, enlightenment, rebirth, metamorphosis – is secondary. Maybe tertiary. 

They don’t call it the City of Good Neighbors for nothing. Here is the happy convergence of quality of life, culture and history, wrapped around a smaller-city, Midwestern-style bonhomie. You will have no problem soliciting dinner suggestions from locals or driving directions – which may include a simple “follow me.”

Yet the games will be played at the First Niagara Center in the cold. The radius of walkable destinations between games is limited, and it’s more likely that people will end up at the Buffalo Creek Casino than diving in head-first into our “bonhomie”. 

Hope springs eternal for the heads of cultural institutions, but few hoops fans will spend their spare time perusing Picassos at our art museum, checking out our Olmsted-designed parks system or marveling at our collection of Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. So we will stick to visitor basics: Food, drink, what makes Buffalo special and What to Do on Game-Free Friday.

That’s actually pretty self-aware. Esmonde is right – they’re not here for parks (the temperature will be quite cold this weekend) or architecture. They’re here for the basketball.  

Esmonde goes on to discuss the Buffalo wing and our very late last call, pointing out Chippewa Street as our binge-drinking strip of note.  He also gives an approving nod towards the dram shops on Allen. Then…

Buffalo is no Styrofoam Sun Belt burg, and downtown drips with character – much of it visible from the Metro Rail cars ferrying fans to the arena. The reddish-orange, terra cotta 1896 Guaranty Building was one of America’s first skyscrapers. The invention of structural steel made possible Louis Sullivan’s masterwork and enabled the vertical growth of cities.

The yellowish dome of the M&T Bank building is actual 23.75-carat gold leaf. The last roof regilding cost a half-million dollars, so don’t try this at home.

Up the block from Lafayette Square, the art deco City Hall poses a broad-shouldered, “bring it on” challenge to whatever (yes, we get a little snow) blows in from Lake Erie.

Hey, visitor from the Sun Belt – please allow our glib, local asshole of a part-time columnist to denigrate where you live! Ha ha! Welcome to Buffalo, folks from New Orleans, Orlando, Miami, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, and other “Styrofoam Sun Belt burgs”! On the one hand, it shows me that Esmonde is a horrible traveler, if he goes anywhere at all other than his suburban sprawl home in Florida. Each and every one of the aforementioned cities in the “Sun Belt” are drenched with culture. It might be different from that we have in Buffalo or the Northeast, but it’s worth finding and is no less fascinating than some dreary history lesson about scooping grain or working in a steel mill. It takes interest and effort. 

How deranged do you have to be to puff your city by denigrating someone else’s? 

History doubles-down barely a court-length from the First Niagara Center doors. The pedestrian bridge at Buffalo River’s edge – near the World War II destroyer USS The Sullivans – spans the Erie Canal’s western terminus, where DeWitt Clinton in 1826 opened the waterway that transformed America.

The hulking grain elevator across the river is a remnant of the Great Lakes trade that built Delaware Avenue’s “millionaires’ row” of mansions. Hang a right when leaving the arena to find handful of bars and restaurants, tucked into canal-era buildings in the revived Cobblestone District. And yes, visiting Milwaukee fans, we haven’t – unlike you – taken down our elevated, waterfront-stifling Skyway (yet).

Again. Visitors don’t give a shit about the Skyway. They don’t care why it’s there, why it’s not taken down, or anything of the sort. The Skyway is certainly an eyesore, but it and the elevated 190 – on or under which visitors will have to tread to get to the First Niagara Center –  isn’t the sine qua non of Buffalo’s downtown decline. If you’re writing this for visitors, keep our civic debates out of it. No one cares. “Where” Magazine in your hotel room isn’t replete with civic debates about elevated highways, but food, drink, shopping, and attractions. 

There is natural wonder, as well. The partly frozen splendor of Niagara Falls is just a 25-minute drive up Interstate 190. But you can’t get to the glitzier Canadian side unless you packed a passport.

The days of getting waved on by customs officials after flashing a driver’s license are long gone.

Once an insider’s town of nook-and-cranny bars and neighborhood restaurants, Buffalo now offers more obvious charms. The reclaimed 1904 Hotel @ The Lafayette – with in-house bars and restaurants – is the jewel of a host of downtown building resurrections.

Funny thing that – we’re endlessly impressed with ourselves for taking an old flophouse and turning it into something urbane white people would want to visit. An old building with bars and restaurants? Why they even have that in “Styrofoam Sun Belt” cities!

Chippewa Street’s emergence a generation ago gave Buffalo a go-to bar/restaurant district. The Avant is an upscale hotel with high-end condos. Yet downtown remains a work in progress. Cranes hover over the embryonic HarborCenter hotel/restaurant/ice rink complex outside the First Niagara Center doors – the brainstorm of Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Behind a nearby construction fence, workers are replicating the old canal path that will mark an entertainment district.

They don’t fucking care. You already mentioned Chippewa Street as our local binge-drinking vomitorium, and the Avant is special for us, but not for visitors. To someone from out of town, the Avant is no more or less worthy of mention than the Hampton Inn at Chippewa and Allen. The HarborCenter isn’t yet open and will confuse the hell out of people relying on Google Maps to help navigate the area around the arena. 

More hotels are in the making. Swing by the next time the tournament swings through, to see the finished product.

Until then, enjoy the wonder that we think is Buffalo. Despite what you might have thought, you drew the long straw.

The only line missing is, “I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. 

Buffalo stands on its own merits (and demerits). Allen Street is great. Chippewa might be great for some. But if we could stop insulting other places to make ourselves feel better about Buffalo, that would be great. 

As an aside, I read every one of Esmonde’s columns. That’s usually about 2 per week. I don’t think I’ve written a commentary about any of them since September when I exposed his undisclosed chumminess with a quoted source and his sprawl-tastic Florida home. I certainly could have – he’s insufferable 99% of the time – but didn’t. I wasn’t going to write about this, either, until I got to the “Sun Belt” line. Who in their right mind insults the supposed, perceived, subjective inauthenticity of other cities? For what purpose? For a smug sense of self-satisfaction – parroting the “for real” and “sense of place” bullshit marketing buzzwords that we actually use now in real life to market this city to prospective visitors? 

Buffalo as a place to visit stands and falls on its own merits and demerits. If you want people to visit and to like it, don’t be a prat about it – just get to what’s to like.  

We were once stranded in Dallas because while en route from California to Boston, our destination was hit with a 30″ snowstorm. We ended up stuck for 3 or 4 days and we were lucky enough to have the scratch to afford a rental car and a hotel room. So, we explored Dallas. This was 1996, so there were no smartphones and we didn’t have any sort of internet access. We got ideas for things to see from memory (Book Depository, Southfork) or from brochures we found in the hotel (Fort Worth Stockyards, museums in the city), and just from exploring with no set destination in mind. Had I read something in a Dallas paper denigrating Boston, I’d have been pissed off and thought, “what a bitter, inhospitable place”. 

So, I don’t have a problem with Esmonde or anyone else writing a column welcoming basketball fans from around the world. But to criticize an entire swath of the US as inauthentic in order to sell your city as “real” is outrageous and insulting. My animus for Esmonde is well-known and well-documented, but I honestly don’t wake up twice a week rubbing my hands together like a Hanna-Barbera villain in anticipation of how I can bitchslap him in a blog post. 

Our downtown is an embarrassment, but small pockets here and there are getting better. But a visitor doesn’t give a shit about how, say, the Lafayette came about or how it’s not as bad as it was. They just want to know where it is that’s fun, cool, or interesting to go. Does the Lafayette have a nice restaurant? Swell! How do I get there? Do I walk? Is there parking? Do I take a cab? Do I take the trolley? Where does that trolley go, incidentally? Is there a goddamn bus map I can have? Are you running a shuttle bus to get me from the arena to a destination, and then back again in time to catch my next game? If not, is that bus with that car salesman on the side of it in any way reliable? How often do they come? When is the next one coming? In my cookie-cutter Sun Belt city, the bus stops are sheltered and there’s a sign that tells you in real time when the next one will stop here. 

The last thing they’re thinking about is Louis Sullivan, a replica “canal terminus” to nowhere, (in mid-30s weather and rain), and whether Buffalo is “authentic” or not.

Donny, Can You Hear Me?

Shrill, too.

Because you want to hear me explain this in a more direct and profane way, here is the audio version of “Donn Esmonde is an Ass”, recorded over lunchtime Thursday with Trending Buffalo’s Brad Riter

http://www.trendingbuffalo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/TB09-26-13bedenko.mp3

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.  

Loanshark Politics and Other Things

Endorsements will come tomorrow both in text and by way of a Trending Buffalo podcast I’m recording with Brad Riter and Artvoice editor Geoff Kelly today. 

In the meantime,

1. Donn Esmonde is still an ass – whether he’s touting Congressman Brian Higgins being a good guy for agreeing with Donn Esmonde, and embracing “quicker, lighter, cheaper” on the waterfront – because “fast, big & grand” is never, ever something to which any community should aspire. Good enough is good enough in Goodenoughistan. Also, Preservationist Tom Yots is a great guy because he’s going to help save a church that all of you – yes you – suburb dwellers single-handedly decimated with your flight from the neighborhood. 

2. Paul Wolf says that Niagara Falls’ trouble troika are being reasonable by asking questions about developer Mark Hamister’s $25 million + plan to develop a mixed-use hotel development near the Falls State Park. 

Asking questions is one thing. From everything I’ve heard from people who have been involved in politics for a long, long time, this city government is uniquely dysfunctional and corrupt. So much so that it makes any other dysfunctional and corrupt government entity look like Switzerland by comparison.

The reason why an appraisal is stupid here is that the city got the land for free, because there’s nothing on it whatsoever, and because it is surrounded by squalor, vacancies, and something that looks like it was airlifted from Fordham Road in the Bronx. The Falls are a couple of blocks away, but the culinary institute (which is not promoted in any way on any approach to the city) is directly across the street.

This is a city that has ceded acres of prime real estate to a NYC-based land speculator who is still patiently waiting to actually do something, and thus leaving acres of prime real estate empty and unattractive.

Niagara Falls Redevelopment redevelops nothing, and these three clowns sit there and ask nothing. Hamister comes to town (he owns and operates hotels, btw) with a plan and all they have to do is sell him a parcel of land for $100k and they get actual redevelopment.

Let’s kill that. Clearly, empty lots and vacant haunted wax museums are the highest and best uses for property in and around the neglected flash cube.

3. Marc Odien does a pretty good job connecting a lot of the disparate dots underscoring this season’s political double-dealing and corruption. It’s all about who gets to pick whom for patronage jobs, and it’s about bad people kicking money back to each other. This comes from the Facebook page of Falls Mayor Paul Dyster (I’ve shortened the links): 

One more time from the top if you missed links from the previous posts:

Top petitioner for Fruscione was Louis D. Turchiarelli, 3248 Seneca Street, Apt. 10, West Seneca, NY 14224. Six sheets of 25 each on 6/29-30.

On petitioner Louis: http://bit.ly/14y7HD5http://bit.ly/1ajCJO6

And on pollster father Don: http://bit.ly/17PpXCF

Father, son and firm Gia Consulting use same address.

Payment to Gia Consulting (could be for petitioning, push polling or both) from Sam Fruscione from 32 day pre-primary report ($1k): http://bit.ly/1evdpY6

Anderson and Chooklokian also use Gia.

Payment to Gia Consulting from WNY Progressive Caucus from 11-day pre-primary ($4k): http://bit.ly/15PP738

3248 Seneca St.–same address as Turchiarelli used on petitions.

From prisoner locator website: http://1.usa.gov/18OD8Vl : Served two years and was fined $1,500.

In case you didn’t click any of them

A man who had been active in Buffalo politics was sentenced Monday to two years in federal prison for threatening physical violence to collect a Rochester gambling debt.

Louis D. Turchiarelli, 38, of California Street, pleaded guilty to using extortion to collect an extension of credit. FBI agents arrested him last year after learning of threats against a Rochester man who owed $18,000 to bookmakers.

A former professional boxer, Turchiarelli had been a longtime Democratic Party activist in Buffalo before his legal problems. He resigned as the party’s West Side zone chairman about two months after his arrest. In September 2005, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Erie County legislator in the 6th District. He also lost a 2003 primary contest for Niagara District Common Council member.

A federal judge in Rochester sentenced Turchiarelli to two years in prison and ordered him to pay a $1,500 fine, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett A. Harvey said.

The three responsible question-askers on the Niagara Falls city council are retaining the professional services of convicts. Good government, it’s not. 

Shorter Esmonde

Part of the running “Donn Esmonde is an Ass” series, “shorter” takes a typical 500-word Esmonde column and reduces it to a couple of sentences. I try to preserve the general tone and theme of the original column while boiling it down to its essential point. Think of it as a public service: I read it so you don’t have to. 

Friday

Regarding the awful, horrible, soul-sucking pits of racism we call “suburbs”, at least one has thankfully come around to my way of thinking and decided to make their streets less treacherous. 

Sunday

If I were Bernie Tolbert’s campaign manager, he’d be losing in a different way. His refusal to read my mind and follow my phantom campaign strategy means he is “woefully unprepared” – not to be mayor, but to run for mayor.1

1As an aside, I will note that I receive all of Tolbert’s campaign releases and his problem isn’t not issuing press releases or holding news conferences quickly enough after news comes out – his problem is the town’s reductive media either ignoring him completely or preempting the mayoral race for Extra and Jeopardy. If Esmonde thinks that something’s wrong with the mayoral race, a lot of the blame sits firmly with the way it’s being covered. 

Meanwhile, Tolbert is the first mayoral candidate to secure statements – on tape – from two police officers (who are anonymized to prevent retaliation) who explain how the Brown Administration plays games with crime statistics in Buffalo. It’s shocking. 

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