The Demand For Public Education

December 21, 2016

Albany schools expand with the rising population as
privatization schemes falter

The Albany Public Schools have a problem that they need to solve, a rather good problem. It seems that their projected enrollment for next school year is going to be 23 percent higher than this year. That’s right, our public schools that have been much maligned by anti-urbanist suburbanites and have suffered so much calculated degradation by past City administrations, are more in demand than ever before.

And the projections for future years are that the demand for public education in the City of Albany is going to continue to rise well into the next decade, at least. Meanwhile the substandard so-called “charter” schools, which exist mainly to generate a profit for their investors at taxpayer expense, will continue to see continuing lower enrollment. For many people this is astonishing news that turns all the hype and propaganda upside down, but for anyone who has been keeping an eye on the schools in the City of Albany this is no surprise at all.

395 Elk Street, Currently A Charter Middle School 395 Elk Street

The immediate problem is that the public schools need more space for these incoming students, which means that the school district needs to purchase more buildings. The plan, which comes to a vote on January 10, is to purchase and renovate two buildings, one at 50 North Lark Street and the other at 395 Elk Street. The district already owns 50 North Lark and leases 395 Elk, but to carry out proper renovations that conform with State regulations both of the buildings have to be owned by the public.

A very important detail, certainly important to a property owner like me who pays a stack of school tax bills every year, is that these two purchases and renovations will have no impact on local taxes. I will repeat that, our school taxes will not go up. For this reason the upcoming January 10 vote has not generated any controversy, even the charter school investors who always come out of the woodwork to loudly oppose public school upgrades have so far not bothered to spew objections to this plan.

50 North Lark Street, Currently Used As The Public School’s Alternative Learning Center 50 North Lark Street, Currently Used As The Public School’s Alternative Learning Center

You might ask how that is possible, how can our City taxes not go up. The short answer is sound fiscal management by the Albany School District, anticipating needs and expenses well ahead of time.

One of the district’s best assets is a terrific set of money managers who have, at times in the recent past, kept our public schools afloat during the roughest assaults by charter school investors and by past City administrations. Again, that’s contrary to the hype that you see in the local Corporate Media. But after 15 years or so of attending school budget forums I can tell you that I’ve been consistently impressed by the district’s money management, they always find a way to hold the finances together and move ahead with their plans.

The total cost of the purchases and of the renovations of the two buildings is $10.6 million. Almost half of that money will come directly from the State of New York, $5.2 million. This State aid will go exclusively to the work for 50 Lark, which is calling for a total of $6.5 million. The rest of the cash will come from the district’s Capital Reserve Fund, the creation of which was approved by the voters in 2014.

If I recall correctly the district has been socking away money for years prior to that, they’ve managed to accumulate a tidy nest egg. The Fund is used for work that needs to be done quickly without waiting for voter approval, stuff like replacing a leaky roof or, as in this case, finding accommodations for a sudden sharp rise in student enrollment. The 2014 vote made everything tidy and legal, the current balance in the fund is $9.2 million.

2016 City Of Albany Board Of Education, Elected And Unpaid 2016 City Of Albany Board Of Education, Elected And Unpaid

Purchase and work on the building at 395 Elk Street will cost $4.1 million, all of this money will come from the Capital Reserve Fund. This building is new, constructed six years ago at a cost of $15 million dollars by the Brighter Choice charter school corporation, all at the expense of Albany property taxpayers who had no say in the matter. After the State shut down this particular charter school for being grossly substandard, the district has leased the building from Brighter Choice for $169,000 per year, a tidy rent.

As for 50 North Lark, that too is a former charter school that was built by a now defunct outfit called New Covenant, also recently constructed at taxpayer expense. This was the last charter school competition to the Brighter Choice Corporation inside the City of Albany, from what I’ve been told by former employees this is where Brighter Choice routinely dumped “problem” students that were cutting into their profits. When the welfare queen owner of Brighter Choice, lobbyist Tom Carroll of suburban Clifton Park, convinced the State to shutter New Covenant, all of their students were suddenly dumped on the Albany public schools.

Well-paid Welfare Queen Thomas W. Carroll, Lord Of Brighter Choice Corporation Well-paid Welfare Queen Thomas W. Carroll, Lord Of Brighter Choice Corporation

And of course by law the public school district had to accept all of these “problem” students. Most of these kids were what is called “special needs,” a category that includes physical handicaps, learning disabilities, unfamiliarity with the English language, behavioral problems and even those students who are “gifted” and require advanced learning. All of these kids require special programs. Charters never spend potential profits on providing special needs facilities or teachers, so at the first opportunity such students are ejected from the operation, usually dumped on the public schools.

By the way, it needs to be mentioned repeatedly that the charter school corporations get their funding out of the public school budget. We the taxpayers have no say in this, if we vote down a school budget the charter corporations receive our tax money anyway while the public schools receive less. I consider this kind of legalized corruption to be little more than robbery. But what do I know, I’m just a dumb taxpayer cow who exists merely to be milked by privatization thieves.

Journalist Juan Gonzalez Journalist Juan Gonzalez

Both of these buildings were constructed to take advantage of a tax loophole that dates from the Clinton presidency called New Market Tax Credits. The original purpose of this tax credit was to spur new construction in inner cities or other distressed areas but that didn’t quite work out as planned. Indeed the only place I’ve heard of these tax credits being applied is exploitation by charter schools.

According to Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now and formerly of the New York Daily News, this loophole provides a 39% tax credit every time a new charter school building is built. You’ll need an accountant rather than me to explain exactly how this works, but it works out that an investor is guaranteed to double her or his investment in seven years. That profit has to come from somewhere, and sure enough that money comes from the State taxpayers and from the City of Albany property taxpayers.

Among the charter investors are a number of local elected officials, you can often tell which ones by their enthusiastic support for the charters. In fact, you can pretty much assume that if a public official supports charter schools then that official is an investor working to protect his or her investment. I say that if that public official denies that assumption, it is up to him or her to prove that characterization is wrong.

The Sign Was A Lie: Then Treasurer Sheehan Protected Albany Taxpayers From Brighter Choice Predation The Sign Was A Lie: Then Treasurer Sheehan Protected Albany Taxpayers From Brighter Choice Predation

Some six years ago when then Albany City treasurer (and current mayor) Kathy Sheehan used her position to block another cash giveaway to Brighter Choice, then mayor Jerry Jennings and current Common Council president Carolyn McLaughlin stood shoulder to shoulder to angrily denounce Ms. Sheehan’s principled defense of the taxpayers. Last year Albany County comptroller Mike Connors campaigned furiously to scuttle the desperately needed renovation of Albany High School, how interesting that he tried to stop a public school renovation project in a City where he doesn’t live. He has never tried to stop a charter school from being built in Albany.

So if the two buildings at 50 Lark and 395 Elk were recently built to be school buildings, why does the district need to spend millions of dollars to renovate them? Charter school buildings do not have to conform to the same standards as public school buildings, in other words they are always built to substandard specifications. This is allowed and encouraged by State law. Thus the public school districts have to do massive upgrades to make the buildings safe and conducive to providing a good education.

395 Elk will be used for what is called alternative-learning programs, which are basically the programs needed for special needs students. The curriculum is geared for middle school students so that they can catch up by the time they reach ninth grade. This is exactly the sort of curriculum that charter schools never provide, programs that are desperately needed in a community where more than a quarter of the children live in poverty.

The school at 50 Lark, which is the current alternative learning middle school, will become a third regular middle school, from what I understand that will eventually mean grades six through eight rather than seven through nine like right now. Reconfiguring the grades will be done according to a complicated schedule over several years as the renovations are completed, hopefully construction will not cause disruption to the daily schedules of the students. I have bad memories of seventh grade, being bussed each school day between three different buildings because of ongoing construction. Middle school for most kids is a difficult time as it was for me so I wouldn’t wish that sort of thing on any kids if it can be helped.

Hackett Public Middle School On Delaware Avenue Hackett Public Middle School On Delaware Avenue

There are some who say that middle schools should be eliminated altogether, that grades seven and eight should be incorporated either into elementary school or into high school. I’ve always heard that education specialists consider the middle school years as the time when kids are least able to absorb learning, probably because they are too distracted by the mental and physical changes of puberty. The thinking is that the middle school age kids are isolated from both the lower and upper grades because they are in a holding pattern and need a kind of special treatment while they are growing up.

That’s what I heard a long time ago from educators, I don’t know if that thinking is still held today. Personally, I think it’s bogus. If seventh and eight graders are less capable of learning, then perhaps that means the adults who are educating them aren’t doing so effectively and need to change their methods. I have to say that it has always amazed me how my fellow adults have absolutely no memory of what it was like to be twelve years old, as if that had never happened to them.

But I don’t see how eliminating middle schools would solve anything, merging the middle school grades with elementary and high school would just be burying the problems. The young teens are still going through changes, you could say at that age they will always have their “special needs.” I’m not qualified to suggest a solution, but I do know that simply eliminating middle schools with no other plan will solve nothing.

Interior Of Hackett Middle School Interior Of Hackett Middle School

A good question to ask is why is there a 23% rise in enrollment, where do all these extra kids come from? A good number come from the charter schools, as they go out of business their students go directly into the public schools. In the first decade of this century the public schools shrank as some 20% of students were snagged by the charters, but that trend has reversed decisively.

The sudden rise in public school enrollment also reflects another phenomenon, the population of the City of Albany is rising for the first time since the early 1950s. Indeed it is rising rapidly, probably faster than most current estimates which put the population of the City at just under 100,000. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the population will continue to rise well into the next decade.

Any local landlord or competent real estate agent can tell you that there is a housing shortage in this City. Housing is being constructed in areas of the City that have been abandoned by developers for decades. The lack of housing is actually slowing down the population growth rate, developers have only slowly been catching on to the opportunities.

Rally In Support Of Muslim Immigrants (And Against The Incoming Pussygrabber Administration) November, Townsend Park, Albany Rally In Support Of Muslim Immigrants (And Against The Incoming Pussygrabber Administration) November, Townsend Park, Albany

Much of this rise can be attributed to the reversal of suburbanization, rather than people looking to leave the City we are seeing more of them looking to live here. Particularly for younger people, with or without kids, urban life even in a small City is more interesting and overall less expensive than maintaining a dull suburban existence. As past problems are eliminated, such as police denial of service and deliberate neglect of public schools to name a few, there are fewer reasons for families to not live in Albany.

Albany is the second oldest European settlement in this country, and one of the oldest traditions of this City is the wholesale acceptance of immigrants and refugees. This has not changed in recent years, in particular the Hispanic and Muslim immigrants and refugees from the uplands of Burma (Myanmar) such as the Karen. As these immigrants have issues with language and other problems the charters are not interested in using them, so the kids automatically enroll in the public schools.

As plenty of parents of children that are attending public schools will readily say, the Albany public schools still have plenty of problems that need to addressed. The high school graduation rate remains dismal for many of the students from lower income families, and despite the adoption of security theater at the entrances of the schools safety from bullying while attending school is an ongoing issue. I personally know of several kids with good grades who dropped out of Albany High because they did not feel safe from threats of violence.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy Official Reopens The Playground At Griffen Public Elementary School, 2012 Albany County Executive Dan McCoy Official Reopens The Playground At Griffen Public Elementary School, 2012

But at least locally the public schools no longer suffer from the policies of neglect and deprivation that were imposed by corrupt past City administrations that controlled the school board. A prime example is Giffen Elementary school in the South End which was presented as a poster child for failing public schools by the charter school promoters at the end of the last century. Giffen was indeed a failure, but only because the then prevailing political machine in City Hall denied the school basic learning materials, denied building maintenance and even shut down most of the playground, thus sending a clear and deliberate message to the children of my neighborhood that they were nothing but garbage. I’m happy to report that Giffen has climbed out that grave that past mayors had dug for it and for the South End.

Decent buildings and facilities will not by themselves solve the problems that the public schools have inherited from past policies of neglect, but good facilities are an important component of decent schools and of a decent education for the kids. The kids of Albany deserve facilities and opportunities that are equal to those that kids in the rich suburbs receive. I have to say I particularly resented County comptroller Connors descending upon my community from his upscale suburb to try to deny my neighbors a decent education.

Andrew Cuomo And Betsy DeVos: Hardline School Privatization Ideologues

Andrew Cuomo And Betsy DeVos:
Hardline School Privatization Ideologues

Today the threats to public education in Albany no longer come from City Hall or by a corrupt school board, in fact the local officials are very much concerned with raising the quality of education in this City. Today the threats come from higher levels of government particularly from the administration of governor Andrew Cuomo which is trying to promote charters. Consider that the State grudgingly kicked in $5.2 million for this facilities plan because the charters in Albany have become total failures on taxpayer life support, this shows how lame are Cuomo’s privatization policies.

And now a potentially fatal threat to education has fallen across the entire country with the appointment of an ignorant privatization ideologue named Betsy DeVos by the incoming president Donald Pussygrabber, she is the sister of mercenary chief Erik Prince of Abu Dhabi. DeVos is expected to undermine public schools from her federal perch and funnel federal tax dollars directly into the filthy hands of charter privateers like our local welfare queen charter school lord Tom Carroll. While Andrew Cuomo and other charter school investors holding public office may gleefully welcome Pussygrabber and DeVos, the rest of us will have to bear the negative consequences and foot the bill.

Supporters Of Fair Public School Funding Pack The NY State Capitol, January 2015

Supporters Of Fair Public School Funding Pack The NY State Capitol, January 2015

Despite the specter of impending doom we must carry on as long as we can and hope for the best. It’s a good thing this Albany public schools facilities vote is taking place before January 20, otherwise corrupt State and federal government officials might find ways to ruin the planned improvements to our City public school system. So get to the polls on January 10 and vote to approve this plan. Exercise your American rights while you still can, before they are taken away from you.