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. 

Donn Esmonde Makes Kevin Gaughan, Poor People Unlikeable,

Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

Donn Esmonde Looks at things Backwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shorter Esmonde

In a city where the only growth industry is crippling nostalgia, we must explore and exploit new sources of it. 

Shorter Esmonde

Now that my wife and I are nearing the end of our work-life, it’s high time those union thugs that guaranteed our own financial security, good wages, pensions, and benefits, get with the tea party program

Shorter shorter Esmonde:

I gots mine. 

Donny And The Great Concrete Elevator

Donn Esmonde just loves the grain elevators, and he loves people who love what he loves. Those crumbling concrete gravestones to a long-gone industrial time might be big and ugly, but by gosh they tell a story

waterfront wasteland

Something about it. Photo by Chris Smith via Flickr

These things matter. 

Esmonde skips through his paean to placemaking, extolling the wondrous things that nostalgia can bring – a buyer for a peeling behemoth on Lake Erie an outfit called FFZ Holdings bought at auction June 7th for just $475,000.

True, they are more beast than beauty, comparatively closer to mastodons than to mermaids. Yet to this Buffalo transplant, they always seemed like concrete dinosaurs, rising from the scrub brush along the Buffalo River plain like frozen-in-time fossils. Their inert mass stamped Buffalo’s broad-shouldered identity and shouted “sense of place” in an increasingly homogenized world. What was not to like?

For decades, [grain elevator aficionado Lorraine] Pierro has been their fiercest champion. “This is our history,” she said. “It seems like there is a new appreciation and recognition of them.”

FFZ Holdings is located at the same 26 Mississippi Avenue address as Savarino Companies, and it was named as a co-developer of some apartments on Ohio Street in the remnants of the “Erie Freight House”. Remember how receptive Esmonde’s friends in the preservation community were to the Savarino-proposed demolition of the freight house? I wonder how much taxpayers will be on the hook with various and sundry incentives and corporate welfare schemes to renovate Mr. Esmonde’s beloved concrete monstrosities. 

Is there a similar preservation movement in Europe to preserve Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks because “sense of place” and historical significance? 

Maybe more people could learn about the historic freight houses of the Erie Canal and the reasons why grain elevators are important if schools weren’t being starved into oblivion by alleged school reformer tea party hacks such as the ones Donn Esmonde now promotes

This is part of a new, ongoing AV Daily series, Donn Esmonde is an Ass.  Email us ways Donn Esmonde is an ass here

Unfair Blame and Facile Hypocrisy

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is widely attributed to Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Office of Budget and Management Bert Lance. He coined it to describe a simple way to save government money. 

It’s been a little over a week since Clarence voters overwhelmingly rejected a crisis budget for next year, which would have kept spending steady at 1%, but required a one-time above-cap school tax increase of approximately 9.8%. A week later, we learned how deeply the cuts would go – $2 million here, $2 million there, and pretty soon, something that wasn’t “broke” is teetering on the edge of educational insolvency. 30 people are losing their jobs. There is nothing to cheer about here. 

Insult has been added to injury, thanks to one outrageous column from Donn Esmonde, gloating from the millionaire anti-school faction, and a completely misguided editorial from the Buffalo News itself. 

It’s been a bad few weeks for anyone who expects – needs – excellence from the Clarence Schools. 

On Saturday, former union worker Donn Esmonde praised the bright ideas of Roger Showalter, one of the two “vote no” candidates who was elected to the school board this year (both of whom are related by marriage). 

Public records reveal that Showalter lives in a house on Strickler Road that has an assessed 2013 value of $247,000. Thanks to the state’s STAR program, only $217,000 of that is used to calculate school taxes.  In Saturday’s column, Esmonde writes that Showalter has five kids attending Clarence schools. This means that, had the proposed budget been passed, Showalter’s family would have incurred an additional $20 – 30/month in school taxes to ensure that his kids’ teachers and programs remained employed and intact, respectively; that’s $4 – 6 per pupil, per month. If you can afford a $250,000 house, is $20/month to keep teachers employed and programs intact that onerous a hardship? 

Why didn’t they just raise the levy 2% every year, some ask. Well, if they had, the rate would be higher now

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) filed suit against the State of New York, alleging that schools in the New York City area were underfunded, and that this denied kids a quality education. The CFE won its final appeal in November 2006, which ordered the state to spend about $14 billion to improve the quality of New York City schools.  In the meantime, CFE helped enact the State Education Budget and Reform Act of 2007, which was to ensure proper funding of every school in the state. The law includes a “Foundation Aid Formula”, described thusly, 

to ensure adequacy and equity in state school funding by establishing a relationship between state aid, the needs of students and a district’s ability to raise revenue. It provided for a four-year phase-in of state aid to reach full funding of the formula. The legislation also introduced accountability provisions in its “contracts for excellence,” in order to ensure that the money provided was well spent.

In 2007 and 2008, Albany funded schools pursuant to its own formula, but froze aid in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Albany cut aid by $2.7 billion through the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” (GEA). On top of this, the school tax cap results in chronic underfunding of certain districts, perpetuating existing inequities. 

In the 2012-2013 state budget, the difference between what the reform act of 2007 mandated and what Albany was actually funding exceeded $5.5 billion. If you add in accumulated cuts through GEA, schools have lost $7.7 billion in promised aid and classrooms throughout the state are in crisis. Under Governor Cuomo, class sizes are increasing, services for the most vulnerable students are disappearing, as are programs and teachers.  There is litigation pending to force the state to obey prior court orders and its own legislation.  Clarence has been denied money it was promised.

As with all problems plaguing western New York, the underfunding of our schools is a political one.

Turning back to Mr. Showalter, in March 2012 he wrote this letter to the Clarence Bee

As the parent of four children attending Clarence schools (plus one more to join them soon), I have good reason to want our schools to be “great.” But simply raising taxes and paying our teachers more does not accomplish that (see the Buffalo school system). The fact is that Clarence spends more than $13,000 per student — more than enough for a quality education.

Clarence schools are “great” mainly because of the quality of students we send there, and they will still be “great” after we make the necessary cuts to the school budget. My wife and I spend many nights tutoring our children through their homework because we believe their education is most important. And I believe that many other parents in Clarence do the same — that is why Clarence schools are “great.” That will not change, no matter what cuts are made.

Last year, we heard the same dire warnings from special-interest teacher groups that cuts in spending would “destroy” our schools — but in the end we didn’t notice any decline in the quality of education. I believe that cuts this year will likewise have no real effect on the quality of education provided. While it would be nice if we had no budget restraints on our schools and each of our kids could have individual tutoring, that is not the reality we live in.

It is now time to start living within our means. Doing so will ensure that Clarence schools will continue to be great, not just for next year but for the next 20 as well.

The tl;dr is: Clarence schools are good because of two-parent, white, affluent homes, and teachers are superfluous. 

That letter is shocking in its elitist condescension. The teachers are completely out of the equation, and it presumes that Clarence families are somehow superior to families in any other district.  Does this mean that Williamsville families are superior to Clarence’s? After all, Williamsville outperforms Clarence just about every year in Business First’s rankings. His reductive, ‘it’d be nice if we had 1:1 teacher:student ratio’ argument is childish .

Well, past cuts did affect the quality of education. Clarence lost its two marching bands in last year’s budget, and they were notably absent from this year’s Memorial Day Parade. We’ll have to import one for Labor Day. In 2011, the elementary schools lost most field trips, and $85,000 was cut from supply and equipment budgets across the district. In 2012, in addition to the marching bands, the schools reduced weekend security, fired its PR person, lost assistant coaches in JV and varsity sports, and negotiated deals to share transportation and maintenance with Akron schools. In 2012, Clarence lost the last vestige of its gifted and talented program, the Clarence Schoolwide Enrichment Program and BOCES training for the state’s “positive behavioral intervention and support” program. 

In 2012, the school district was forced to leave the brightest and the most vulnerable students behind. Anyone who thinks that wealth, or family structure immunizes kids from the pressures of contemporary adolescence is woefully misguided. 

On Friday, the Buffalo News’ editorial board lectured the Clarence school board

The tax cap was set up to help force districts to make difficult budget choices rather than automatically raising taxes. In calling for a 10 percent tax hike, the School Board didn’t do that. Credit School Board President Michael Lex for accepting responsibility “for the present board not meeting the needs of our core constituents.” He’s right. 

It’s unfortunate that the board didn’t anticipate the opposition the original budget would generate. The issue divided the community in an acrimonious debate, and now the community has to come together.

At a public meeting held Friday evening, Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks and Board President Lex revealed that during the four public budget hearing/workshops, the voices in favor of going over cap outnumbered the anti-tax speakers by at least a 3:1 ratio. The purpose of these hearings is to listen to the community – they did that. To suggest otherwise is insulting and untrue. 

Courtesy Chris Byrd

Donn Esmonde took a buyout from the Buffalo News in 2011. He’s been freelancing ever since; presumably the writer’s guild has no problem with a retiree taking column inches from a current employee. But during his tenure at the News, he was subject to the protections a union offers; collective bargaining, a good contract with a nice pay and benefits package. Esmonde’s wife, likewise, is a union employee, working as a special education instructor for the Buffalo school system. She’s a member of the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation, led by anti-reformer Phil Rumore. Esmonde’s entire adult existence has been eased and enhanced through union membership. 

But what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Esmonde’s entire schtick for the past several years has been, at times, difficult to pigeonhole. On the one hand, he’s been a vocal anti-development preservationist. Tight with the Tielmans and Goldmans of Buffalo, he alternates between aging hippie who hates suburbs to aging, reactionary, resentful tea party hack. It was just recently that he wrote a column expressing disgust at the wholly natural activity of breastfeeding

In two of his last three columns, Esmonde has gone on a tirade in favor of starving the Clarence school district into a shell of its former self. Why might this be? What possible reason might cityphile, suburbophobe Esmonde have to do this? 

He has an animus towards people who move to the suburbs for the schools. 

You needn’t go far to figure it out. Look at this column where he lauds efforts to expand charter schools in Buffalo, 

I have no doubt about his charter-pushing motivation: to bring school choice to parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private schools or to move to the suburbs.

Which is a valid point for charters and even vouchers in failing districts – kids don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t sit and wait for politicians, taxpayers, and administrators to do what’s needed to provide educational excellence. But Clarence’s schools are already excellent.  What is the critical need for reform in Clarence, a district whose annual spending increases (if any) amount to about half the rate of inflation? 

Let’s examine Esmonde’s glowing profile of Mr. Showalter, the ‘we’re rich enough and stable enough that the teachers don’t matter’ guy. 

He sees himself not as a grim reaper, but as a savior. His mission is not to gut the quality of your kids’ education, but to save it.

If Roger Showalter succeeds, it will mark a new way of doing business not just in Clarence, but across the region.

Showalter is one of two anti-tax candidates who soon will join Clarence’s School Board. The district’s proposed 9.8 percent school-tax spike last month blew peoples’ gaskets even in this milk-and-honey suburb. The subsequent beat-down in a record turnout forced school officials to regroup with a 3.79 percent do-over that should prove digestible, but does typical quality-of-school damage: Teacher layoffs, cuts to sports and clubs and larger class sizes.

Showalter thinks it is time to flip the formula. His philosophy is rooted in practicality. The Clarence High School grad (Class of ’89) has five kids, ages 4 to 17. He needs the district’s schools to be good, and to stay good.

“My kids have good teachers,” Showalter told me Thursday in his Depew office. “But we can’t keep laying them off, year after year … That’s what we’re looking at, unless we change the way we do things.”

He is reed-thin, speaks at librarian-approved volume and looks you in the eye. As president of Niagara Refining, an offshoot of the family’s tungsten operation, he balances a parent’s concern with a businessman’s sensibility.

His bottom-line sense tells him the district’s business model is broken. Clarence and nearly every other suburban district suffers from the same affliction: Shrinking enrollments and rising costs, in a region that is bleeding population.

The historic “remedy” is to perpetually raise school taxes, cut newer teachers and deep-six programs. That solution depends on ever-fewer residents continually paying more to get less. Showalter doesn’t think that works for parents, for kids or – ultimately – for teachers.

“That’s why I ran for the board,” he said. “The cost structure has to change.”

There is a vicious cycle. High taxes repel business, so we lose jobs and people. That shrinks school enrollments and forces fewer people to pay more for schools that have failed to put a lid on their largest expense – personnel costs.

According to SeeThroughNY.net, more than 100 Clarence teachers or administrators make at least $90,000, in a district of about 4,600 kids. Showalter said teachers pay no more than 10 percent of health care costs, administrators less.

He wants to stop sacrificing school quality on the altar of ever-rising teacher/administrator salaries, with benefits that disappeared in corporate America with the two-martini lunch. Instead of fewer teachers and worse schools, Showalter’s push includes buyouts for veteran teachers, teachers/administrators paying more for health care, and hiring a professional contract negotiator. Sounds like a plan – for Clarence, and beyond.

As Esmonde should well know, teachers in New York State must have master’s degrees, must be certified and periodically re-certified, and consider what they do both a profession and a calling. It’s not easy teaching kids. A teacher isn’t just an instructor, but a social worker, mediator, negotiator, equipment supplier, counselor, and spends countless hours of their own time revising curricula, writing and grading tests, arranging music, helping kids, developing strategies, etc. Rather than being disposable worker-drones, teachers have the unique ability to inspire kids and touch their lives, every day. Because they’ve eschewed the potential risks and rewards available in the private sector, teachers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and laws that directly benefit them. It’s good enough for Esmonde’s family, evidently, but not good enough for the teachers in Clarence. Stark hypocrisy, that. 

There are no rising teacher or administrator salaries – in their last contract, administrators agreed to a pay freeze. Teachers gave up half of the incremental salary increase in 2012-13, and to freeze the step schedule for the life of the contract, with no additional money added to existing salary steps. These were unprecedented concessions, which restored all personnel cuts proposed that year. Instead of whining about how much teachers contribute towards their health care, ask yourself why you settle for less. In the end, the teachers now pay 8% towards their health care, going up to 10% next year. 

That’s likely more than Esmonde pays.

Esmonde complains about “two-martini lunch” era benefits, but if his own health insurance was through his wife’s employer, he enjoyed benefits rich enough to afford his family elective plastic surgery if they wanted it, and can choose from several different health insurance providers. If it was through the Buffalo News, there are 37 health insurance plans across the different bargaining groups. At the Buffalo News in 2011, Guild members contributed nothing towards their health insurance premiums. Hell, he even advocated for violating a student’s fundamental 1st Amendment rights

Esmonde thinks the benefits he and his family enjoy aren’t good enough for teachers in other districts. 

“For every four veteran teachers who retire,” he calculated, “we can, for the same cost, hire 10 new teachers. Nobody gets laid off, and we can keep the programs our kids need.”

Flickers of change are on the horizon. West Seneca recently enticed 132 teachers and staff to retire and closed a school. Two other districts will share a superintendent. Reality is the mother of reform.

Closing a school means larger class sizes. Buyouts – as Esmonde knows – aren’t targeted towards specific teachers but need to be offered more broadly, and teachers can’t be coerced into taking them. Buyouts also cost money which may – or may not – be recouped elsewhere. There is an undercurrent of dissent whereby people think that one can retain something called a “professional contract negotiator” and suddenly – magically – the Taylor Law will fall, the Triborough Amendment will be repealed, the current contract will be abrogated, and everything will be just fine. That’s not how it works, and a “professional contract negotiator” costs money the district can’t afford, I’m continuously told. 

Meanwhile, West Seneca spends $14,663 per pupil and is ranked 15th in Business First’s rankings. Clarence spends $13,410 and is ranked 2nd in WNY. What is it about Clarence that is spendthrift and wasteful? What needs fixing? 

The cost/benefits adjustment that hit corporate America years ago is, sooner or later, coming to a school district near you. Numbers don’t lie: Virtually every district is caught in the same slow, downward spiral of a shrinking region.

As a company president, Showalter sees how the dots connect. He last week hosted a delegation from another country looking to locate a business here. He showed them a few available sites.

“Then I told them that their taxes would be about $150,000 a year,” he said. “They were like, ‘Whoa, we can go to other states and pay $100,000 less.’”

I’d like to personally thank Mr. Showalter for scaring away potential businesses, if indeed that conversation ever happened. That’s the sort of bold leadership we need to help grow WNY? Perhaps the Clarence IDA would be happy to abate that business’ school taxes for it. Kids don’t need teachers, after all. 

Jobs, schools, taxes – they are part of the same equation. As a businessman, Showalter clearly sees it.

He has no illusions about anything changing tomorrow. There still is a pro-union majority on Clarence’s School Board. He is one man, one voice. But the less things change, the louder his words echo.

Basically, Esmonde’s and Showalter’s idea of reform places no blame whatsoever on broken Albany policies and underfunding of districts, but all of it on teachers. In their world, teachers are expendable – we might as well simply employ unqualified workers at minimum wage and fire them when they demand any benefits. After all, Clarence is wealthy and responsible – these kids will teach themselves! 

But that’s the thing – if Showalter’s kids’ lose a program here or there, they’re wealthy and stable enough to make it up privately. These cuts do the most harm to the kids in Clarence who aren’t well-to-do, and whose parents can’t afford alternatives. It’s a direct assault on the poor and middle-class who do, amazingly enough, exist in Clarence. 

We have this thing in our economy we call “inflation”. For the last 13 years, it’s been about 2.5%. That means the cost of things has increased, and it justifies rises in wages to keep up. Yet the Clarence school district’s budget has grown by about 1% each of the last five years. That’s a conservative’s dream. Or ought to be, if the conservative in question believed in a public school education.

Make no mistake – this is the first salvo in a coming effort to voucherize Clarence schools. Malignant astroturf group “Americans for Prosperity” has recently promoted what it calls “school choice”, which makes no sense in a district that produces cost-effective excellence. To voucherize Clarence, presumably families would get a piece of paper entitling them to a credit to use at any private, parochial, or public school that will take it. At a tax rate of about $15/1,000 of assessed value, a $150,000 household would likely have about $2,250 to spend. That doesn’t go very far at Nichols or Nardin.  

Finally, Donn Esmonde is sloppy and not even trying. Is his column being fact-checked or edited? He used “milk-and-honey” to describe Clarence in both columns – phoning it in on auto-dial. He wrote that Marlese Wacek, 

…was prompted last year by the town’s proposal for a new ice rink to join Clarence Tax Payers, a grass-roots anti-tax group. She went door-to-door in recent weeks, urging a “No” vote on the district budget from neighbors whose annual school taxes can bump up to $5,000.

If you’re paying $5,000 per year in Clarence school taxes, your house has an assessed post-STAR value of $350,000, and a total assessed value of $380,000. Cries of poverty are unpersuasive. 

There is a public hearing on June 10th to discuss the revote budget. The revote itself is June 18th. 

Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

Cuyahoga at Lake and Rail Buffalo NY

Cuyahoga at Lake and Rail Buffalo NY by tark9, on Flickr

1. Shorter Buffalo News piece on Deputy Mayor Steve Casey: he’s a dick who terrorizes staff and throws Democrats under the bus in favor of Chris Collins, but he’s the Mayor’s dick

2. The Buffalo News calls this Hochul ad misleading. How so? It doesn’t say Collins got rich off of Ingenious’ Balance Buddy. It says he makes more money by outsourcing the manufacturing in China rather than building the device in western New York.

Statement A:

Asked why Ingenious would contract with a manufacturer in China, Collins said that it would be too expensive to make the product in the United States. ’It would not be feasible to have that product made and packaged for $7 in the U.S.,’ Collins said. (Cannot link directly to Buffalo News story because of its wholly unusable web presence). 

Statement B: 

China manipulates its currency, steals intellectual property from American companies, subsidizes government-owned businesses that compete with firms in the United States and closes its markets to foreign products.

“It’s not OK,” he said.

If the trade inequities with China are removed, “those jobs come back,” Collins said.

That’s patently true – by Collins’ own admission – and not at all misleading. In fact, the Buffalo News’ “fact check” is misleading. Also – perhaps more egregiously – he conducted Ingenious business from the 16th floor of the Rath Building, and so badly screwed over the initial investors that they’ve sued him.  

3. If there’s one thing Donn Esmonde loves to do, he loves to pat himself on the back. He loves being the official organ of Buffalo’s development/preservationist intelligentsia. So, he twists and contorts to the conclusion that the Liberty Hound‘s success somehow prove that the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” scam is the best thing ever. What the Liberty Hound’s success – as well as the success of a lot of Canalside’s summertime programming – really establishes is that the waterfront will be a popular place if you give people something to do there. Lighter, quicker, cheaper didn’t give us Liberty Hound – that was a big project done with a state agency,  a partnership of two successful restaurateurs, a museum, and  an assist from big political players. Lighter, quicker, cheaper gave us the Fred Kent “placemaking” sideshow, the snack shack, and brightly colored Adirondack chairs. The ECHDC was bullied into doing it by a supposedly earnest man endlessly pushing solar-powered carousels who wasn’t so quick to disclose that his interests in the matter also involved how Canalside might affect the bar and restaurant business in Black Rock and Allentown.  

Shorter Donn Esmonde

Tim Tielman has transformed obstructionism into a successful protection racket, and this is good for Buffalo. 

 

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