Hudson Views

by Larry Hirsch

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Most teachers love what they do. It certainly isn’t about the money. They get into teaching because they want to help children and despite bureaucratic hurles, administrative obstacles and other frustrations, most teachers maintain their enthusiasm and commitment to helping kids. Their hours are long, many spend hours outside class preparing for classes and grading papers and their pay is low, teachers are lucky to make middle class incomes. One benefit they do get is through tenure they get to build a career and some protection on the job. While I believe that there needs to be some reform to tenure so that it will be easier to discipline teachers who are not doing their job well, the simplistic move by Mayor Bloomberg and his business allies to get rid of it is wrongheaded.  They say getting rid of tenure will keep good young teachers in the schools.  The question they should be asking is without some protection, why would a young person get into teaching and more to the point stick with it? While in this down economy we have seen more young people become teachers it was not too long ago that the DOE had to create the Teaching Fellows program to make up for a shortage of teachers. When the economy recovers who says many of these young teachers will not go for better paying jobs, particularly if they can’t build tenure.

Now it is easy to blame teachers for education failures as Bloomberg and his school chancellors have a habit of doing. They are on the front lines and have the most direct interaction with students and to be sure teachers to bare a share of the responsibility for the system’s failures. However, the Bloomberg Administration and the DOE never take their share of responsibility. It is easy to say fire teachers, but what about the top-heavy bureaucracy and overpaid consultants that are supposed to be guiding the ship. The administration not only wants to hide them from responsibility but is taking money from the schools to pay them. Instead of rewarding the schools that saved money and ran a tight ship, the DOE wants to take half those savings and put them right back into the system. Education money should go to the students. Teachers and principals many times dig into their own pockets pay for supplies. The money should not go for the staff at Tweed.

So, teachers are not paid enough, they work long hours, their tenure is threatened and now money is being out of the schools. The question remains who’ll teach??

In many ways it was surprising news that Nassau County’s finances got taken over by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority. Here was one of the most propserous counties in New York State. A large proportion of high income residents who provided a strong tax base and enjoyed good county services. If there is a definition of comfortable, it can be found in Nassau County. How then did the County end up in such dire straits. Yes, there had been a culture of cronyism and some corruption but that does not explain it. It seems the County Executive wanted to maintain services and cut taxes and the numbers didn’t add up. While tyring to do this is that people like the services government provides so it is politically not very popular to cut them. There are also a lot of services people need so it is morally wrong to cut them. However, the supply-side economic argument goes that cutting taxes will lead to increased economic activity and more revenue. In the case of Nassau County it did not and now the County is completely underwater financially. So what are the lessons to be learned here.

From Albany to Washington, you hear the continued tax cap and cut refrain. Governor Cuomo wants to cap property taxes and get rid of the recently enacted millionaire’s tax surcharge, depriving state and local governments of billions of dollars. The problem is property taxes help pay for good public education which people want and need. To make up for this shortfall, local governments are going to have to weigh cutting other services that people want and need like nice parks, sanitation and snow removal and other things that make cities and towns desirable places to live. By getting rid of the “millionaire’s tax,” Governor Cuomo is attempting to close a $10 Billion budget gap solely by cutting services. Not only are no taxes being raised, but he wants to cut an existing tax surcharge. I admire his desire to make government smarter and more accountable, however there will be a lot of painful cuts that no amount of smart government can hide. Mayor Bloomberg pointed out that 20,000 New York City teachers could be at risk.

The Nassau experiment shows that it is difficult and wrong to continuously cut services that people want and need. The cuts do not always happen and when you cut taxes too, the numbers just don’t add up. In fact it isn’t just liberals opposing the property tax cap, many localities see the problems they will face through either reduced services or increased fees they will have to charge their residents. So when you hear people saying cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes, look to Nassau, this simplistic solution can have disastorous results.

With all the news being made by the blizzard and Governon Cuomo’s State of the State, there were a few stories that were hidden but should be noted.

First was the story that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is looking for some way to link the issue of stronger rent regulations to the capping of property taxes. He argues that both have to do with keeping homes affordable. Like the property tax cap, bills to strengthen rent regulations seem to die in the legislature, in this case the State Senate.  A package of bills sponsored by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal that would end vacancy decontrol and provide other measures to help tenants has been passed by the Assembly. Having some way to link these bills to the property tax cap, gives some added strength to these bills and a shot at passing the Senate. Now the Speaker will be attacked in many quarters as being an obstacle to progress and this is unfair. He is giving voice to those members of the Assembly (and the Senate) that care about these issues. The Speaker should work productively with the Governor and the Senate Majority to move an agenda forward. However, if he can make pro-tenant bills part of this agenda, then all the better.

The second story was that Mayor Bloomberg was cancelling some high-priced consultant contracts with the Department of Education. Many of these computer consultants were making $400,000 per year or more. Public Employee Unions had long argued that these jobs could be done just as well by public employees at a significant saving. So it is interesting to note that one of the consultants took a City job at $131,000 per year. So kudos to Mayor Bloomberg for tightening the belts of consultants at last.

Mayor Bloomberg is sounding off again. The Mayor who believes he is always right and smarter than everyone else is insulting others even when chinks in his armor are beginning to show. The Mayor’s signature accomplishment is supposed to be the improvement in the schools. Now the evidence shows that this improvement was overhyped. What many who have gone through school know as grade inflation has been applied to the school system. The Mayor and Chancellor Klein promoted improved test scores in time for the Mayor’s re-election in 2009 but it appears those scores were partly due to an easier test and ones that were nearly the same year after year so test prep was easier. The fuzzy math belies much of the progress the Mayor has made in the schools, where the curriculum has changed to focus on test prep. The Mayor who pledged to be accountable on education has yet to take responsibility for this. New Yorkers lost our chance to hold him accountable at the polls, but still need to do so. In fact he keeps spreading his gospel across the country. Other fuzzy math includes some crime statistics where it was recently shown that while major crimes have gone down, some minor classes of crimes have gone up but are not counted in crime statistics. Finally, the financial wizard Mayor cannot seem to get himself out of the CityTime contract which has ballooned to nearly one billion dollars.

All of this comes at a time when the Mayor lobbed personal insults at some of the new Members of Congress, about their intelligence and lack of international knowledge, saying they may not have passports. While I may agree that some the new Republicans are wrong on a lot of points, picking a fight right now is bad for the City. Especially when it appears that two of those that won in New York while they may need some policy education have done significant international travelling. While the Mayor is travelling the world and country and hoping to start a new third party, it seems things are not as he wants to make them seem in New York. His false arrogance can only make things worse. Perhaps he should admit some misjudgements at home and fix things here, before insulting others. Making the most money does not always make you right, a little humility and reflection would help us all.


September 20th, 2010

A slight correction to my earlier post, Krugman used the words “The Angry Rich”

In analyzing the election results this past Tuesday, both in New York and around the country, the one trend to be seen, was that when groups of people rallied behind a candidate that candidate one. This could be called the return of populism, but in many races the result was not for the people. Some of the populism, ended up in results where if the candidates get elected in November it will consolidate the rule of the elites. In many cases it was fake populism to rile people up to work against their best interests. There were cases, particularly in some New York races, where the will of the people elected someone who will fight for them.

In the race for Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman united the progressive coalition. Made up of liberals, minorities, good government groups, unions and others of the same ilk, this coalition made a cause of Eric’s campaign. In a race with four men against one woman, this coalition of support made Eric stand out from the crowd. Eric’s progressive record and years of activism and work as a reformer, made him the candidate of choice of this coalition. The group of supporters and their passion for Eric’s campaign grew as the campaign went along and led him to victory. Somebody at the victory party told me she had never received more emails from friends as she did on behalf of Eric. Other populist victories in New York, included the people finally saying they had enough of Pedro Espada and HiramMonserratte. The people want elected officials who will work in the people’s interest, not their own self-interest.

On the other hand there is Carl Paladino. Riding the Tea Party wave, he has railed against taxes and government spending. However, instead of arguing for tax cuts for the low and middle class he wants regressive tax cuts that prmarily benefit the wealthy. Meanwhile he would cut 20% of government services that the majority of people need. Paul Krugman called this the “Rage of the Rich” in today’s New York Times. He has got the people believing they are part of a populist movement, when in the end the policies he will enact if elected will mostly benefit those in the highest income brackets. This is the same on the national level, where the Tea Partiers have rallied as a popular movement to preserve the Bush Tax Cuts that benefit the upper 2% of the populations. Instead of populism this is popular manipulation, particularly when you read that the Tea Party Express was started by a Republican Political Consultant.

Why I support Park51

August 22nd, 2010

While a number of better locations could have been chosen, for the site of the Park51 Mosque and Islamic Community Center, now that this site was chosen and went through community review, I believe it should be built for the following reasons.

1) It was Approved by the Local Community Board: Much noise has been made about site for Park51, which is very close to Ground Zero. While I empathize with those who lost loved ones during the terrorist attacks and understand their sensitivity, what should not be underestimated is that the proposal was approved by the local Community Board, made up of neighbors that live near the site. Many of them were in the neighborhood during the attacks and had to live with aftermath for months and years later. They had to evacuate their homes and many lost family members and neighbors. If this Community Board can approve Park51 then its wishes must also be respected.

2) Support Pro-American Muslims: By all accounts, the people sponsoring Park51 are Muslims that have integrated themselves into our society. They are moderates and pro-American. In fact, the Imam for the proposed Mosque is currently on a State Department-sponsored tour of  the Middle East to promote pro-American views of Islam.  It is precisely these types of Muslims that must be encouraged to practice their faith freely and become the face of Islam in America. If we choose to alienate, these Moderate Muslims then their radical brethren will use this as a recruiting tool to stir up hatred of America.

3) It’s More Than Just a Mosque: Park51 will be both a Mosque and Community Center, similar to many of the Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) that populate our towns and are positive community forces. In fact, published reports say that Jews involved in JCC work were consulted by the sponsors of Park51. Many sports, arts and educational activities not associated with religion will take place there. Hopefully, as JCCs are, the Park51 Community Center will be open to people of all faiths allowing for better ethnic and religious understanding.

4) Location: While I cannot pretend to understand the feelings of 9/11 survivors and families and do not wish to undervalue their sensitivities and believe the selection  of this site was not the wisest decision, however I would like to point out some positives of the site. First New York is a multiethnic city where people of all faiths mix well together. Having Park51 in the middle of a commercial center of New York, will encourage this mixing of people.  The continuing isolation of Muslims, will only lead to more radicalization. It is only by encouraging them to be part of what is right about our society that we can encourage progressive Muslim leadership. Also, at this site Park51 will be under scrutiny that will help ensure radicalization does not spread there.  If through the efforts of Governor Paterson and others another acceptable site can be found that would be good solution. However, let us be sure that it is a site that encouages the integration of Muslims, not isolation.

Finally, let me just state that we cannot be afraid of people because they are different than us. Some the stereotyping and irrational fear that has taken place over the Park51 debate shows our worst, not better nature.

Authority Oversight

August 17th, 2010

The Governor’s Commission issued a report that elected officials should stay out of the business operations of “public” authorities. The problem with this is that unaccountable authorities waste money and answer to no one. There is no accountability. Perhaps it is time to end their independence and make them accountable to public officials and the public. Governor Paterson’s creation of an Authority Budget Office is a good first step. If the office does tough strong audits of authority expenditures this would shed a lot of light on the subject and probably save billions in public funds. If that as seen as too much interference with Authority operations, then too bad it is good for the State.

MTA: Where's The Reform?

August 11th, 2010

I am a bit delayed in this, but the MTA's new plan to reduce its deficit seems to rely on the old cut services and raise fares model. I have not seen anywhere, anything on structural reform of how the MTA does business. What is being done to stop cost overruns and police consultants. These draconian service cuts which will hurt everyday New Yorkers should not be allowed to stand. There is obviously a structural deficit which the MTA cannot cure. Yes State Aid is needed but it seems to only a band aid for the MTA's pains. If you go to an MTA budget hearing ask them about what they are doing to reform their business practices to save money instead of doing it on the back of the people that need their services.

BTW: Kudos to my friend Greg Soumas for calling Mayor Bloomberg out on his manipulation of the Charter Revision Process.

Is AG Race Taking Shape?

July 24th, 2010

As the Democratic Primary for Attorney  General heads into the home stretch it seems that the winnowing out of the candidates. By virtue of being the only woman in a fiver person race and having some institutional support and a strong base on Long Island, Kathleen Rice has always been seen as one of the leading contenders. Though a new question for her campaign is whether she his running “Rose Garden” strategy as she skipped the recent debate sponsored by City Hall newspaper. The question has always been which of the four men running would be main competition. Eric Schneiderman has begun to show the widespread support to be the one. He has solidified his support in his high turnout Upper Westside and Northern Manhattan District as well as getting support with wide range of leaders in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party from throughout. A suprising show of strength for his campaign has been the support he is getting in the Northern and Western New York. Leaders in many of the big upstate cities such as Buffalo are supporting him and in a trend I noticed at the State Convention is getting support in a number of rural upstate counties. This could be a winning combination. The amount of his money that Sean Coffey is spending on his campaign and his self-proclaimed outsider status could also make him a contender. It is hard to see Richard Brodsky or Eric Dinallo having a big enough base or making the necessary leap in support outisde of it to seriously challenge Rice.