Suburban School Voters: Vote Smart Today!

IMG_2912 - Windows Photo Viewer 2015-05-19 11.08.04There’s a light at the end of the tunnel as nervous parents, kids, and teachers cross their fingers and hope that school budgets are passed and that good people are elected to school boards throughout western New York’s rural and suburban districts.

Today is Tuesday, and the polls are open.

In my own town of Clarence, a dedicated and selfless group of parents have banded together since the bleakness of 2012 and formed a reasonable well-oiled campaign machine that we hope delivers us victory tonight. I don’t know what it is about Clarence that makes it so susceptible to last-throe gurgles from the tea party, but alas, here we are again. In my town we have four candidates for two open school board seats, and I always harken back to the blissful time before I had to pay attention, and recall that I always voted in favor of the school budget, but seldom knew whom to select for the board. This year, it was even more important because the differences between the pro-school and anti-school candidates is so stark.

Our group endorses and supports Michael Fuchs and Dennis Priore. Michael Fuchs is an incumbent and has served the district and its students and faculty well. He is against unsustainable cuts to educational opportunity for our kids, and wants to restore the district to its former excellence. He has worked for Rich Products for well over a decade, handling the finances of a huge local corporation. He has the skills, education, experience, and integrity to continue serving us well for the next 3 years. Dennis Priore is a longtime resident of Clarence and a former principal and school administrator. As a recent retiree, he has time, knowledge, experience, education, and skills to marshal in order to serve our district. He knows how budgets and union negotiations are made, and he has pledged to balance the needs of the students with the expectations of taxpayers.  They’re also the only candidates running for school board who are homeowners and school taxpayers. With a stake in the district and an investment in the community, they won’t let the students be further harmed by financial shenanigans or disastrous tea party austerity.

We’re hopeful.

But if that wasn’t enough, take a look at one of their opponent’s closing argument. (The other opponent is fundamentally unelectable). It perfectly distills all of the reasons why he is an unacceptable and noxious candidate for a school board. Uneducated, inexperienced, with absolutely no credentials or resume, this person is all bluster and no substance.

Let’s examine. (All [sic]).

Here are your CTA Endorsed Candidates for this election. The teachers union likes to say that they are “supporting our students” or “fighting for the children”. It’s just as absurd to say the Iron Workers fight for steel, the UAW fights for cars and the Operating Engineers fight for heavy equipment. The unions exist solely for the benefit of their members and their own interest. The school board exists to represent the people of this town. The CTA does not need representation on the school board. They have things like the Triborough Amendment in place to stack the deck against students and taxpayers. If you think that the endorsement of these candidates by the CTA shows that these candidates put students and taxpayers first, you are sadly mistaken.

It takes a special brand of malevolent cynicism to conclude that the teachers are full of shit when they say they’re fighting for the children whom they teach. It takes an even more special type of ignorant, noxious attitude to assume that teachers are just in it for greed – the same attitude as the Buffalo News’ editorial page or its union-member, married-to-a-teacher resident hypocrite columnist Donn “throw you under the bus” Esmonde.

Here’s the thing that Joe Lombardo doesn’t understand – mostly because he evidently never so much as received an associate’s degree after high school (his resume is a closely guarded secret he won’t reveal) – teachers didn’t attend 4 years of college and then an additional few years of postgraduate study to obtain their M.S. and teaching certificate in order to get rich.

If they wanted to get rich, they could have gotten an MBA and traded commodities, or become entrepreneurs. Instead, they joined a noble profession for which Joe Lombardo has no respect.


Some 20-something punk kid who lives with mommy and daddy decides he doesn’t like unions or teachers, (or teachers’ unions), so he just accuses them all of being greedy pigs at the public trough, driving around in their Bentleys on their $60,000 median salaries, right? They couldn’t possibly be in it for the love of teaching or the thrill of educating and molding young minds, because that sort of notion is not one that Lombardo has any concept of.

An ironworker may be proud of the work that he or she does – constructing the skeletons of large buildings, and their union helps to ensure that they’re paid a fair wage and receive decent benefits for their labor. A UAW member is proud of the product that he or she helps to manufacture, and wants to make sure that they’re paid a fair wage and receive fair benefits for their labor.

A teacher is proud of the work that he or she does – educating the next generation of Americans. Educating the kids who will heal Joe Lombardo when he’s sick; who will represent him in court; who will manage or create the company he patronizes; who will entertain him on stage or screen; who will score a touchdown or hit a home run. You denigrate teachers, you denigrate the very foundation of our society.

The veracity of unions in our schools is really taking its toll on student opportunities and taxpayer’s wallets.

That is not a sentence that has any reasonable meaning in the English language. Which taxpayer’s wallet? “Veracity” means truthfulness.

It’s such a blatant and rampant problem that even polar opposites such as Governor Cuomo and myself, recognize what’s going on.…/andrew-cuomo-rips-teacher-unio… Don’t be mislead by two candidates and a group of people who have established that they stand with an industry that collects $220 million annually to perpetuate and expand a gluttonous and overly generous contract in the name of education.

Here’s the question they’ll never, ever answer: How much do you think is a fair salary for a teacher? What do you think are fair benefits for a teacher? How would you – as a school board member – make changes to the state laws governing teacher pensions? How would you work around the Triborough Amendment and beat the teachers into submitting to your austerity wage cuts and slashing of benefits?

85% of Clarence teachers are ranked as “highly effective” by the state.  On what insane lunatic planet does someone institute punitive wage and salary cuts against a workforce that regularly exceeds expectations? Shall we have an army of the worst teachers who can’t get a job anywhere else come and educate our kids for $10/hour and no benefits?

It’s been shown time in and time out, that they put themselves ahead of everyone else, while sacrificing opportunities for students.

I’ll say it this way: Joe Lombardo must not have ever talked to a teacher and actually asked them what their job entails. He assumes they show up at 8, leave at 3, take summers off on the Cote d’Azure, and spend the rest of their time making sure their BMWs gleam in the sunlight. I’ll say it this way, too: Joe Lombardo doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

School districts have lost all bargaining power because entrenched politicians are paid off to write laws where the union will always come out the winner.

And as a school board member in a small suburban district, you’ll do what about that, precisely? Start a coup?

As a taxpayer, a resident, a parent or a student, you only have two choices in this election tomorrow.

That’s right. Michael Fuchs and Dennis Priore, if you’re in Clarence. They’re the only two candidates who are campaigning on a platform of stronger schools, rather than demonizing the very teachers who help make our district what it is today; they’re the only candidates who don’t refer to teachers as “gluttonous,” or use the pronoun “they” to describe these educators who repeatedly and consistently go above and beyond for our kids; They’re the only candidates who aren’t pitting “us” against “them”.  Literally – read Joe’s thing again. It’s all resentment, class warfare, and visceral hatred of teachers, and the notion that they be remunerated fairly. They’re the only ones who aren’t afraid to put their resumes out there for the public to review and assess.

I don’t know how much more a ragtag grassroots team of fed-up parents can do to mobilize for a school vote, and we’ve done everything we can think of. We can only hope our district gets out of this unscathed, and that similarly situated districts have equally positive outcomes.

Fingers crossed. Knock on wood.

Who Fears the Mighty PTO?

debateniteAre you now, or have you ever been, a member of a PTO?

Most parents even of schoolkids pay scant attention to their local Parent-Teacher Organizations. They are oftentimes 501c3 non-profits that fundraise to pay for library books, school supplies, and extras that the regular school budget won’t – or can’t – accommodate. They do this through tax-deductible donations earned through dances, activity nights, collection of boxtops and store receipts, and through the sale of books, wreaths, coupon books, gift cards, and other small items. One random local PTO’s mission: “Our organization is committed to improve, enhance, and assist the educational and social processes in our school.”

We’re not talking revolutionary communism here. We’re not talking about Spartacists. These are moms and dads enhancing school life. 

PTOs are run by small groups of selfless and involved parents. As a 501c3, PTOs can engage in issue advocacy, but cannot endorse, support, or fund any individual political or school candidacies. A PTO can ask people to vote yes for a school budget, but cannot recommend votes for particular board candidates. Likewise, a PTO (or any 501c3) can host a candidate forum, so long as all candidates are invited and the process is objectively fair; questions or time are not biased against any one candidate. There is no requirement that the individual PTO members be impartial – merely that the process is fair and that the PTO hasn’t made an express endorsement. We’re not picking a jury here.

A few weeks ago, the Clarence High School PTO copied & pasted – shared – to Facebook something from a local pro-school advocacy group that contained an express endorsement of two candidates. It was a mistake, and it was deleted when brought to their attention. That PTO wasn’t necessarily endorsing the Keep Clarence Schools Great statement – merely sharing it. You know – the whole “RT ≠ Endorsement” thing on Twitter. Nevertheless, it raised the appearance of impartiality in the board races and should likely not have been done.

Next Tuesday, there will be a candidate forum hosted and moderated by members of two different, elementary school PTOs. The High School PTO is not at all involved. The entire program is organized and hosted by the school district, and the program was going to go out of its way to be fair to all four board candidates – two pro-school, two anti-school running for two seats. It bears repeating that neither of the elementary school PTOs posted anything anywhere that could be construed as endorsing any candidate for school board.

One candidate for the board, Joe Lombardo, Jr., pounced. He filed this grievance to the district office:

The PTO has shown that it is a biased group unable to equitably moderate this forum. They have publicly endorsed and opposed candidates on their Facebook page as seen in the attached photo. This creates and unfair and an unreasonable situation for myself and Jacob, especially when the PTO is creating its own questions. In addition, their endorsements and opposition of candidates violates 501c(3) law. I have advised the Erie County District Attorney’s Office of this matter. Based on the above points, I herby file a grievance in order to seek another moderator who can prove to be unbiased. Perhaps we can get a moderating panel from the Erie County Chapter of the League of Woman Voters or a chapter from a surrounding town. I feel their performance in the past has been excellent.


Joe Lombardo

We need to examine this point by point.

The PTO has shown that it is a biased group unable to equitably moderate this forum.

There exist six PTOs in the town district – one for each school. None of them are affiliated with any of the others, except insofar as each is a “PTO”. Two of the elementary PTOs were to moderate the forum. The High School PTO, which Lombardo believes to be “a biased group” was not slated to be involved with the forum in any way. So, although arguably the HS PTO may have shown “bias”, the elementary PTOs hosting the forum did no such thing.

They have publicly endorsed and opposed candidates on their Facebook page as seen in the attached photo.

“They”? Which “They? One PTO re-posted the text from another group, and clearly labeled it as such. It was a mistake, but ultimately harmless. Note Lombardo’s use of the singular number in his first sentence, and switch to plural in the second. Are all local PTOs to be held accountable for the actions of one? Or does he think there’s only one PTO? Questions, questions.

This creates and unfair and an unreasonable situation for myself and [fellow anti-school candidate] Jacob [Kerksiek], especially when the PTO is creating its own questions.

All <sic> by the way. The offending High School PTO was not “creating” any questions. It wasn’t even involved. Again, two different, elementary school PTOs were involved in drafting questions in consultation with the district office. There were safeguards put in place to ensure that the questions were uncontroversial and generic; questions that any board candidate could expect and should be able to answer. But if the High School PTO’s mistake ruined it for the two elementary school PTOs, why not explain how? Note the singular number for “the PTO”, and watch how the next sentence takes a simple matter and turns it up to eleven:

In addition, their endorsements and opposition of candidates violates 501c(3) law. I have advised the Erie County District Attorney’s Office of this matter.

Holy mackerel.

Yes, if a PTO endorsed or opposed a candidate, it would be violative of 501c3. But this instance was, at worst, an accidental re-printing of another group’s endorsement. The offending Facebook post was clearly marked as that of another group. It’s not the end of the world, and it won’t threaten the High School PTO’s 501c3 status.

It especially won’t be threatened because the Erie County DA prosecutes state crimes, not de minimis violations of federal tax statutes. But note the switch back to the plural number – are all PTOs to blame? Just one? Guilt by association by virtue of their shared use of the initials PTO?

And what is to be gained here? The DA isn’t going to arrest or prosecute the PTO. I suppose the IRS could investigate, but what’s it going to do? Revoke the high school’s non-profit status? That might happen if the PTO had raised money for candidates, but it didn’t, so cui bono? If the HS PTO can’t fundraise as easily because donations aren’t tax-deductible, that hurts the students at the high school – no more, no less. We have here the jaw-dropping, extraordinary spectacle of a putative school board member seeking to indirectly do harm to schoolkids.

Based on the above points, I herby file a grievance in order to seek another moderator who can prove to be unbiased.

Who will conduct the voir dire? Seriously, though, as a practical matter the elementary school PTOs did nothing wrong, so the claims of “bias” are ridiculous.

Perhaps we can get a moderating panel from the Erie County Chapter of the League of Woman Voters or a chapter from a surrounding town. I feel their performance in the past has been excellent.

The League of Women Voters (note the spelling) doesn’t have a Clarence chapter anymore, and has stopped moderating candidate forums for school or town elections. Indeed, the last candidate forum was hosted by the same elementary school PTOs as this year, and no one had a peep of a complaint about it. One would expect someone so interested in the schools that he would run to be its trustee to have attended it, and been aware of that. One would also expect a putative trustee to know that there exist more than one PTO, and that the misdeeds of one do not taint the others.

You know what the PTO moderators are there to do? To stop this sort of childish behavior: 

They sat in the front row on candidates night… They had either the Bee ad with our pictures and write ups, or the district budget paper… I think it was the Bee though… They had Joe [DiPasquale] and me crossed out (our pictures that were in the paper with big red x’s)…when we talked especially when I talked Danica would stick out her tongue, Joe made faces… all rolled their eyes and shook their heads whenever we spoke and held up the paper with our pictures crossed out. I should have ignored it but even when I wasn’t speaking they just stared at me and instead of me looking away I stared back and got into a staring contest. Mind you I just had been diagnosed with whooping cough and had a 103 fever. So it was an all out perfect night. The administrators were sitting about 7 rows back and never saw this going on.

The behavior being described is that of Joe Lombardo, Jr., his girlfriend, and his father. That’s right; the guy complaining about the propriety of two PTOs handling a candidate forum because of the behavior of a third PTO, in 2013 himself engaged in fundamentally infantile taunting behavior during a school board candidate forum, cruelly targeting two people whom he didn’t like. The level of hypocritical butthurt is almost as high as the level of obnoxiousness.

You would think that the district would inform this candidate that he has his facts wrong, and invite him to show up or not – whatever. Instead, they are bending to his demands and the questions that the elementary school PTOs had compiled will be thrown out. In their stead, audience members will be submitting their own questions via index card, and will be randomly selected by the same moderators who were originally scheduled to oversee the proceedings.

Here is what Lombardo told the Clarence Bee:

“The PTO has no business putting their hands in it,” he said. “I am still trying to get a commitment from the league to do it, but time is an issue.  For future forums they need to find an unbiased moderator.”

The PTO has no business putting their hands in “it”; “it” being the candidate forum that the PTO hosts and sponsors. If Lombardo can’t take the heat and perceives PTOs to be his adversary, perhaps he shouldn’t be running for school board.

UPDATE: He still doesn’t get it. Two PTOs are sponsoring and running this PTO candidate forum. 

Perhaps if the UN brought in peacekeepers, that would placate this candidate.

Go Racist Team Name!


No, really. Go.

Although “political correctness” and “PC” is now hurled as an epithet, within its definition is the radical notion that people should not deliberately be horrible to one another. Sure, Dinesh D’Souza has a right to call the African-American President of the United States a “boy” from the “ghetto“, but you don’t need a sociology degree to realize how that’s offensive on two levels. The President is a “man”, not a “boy”, and “boy” has historically been used to pejoratively refer to African-American adult males. President Obama also isn’t from the ghetto. Not all black people come from the ghetto. Not all behavior you deem beneath you is “ghetto”. People like Dinesh D’Souza make a good living by being horrible to others. He is not politically correct, and that’s a shame because civil society should live up to that adjective.

The Lancaster High School sports program calls itself the “Redskins”. There is a push on now to have the district re-name the team because some American Indians are offended by it. More to the point, however, the team name is objectively racist. After all, we don’t call teams “Whiteskins” or “Blackskins” or “Yellowskins”. The reason why has to do with the blatant and palpable racial overtones. Redskins is no different, no matter what the tradition or intent. Identifying an ethnic group or race based on their physical characteristics – here, a pejorative term for their skin color – is a slur. You’re highlighting how they’re different from you.

Search any dictionary – Merriam Webster, American Heritage,, Kernerman Webster’s, Collins – they all define “redskin” as offensive, racist, anachronistic slang.

Some Lancaster residents inexplicably reject that.

“It’s a word. It’s a matter of context,” said Everett, president of Performance Advantage. “No one in this community would support the negative element associated with that name. We don’t subscribe to this negative connotation. It means a lot to people – dedication, achievement, commitment to excellence.”

The Lancaster School District has a choice to make here. Unlike the Washington Redskins, an NFL franchise, we’re talking about a school. If you were to go around spewing racial epithets at kids in the hall, you’d be subject to discipline. So, how does that jibe with having a racist team name? If a student referred to an American Indian kid as a “Redskin” or similar, he’d be punished, but we’re meant to believe that it’s ok to use that term if people are doing the important work of throwing balls hither and thither?

I’m not personally offended by the team name “Redskins”, but I see that many American Indians are. That’s enough to me to – again, reverting back to the core definition of “politically correct” – support changing the name so as to not offend our indigenous Americans with a racial epithet.

Proponents of the “Redskins” name say it evokes pride, bravery, tradition, and all of the good stuff with which we associate indigenous Americans. Here’s the logo:

The Lancaster School District’s mission is:

…to provide our students with a comprehensive educational program that will allow them to develop fully the necessary academic and social skills to become responsible and productive members of a democratic society.

Responsible and productive members of a democratic society. Part of being responsible within a democratic society is changing a team name that has a mere 67 year history, and is blatatly racist by every dictionary definition.

It’s so simple for the district’s school board to simply vote away a racist team name. There are literally thousands of alternative team names available to use, none of which are by definition disparaging to any historically oppressed ethnic or racial minority. What’s so hard to comprehend here? By the Lancaster School District’s own code of conduct (doc, emphases added),

Students are expected to behave, and to treat all students, teachers, school staff and others, with honesty, tolerance, respect, courtesy and dignity as per the LCSD Policy #7552 — Bullying in the Schools. Students should respect their peers, teachers, and school staff. Individual behavior should not interfere with the rights of others. Students are expected to use language that is appropriate in demonstrating respect for self and others. Profanity, vulgar language including, but not limited to, racial comments, and/or obscene gestures toward others will not be tolerated. Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.

How are students expected to abide these basic disciplinary expectations if the district itself failes to do so? The example the district is setting is a poor one. Racist comments are not tolerated between students, but it’s ok for the school’s team and mascot to be a “redskin” American Indian?

The upshot of all of this is, in the big picture, how inconsequential a name change would be. Would Lancaster students, teams, and alumni have less pride in their school or alma mater if the team’s name was changed? Does changing the name of the team and school mascot lessen past glory or affect one’s affinity for the school? Of course not. A racist name chosen almost 70 years ago, before the Civil Rights Act and before Congress and the Courts came around to agreeing that our contemporary American society guaranteed to all citizens, regardless of race or color, the same basic civil rights, is due for a change. Especially when you’re talking about an oppressed people expelled from their homes by colonial invaders.

This isn’t the kind of thing you poll for; you don’t leave it up to majority vote. Just because the name is popular doesn’t make it less racial. Just because 50%-plus-one residents might support it doesn’t make it less violative of the district’s own code of conduct. Just because you’re purporting to use a racist term to highlight what you say are that group’s positive traits doesn’t make it less racist. We would never dream of using “Yellowskins” or some other racist term for a team to describe positive Asian attributes, nor would it be appropriate to use Nazi-era caricatures  to establish that Jewish people are good with money. These are examples of “political correctness”, too.

Appropriately enough for a school district, this is a teaching moment. Will Lancaster show its student body that it’s willing to follow the same code of conduct it expects kids to follow? Will Lancaster’s school district opt to be respectful of all races and ethnicities by changing the school’s mascot and team name to any one of a thousand inoffensive alternatives?

It seems to me that this hardly merits a controversy. High Schools should lead by example and name their teams using terms that aren’t overtly racist.

Clarence: The War on Apathy Begins

On the one hand, we’ve got a well-funded conspiracy to destroy the Clarence schools.

On the other hand, we’ve got apathy.

It might be similar in your town, but then again not every  town has a bunch of businesses and developers working in concert to destroy the schools and depress property values. In some towns, businesses like to forge lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with local residents.

They say Clarence doesn’t “respect the taxpayer”. The data say otherwise:

Dashboard 1

The conspiracy involves the child-hating “Clarence Taxpayers” cabal, the Americans for Prosperity tea party astroturf types, and big developers in town, led by Paul Stephen and his henchman, Noel Dill. Lawn signs for the anti-school board candidate are popping up in front of properties owned by developers, who have no qualms about depressing property values so they can make a few more bucks off the brick garbage they put up – without question – around town. They’re all vultures, circling and waiting to pick at the carcass of a community they’re working to destroy.

Derelict Abandoned Motels for Worling

What they don’t understand is that they can’t win. The Triborough Amendment renders toothless any effort to strong-arm the teachers and their union. If the district and teachers don’t come to terms on a new contract, the existing contract remains in effect until they do, someday. These dummies think that they can force the district to hire a “professional contract negotiator” who will perform magic to bring the teachers to heel.

Also, the teachers aren’t the enemy. They deserve what they earn. These professionals deserve and earn their salaries and benefits. Stop blaming the teachers for non-existent problems.

Their hand-picked anti-school candidate has the nerve to ask parents to voluntarily pay more in taxes to fund things like clubs, extracurriculars, electives, AP classes, sports, and music, but we’re all supposed to pitch in to pay for a “negotiator”, even though we pay one – the superintendent – a lot of money to do that job.

I don’t use “child-hating” lightly. I won’t link to their abortion of a website, but the only things the “Clarence Taxpayers” group has gotten excited about are the schools, they’ve successfully blocked town efforts to help build an ice rink complex at Eastern Hills Mall, and an indoor soccer facility. That’s it: they’ve only ever opposed anything having to do with kids.

These people are monsters masquerading as taxpayer advocates.

Rock the War on Public Education

Parents are pissed off at this blatant war being waged against their kids. We’ve had it with these malicious efforts to pit seniors against middle-class families who just want their kids to have the same great schools that past generations enjoyed. The wealthy, like the anti-school candidate for the board, send their kids to private schools anyway.

That’s right. The anti-school guy who is running for the public school board sends his kids to Christian Central Academy. His family has no educational investment whatsoever in the schools. Meanwhile, I’ve delivered signs and palmcards to modest homes whose occupants rely on public education.

If you’re in Clarence, please vote yes for the school budget, vote yes for the modest bus proposition, and vote for Tricia Andrews, Matt Stock, and Maryellen Kloss.

We have two enemies – apathy, and the people who exploit it.

Clarence Bans Nothing

On Tuesday night, the Clarence School Board held its regularly scheduled March meeting. On the agenda was a review of the curriculum procedure regarding materials that some parents might find objectionable. This is a completely reasonable thing for a board member to want to discuss, and wholly uncontroversial. 

However, late last week, an inflammatory hit list of allegedly obscene or inappropriate books and other materials was sent to selected homes in town. I obtained a copy of it and posted it widely  – here at Artvoice and on social media sites.  It – and my accompanying letter to the board – spread throughout the town. 

The people who had hoped that Tuesday’s meeting would include a discussion of an inappropriate curriculum were met with a shocker last night. These meetings – at best – attract about 20 spectators. This time, however, the place was literally standing room only. 

The board flew through its regular agenda, including a somewhat distressing presentation about the district’s understaffed special education department – last year’s budget crisis eliminated all of the social workers. Zero, nada, zilch. Kids who need these special services include those who undergo some sort of situational trauma like death, disease, divorce, drugs, or depression. So, it’s an interesting coincidence that many of the books on the hit list included kids who underwent similar traumas – especially rape. It was also striking to me that the majority of the books on the hit list were written by women, had female lead characters, or advocated somehow for the notion that women not be victims of assault, and that they are human beings equal to men in all things. 

When the discussion turned to this agenda item, Trustee Jason Lahti, who originally brought the matter up, begged off the controversy, indicating that he merely wanted to discuss the curriculum process, not ban any books. He indicated that he did not know anything about the letter and hit list from his wife, Ginger, that circulated throughout the town. Trustee Roger Showalter, Ginger’s brother, tersely indicated his satisfaction with the town’s opt-out provision for parents or kids who find materials objectionable. Then the rest of the board spoke. Every single Trustee spoke passionately and eloquently about the teachers, the students, the curriculum, and the adequacy of the current policies. Julie McCullough got the first standing ovation, and a huge sigh of relief when I realized that the crowd was there to defend – not defame – the books and faculty. Board President Michael Lex spoke about the need for adolescents to learn about overcoming assault and adversity, and quoted the author of hit list book Speak

But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” – Laurie Halse Anderson

Then, the community spoke. Student after student – some current, some recent alums – was unbelievably brave and eloquent. Not only had they been taught to be rational analysts and critical thinkers, but good speakers, too. They defended specific books – one especially brave young alum spoke of her own assault and how it affected her mental health, causing her to drop out of college. She explained that she suffered terrible anxiety, yet she stood bravely in front of the board and 100+ members of the community to defend Speak, holding up her dog-eared copy and explaining how it helped her. Kids stood and defended their teachers and the way in which they teach these materials in a thoughtful and engaging way. 

There were a small handful of people there who were there to defend the hit list. Ginger Lahti herself was there, and tried to disassociate herself from the controversy. While Channel 2 was airing an interview with her in which she acknowledged preparing the mailing to address “obscene” works, she stood before the community to explain that it wasn’t even her list, that she had only shared it with two pastors, and that she doesn’t know how it got circulated. She said she wanted to see what the community thought, and she acknowledged that the community was clearly just fine with the current policy. One woman relentlessly attacked the works, alleging that she and her family had opted out over 30 times because of language and themes in some of the works, and she saved especial ire for the sex ed curriculum. Frankly, if you’re opting out of award-winning literature 30 times, perhaps public school just isn’t for you. 

However, the four people, including Lahti, who spoke about the hit list did raise an important issue – some kids who opt out have no meaningful alternative, and are just sent to the library for weeks at a time. 

When I spoke I thanked the board for bringing this matter to the community’s attention, and thanked Mr. Lahti specifically.  I said it was good to, basically, air grievances and discuss how to make policies work better, and that it was important that the handful of affected opt-out parents bring the issues of alternatives to the board’s attention so that these matters can be handled better. But I pointed out the Blue 4 Ben movement and argued that the community was capable of great things when we work together, rather than trying to rip people apart. While the agenda seems uncontroversial now, when it was coupled with the outrageous hit list, it certainly seemed to be a set-up for an effort to ban books and restrict the faculty’s and students’ rights. While Mrs. Lahti now disavowed the list and said she didn’t know where it came from, I noted that she referenced it in her letter. I closed by noting how my parents emigrated to this country in order to flee totalitarian dictatorship and a place where they were told what to think, what to read, and with whom to associate, and never did anyone imagine that we’d be facing similar issues in the U.S. a half-century later. 

The faculty – Mr. Zahn and Mr. Starr spoke passionately to defend the teachers and the curriculum, but also the Constitution. There was the kid who joked that the books on the hit list were so harmful to his upbringing that, instead of being back at college doing drugs, drinking, and having sex, he was at a school board meeting during Spring break defending the wholesomeness of his education. One parent stood to link the earlier special education presentation to the issues brought up in many of these books – how will we adequately help kids who suffer real-life traumas if we refuse properly to fund the nurses, special education, and school psychological staff. 

It was a glorious night, and the board just killed it. A packed house to defend free speech and critical thinking. A packed house to defend controversial books and essays, arguing that these materials are part of a carefully crafted, well-considered curriculum, and that the works are handled appropriately, with care. 

Yesterday, in advance of the meeting, I took some time to learn a little bit about each book on the hit list. Each one of them is an important, noteworthy work that teaches adolescents a valuable lesson. 

The Clarence List by Alan Bedenko


 But I learned a valuable lesson, too. I learned that the kids are awesome. They’re brave, well-spoken, thoughtful, and hungry for knowledge. Whether it was the professional-quality, amazing production of Spamalot that the high school drama club put on last weekend, or the heartfelt speakers last night, they made us all proud. 

School Budget & Board Elections: Vote Today

Today, communities across New York State will be holding their school tax budget referenda and, in some cases, school board elections. Turnout for these votes is always quite low, yet it’s one of the very few times you have direct control over the taxes you pay – in this case, school taxes assessed against the value of your home.

I live in Clarence, where there’s a battle over a proposed 9.8% rise in school taxes. The proposal rolls right past Cuomo’s property tax cap and needs a 60% supermajority to succeed. 

When we moved to western New York in 2001, we chose to live in Clarence for one sole reason – the excellence of its schools. We have grown to love the town and our neighbors, many of whom also made the move to Clarence because of the school system. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the schools are the town’s very foundation, and if you do harm to them, you harm the entire community. 

Over the past 10 years, the school tax rate has decreased while personnel and non-mandated programs have been cut. Because past budgets were only balanced thanks to use of now-depleted savings, a one-time budget in excess of the cap is necessary to maintain the school curriculum. 

The forces opposed to the school budget are vocal and well-funded. One effort in particular that anyone with a Clarence mailbox knows about has been carefully created and funded from outside the area. Koch Industries’ anti-tax fake grassroots conservative activist group “Americans for Progress” has developed the mail pieces and websites urging a “no” vote and manipulating the data to mislead residents about what’s going on. I, for one, don’t take election of advice from people who proudly, and without irony, place massive election signs on derelict eyesore properties in the town

You can read about the AFP mailers here and here. You can read the reasons to vote YES on the Clarence budget here

Elementary Massacre

Someone opened fire today in a K-4 elementary school, killing approximately 26 people – it is now believed that 20 of them are students at the school; kids no older than 9. To say that my heart is sick right now from this would be an understatement. It is my fervent hope that this is the last straw – that our society will no longer tolerate this sort of thing as being a cost of living in a free society. Because it shouldn’t be; it isn’t. There are plenty of free countries that do not allow their angry, mentally deranged residents to waltz into a building and buy a firearm.

Plus three more guns.

Plus a bulletproof vest.

The 24 year-old who did this went to the classroom of 1st graders his mom taught, and murdered them all. The motive? Irrelevant – whatever it was, it was purely mental illness.

When we, the people, founded this country, we included in our Constitution a provision that would allow people to keep firearms to protect against tyranny at home and from abroad. Firearms then were significantly different from those we have today, and our constitutional originalists seem to omit that fact when agitating for free and regulationless gun ownership. There was also the well-regulated militia clause, something that has become moot since the advent of our professional military.

But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever change the Constitution, or that we’ll ever change the minds of the people who think that everyone should own guns; that had the teachers at the school in Newtown, CT been carrying guns, why the resulting shoot-out would have saved some lives. Maybe. I doubt it. After all, the shooter was wearing a vest. He had four firearms. Do we really want teachers to be packing heat? Do we really want teachers to dress like SWAT teams? Should we be protecting our schools with riot police and tanks?

The 2nd Amendment may guarantee an individual right to bear arms, but does it guarantee that right free from licensure or testing or regulation? I don’t think so. I’m so sick and tired of angry lunatics being able to obtain all the firearms they want, and bulletproof vests, without so much as a criminal or mental-health check. I am so sick of mass shootings taking place because it’s ok to own a gun, but it’s a horrible thing to provide people with adequate mental health resources. Ours is the only first world country to just allow mass murders like this to happen so often and so regularly, yet when people suggest that maybe the ease of access to firearms and ammunition are the problem, that conversation strengstens verboten ist. I’m sick of the tyranny, alright – I’m sick of the tyranny of the NRA telling Americans that they just have to suck it up and deal with a country that resembles the frontier west.

Because what’s slowly starting to happen isn’t that Obama is coming for your guns. On the contrary, Obama has done absolutely nothing to tighten gun laws. What we’re seeing, though, is America’s decline into 2nd world status. We’re South Africa with better water and sewage systems. Soon, instead of relying on just being a reasonable society, we’ll all travel in bullet-proof cars from gated community to locked-down office. American society is unique in the industrial first world in that we allow unfettered access to firearms, and completely fettered access to health care, including mental health care; guns are a fundamental, God-given civil right, but health care is not.

And if 26 people all died in the same school from a disease, you’d bet your ass the CDC would be in there to find out the cause and to prevent any future recurrence anywhere, at any time.

The United States is first in gun ownership. Yemen is second. We have 300 millions firearms in this country.

I don’t want to hear about these tragedies being rooted in evil or the human heart. We know the human heart is a substandard product. It’s offensive to put this forward as part of a discussion about policy as opposed to theodicy and meditation. We know that the vast, vast proportion of gun owners use them legally and safely. We also know that gun deaths are rare in many other countries quite similar to the USA for the simple reason they don’t have so many friggin’ guns all over the place. This is obvious. And guns just make it easy to kill a lot of people really quickly. Freely available body armor helps too.

Columbine didn’t do it. The shooting in Aurora didn’t do it. Virginia Tech didn’t do it. Maybe the brazen daytime murder of 20 little boys and girls will get us to start talking seriously again about the role of guns in our society, and the ways in which we can perhaps try to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Perhaps this shames the National Rifle Association to come to the table and discuss ways to impose reasonable restrictions on gun ownership that isn’t violative of the Constitution, but also helps to prevent angry lunatics from becoming living, breathing characters from Call of Duty with a few clicks of a mouse. I take some solace in the fact that on Friday afternoon the NRA’s website was fully accessible, but the Brady Campaign’s was so slammed with traffic that it went down.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Well, not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that, with both celerity and efficiency, people with guns kill people. In the case of the Connecticut shooting, the shooter:gun ratio was 1:4.

I’m not a gun person, and I’m not creative enough to know what to do or how to even begin to fix what’s quite obviously a horrible sickness in our society. But I am a parent, and I’ll tell you this:

I’m sick of this shit. I’m sick of guns, I’m sick of mass murders, and I’m sick of this shit. Every day is a good day to talk about gun control. Ask James Brady. He took a bullet in the head for Ronald Reagan.

Have a nice weekend.