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Neighborhood schools -- an educational resource

   Finally we have an issue that the Buffalo Board of Education and Superintendent James A. Williams seem to agree on — neighborhood schools.

   Williams wants to spend some time early next year reviewing enrollment and busing data,  with an eye toward making some changes next fall. Most of the board thinks this is a good idea.

   Neighborhood schools have a lot to recommend  — financially and in terms of community involvement.

   City schools, faced with a $60 million deficit, could stand to save some money on shuttling kids all over town on buses and Metro Rail. It cost the district $37.5 million last year.

   Parents and students, meanwhile, are likely to feel far more connections and loyalty to a familiar school that's down the street than one that's strange and remote.

   The bonus for the kids? No more long bus rides. Did you know that the average Buffalo school student spends 48 minutes a day commuting?

   So why did we abandon the neighborhood school concept in the first place?

   The foremost problem when full-scale busing began 30 years ago was segregation. Now city schools are 75 percent minority. The minority has become the majority.

   Then there is the question of educational choice. Not all schools are equal. Parents go to great lengths to enroll their youngsters in magnet schools and charter schools to provide them with instruction, discipline and special programs that their regular schools don't offer.

   There are ways to tackle these problems. The school district has come up with several, including offering neighborhood schools only for elementary pupils, dividing the city into zones and giving preference to kids who want to attend schools closest to home.

   How do you think Buffalo should deal with the neighborhood school question?

Hard sell for a budget offering all pain, no gain

   The day of reckoning — after months of warnings — arrived Tuesday and the scene was not pretty.

   Gov. David A. Paterson's presentation of a bad-news budget had something for everyone to hate. And they did.

   Those relying on state funding said the proposed spending cuts would result in chaos.  Those who pay taxes accused Paterson of nickel-and-diming average New Yorkers to the tune of more than $4.1 billion, with every possible tax and fee increase he could unearth.

   Then there are tax increases that, while not directly impacting citizens, would eventually affect them --like $700 million in tax hikes on health insurers and $651 million on utility companies.

Cities, counties, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, state colleges, mental health programs, transit systems, economic development efforts, agriculture and tourism marketing would feel the pain.

   So begins the a debate on a budget that Paterson wants wrapped up by March 1 — record time for Albany.  "This should be the moment we take control of our budget," the governor told lawmakers.

   But for the coming months,  it will be the Legislature and special interests taking control.

   — Tom Precious

Mockery of governor's blindness strikes a nerve

   Gov. David A. Paterson was in "Saturday Night Live's" firing line over the weekend, with some of the jokes coming at the expense of his blindness.

   The governor has criticized the skit,  and so has the local and national chapters of the National Federation of the Blind, as well as the Elizabeth Pierce Olmsted Center for the Visually Impaired.

   Did "Saturday Night Live" go too far in drawing laughs that make fun of Paterson's blindness, or was it within acceptable bounds, especially for a show that, as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin learned all too well, is known for its sharp jabs.

   If you watched the skit - which is easily found on the Internet - tell us what you think.

   - Mark Sommer

Paterson looks to tribal sales to help solve deficit

   Amazing what a $15.4 billion budget deficit will do.

   Just months ago, Gov. David Paterson was pushing off calls that he try to collect taxes on cigarettes sold by Indian retailers. The better way is to negotiate with the Indian tribes, he said, a course taken, and failed, by three governors before him.

   So Monday in Utica, just 24 hours before unveiling his plan to solve the state's budget crisis, Paterson signed a bill that he says will have the state collect the cigarette taxes. Today, he will reveal how much he expects the state to make this year from the tax collection efforts in the way of new cigarette excise taxes.

   That he chose Utica to sign the bill Monday was noteworthy, all sides agreed. Native Americans saw it as an in-your-face move. He could have just put out a piece of paper announcing his signature on the bill. Instead, he traveled to central New York - a hotbed of anger over the years between Native Americans and non-Indian residents over a range of sovereignty issues - in front of an audience of local politicians with low standing among many Indians in the region. "Why did he do it that way?" one upset Seneca said Monday.

   This from a governor who still talks of wanting to negotiate with the Indians on the tax matter.

   Naturally, there is skepticism about the latest effort. Tax collection advocates have heard governors before say they will stop the tax-free sales. And nothing has happened since the state won a landmark United States Supreme Court case in 1994 giving it the legal right to collect the tax.

   Moreover, there's the matter of likely additional litigation that will delay the collection efforts.

   New York might have a better clue of Paterson's intentions in 60 days. That is when the new law he signed Monday becomes effective.

  --- Tom Precious

Car buying?

Just like the rest of the country, the region's new-car dealers are coping with a slowdown in sales. Low consumer confidence, they say, is a major reason for the drop-off in purchases.

But if you need a car, dealers say now may be the best time to buy one: they're desperate.

How is the economic climate affecting your decision about buying a new car or truck? Is it holding you back, or are you seeing opportunities to buy that are too good to pass up?

-- Matt Glynn

Canal Side takes on new dimension

   It's a fleshed-out master plan for the redevelopment of downtown Buffalo's waterfront -- a $500 million production that features the  Bass Pro Outdoor World store and a whole lot more.

   Bass Pro is still front and center on the site where Memorial Auditorium now stands, but the master plan is beefed up by another 750,000 square feet of places to eat and  drink, play and  work.

   The bulked-up Canal Side is described by its planners as both "extraordinary" and "attainable." Bass Pro President Jim Hagale says the retailer is "excited and committed."

   The next step is for the project is a state-required review that will offer several opportunities for public comment over the next nine to 12 months.

   So, let's start the dialogue. What's your reaction to the updated proposal? What do you like?  What don't you like? What would you change? Would you want to live, work or play at Canal Side?

-- Sharon Linstedt

O.J. has worn out his welcome on Wall of Fame

   O.J. Simpson will spend at least the next nine years of his life behind bars. He was sentenced last week after conviction for a 2007 armed robbery at a Las Vegas hotel.

   The Buffalo Bills' all-time running back has been put away. It is time to take his name down from the stadium's Wall of Fame. Many folks, myself included, think he got away with murder after the killings 14 years ago of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. He was later found responsible in a civil trial. Now he has been convicted of 12 felonies in a court of law.

   The man's misdeeds off of the field more than overwhelm his glory on it. Even for older fans, seeing his name on the Wall conjures visions not primarily of his athletic career, but his subsequent life of crime. Younger fans, who came of age long after Simpson retired 30 years ago, simply associate the name with mayhem. His name on the Wall is just another reminder.

  --- Donn Esmonde

Some auto companies are more equal than others

   WASHINGTON - Long before Detroit needed a $14 billion bailout, governors offered Toyota, Honda and other foreign automakers $3 billion in goodies to get them to build plants in their states.

   And now it just so happens that the states that are home to those "transplant" auto factories - Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee - are home to the Republican senators who drove a stake through the heart of the Detroit rescue package.

   Raging about the higher wages and benefits that members of the United Auto Workers get from the Big 3, and rhapsodizing about letting the market pick winners and losers, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the rescue package "isn't nearly tough enough" on the automakers or the union.

   By the way, that's the same Mitch McConnell who, 23 years ago, called a reluctant property owner in Kentucky to persuade the family to sell Toyota the land it wanted for its plant there.

   Seeing things like that, local UAW official Kevin Donovan says, is simply "hypocrisy."

   So can you think of any other choice words to describe it?

   --- Jerry Zremski

More sex offenders will be locked away after their sentences end

The question of whether it's right to confine sex offenders to mental institutions after they've completed their prison sentences is an argument only beginning in Western New York with the first recently completed local trial on the matter.

   It will become more commonplace in the coming years. The Buffalo office of the state attorney general has 59 such cases in various stages of preparedness.

On Nov. 14, a State Supreme Court jury in Lockport found Daniel Gierszewski, 63, of Buffalo, had a mental abnormality as defined in a state law passed last year. That gives Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. the authority to commit him to a mental institution. Although cases are to be reviewed annually and treatment is offered, there's a very real chance that Gierszewski might be in the institution for life.

His criminal record is a grim one. In 1980, he was charged with raping and sodomizing a 15-year-old girl, and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors. He served a three-year probation term. In 1983, he picked up two girls, ages 13 and 16, while cruising for prostitutes, and tied them up and sexually assaulted them in the back of his van. He served three years in prison for that. And in 1993, he fondled a 10-year-old girl between the legs in the candy aisle of a North Tonawanda department store. The next year, he was convicted of that and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Gierszewski's prison time was to have run out Feb. 21, but instead the state Office of Mental Health decided after an interview by a psychologist that Gierszewski has a mental abnormality that makes him likely to commit more sex crimes. Instead of being freed, he was transferred to a mental institution to await trial for confinement.

As the prosecutor said, "There's no nicotine patch you can put on your arm that makes you stop craving young girls." But civil confinement wasn't even thought of when Gierszewski received his long prison term in 1994. Also, he was let out on parole in September 2007, because the Mental Health people thought then that he did not have a mental abnormality.

   He was re-evaluated, and sent back to prison, only after using a computer in a public library. He wasn't supposed to be using the Internet.

Gierszewski's attorney says the convicted sex offender "paid his debt to society," and blames the jury's fear for its verdict.

Another attorney points out that the state doesn't try to commit anyone else to a mental institution after their prison sentence expires, not even killers. And the state Division of Criminal Justice Services has a Web site (http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/nsor/som_mythsandfacts.htm) that says sex offenders tend to reoffend less often than other types of criminals.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the concept of civil confinement laws.

Is it right to lock up sex criminals, and only sex criminals, after they've served their sentences, because they might commit another crime if let out?

- Thomas J. Prohaska

The snow belt is a little tighter this year

    You know that we're experiencing two different winters in Western New York by the cars on the road and in downtown parking lots. Some look like they might have just come from a car wash, while others have the telltale sign of having traveled from the Southern Tier: a square shaped mound of snow on the roof.

   It's not news to anyone that parts of our region get more snow than others, but the difference between the metro area and the traditional snow belt this year is striking. Buffalo's snowfall is being counted in inches, while parts of Cattaraugus County can measure the snow on the ground in yards.

   But the snow will find its ways to all of our neighborhoods eventually. It always does.

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