Manufactured Crises in Suburban Public Schools

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In most of our sleepy suburban communities in western New York, school districts are run without much fuss. Once in a while you get an eruption of controversy, such as what’s been happening in Lancaster with respect to its abandonment of the “Redskins” monicker. In Lancaster, the school superintendent is now receiving death threats and police protection for him and his family. Over a mascot’s name. School is important, but not in that way. This isn’t a 3,000-word screed about the common core or testing, either.  This is about how a community helps pay to educate its kids.

Municipalities and their school boards walk a delicate tightrope between taxpayer expectations and school needs. Among the suburban districts that are typically most highly ranked in Business First’s annual assessment – Williamsville, Orchard Park, Clarence, and East Aurora – they achieve that balance in difference ways. In Williamsville, the school tax rate is about $18 per $1,000 of assessed value. In Orchard Park and East Aurora, the school tax rate exceeds $30 per $1,000 of assessed home value. By contrast, Sloan’s is $57 per $1,000.

It is also typical that budget proposals in high-performing school districts don’t regularly get a lot of pushback from taxpayers. So long as results are good and money is being spent prudently, annual school budget votes proceed without much controversy. Why ruin a good thing? When real estate is bought, the school district oftentimes weighs very heavily in the decision-making. If a home is in a high-performing district, that has a positive effect on the purchase price and home value. Look at any home listing, just about anywhere.

(I hope you’ll excuse the limited geographical scope of this piece. It’s that time of year again when my free time becomes subsumed by thoughts of school budgets and election battles. Although its scope is facially narrow, the underlying points are valid for most upstate suburban and rural school districts, especially in light of Albany’s game-playing with school funding over the last several years.)

In Clarence, however, we have a different scenario altogether. Clarence’s school tax rate is $14.80 per $1,000 of assessed value – less than half that of OP or East Aurora. Clarence is lucky – it has a lot of very expensive pieces of property, so the rate doesn’t need to be as high as in other communities. Nevertheless, a small cabal of anti-school propagandists would have you believe that the district is spendthrift, bloated, and unfair to the taxpayer – that same taxpayer who relies on the schools’ excellence for her home’s resale value.

They say it’s “unsustainable”. Yet today’s $14.80 rate is almost identical to the rate in 2008 – 2009. In 2003, the rate was significantly higher – almost $17. It dropped steadily until 2011, when it slowly began to creep up from a low of $14.13, as state funding dried up and the district had to look to local taxpayers to help bear more of the burden.

What do we get for that money? Is the district spendthrift? Bloated? Not only is the answer a resounding “no”, but the district’s educational output is outstanding. Clarence is ranked 3rd out of 432 WNY districts for excellence but also for cost-effectiveness.  It’s 6th in administrative efficiency, and its per-pupil spending is 2nd lowest in Erie County; it’s 6th lowest in the entire state. The school tax rate is the second lowest in WNY. By all accounts, this is a triumph of cost-effective, excellent results. It’s the sort of thing that anyone – liberal or conservative – would proudly show off as a testament to good, small government. You would think that a school district with those sorts of numbers would have no pushback from angry taxpayers.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

In 2013, a perfect financial storm came about that required a proposed 9.8% tax hike to maintain then-extant staff and services. The school board took a gamble that the community had the schools’ back and would support it in a tough time. On the contrary, voters overwhelmingly rejected that proposal, sending the message that any increases in the levy should remain at or under the state’s new tax cap. That’s what the board did in the June 2013 re-vote, cutting tons of clubs, extracurriculars, sports, services, curricula, and teachers. It did so again in 2014, and there was no opposition to that at-cap budget. Meanwhile, the Clarence district alone has lost over $16 million in state aid thanks to the state legislature’s astonishingly cynical “gap elimination adjustment”, an accounting gimmick that balanced the state budget on the backs of local school districts.

Here we are in 2015, and the school board hasn’t even presented a final budget proposal, as the district tries to figure out how much state aid it’s going to receive. Yet a certain subset of local activist – as angry as they are misinformed – has pledged to vote down the budget, no matter what it is, just because.

It helps to understand how these districts determine their levy. Sales taxes are set at a fixed rate; school taxes aren’t. The district proposes a budget, which includes amounts to fund all its personnel and essential programs. Each district has different priorities. If the school district finds that it needs more money than it did last year, – even if it’s just to keep up with inflation – it has to ask for an increase in the total tax levy.  That levy is then apportioned to taxpayers based on the value of their real property. So, if the overall levy goes up 2%, but your property value rises by 4%, your tax “rate” will go down. For towns like Clarence, whose property tax cap is higher, in part, due to its “growth factor” of 1.5, if the total property value added in the district via new construction in a given year outpaces the levy increase, your actual tax bill will go down. The district doesn’t raise taxes every year. The levy might go up, but how that translates to your personal tax bill varies. That’s before we get to the passage of the veteran’s exemption, enhanced STAR, agricultural exemptions, and other programs that lower the tax or assessed value for some taxpayers, increasing the burden on others.

This year’s fight began just after the Clarence High School production of Pirates of Penzance closed its three-performance run. Dedicated and talented kids – with the help from their faculty advisers – put on a Broadway-caliber show that was absolutely world class. Everyone from the amazing pit orchestra, to the tech crew, to the cast itself worked hard for months to pull it off. It wasn’t just some accident of talent. It’s how that talent is nurtured, developed, and grown. It starts with the music programs in the elementary schools, to instrument instruction, to singing, and then is further enhanced by the bands, orchestra, chorus, plays, and musicals that are done at the middle school. By the time these kids get to high school, those who are dedicated to drama, music, tech, and singing are well on their way to becoming professionals. It’s simply an amazing progression to watch, and the Clarence High School’s annual musical productions are absolutely incredible; a testament not only to talent, but to teaching.

But the people complaining about paying the second-lowest tax rate for the third-best school district in WNY didn’t see that performance, or any of that value. They don’t know about the successes in the engineering curriculum, or the fact that our system is one of the best in the country for music education, or that our mock trial team won a countywide competition. Despite the fact that the levy has only been rising since 2011, that is “far too long”, and they presented their first argument: restore local control and kick Albany to the curb. But that gap elimination de-funding hamstrung districts – the tax cap ensured that they had no way to even ask local taxpayers to make up that difference. In Clarence’s case, it was made through cuts, dipping into the fund balance, and through modest increases in the local school tax. Since 2011, the district cut 113 full-time positions. 

But these anti-tax warriors are playing people. In their public pronouncements, they say they want to maintain school quality, but when their words aren’t being recorded for posterity, or they’re speaking amongst themselves, they clearly intend to manufacture a crisis that would require the schools to effectively wither and die. Otherwise, they’d attend regular school board meetings and offer ideas. They’d know about the very strongly-worded letter that Superintendent Geoff Hicks sent to Governor Cuomo.   They’d use the district’s legislative advocacy page. They’d show up.

Disapproval of a within-cap levy increase would do to the schools what 2013 did, and force students out of programs, eliminate teachers, close electives, and do palpable and real harm to students and their educations. For what? What is the underlying complaint here? Cui bono?

It doesn’t make any sense. After all, when the tax rate inched up last year, every taxpayer received a rebate check for the exact amount of the increase – mine was $71, and I donated it to the Clarence School Enrichment Foundation. The same thing will happen with this budget, if any increase is at or below the cap. The cap, for the record, is 4.7% because the town continues to grow, and because the district refinanced some existing debt at a lower rate, saving $4 million over the life of the note, and the new payments kick in this year.

So, in the face of all these excellent results and efficient, frugal management, we’re left with one argument: the teachers make too much. They’re greedy. They get summers off. They work short days. They get fat pensions and pay only 10% of their health insurance costs.

We hear a lot from tax opponents about “running government like a business”. Of course, schools don’t exist to make money – they exist to educate children. The output in Clarence is excellent. If you ran a multi-million dollar corporation, and when annual review came along, almost 85% of your key employees were exceeding expectations, you wouldn’t cut their pay and benefits, you’d give them a damn bonus. If you wanted to attract and retain this kind of talent, you need to pay them a living wage. So, are these mostly “highly effective” teachers overpaid?

I had someone argue to me that teachers don’t live in the “real world”. That’s completely wrong. Everyone’s “real world” is a bit different. Most New York teachers, unlike most of us in the “real world”, hold masters degrees. They must be tested, vetted, and authorized – licensed and certified – to teach. They are ad hoc social workers, mandated reporters, emergency caregivers, mediators, peacemakers, peacekeepers, role models, safe havens, and that’s before you get to the actual teaching part. As for teaching, they don’t just have to deal with ever-increasing class sizes, but also with administrators, parents, the state, and bureaucracy. They don’t make as much money as their peers with M.A.s or M.S.s in the private sector, and many of them take pay cuts to work in Clarence, which is by no means the district with the largest salaries in WNY for teaching professionals; Clarence is 13th for teacher pay. Sure, they get better health insurance and retirement than most people in the private sector, but that’s really an indictment not of the teachers, but of the private sector and the way it has stripped workers of pay and benefits over time.

It’s also comparing apples to oranges. Public sector workers go to work to serve the public, oftentimes at wages that would be embarrassing in the private sector. Consider, for instance, why it’s tough to find a CPA to run for comptroller. So, the public sector makes up for that by offering good benefits, usually negotiated through collective bargaining. So, is public service the “real world”? You don’t hear a lot of people whining about Chris Collins’ congressional salary, or that of his staff. Or Mike Ranzenhofer or Jane Corwin – no one bats an eye. No one much cares that the Clarence supervisor gave himself a couple of nice raises over the past few years. What is the “real world”? Why do teachers get this sort of scrutiny, but other public employees don’t? 



If the real world of teaching in New York public schools was the bonanza of wine, song, and riches that some imagine, then everyone would be clamoring to join this profession. But for some reason they don’t.  Maybe some people see the private sector as offering more opportunities for personal enrichment – after all, private sector salaries have no upper limit. Teachers on average make about $50-60k in Clarence, and that’s after at least a decade of service. It’s a nice paycheck, but none of them are getting rich. People complain that their benefits package can’t match what a teacher earns (note that word “earns”), but that’s the real world. Isn’t a good education part of the American dream? Don’t we want properly and adequately to remunerate the professionals upon whom Americans rely to educate our children?

Teachers aren’t paid during the summer. Their workday is not nearly as short as the kids’; it doesn’t begin and end when the bell rings – they have to attend conferences, plan their curriculum, grade papers, draft tests and course materials, and deal with all manner of after-hours parent or student issues. They’re not entitled to retirement benefits until they’ve worked in the district for 10 years. The teachers’ contract is online. An entry-level teacher with a master’s degree earns an annual salary of $41,400 at Step 1. That doesn’t break $50,000 until Step 9. You break $60,000 at Step 13, and $70,000 at Step 16. The max is $93,000 at Step 20. Some teachers receive stipends for extracurricular work, bumping veteran teachers up into the very low 6-figures.

Is $93,000 for a teaching professional with a master’s degree and 20+ years of experience excessive? Or are these wages firmly middle class? Clarence’s median income is $68,000. No one’s getting rich from a $90,000 annual income. No one’s driving a Bentley or smoking Cohibas in West Palm on that salary. Teachers give up the private sector, where financial risk and reward are both higher, in order to educate the next generation, and do so with some modicum of job and retirement security. There are few professions more important or noble, yet we continually demonize them as the root of the problem.

It’s a lot of money, but do they not earn and deserve it? How is their labor not incredibly valuable? I’m not saying their salary and benefits are cheap – they’re just earned. One of the leaders of the current anti-school effort in Clarence has a school tax bill that is, in 2014, a full 32% lower than it was in 2006. In real dollars. But she’s upset about sustainability?

The school board held a budget information session on March 30th. There, Superintendent Hicks outlined a revised proposal that would take into account estimates of increase state aid to raise the levy by 3.9% – significantly lower than the 4.7% tax cap, and restore 4 positions. In the meantime, since the state budget came out, it looks like we may see restoration of as many as 10 positions at that 3.9% figure. It’s a prudent measure designed to placate anti-tax members of the board, and also the parent-taxpayers who are demanding smaller class sizes, restored programs, and easing the burden on remaining teachers. It was a lively meeting, with a good debate. A few students came and spoke. Two teachers spoke. Two. Everyone else was either a parent-taxpayer or an anti-school activist.

The head of this year’s “no” posse sent a note to her listserv about that budget meeting and it was filled with either lies or emotion.

She was moaning about how “defeated” she felt because she was so outnumbered. Her crew was indeed outnumbered, but not by teachers or their union, but instead by concerned taxpayer-parents. We moved to that town because the schools are good and the taxes are lower than, say, Williamsville or Orchard Park. It’s a pretty sweet equation that few other places are able to replicate. But the gutting of teachers and programs in 2013 wasn’t good enough – the school opponents are now out for blood. They’ve moved the goalposts – 4.7% is too high, 3.9% is too high, indeed anything greater than 0% is too high. Their arguments go back and forth like a pinball from “state control” to “teachers are paid too much” to “union contract”. The people demonizing teachers argue that, in addition to making too much, they enjoy tenure and cannot be fired. Tell it to the many Clarence teachers who have been let go since 2011.

According to her email, one of the two school board members the anti-tax crowd perceives as friendly wrote to them, “Don’t give up – that’s what they want. Keep up the good work. You guys showing up last night was important because it balances out the teacher influence. Keep the troops organized and keep coming to the meetings. thank you for what you do – it makes a difference.”

That was written by a school trustee who owes a fiduciary duty to maintain the excellence of the school system in a way that is respectful to all taxpayers. I don’t know what “teacher influence” was extant at that meeting, as only two teachers spoke. The “difference” being made is that the board could choose to raise the levy by 4.7% and restore even more positions, but won’t. Is that refusal to right the wrongs of the past few years in the district’s best interests? Are the students’ needs being met?

What I do know is this: parents will agitate for the levy to go up to the cap, and for the restoration of teachers, social workers, and electives. The “no” crowd doesn’t get to control or monopolize the agenda. What is there to lose? The anti-school people will vote “no”, regardless; they will vote no for 4.7%, and they will vote no for 3.9% and they would vote no if the increase in the levy was 0.01%. The parents, by contrast, are likely open to compromise.

So, it’s only a matter of time before this sort of nonsense happens in every school district. Demonization of teachers, de-funding of schools, privatization, and the further erosion of the middle-class American dream. Not just demanding that teachers be at-will grunts who earn McDonald’s wages, but that parents and students be subjected to substandard public schools, leading to de-funding, vouchers, or straight tuition.

They say that private schools do it better and more efficiently.  My tax bill is about $4,400, and that pays for two kids’ educations. That’s a bargain, and one of the most important taxes I pay, and I pay it gladly. Our future depends on it.

It will continue to be thus when they graduate, because all town kids deserve the same shot that mine got, if not better.

Please get active in your school board. Take an interest in what’s going on – whether you have kids or not, but especially if you do. Apathy is the ally of malevolence, and you can help ensure that the people you elect do the right thing.

On Ignorance

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The Lancaster school board voted last night to end the use of its team mascot name, effective immediately.

No more Lancaster Dumbpolaks. No more Lancaster Ginzos. No more Lancaster Moneylenders. No more Lancaster Bogtrotters or Krauts or Coloreds. No more Lancaster Redskins.

Lancaster’s school board is to be commended for quickly and unanimously ending a simmering, pointless controversy over something as trivial as a team mascot. It was astonishing to watch news coverage of this event and see myriad older and middle-aged Caucasians donning the mantle of oppressed minority over this mascot issue. If you’re 50+ years old, and your high school’s mascot remains something so critically important to you that you would protest, curse, turn your back, or threaten the lives of the members of the Lancaster school board, then your life is in desperate need of a rethink.

I laid out my argument for changing the mascot name in this piece. There is no way anyone can look at the blatantly racist name “Redskins” and declare it to be what one Twitter user called a “positive racial slur” worth keeping. If any of the slurs I used above made you uncomfortable, “Redskins” should do the same.

It was also another reminder of just how utterly disgusting, ignorant, and racist WBEN has become, as a media entity. This rests squarely on the shoulders of operations manager Tim Wenger, who also runs WBEN’s social media accounts. WBEN is now openly pandering to the worst, most profane, ignorant suburban racism. No fewer than eight (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) separate Redskins-related posts were made to WBEN’s Facebook page in the 24-hour period of March 16 – 17, and you can imagine the comments on what is, on a normal day, like digital flypaper for WNY’s dumbest bigots.

The unifying meme that so aggrieves WNY’s Suburbanite Caucasus seems to be “political correctness”. But within the context of these sorts of racial controversies, “political correctness” is shorthand for “why can’t I be a hateful bigot anymore?” Although “political correctness” and “PC” are now perceived negatively, within their definition is the radical notion that people should not deliberately be horrible to one another.

The over-reaction to Lancaster’s decision to no longer use a racial slur as a team name has come to this:

Some loudmouth with no ties to Lancaster – who went to High School in Massachusetts and lives on Grand Island – is so incensed at another town’s decision to no longer defame American Indians that he hopes the town votes down the school budget and punishes the students. I mean, why not burn the whole town down, while you’re at it? That would be just as reasonable a reaction as the one Carl Paladino’s driver suggests here. It simply doesn’t get any stupider than this.

A quick scan of the comments that follow the Facebook posts linked-to above contains a fatal overdose of benighted, pretend-offended white people. WBEN was so intent on feeding the racist suburban call-in beast that it pre-empted Hannity to keep f*cking that chicken all night.

I have to try and be optimistic, and hope that the vast majority of Lancaster residents didn’t much care what the school board did with the team name. I have to figure that the silent majority of people who either agreed that the “Redskin” name was offensive, or didn’t much care, won’t do something stupid like throw away their kids’ education over this. I have to assume that the students are going to be smart and creative about coming up with a new team name that will let Lancaster be just as proud as it was as “Redskins”. Because it wasn’t the team name or mascot that generated any past glories, it was the hard work of dedicated students and coaches. Changing the team name is a win:win, because it abandons racial animus and does nothing to erase any pride people should have in whatever their high school triumphs may have been.

I don’t quite understand why ending racist slurs in school settings is considered to be “political correctness” and, thus, a negative thing. Perhaps western New York has a dramatically long way to go with respect to race relations and mutual respect.

The Lancaster school board should be commended for its brave, unanimous decision to cast racism aside. The problem remains that it shouldn’t have to be a “brave” thing to do, and I suspect the death threats have already started coming in.

Perhaps the best comment I saw on WBEN’s Facebook posts was this one, because it was as pointed as it was funny.

Paladino and the School Privateers

Carl Paladino makes a living, in large part, as a hypocrite.

Forget how he makes noise about family values while himself being a babydaddy. Forget how his company makes a great deal of money being the state’s landlord here in Buffalo. Forget how he and his cronies lie, or how Paladino comports himself on the streets of Buffalo like a vagrant escaped from the asylum, only with a Bimmer.

Carl Paladino is one of those ultra-conservative right-wing nutjob birther freaks who wants to completely dismantle public education in America. He doesn’t think teachers should make much more than minimum wage, he doesn’t think teaching is a profession that needs licensure or regulation, he rejects the Common Core and its 21st century curriculum, and he famously proposed during his disastrous gubernatorial run that inner-city kids should be sent off to state-run re-education camps.

Carl Paladino doesn’t hide his goal.

The solution is going to lie in the disassembly of the Buffalo Public School System. And we’re going to continue to do that until people smarten up. We’re going to open charter schools, we’re going to hopefully help the privates and the Catholics to become better and be able to take more kids. We’re supporting the closing of a number of Buffalo Public Schools and turning them into charters. That’s the game that we’re playing.

(Part of the Paladino playbook is to denigrate his opponents as stupid and corrupt; hence “smarten up”).

The Alliance for Quality Education promoted that quote, as well as a story about the money Paladino and his companies make as landlords for charter schools in Buffalo. In response, Paladino met with Buffalo News reporters and revealed to them details (but not to you – “transparency” is not in the Paladino playbook) about his charter school involvement, adding that his profits max out at 10% on his charter holdings, because “non-profit” is not in the Paladino playbook, even when children’s educations are at stake.

What’s fascinating to watch is this degenerate’s reaction when the lights are shone on him, and the public demands some minimal transparency. He lashes out viciously.

Elitists, led by self-promoting opportunists, in concert with Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore, ultra-liberal blowhard political whiners Marc Panepinto, Sean Ryan and Michael LoCurto, minority School Board members and their community leadership and other hypocrites, parasites and phonies, support the multigenerational tragedy of subjecting more than 30,000 children to the dysfunctional Buffalo Public Schools.

Setting aside for a moment that, when it comes to “blowhard political whiners”, there is ostensibly no better judge of that than Carl Paladino, who are these “elitists” at whom Paladino spits? Who are the elites who demand that kids be sent to dysfunctional schools, and cui bono, anyway?

For decades, we have spent billions fighting the cycle of dreadful poverty in our urban centers, yet it continues. With 46 out of 57 Buffalo Public Schools failing, the proficiency on state math and English standardized tests at 9 percent and 11 percent respectively, a graduation rate of 46 percent, (for black males, less than 15 percent) and terrible attendance and violence, the elitists want to preserve the status quo and deprive another generation of an opportunity for an education in an alternative to traditional public education. For them, the kids are not as important as black leadership empowerment. They thrive on keeping city kids hungry and uneducated, captives in urban centers, so they can be manipulated to vote for elitist causes.

Ah, the penny’s dropped. This “elite” of whom Paladino speaks is the group he more often refers to as the “sisterhood” – the group of predominately African-American females who lead the minority, anti-Paladino bloc on the Buffalo school board.

Blatant, bare racism is a well-established component of the Paladino playbook. Mansplaining / whitesplaining at the “sisterhood” is also something Paladino’s good at.

Let’s read on and see what Paladino’s argument is.

Charter schools are not perfect but they enjoy a much greater success rate than traditional schools. They are free from the constraints of union contracts.

There are much better and lower-risk development opportunities than charter schools with five-year licenses. When banks and other developers would not take the risk and the marginal return on capital, we decided it was more important to give thousands of kids an alternative opportunity to leave the cycle of poverty.

It’s time to say goodbye to these elitists and their cycle of poverty.

No, charter schools are not perfect. Neither are parochial, private, or public schools. Astonishingly enough, nothing is perfect. What’s interesting here isn’t the standard pro-charter pablum that Paladino parrots, but what’s missing. There’s nothing here about reducing class sizes, or increasing funding for community or social services. There’s nothing here about recruiting excellent teachers – on the contrary, being anti-teacher is well within the Paladino playbook. There’s nothing there about how Paladino’s charters – half of the Health Sciences Charter School, half of the Charter School for Applied Technologies, half of the Aloma D. Johnson Charter School, all of Tapestry Charter School, all of the West Buffalo Charter School, and all of the not-yet-opened Charter School for Inquiry – are performing compared to, e.g., traditional Buffalo public schools, private / parochial schools, and suburban public schools.

The notion that Carl Paladino is anywhere within view of “educating children” is, itself, laughably profane.

Paladino’s supposed interest in education is secondary to his hatred of unions. One of the principal reasons why charters do well has to do with parental involvement – you have to apply and put effort into getting a kid into a charter.  Furthermore, charters are no constrained by rules imposed on traditional public schools whereby the latter is required to take all comers, while the charter has much more freedom to pick and choose its student population. Instead of having a conversation about making all schools high-performing magnets for kids, we’re crafting a new style of segregation, not based on class or race, but based on luck. Luck of getting into a charter via lottery, luck of being born to a family that values education and is engaged in the process.

Instead of a system that lifts up all kids, Carl just wants to lift up the ones lucky enough to have parents who care. How tragic.

But make no mistake – Carl Paladino is on the board of a school district his kids didn’t attend, he is part of a majority bloc, he detests the teachers and their union, and he wants the kids to go to charter schools, on some of which he earns a profit.

Oh, and he thinks African-American females are the “elite”, but white Christian males like he are the downtrodden, all of a sudden.

WAT?

On November 10, 2014, I resigned as an Artvoice contributor. My first post there was posted on November 21, 2011.

I had a great deal of fun there, and it was great to be part of such a well-respected publication. I will forever be grateful to Jamie Moses, Geoff Kelly, and Buck Quigley for letting me write under the Artvoice banner.

So, we go from independent 2003 – 2005 to WNYMedia.net 2005 – 2011, to Artvoice 2011 – 2014, and back to independent for now.

But if you like your profane opinions a little left-of center, stay tuned.

 

Things Worse than #LatteSalute

Eliminationist radio station WBEN spent an entire day Wednesday lamenting / concern-trolling the President’s apparently impeachable offense of saluting Marines with a coffee cup in his hand.  Of course, because he’s Obama, it was a latte. But while Tim Wenger’s obsession du jour was n0bummer’s epic disrespect of every troop and all troops everywhere, what sort of thing has WBEN (and the rest of the local media, for that matter), completely ignored? 

How about a former WBEN employee and current sponsor raising money off the severed heads of Americans slaughtered by ISIS? This isn’t the semi-informed lunatic ramblings of some online crank listener – this is an endorsed Republican candidate for Congress. Not once did anyone on WBEN spend a nanosecond condemning this. 

Or how about WBEN’s afternoon drive time shock jock dreaming – literally – of a military coup in Washington, and his idiot commenters trying to out-do each other with eliminationist wet dreams. (Helpful hint: the page is publicly viewable, so don’t whine to me about not blocking the names out. 

That’s some station Tim Wenger has molded into his own image. So, while it’s a daylong horror for Obama – a civilian – to salute Marines whilst holding a coffee cup, it’s perfectly ok to make political hay off American martyrs and to openly advocate for and dream of sedition, treason, and a coup d’etat. Clear? 

Carl Being Carl

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com

It was a cool evening; cool in the sense of temperature as much as atmosphere. The sun had just set and the cloudless sky was turning a lovely shade of dark blue, with a disappearing tinge of orange on the horizon. 

I pulled my car into a spot about a block down from the Dinosaur BBQ on Franklin Street to attend the City & State “welcome to Buffalo” party. The New York-based paper had just hired a Buffalo reporter, and it was hosting a celebration. 

As I walked up Franklin, I ran into County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who was rushing to get to a dinner at Bacchus with bigwigs from a local utility company. I saw Buffalo Rising’s Newell Nussbaumer and said hello. As I approached the Dinosaur, I saw Mike Desmond from WBFO speaking with City & State Editor-in-Chief Morgan Pehme and Chris Thompson – Pehme’s new Buffalo hire. 

After a while, a very slim, dapper gentleman from the statewide office of AARP came by to chat with Pehme and Desmond. He mentioned that Erie County had the 9th oldest population in the country. 

Right around that time, I caught a glimpse of a black BMW X5 across Franklin. It stopped to let out City & State President & CEO Tom Allon and G. Stephen Pigeon. Allon is a tall, bespectacled man who looks like he stepped right out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue. I introduced myself to both men. Pigeon shook my hand. Understandably, he wasn’t especially warm and friendly to me, but behaved like a gracious adult. They went inside. 

At this moment, the BMW had made a u-turn and parked, halfway in a spot, in front of the Dinosaur BBQ. Out comes Carl Paladino, and he is smiling and gesturing at me as if I was someone he was happy to see. He came around the car and was being gregarious and friendly with everyone. As we both extended hands to shake in greeting, I hesitated and said, “you don’t like me. I’m Alan Bedenko”.

At this he recoiled and inquired whether I was fucking serious. When I answered in the affirmative, he took a step or two back to tell me that I’m “a real fucking asshole, you know that?”  I replied that yes, indeed, I am, as I grinned from ear to ear.  He went on to berate me as a “disgrace” and a “fucking coward”.  I continued smiling as this old man angrily spat expletives at me on a sidewalk, in front of people, on a cool Buffalo night. He then went inside in disgust, informing the people with whom I was chatting that he would not speak to them while they were talking to an asshole like me. It was surreal. 

I continued speaking with Mr. AARP guy, Pehme and Desmond before going inside to check the event out.  I met Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo, who is a nice fellow even if his politics are all wrong. I like that he recognizes that the legislature is – and should be – a deliberative legislative body, and the role he plays in it.  I saw his dad, too, but we didn’t get a chance to speak. I spoke with lobbyist Jack O’Donnell and met his lovely wife, Marina. It was O’Donnell’s birthday, evidently, and Pehme led the gathering in a round of “Happy Birthday”.  There was even cake. 

I spoke at some length with Camille Brandon, fresh off a primary loss in her Assembly race. While we were chatting, Paladino passed behind me and said hello to her, but indicated that he would speak to her later when “that asshole” was gone.  She later found me and said Carl had asked her why she was speaking to that “asshole”. He was entering Mean Girls territory. 

I saw Jim Heaney and Dan Telvock of Investigative Post, and Justin Sondel from the Niagara Gazette.  I spoke briefly with @HeyRaChaCha from Twitter, and we talked about all the fascinating people who were there. 

As I spoke with Sondel and Mark Cornell from Poloncarz’s office about hydrofracking and Niagara County journalism, Pehme and Allon took to the stage to thank everyone for coming to the event.  Evidently, Paladino was a sponsor of the event because he, too, took the mic.  He welcomed City & State to Buffalo, adding that it was about time Buffalo got some real journalism up in here. He added that Buffalo media had too many “worms like Alan Bedenko”, expressing surprise and dismay as to how I even got into this event, to which I had been invited. 

Of all the elected officials, journalists, and dignitaries who filled that room, only one name was mentioned – mine, spat out by Buffalo’s favorite son – a walking, talking insult billboardatorium

Oh, how delightful this all was. I don’t think you’ve really arrived in Buffalo until you’ve been viciously cursed out by Carl Paladino.

What have I done to this man, except tell the truth about him? His sordid racist emails? His failed candidacy? The horrible things that come from his mouth? This guy is the personification of dishing it out but not being able to take it. (Mr. Tea Party is hanging out with Steve Pigeon, now?) What have I done, except be one of the few not in thrall of his money or perceived power? He hides behind his money, hurling misogyny, homophobia, and invective from emails and billboards, but I’m the coward?  I mean, I never circulated anal horse pornography, but that’s just not my thing. 

What’s with the hate and anger? Here he is, a millionaire in his $70,000 truck, being feted and paid attention to by all sorts of VIPs from not just the region, but throughout the state, but he’s got to take especial time to attempt – and fail – to insult me from the stage at the Dinosaur BBQ at someone else’s event. How great is that

Almost everyone said it was “just Carl being Carl”. It was, indeed.  That is, of course, the problem, but he’s attained folk hero status and can get away with just about anything, and the list of “cowards” who are willing to call him on it is regrettably short these days. There’s a fine line between being a straight talker and the state of being “Carl”. 

As for me, it was one of the proudest nights of my life; a story to remember. I make it a point to never knowingly do business with Carl Paladino, and I didn’t touch a drop of liquid or morsel of food that he underwrote at the event. 

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you. – Matthew 5:44. 

Racist Assault at a Cheektowaga Dollar General (Update)

Do you know this woman? 

She’s got some interesting views on race. Put another way, this is on the front page of Reddit as of Wednesday morning. 

My favorite part is when she’s on the phone (depicted above) with, ostensibly, her husband and rhetorically asks, (around 2:30) “oh, he knows the cops? How many cops have I stripped for? “

This woman is not only allowed to walk the streets of Cheektowaga, she’s got two kids in front of whom she’s yelling “ni**er” at a Black man whose only offense was to start his car when her boy was nearby, apparently startling him. 

Maybe we can set aside the facile Buffalo exceptionalism for a moment and revisit the idea that our people are no better or worse, necessarily, than those anywhere else in the United States. Perhaps instead of “everything is awesome”, we can use incidents such as these to identify and treat a racist cancer plaguing a place that has acute resentments borne out of ignorance and economic hardship. 

This woman is a symptom of a much larger problem that our #Buffalove tends too often to brush aside. 

UPDATE: She called in to WBLK to defend herself. We learn: 

1. Her name is “Janelle Ambrosia”; 

2. She’s having a very bad day; 

3. The man who took the video “almost hit” her kid with his car, but did not hit anyone with anything; 

4. The man who took the video allegedly called her a “crackhead cracker”; 

5. She thinks that someone shouldn’t be able to post videos – “ex-specially” of her kids – on YouTube; and

6. She is unapologetic – “what am I supposed to do? Apologize?” 

 

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.

Buffalo Flyover

A very cool video by local filmmaker Scott Gable

Also DRONES!1!

Buffalo Flyover Reel from scott gable on Vimeo.

One Month

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The difference between March 31st and April 29th.

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