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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dear Mike and Joel: Give Us the Money

Place Blame For School Cuts Where It’s Due
Queens Chronicle Editorial, 5/29/08

As the July 1 deadline for approving Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (picture at right) executive budget creeps closer, it has become apparent in recent weeks that the city’s public schools will not be exempt from the belt-tightening Bloomberg has been warning us about for months.
Citing rising operating costs, the most recent estimates by the city’s Department of Education put the budget shortfall at roughly $299 million — $99 million of which would have to be absorbed by individual school operating budgets. This is unfortunate and unacceptable. Parents and educators have rightly been up in arms over the proposed cuts; the mayor and the DOE would do well to listen to them while there’s still time to keep the promise to our city’s children.

True to form, the Department of Education has been waging an intense smoke-and-mirrors media campaign in recent weeks in an attempt to shift blame to the state. At issue is roughly $63 million in new state aid that was promised to the city as part the “Contract For Excellence” program, which Schools Chancellor Joel Klein could use to help reduce the pain of budget cuts around the city.
Per an agreement reached by the state following a 1993 lawsuit, the aid is restricted, and is to be used only for specific programs in struggling schools to reduce class size, among other things — a serious concern for Queens schools, which are the most crowded in the city.

Now Klein is asking for control over that $63 million — part of an already generous package from the state that granted around $600 million in new funds to the city for the coming school year. If the city had control over the funds, his argument goes, that $99 million shortfall for school operating budgets could be lessened equitably among schools, resulting in a 1.4 percent cut citywide. If Albany will not grant the city flexibility in how it uses the $63 million, the burden for the full $99 million cut would be shifted to the city’s best-performing schools — 107 of which would suffer cuts of over 5 percent, with hundreds more facing cuts of 3 percent or more.
Klein is right to argue that the city’s best schools should not have to bear a disproportionate burden while struggling schools suffer fewer cuts — or, in some cases, actually see budget surpluses of up to 4 percent. Parents often buy homes based on their proximity to good schools, which keeps property values growing. More broadly, our city needs to protect its marquee schools as shining examples of the potential for excellence in New York City education.
But Klein is wrong in shifting the blame to state legislators, who allocated that $63 million as extra funding for struggling schools. Were the city to have kept its end of the bargain by meeting that $99 million dollar shortfall in the first place, that state funding could be used toward its intended purpose: helping struggling schools. Instead it is being leveraged as a political tool to close a gap the administration has created for itself.
Despite the budgetary hysteria of recent months, a recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office predicts that the current fiscal year will end in a budget surplus of $4.6 billion. Given this, and the size of the nearly $60 billion city budget, meeting a $99 million shortfall seems like a small sacrifice for our children. If cuts must be made, we can think of plenty other places to begin. City Council discretionary and individual member funds would be a good start. Our schools, in any budget, should be the last place to make cuts.
Parents and educators rightly feel they are being forced to choose between inequitable cuts and short-changing special needs schools because of the mayor’s Band-Aid approach. Keep the blame where its due. In this era of ostensibly increased accountability in schools, our students deserve as much.

NY SUN's Andy Wolf on Funding Public Schools, Transparency and Accountability

Mr. Wolf, (picture at right) whose articles in the NY SUN has consistently held Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg accountable for their actions, says that problems in New York City public schools will not be solved by giving more money, and he notes that currently more than $20 billion is spent every year for education in the NYC school district.

Folks, when there is this much money, and at the same time kids without books trying to learn while paint drops on their heads from exposed pipes, we can surmise that indeed the money is going somewhere else, and not where it should. Re-read the

James Gill (pictured above)

Gill Commission report (not available online because it is too explosive - James Gill is DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn's dad - Ed) by making a visit to the Municipal Library in the lobby of 31 Chambers Street, conveniently right across the street from Tweed (NYC BOE headquarters).
Commissioner of the Department of Investigation is James Gill's daughter, Rose Gill Hearn, pictured at right.
Joel Klein and his colleagues I am sure do not want you to read the Gill Commission report, as the corruption described inside is as true today as it was in 1990. The Gill Commission recommended that the city fund a new investigative office under the Department of Investigation (whose Commissioner is Rose Gill Hearn) which became "The Special Commissioner of Investigation" currently Richard Condon. While you are in the Library, ask to read the second report, "Investigating the Investigators" - unless it has already been removed from the shelf.

The point is, we, taxpayers and constituents, want to know where our public funds are going and we want to have a say in where our money goes (stop the no bid contracts and giving IBM money for ARIS instead of to our classrooms - see story below - to name a few items that need to be changed) and bring back transparency to the public school funding and budgetary processes. And, give our kids this money.

Do we need Tweed at all? See "More Than 620 People Work in One Building For New York City's Department of Education and "Earn" Millions" for the salaries of all the Tweed folk in 2005. Also see "Salaries of All New York City Employees are Public Information, and the Total Paid Out is $29 Billion, With a "B"". An updated version of both lists should be available at the Municipal Library, and all the salaries may have already doubled. I called more than 30 people on the Tweed list to find out what they did, and I did not get an answer. I asked one person what an 'ADMIN ED ANALYST' was, and she laughed, saying "I have no idea". But she is listed as just that and her salary is $76,194.00 (2006).

Let's get rid of "Central" headquarters, make Tweed once again the public building it once was so that we can all visit anytime (ok, charge an entrance fee), give the money to District offices with the mandate to put every dollar spent into a public, online database, and re-vise the Chancellor's Regulations to include a school board ELECTED BY NYC CONSTITUTENTS. The current "NYC school board" is the Panel For Educational Policy, which, except for the intelligent voice of Patrick Sullivan, is a puppet show with Joel I Klein as Director. It is not a 'legal' entity and no decision is legally binding, as all the members are appointed

The Phoney War
By ANDREW WOLF, NY SUN, May 30, 2008

The specific issue in New York City's public schools that has caused the most recent brouhaha is how much we spend on teaching our students. In this dust-up, all parties manage to come out on the wrong side.

Expenditures for education already have risen to more than $20 billion a year from $12.5 billion six years ago, without any objective indicator that would suggest that we are on the path to success.

There was a time when the mayor himself would criticize the $12.5 billion figure, asking not for more money, but questioning why such a huge expenditure didn't yield satisfactory results. While campaigning to be given control of the schools back in 2002, Mr. Bloomberg suggested that business-like management combined with a "back-to-basics" curriculum would tame the perceived chaos in our schools.

This is the kind of talk that drew many of us, myself included, to support mayoral control. But once assuming control, Mr. Bloomberg's initial precepts were abandoned, and the mayor joined in supporting the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, apparently convinced that with just a few billion more, all would be right.

By that time, the lawsuit had morphed from one that questioned whether the formula by which state money earmarked for schools was apportioned was fair to the city to one that asked whether enough money was being spent to provide a "sound, basic education," a phrase that means something different to anyone you ask. Considering that the Empire State already boasted the highest per capita spending in the nation, a new definition of just how much is enough was sure to emerge.

The case concluded with agreements on future levels of spending, with the mayor and chancellor willing participants in the process. That was before the mortgage crisis, $4 gasoline, and the souring of the local economy. Now the mayor is reaping what he sowed. He played the CFE money game, and is still finding himself allegedly short of money.

The department of education has come up with a plan that proposes the deepest cuts to the schools that do the best. These schools disproportionately serve middle class and politically active segments of the population, who, the mayor thought, would reliably line up behind him. It didn't work out that way.

This came to a head on Tuesday when the chancellor appeared before the Council's education committee, and was flayed for "breaking his word" on school spending. With a well-orchestrated "Keep the Promises" press campaign (picture below: UFT President Randi Weingarten joins Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Ernest Logan and other union and elected officials to speak out against the city school cuts on Jan. 31.) financed by the unions hitting the airwaves, and a membership eager to end the headlines over their own spending scandals, the committee members eagerly eviscerated the hapless chancellor.

Mr. Klein has a point in wanting to restore control over his own budget. But he willingly participated in the process by which that control was compromised. He is right in wanting to insulate successful schools serving the middle class from disproportionate pain, but didn't seem so concerned about these schools when he proposed his "fair school funding" plan that calls for cuts in many of them far deeper than anything now on the table.

Fair school funding was deferred as part of an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers last year, and the upcoming budget will be the last one in which these besieged schools will be "held harmless" from the Draconian cuts previously proposed. Is the chancellor now willing to back off, permanently, from the ill-conceived fair school funding plan, or is the newly found concern for the middle class schools nothing more than a short term ploy to win political support for a larger agenda?

In Tuesday's hearing everyone offered different figures as to the extent of the cuts and even the amount of the education budget itself. There is plenty that can be cut in the city's education budget — too many high priced administrators at the Tweed Courthouse, a bloated public relations operation spending more than 10 times as much as the old Board of Education spent on spin control, too many no-bid contracts, hiring pricey British evaluation teams to "rate" schools (not to mention their hotel bills), and on and on.

What we need is full budgetary transparency, encourage competitive bidding on contracts and public debate on the necessity of those contracts, and a full understanding that merely throwing money at the education system does not translate into results — the one thing that the experiment in mayoral control has proven beyond any doubt.

We all remember the A&M Scandal, dont we?
Well Past Halfway
BY ANDREW WOLF, NY SUN, July 21, 2006
We are now well past the halfway point in New York's great experiment with mayoral control of the schools, an experiment that appears to be a work in progress. When first passed, few commented about one curious provision of the law — it is due to sunset exactly seven years after it was first passed. Seven years seemed like an eternity back in 2002. But now we are only three years away from the day that if the legislature and governor do nothing, the old Board of Education and the 32 Community Districts will be reinstated, rising phoenix-like from the dead. Stranger things have happened.

It is now four years since Mayor Bloomberg made the surprising choice of Joel Klein as chancellor, and a full three years since his much-heralded "Children First" restructuring was put into place. What is there now is a creation of the current administration, which makes it all the more surprising that Chancellor Klein is not only engaged in dismantling the structure that he himself put in place to "reform" the system, but is hiring outsiders to do the job for him.
Mentioned casually in the press release first announcing the changes back in January is the participation of the firm of Alvarez & Marsal. The specialty of Alvarez & Marsal is turning around troubled companies, in their words "to develop and implement plans that unlock business value." Their clients include Formica Corporation, Parmalat, Timex Corporation, Winn-Dixie, Liquor Barn, and Levi Strauss. Now they have found another turnaround situation — troubled public school systems across America.
A&M has recently been granted an 18-month $17-million contract by the Department of Education to "support the implementation of budget reductions and reallocation of resources to drive cost savings to schools; assume interim management of financial operations; lead the regional and central offices in developing and providing quality services that schools could choose to purchase; and provide analytical support for long-term organizational improvements that will facilitate the expansion of the Empowerment Schools."
In earlier times, a contract such as this would have been put to a public vote by the Board of Education, a vote taken after a public hearing. All contracts over $100,000 were subject to a hearing and public vote. Had such a hearing taken place, this contract would surely have received scrutiny and debate. Instead it has received mention in just a handful of news stories. Alvarez & Marsal come to the table with a mixed and thin record in dealing with public school systems. The lead item on their resume is their "turnaround" of the St.Louis school system during the 2003-2004 school year. By New York standards, St. Louis is a tiny district with fewer students than several of Gotham's 32 community school districts. St. Louis has terrible schools and even worse management. When A&M arrived, the district was drowning in $73 million in red ink.
Alvarez & Marsal closed schools and slashed payrolls, even reducing the number of teachers. To run the system, they brought in William V. Roberti, whose previous job was running the Brooks Brothers Clothing store chain. Fixing instruction wasn't part of his mandate. It was all money. Unquestionably, Mr. Roberti and A&M brought the district's budget into line. Critics charge that any audit would have resulted in necessary budget cuts. With A&M's $5 million contract and huge salaries paid to top management, the reform came with great pain and much resentment on the part of parents and teachers. After the year spent on restructuring, St. Louis remains a profoundly troubled district.
Alvarez and Marsal were also hired to fix the practices of what may have been the nation's most corrupt school system, that of New Orleans. The A&M team hardly had time to unpack its bags when Hurricane Katrina struck, so A&M's work in New Orleans has been dwarfed by other problems.
New York's problem is improving academic performance by its students. As in many large government entities, the Department of Education could stand better spending practices. But much of the waste emanates from the mayor's and chancellor's own initiatives. Things like the $60 million or so that has been squandered on "parent coordinators." Or extra money spent to bus students from their home-zoned schools.There are the tens of millions spent on questionable professional development schemes. And then there is the $17-million going to Alvarez & Marsal.
Mayor Giuliani cut hundreds of jobs at the old Board of Education the old fashioned way — he reduced funding and forced their hand. Mayor Bloomberg, who tells us he wants to be accountable, can do the same, and he shouldn't have to hire a $17 million private firm to do the job.

March 16, 1990
Investigators For Schools Are Criticized

LEAD: In a stinging report issued yesterday, the commission examining the New York City public school system said the work of the Board of Education's chief investigative arm was ''reminiscent of the Keystone Kops'' and deserved blame for much of the corruption and crime within the system.

The most dramatic example of ineffectiveness by the school system's Office of Inspector General, the Gill Commission charged, came in the case of Matthew Barnwell, a Bronx principal arrested by the New York City police in November 1988 on charges of buying crack. The Inspector General, the commission said, learned that Mr. Barnwell was using drugs a year before the arrest, but bungled its investigation with ''aimless, lethargic and sporadic'' work.

''The investigation was so shoddy that it could be a textbook example of how not to conduct a criminal investigation,'' said the report by the commission, which is known formally as the Joint Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools.

[By the way, there is a great deal of controversy about whether or not Mr. Barnwell was framed -
August 19, 1989
Judge Approves Retrial For a Bronx Principal

LEAD: The principal of a Bronx elementary school whose trial on charges of crack possession ended in a hung jury may be retried, a judge ruled yesterday.

The principal of a Bronx elementary school whose trial on charges of crack possession ended in a hung jury may be retried, a judge ruled yesterday.

Justice Walter M. Schackman of State Supreme Court in Manhattan found that the principal, Matthew Barnwell, 55 years old, would not face double jeopardy, as Mr. Barnwell had claimed in a petition to block his retrial on misdemeanor charges of possessing two $5 vials of crack.

Mr. Barnwell, the principal of Public School 53, was arrested Nov. 9 at 148th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and charged with buying crack from a drug dealer who was under police surveillance.

At Mr. Barnwell's trial in Manhattan Criminal Court in May, his lawyer, William Kunstler, said the police had planted the crack on Mr. Barnwell.

Judge William Leibovitz dismissed the six-member jury on May 8 after it had deliberated for 18 hours over three days. The jurors sent out two notes saying they were deadlocked and the judge had directed them to keep trying.

The jury later said it was deadlocked 4-2 for acquittal, and Mr. Kunstler said that showed that Judge Leibovitz had dismissed it prematurely. Mr. Kunstler said that if the jury had been allowed to continue deliberating, Mr. Barnwell would have been acquitted, and that it would be double jeopardy to retry him.
- Ed]

Unit Established in '80

The arrest of Mr. Barnwell set off a wave of investigations into allegations of corruption in the school system. This week, three former Bronx school officials who were indicted in one of the inquiries were acquitted of charges stemming from the removal of a baby grand piano from a school. [Page B3.] In its report yesterday, the Gill Commission recommended that the office be replaced with a ''special commissioner to investigate the public schools'' who would be appointed by the mayor, be in charge of a squad of police officers, and be given the power to issue subpoenas and make arrests, powers the Inspector General's Office now lacks.

The Inspector General's Office was set up in 1980 to serve as the school system's internal watchdog and handle a wide variety of crimes and violations of school regulations, including thefts of property, political hiring and abuse of students.

In December 1988, after Mr. Barnwell's arrest and several newspaper accounts of corruption, the Gill Commission was created. One of its purposes was to look at how well the school system was policing itself.

The commission's study, titled ''Investigating the Investigator'' constituted a ''scathing indictment'' of ''bloated, largely ineffective operation whose investigations are often reminiscent of the Keystone Kops,'' the panel's chairman, James F. Gill, said at a news conference.

'Significant Illicit Activity'

The Inspector General's 60 investigators, the report said, lack law-enforcement and legal experience, are hamstrung by poor supervision and are not scrupulous about protecting the confidentiality of their sources.

The office's $3.8 million dollar annual budget, Mr. Gill said, ''is squandered on trivial matters instead of focused on significant illicit activity'' and more energy seems devoted to ''papering the file than to detecting wrongdoing.''

''I cannot escape the conclusion that some of the responsibility for the corruption that we have uncovered in the school system rests squarely on Inspector General Michael Sofarelli's office,'' Mr. Gill said.

In a response, Mr. Sofarelli said the report was ''written in a sensational headline-hunting way'' and took unnecessary ''cheap shots at him and his staff. He said his office's inquiries had led to 70 arrests since 1987, including the conviction of 26 school building inspectors charged in a kickback scheme and the suspension or indictments of three school district superintendents.

Low Salaries

He said his office, like the offices of the 26 other inspectors generals at city agencies, was hobbled by low starting salaries for investigators, who are paid about $25,000 to start, which made it difficult to recruit the best investigators or former police officers.

Mr. Sofarelli's deputy, Conrad W. Reitz, said investigators for the Gill Commssion had themselves bungled the arrest of a high school teacher who was buying drugs.

The Gill Commission saved its most vitriolic language for a case study of the Inspector General's handling of a complaint against Mr. Barnwell. On November 24, 1987, a year before Mr. Barnwell's arrest, the board received an anonymous telephone call from a teacher at Public School 53 who said Mr. Barnwell was ''discriminating against non-blacks'' in hiring, was borrowing money from teachers without repaying them and was ''a drug user.''

One Interview a Month

Mr. Sofarelli, the report said, was informed of the call the following day, but the first interview to try to confirm the allegation was not conducted until March 10, more than three months later. A chronology provided in the commission's report indicates that the investigator on the case conducted interviews at the rate of one a month with parents, teachers and administrators.

Before any action could be taken by the office, Mr. Barnwell was arrested - without the office's knowledge or participation - by the New York City police as he tried to buy two vials of crack on a Manhattan street. He was convicted of drug possession in January and dismissed.

Mr. Gill said that the Inspector General should have begun a prompt surveillance of Mr. Barnwell, rather than concentrating on interviews with his colleagues. The office's investigator, he said, failed to consult the board's own files on Mr. Barnwell, which would have revealed earlier complaints that Mr. Barnwell ''sat in his office all day playing video games.''

In his rebuttal, Mr. Sofarelli said the original allegation of drug use was included almost as an ''afterthought'' in the memorandum he received and so failed to trigger the appropriate urgency. Moreover, he said, the office handles 2,900 complaints a year and many of them are efforts to ''get back'' at people.

Three Lawyers

His office's investigator was handling many other cases, he said. And his office, he said, did not try to shadow Mr. Barnwell because it was never told where he used drugs and ''we couldn't follow the man around for 24 hours.''

Mr. Gill's concerns about the Inspector General were more sweeping than just the Barnwell case. The office, he said, had only three lawyers, and only one of those - Mr. Sofarelli, a former prosecutor in Brooklyn - has any experience in criminal matters. Only one of the office's 60 investigators, Mr. Gill said, has a background in police work.

''Sofarelli was on the scene for nine years,'' Mr. Gill said. ''He should have done something about it.''

''If he was working for me, he'd go,'' Mr. Gill added. Mr. Sofarelli serves at the pleasure of the 7-member board of education and was not hired by the chancellor.

Mr. Gill also told of breaches in confidentiality, including one investigator who left his name and title at the school that was being investigated. Such breaches, Mr. Gill said may explain why Colman Genn, the superintendent of District 27 in Brooklyn, went to the commission rather than the Inspector General with his startling allegations of political hiring.

Mr. Gill said that a survey of school employees taken by the commission showed that 44 percent of those interviewed would feel ''uncomfortable bringing a complaint'' to the Inspector General.

In responses to the commission, both Mayor David N. Dinkins and Robert F. Wagner Jr., indicate interest in or support for supportive the idea of creating an investigative agency totally independent of the Board of Education. Mr. Wagner, however, pointed out that unless salaries were raised, the independent office would also not attract the best law and police school graduates.

March 22, 1990
Corruption 'Prosecutor' Urged by School Board

LEAD: The New York City Board of Education, going further than the recommendation of an investigating commission, proposed yesterday that the school system's inspector general be granted ''the full powers of a special prosecutor.''

Last week the Gill Commission, which has been investigating corruption in the city schools, issued a report stating that the inspector general's office was ''reminiscent of the Keystone Kops'' and deserved blame for much of the corruption. The commission recommended that the office be replaced by a special commissioner independent of the central board.

Yesterday, after a closed session of the seven-member board, its president, Robert F. Wagner Jr., said, ''We accepted the Gill Commission recommendation, and we proposed that the new inspector general be even stronger than recommended by the commission.''

Subpoenas and Surveillance

''He should have the full powers of a special prosecutor,'' Mr. Wagner said. ''That would include subpoena power, wiretapping capability and other kinds of surveillance reserved for district attorneys.''

Mr. Wagner said the board unanimously agreed that the appointment should be made jointly by Mayor David N. Dinkins and State Attorney General Robert Abrams, and that the Gill Commission should screen candidates.

The commission, formally known as the Joint Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools, cited the case of Matthew Barnwell, a Bronx principal arrested in November 1988 on charges of buying crack, as the most dramatic example of ineffectiveness by the inspector general's office. The panel said the office had learned that Mr. Barnwell was using drugs a year before his arrest but that it bungled its investigation with ''aimless, lethargic and sporadic'' work.

The arrest set off a wave of investigations into allegations of corruption, leading to the creation of the commission in December 1988. One of its goals was to determine how well the school system was policing itself, and in its report it said that the inspector general's 60 investigators lack experience in the law and law enforcement, are hamstrung by poor supervision and are not scrupulous about protecting the confidentiality of their sources.

Yesterday the commission chairman, James F. Gill, a prominent New York City lawyer, said he was ''delighted'' that the board had called for ''an independent watchdog.'' But he said that giving the investigator full prosecutorial powers would be ''unnecessary.''

''Our examination,'' he said, ''has left us completely satisfied that the prosecutors' offices have been carrying out their end of these cases as they should. It is the investigators and not the prosecutors who have been at fault. And so we do not see any need for a proliferation of prosecutors.''

Mr. Dinkins said, ''We welcome their suggestion and want to give it careful consideration.'' Edward Barbini, a spokesman for Mr. Abrams, said the Attorney General would examine the proposal.

Support From Chancellor

James Vlasto, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, said: ''The Chancellor is certainly supportive of this. We have essentially advocated that the inspector general be independent, with some relationship with the Chancellor and the board, of course, but no control.''

There are inspectors general for 25 mayoral agencies in the city, and all report to the Commissioner of Investigation, Susan E. Shepard. Other agencies - the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Housing Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Board of Education - have independent inspectors general.

Under the City Charter, the investigations department has subpoena power but cannot conduct wiretaps. ''We are not a prosecuting agency,'' Ms. Shepard said, pointing out that criminal charges must be handled by district attorneys.

The powers of the independent inspectors general vary, but Ms. Shepard said, ''It is the practice of the Board of Education's I.G. to come to us and ask us to issue a subpoena on their behalf.''

Mr. Wagner said the board believed that ''despite what the Gill Commission said,'' the current Inspector General, Michael Sofarelli, ''has done a good job, given the limited powers.'' The board's proposal, he added, ''would make the I.G.'s office stronger than those for any other agency.''

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