Friday, March 30, 2012

You Make the Call

Yesterday, news comes from Tioga County that the landowners down there are looking into the Canadian form of fracking, which uses propane instead of megatons of toxic water to stir the natural gas. Today, Anschutz decided, well, okay, they WILL appeal the Dryden decision. Coincidence? Let's see if they suddenly start renewing leases. Another example of the old adage, "If something seems too good to be true, it is."

Required Reading

I haven't had the courage to tackle the Supreme Court discussions this week, so I'll just post this piece Simon found. The truth about the American system of medicine, from a Canadian-trained doctor.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tax Cap Q & A

Here's a useful Q & A from the School Boards Association.

Q: Q: Does the tax cap mean my annual property tax can’t increase more than 2 percent?

A: Not necessarily. New York’s property tax cap law establishes a tax levy limit for each school district. The tax levy limit allows school districts to increase their property tax levy from one year to the next by 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, based on a multi-step formula. School districts are then allowed to take certain exemptions that may boost their tax levy limits to more than 2 percent or the inflation rate. If a school district’s proposed tax levy increase is within its limit, a simple majority of voters is needed for budget approval. If a school district’s proposed tax levy increase exceeds the tax levy limit, a supermajority of voters – 60 percent or more – would be required for budget passage.

Q: What may school districts exempt from their tax levy limit?

A: There are a limited number of specific exemptions to the tax cap that school districts may take. They include growth in “brick and mortar” development that increases the value of a school district’s full taxable property, contributions toward employee pensions above a certain amount, expenditures for some court orders, and the local portion of capital expenditures.

Q: Does the tax levy indicate how much my taxes will rise?

A: No. The tax levy is the amount of money the school district can raise through property taxes. The amount an individual will pay to contribute to the levied amount is the tax rate. Tax rates paid by individual taxpayers may differ greatly from one household to another, based on such things as equalization rates and assessed property values, and may exceed 2 percent.

Q: What if voters reject the proposed tax levy?

A: If voters in the district reject the proposed budget, the school board may put up the same or a revised budget for a second vote, or adopt a contingency budget with a tax levy no greater than what was levied the previous year. If voters reject the spending plan twice, schools must adopt a budget with the same tax levy as the prior year – essentially a zero percent cap.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Budget and the Schools

Well, credit where credit is due. As authorized in the two-year education aid plan last year, there will be an $850 million total aid increase for public education. $290 million in aid was equitably distributed to schools on the basis of need. The $250 million the Governor had wanted to devote to competitive grants was released in main part—only $50 million this year (and $75 million next year) will be in the form of grant monies, and the rest will be used to offset the Gap Elimination Adjustment, the amount the state deducts from education aid to reduce its own deficit. Reimbursable aid categories (BOCES, Special Ed, Transportation, Building Aid) retain their existing funding formula. Preschool special ed costs remain with the state and counties, not back at the districts. Schools have more leeway in purchasing buses, rather than being forced to buy them on state contract. Students whose parents receive public assistance are automatically enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program—a critical plus toward getting poor schools the funding they need.*

In related news, the dollar amount of lobbying continues to rise in NYS. A lot of the changes above required some skillful negotiations behind the scenes plus a concerted petition and letter-writing drive. But the result seems good. More to follow as we learn more.

*LATER: And something most states have been doing for years. As usual, NYS is late to the party.

If You're Keeping Score

There are now three Democrats running against Tom Reed in the newly formed 23rd Congressional District. The latest one, Melissa Dobson, seems not to have a website up yet. She is not the Melissa Dobson who's a new media strategist for food and wine in the Finger Lakes. Instead, she seems to be this Melissa Dobson. The other Dems are members of our own Tompkins County Democratic Committee—Nathan Shinagawa and Leslie Danks Burke.

They are running against Tom Reed, who, it's worth remembering, ran on a platform of rescinding Obamacare back in 2010. In 2011–2012 he sponsored 22 bills, including one to name "Taps" the National Song of Remembrance, one to put a "real time display" of the national debt in the House Chamber, and two "relating to the disapproval of the President's exercise of authority to increase the debt limit." Although I think a well-intentioned turnip could be a better representative of the district, he may yet be hard to beat. The bar is pretty darn low.


Both PZ and Adam Z sent this lovely article, which points out that the art of diagramming sentences was invented just 12 miles down the road from us in Homer, NY, back in 1847. I studied diagramming exactly once, in seventh grade in California. Despite its New York origin, it was long out of favor in New York when I went to school here. For me, though not for anyone else in my class, it was a revelatory experience that explained more about language than anything I've read or done since. At one point, in a flurry of showoffiness, I diagrammed the Preamble to the Constitution. I doubt I could do it today.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Olivia Nails Sousa

With the Ithaca Concert Band at Ford Hall, Ithaca College.

Anschutz Schutz and Misses

Poor Tom West. Apparently Philip Anschutz, second-richest guy in Colorado, thinks he's too pricey. They still have a week to file an appeal. We'll see.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Paul Ryan's Budget

Paul Ryan always looks so unhysterical and plausible on TV—something about those puppy-dog eyes, I guess—that I'm grateful when something comes along to slap me out of my reverie. This time, it's thanks to Joe W, who sent along this helpful graphic from Politico. Click on it to enlarge.

Friday, March 16, 2012


I guess most people can't name their Congressional District, but I've been in the 24th for years, and it seems odd to note that not only will I lose that number soon, but I'll lose my Congressman, too. Dryden will cease to be part of Richard Hanna's district and become part of Tom Reed's, now the 23rd. Out of the frying pan of moderate Republicanism and into the fire of serious Tea Partydom.

I can't think that Tom Reed is delighted to pick up Ithaca on his way toward a district that will extend from our border in Dryden all the way to Jamestown and the Pennsylvania border. It's a horrible district, one that candidates Leslie Danks Burke and Nathan Shinagawa will be hard pressed to cover in their foreshortened campaigns. Meanwhile, Hanna now resides in District 22, a slab that extends from Broome County up through Utica. Dan Lamb will face him there.

The real, true, finished maps are due next Tuesday. For now, here's what things look like, more or less.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Separation of Church and State, Redux

Someone sent me this today, a screed written by a doctor in Dryden who happens to be house doctor for the school district—for a nice annual fee.
Placing an Obama placard on your car is equivalent to saying I have no problem aborting full-term fetuses – I have no problem destroying marriage and I have no problem ultimately destroying God.

I was not aware that God could be destroyed, but clearly I'm not as close to the deity as Dr. Niziol is. I'm fine with his writing letters to the Catholic Courier, but less happy about his being the source of medical information at my daughter's school. What is his advice for the kiddies about birth control, I wonder?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Separation of Church and State, Sort Of

In TIME, Jon Meacham has a pretty good piece on Rick Santorum's misunderstanding of JFK's speech on the separation of church and state.
Here is what JFK said: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."
Rick, of course, interprets that to mean that JFK wanted to eliminate religion from politics entirely, disallowing (for example) John Kerry's bishop from entering the political fray to spout off about the then-candidate's position on abortion.

JFK wanted fairness, not secularism. It's interesting to note that he included in that fairness that "no church or church school is granted any public funds." Want to take a guess on whether Dryden taxpayers pay for any of the following for Covenant Love Community School, the local K-8 school housed in the old Love Inn, with the mission statement "Covenant Love Community School is Christ-centered and relationally-based, assisting parents to train and equip children to fulfill God’s purposes for their generation": books, computers, special education services, speech therapy, transportation? How about all of the above and more?

Some of this is federal; in 2000's Mitchell v. Helms, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that federal aid would be provided to religious schools in the form of books and computers. Some of it is state: Although the 1894 Blaine Amendment to our NYS Constitution declared that there would be no public monies spent on the running of religious schools except for the purposes of "visitation and inspection," a 1938 amendment to the amendment allowed taxpayer support for transportation to those schools, and in 1970, the Legislature authorized spending taxpayer dollars for testing, reporting, pupil services, building maintenance, and some tuition costs for poor children. This made a stink at the time for violating the separation of church and state, and the law was slightly amended to call for reimbursement of testing fees when those tests were required by the state. But most of it still exists, and nobody thinks much about it. I didn't until I was on the school board and confronted with these costs, and I admit to being completely astonished.

Perhaps Rick Santorum would feel better about things if he understood how thoroughly separation has eroded over the years. If he thinks only about prayer in school and discussion of contraception in health classes, he's seriously missing the boat.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reading List

Olivia recommended it, and it is really as good as its hype. I bet the movie will just suck, however.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Backyard Visitor

This little guy kept the squirrels away this morning, at least for a while. A few weeks ago, Olivia and I watched him dive under the deck, come up with a junco in his talons, and then sit on the lawn and squeeze it to death. He's small but effective.

Friday, March 2, 2012


First, a little history.

New York State has five kinds of school districts: Common, Central, Union Free, City, and Central High School. Ithaca is a small city district. All the others in our BOCES region are central school districts. In 1870, New York State had 11,372 school districts. Over the years, those dwindled through consolidation or annexation, with large consolidations happening in the 1930s and 1940s, until now there are just under 700 districts in all.

Governor Cuomo established a commission to look into consolidation of services across the board, and one of their mandates was to look specifically at schools. They established a pot of money to add incentive to districts and municipalities that might be thinking about merging.

Mergers may take place in five ways: centralization, annexation of a central school district, annexation of a union free school district, consolidation with a union free or common school district, or consolidation with a city school district.

Ithaca City School District is moving to annex Newfield Central School District. This is essentially a hostile takeover. Here's how it works, as I understand it: The districts must be contiguous. The district being annexed is dissolved, and all of it becomes part of the annexing district. Ithaca initiates the study and proves the benefits. Newfield may request a referendum and vote to approve or disapprove. If the vote is no, Ithaca can come back in a year. If that vote is no, the annexation is tabled. If the vote is yes, or if Newfield fails to request a vote in time, Ithaca walks away with $70 million in incentive money.

So why would Newfield vote to do this when (1) they lose their identity, (2) staff lose their jobs, and (3) their kids spend potentially 1+ hours on a bus? Well, it is certainly possible that Ithaca can prove that (1) Newfield residents' taxes will go down, (2) children's opportunities will increase, and (3) any staff retained will get a raise in pay to equalize them with Ithaca staff. In addition, like most small NYS school districts, Newfield faces potential bankruptcy within two or three years.

Interestingly, I can't find a piece of SED law that enables city school districts to annex central school districts. It may be that Ithaca's decision to vote on its own budget takes it out of the city realm, or it may be that they fall into some nebulous category, or it may be that the governor's push to consolidate bends the original rules. All I know is that the decision has been made to pursue this, and the clock is ticking. It will be an interesting spring.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Transparent? Or Maybe a Little Opaque?

It's so nice when elected officials participate in these exercises in transparency; not so nice when they avoid anything that might reflect poorly on them, stir the pot, or cause them to break a sweat.