Tuesday, July 30, 2013

This Year's Issue

Here's the IJ's story about the public forum involving this year's issue in Tompkins County. The former Milliken Station, long a coal-fired plant, was about to close when its new owners, inspired by Gov. Cuomo's urging statewide, decided to retrofit it as a natural gas-burning plant.

The fight breaks down along several lines. Lansing will lose (and until a few weeks ago was definitely going to lose) a couple million dollars in revenues without the plant, which lies just barely within its borders. Since Lansing Schools have thrived off their expanding tax base, the thought of losing this money and perhaps ending up with taxes like Dryden's is galling to many.

At the far opposite end are those for whom "gas" is a fighting word. Most of them want the plant closed forever.

Then there are a range of other opinions. Paul has written to the IJ with a suggestion about a switch to switchgrass. It's something Cornell has been studying forever, and here's a gigantic opportunity to put their plans into practice. I wrote to the Public Service Commission in support of someone's plan for converting the plant to waste-for-energy. One of our local legislators wants to keep the coal and save the railroad. NYSEG thinks all they need is an upgrade in transmission lines.

Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of a private corporation, despite the fact that any decision they make will affect the general populace in the form of significant rate hikes on our electric bills. If they convert to gas, the pipeline will almost certainly run through Dryden, because that's where there's already a pump station. So this is affecting politics countywide, and everyone is being forced to express an opinion.

It would be nice to have a plan before November. This should not be a partisan issue, but it's shaping up to be the only issue.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Too Late for Dryden

One of the most interesting things to come out of this year's Rural Schools Conference was John Sipple's new study, which contradicts the late Tom Lyson's hypotheses about the impact of school consolidation on villages. Tom Lyson was not only a researcher at Cornell when he did his modest study, he was also mayor of Freeville, and as such, had a really big dog in that hunt. Those of us who wondered about Lyson's tiny data set should feel vindicated by Sipple's data, which indicate that losing a school does no harm to a village save for a decline in household income (perhaps due to the loss of teachers from the village, who are often the best-paid residents)—but mostly, I just feel sad. Important decisions were made based on bad data. It's not like we get a do-over.

Road Trip

In honor of the Rural Schools Conference, I took the back roads to and from Cooperstown. On the way there, I passed through Dryden, Cortland, East Homer, Truxton, Cuyler, DeRuyter, Quaker Settlement, Otselic Center, Smyrna, Sherburne, Columbus, South Edmeston, Robinson Corners, Burlington, Oaksville.... On the way back, I saw Springfield, Warren, Richfield Springs, Hobin Corners, Madison, Pine Woods, Eaton, Georgetown, Sheds.... At times, I touched Otsego, Herkimer, Oneida, Madison, Chenango, Cortland, and Tompkins Counties. The most 21st-century thing I saw was the Munnsville Wind Farm, which is visible for miles in a taunting way before showing itself spectacularly near Madison. Otherwise, the woods and fields were a thousand shades of green, the corn varied from hip-high to overhead, every little gas station boasted live bait, children waded in the creeks, I was tempted by but did not enter a Petrified Animal Museum, and a dozen or more schools stood along my route in the shade of large trees.

Nearly all the schools dated from 75 to 80 years ago, when NYS started wholeheartedly to consolidate one-room schoolhouses into central school districts. It must have been a spectacular set of building projects, all of those proud buildings centered in villages along two-lane roads through the valleys. At the same time that the schools were being built, the state began a new numbering system for state roads, and paving took place on many rural thoroughfares. All this in the midst of the Great Depression! And although students in the villages walked to school, it is hard to imagine how some students got to school from the surrounding farms and tucked-away hamlets.

There are few things as beautiful as backroads New York State in July, especially a July that's seen a lot of rain. The creeks were full, and the crops looked healthy. I passed campgrounds that looked exactly the way campgrounds looked in the 1960s, ponds choked with water lilies, surprising little lakes with summer homes in various states of disrepair, occasional restored mansions with magnificent long views, and countless slow-moving farm vehicles around every blind bend.

It was the schools that drew my attention, however. They reminded me of our glory and our shame—the astonishing promise America makes to educate every child within its borders, and the fact that in New York State, the quality of a child's education is entirely dependent on his or her ZIP code.

At the conference, I met a superintendent whose district, not far from Cooperstown, not only lacks cell phone service and high speed Internet, but also does not have reliable electricity. Recently, during a down period for NYSEG power to the town, all Verizon phone service went down as well, meaning that no one in town, not elderly folks, not school employees—no one—could even dial 911. Verizon said this was because they were tired of supplying batteries for their generator just because NYSEG couldn't offer a steady stream of electricity.

This was especially interesting since one of the speakers at Rural Schools this year was the CEO of Verizon, himself the product of a small, rural school. His alma mater, near Buffalo, has been the beneficiary of many of Verizon's prized inventions. The Verizon robot, which allows sick children to "attend" school, was wandering around the conference, cracking jokes. Yet Verizon lets a small school district go without 911 service for hours or days because it is "tired" of supplying batteries for a backup generator. Certainly, in our county, Verizon has shown no interest whatsoever in going the final mile with cell or Internet service. We must rely on a local provider, which is now providing some broadband service in the area around Cooperstown, too.

I bring this up because it is clear from this conference that mergers and consolidations, while still under discussion, are not the panacea the governor hoped they'd be a couple of years ago. Because of the separate votes by districts (rather than one combined vote), most merger proposals fail as referenda. And rural mergers are not money savers, or so says the Commissioner. The mergers that would truly show savings are on Long Island, where three high schools within a stone's throw of each other may each provide AP European History courses to 7 or 8 students. However, there is no incentive to merge, because those schools can afford to provide AP European History courses to 7 or 8 students.

So the answer must be online courses and distance learning. That is the only way to provide students in rural districts the same kinds of extras (or even, in some cases, basics) that are regularly afforded students in rich districts. No broadband, no equity. It's as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Out of the Mouths of Babies"

You probably missed it because the Zimmerman trial is the only important thing going on in the world today, but the House of Reprehensibles stripped food stamps, meals on wheels, and school food programs out of the Farm Bill they passed yesterday. I guess hunger isn't a thing anymore, just as the South is all better (per the Voting Rights decision). There comes a point when so much damage has been done that it can't be put back together again. Who's taking bets on Cantor's letting nutrition programs come up on their own in the House? It. Will. Never. Happen.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


A seventy-year marriage! We all owned her husband, but Toshi was his home base.