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The stampede out of Buffalo schools

Buffalo schools are hemorrhaging students like no other district in New York State.

That's what I take away from this report (see the second item)  from an outfit called the Education Intelligence Agency.

The EIA tracked trends from 2001-02 to 2006-07, the latest year that complete data is available, and found that Buffalo lost 18.5 percent of its enrollment. That compares with a statewide drop of 3.2 percent, including anywhere from 4.8 to 8 percent at the other Big Five districts. The details are are here. 

Population loss can only explain a part of Buffalo's enrollment drop. The flight of students to charter schools explains a lot more. There are some 6,300 students enrolled in charter schools in WNY, most of them in Buffalo.

While voter turnout for school board elections is pathetic, a lot of parents are voting another way -- with their children's feet.

If there are good numbers to be found in the report, it's that the teaching staff has also shrunk by 18.5 percent. Then again, given the crushing needs, such a big dropoff isn't necessarily a good thing. 

Other "good" numbers?

Spending per pupil in Buffalo increased 30.5 percent, vs. a statewide average of 38.4 percent.

Question: Is it a good thing when you drop enrollment by nearly 20 percent but still increase your spending by nearly one-third?

Then consider per-pupil spending on compensation, which is mostly for teacher wages and benefits. It was up 24 percent in Buffalo, vs. a statewide average of 38.8 percent.

Why? Probably because teachers have been working under the terms of a contract that expired in July 2004. Failure on the labor front is hardly grounds to celebrate, especially given that the Buffalo Teachers Federation keeps kicking the district's butt in court, setting the stage for one mother of a retroactive check.

There's lots more to digest in the report about WNY's other school districts, as well. For the record, New York has 683 of 'em.

I'll leave you with a few numbers about the Alden school district. You know, the bastion of government closest to the people I told you about yesterday.

Its school district, at 1,906 students, lost 7.9 percent of its enrollment. Spending jumped 35.6 percent over the six years ending in 2005-06.

For this, voters are asked to elect seven school board members. Let's see. That's about one member for every 272 students.

If Buffalo schools used that ratio, the Board of Education would have 134 members.

Kevin Gaughan, are you listening?


"Democracy" in WNY and drunkeness in Orchard Park

Today's theme is numbers.

Let's start with Bruce Andriatch's column on the upcoming elections. There are 155 elected positions on the ballot. No fewer than 66 seats are uncontested,

They include seven of nine town clerks. (I tell you, if Iraq voters could elect their own town clerks, Dubya's mission would truly be accomplished.)

In Clarence and Wales, not a single elected seat is contested.

And then there is the matter of Alden. As Bruce notes:

Number of polling places that will be open in Alden on election day: 4.

Number of polling places open in Alden when voters cast ballots on whether to downsize the Town Board from five to three members: 1.

Number of hours polls will be open in Alden on election day: 15.

Number of hours they were open the day of the downsizing vote: 8.

 Number of Town Board and town supervisor candidates facing opposition in Alden this year: 0.

But, remember, folks, this is the "government closest to the people" that pols all over WNY insist must be preserved. It's for our own good, they tell us.

They call this democracy.

Hit, it, Bruce: 

Let's move on to the happenings in and around One Bills Drive.

I attended the Bills game yesterday, tailgated beforehand and everything. First time I'd been in a couple, three years. Was reminded why I've stayed away.

It was ugly on the field and worse outside the stadium, as Gene Warner detailed.

We've got one stolen wood carving of Thurman Thomas.

One fan who was arrested at the game only to escape police custody and later found sleeping it off in the basement of a nearby house he had broken into.

And one Clarence teen-ager who was charged with 16 criminal counts for his drunk-driving, hit-and-run antics after the game.

Bills fansIt's a wonder, really, that something like this hasn't happened sooner.

I mean, everything within a mile of the stadium is a huge open container law violation - among other things. Have we set the record yet for world's largest public urinal?

Boy, that would get us Talking Proud, wouldn't it? You can't buy that kind of publicity.

Behavior that would not be tolerated the other 355 days of the year is accepted when the Bills host games. And this is because???

You can't get away with his kind of behavior at Sabres or Bisons games. But for some reason, it's acceptable for 75,000 or so mostly overweight white guys to get drunk before Bills games and obscene during them before they climb into their pick ups and drive home drunk.

OK, I exaggerate. But you get my point.

Can you imagine if, say, 75,000 black guys showed up for a rap concert and behaved like Bills fans?

Why, Tim Howard, Chris Collins and Cheryl Green would have nightmares just thinking about how many blankets and tooth brushes they would have to withhold from prisoners.


State legislators getting bigger expense checks

A check of the headlines this week alone tells us the state is $3 billion in the red and the governor doesn't think we can afford the $26 billion bill to rebuild New York state's infrastructure.

State legislators, meanwhile, continue to party like it's 1999.

Reports the Albany Times Union:

Members will be receiving higher per diems, the stipends they get for travel expenses such as hotels and meals outside their home districts.

Starting this month, lawmakers staying in Albany will get $171 per day, up from $160 -- an increase of nearly 7 percent.

They'll get that amount no matter how much they spend. If their meal and hotel costs are lower, they keep the change. (Expenses for transportation -- such as train tickets or car mileage -- are reimbursed separately).

The Empire Center for New York State Policy has this list of legislative salaries and per diems for the 50 states based on 2007 figures. The reimbursement rate is all over the place.

Suffice to say, our guys aren't hurting by comparison. There are a few states -- including Ohio, Connecticut and New Jersey -- where lawmakers receive no per diem. They're also drawing much smaller salaries.

Given the state of the state, on top of the state of the economy, perhaps Shelly, Malcolm, Pedro and Company should party more like it's 1929.


Break out the dunce caps

Western New York's community IQ ranks near the bottom of the nation's 55 metropolitan areas with a population of 1 million or more, according to a study done by the Daily Beast that factored in education levels, the presence of colleges and universities, voter turnout and book sales.

Roughly tracking standard IQ tests, perfection added up to 200 points. The average was 100. Brain dead = 0. 

We scored 70.


The score ranked the Buffalo-Niagara Falls MSA 44 out of 55.

Ouch, again.

To further put it in perspective, we rank below the likes of Grand Rapids, Mich. and Birmingham, Ala.

And it's not like the results skewed towards the Sun Belt. Yeah, Raleigh-Durham ranked No. 1, followed by San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland. But Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver rounded out the top five and regions including Milwaukee (ranked 15), Providence (22) Rochester (26) and Pittsburgh (27) ranked  much better than us.

Here's what the Daily Beast had to say about WNY, after the obligatory cheap shot courtesy of Willis McGahee:

Its per capita nonfiction buying ranked near the bottom, and the rate of college graduates was in the bottom 10 percent.

I guess this is no big surprise, but it's nevertheless depressing, and underscores what we're up against in trying to rebuild a region that has a moribund economy and dysfunctional governance. Digging our way out is going to take smarts, among other things.

Us, we put a lot of energy into tailgating on Sunday and wigging out about the Bills the rest of the week.

Gaughan planning referendums to dissolve villages

For those grousing that Kevin Gaughan's push to downsize town councils from five to three members is small potatoes, consider this:

With his consolidation move gaining traction with successful downsizing referendums in the towns of West Seneca, Evans, Orchard Park and Alden, Gaughan said he's going to launch a grassroots effort next year to start dissolving villages.

In an e-mail he sent me Tuesday, Gaughan said:

Beyond town downsizing, I've made no secret that my end goal is to dissolve all 16 village governments.  You may recall that I first proposed this in July 2008, eliciting the blowback from a gaggle of village mayors and some Albany lobbyist they flew in. 

One of the purposes of my spending hundreds of hours in conversation with folks in towns that include villages (Angola in Evans; Orchard Park village in Orchard Park; Alden village in Alden; Williamsville in Amherst), is to build a coalition of support and volunteers for Phase II of my effort, the circulation of petitions to let people decide if they want village government to continue. I think I've made good progress in this regard.
My plan is to begin the first village petitioning in March of next year, forcing the first village dissolution vote in May of next year.

In a follow-up phone conversation on Tuesday, Gaughan told me he plans to start in Williamsville, in part because so many village residents there have signed up as volunteers on his Web site.

"As it stands now, it will be Williamsville," he said. "It's going to be our West Seneca. It will be the first one to vote."

Voters venting via downsizing referendums

I'll agree with those who say downsizing town councils from five to three members doesn't do a whole lot to cut costs or the size of local government. But I think that argument misses the point, as Sandy Tan's story today underscores.

"I realize this has such a small impact on what we're doing, but we're hoping for a snowball effect," said the lifelong Alden resident, who struggled with her decision. "We have to do something, even if we start small."

... Voter Raymond R. Rebmann used those exact words to describe his desire for a trickle-up effect.

"We need to send elected officials a message, and we need to start somewhere," he said, referring to Tuesday's town vote. "This is what we have control over."

Yes, indeed, voters -- taxpayers -- are fed up and whacking a couple of politicians is the avenue open to them. The fact the pols are going out of their way to thwart the downsizing movement, as Donn Esmonde documented in his column the other day has only added fuel to the fire.

We have recently seen board members in four towns place a variety of rocks and roadblocks between people and democracy. The dirty secret: The more town officials try to stop this, and the sleazier their tactics get, the more people who may turn against them.

Donn goes on to document the tactics used by our "defenders" of smalltown democracy:

The towns change; the tactics stay the same:

• Open only a few polling places—or, in Orchard Park and Alden, just one.

• Limit voting hours, so people cannot stop on their way to work or after dinner.

• Find a ridiculous technicality that —despite the extra expense to taxpayers and inconvenience to voters—supposedly prevents the downsizing vote from taking place on the same day as a primary or general election, when large numbers of people come out.

The theory behind the voter-suppression tactics is that folks with direct connection to town government—and their friends and family—are sure to show up, while everybody else might be inclined to say the heck with it.

• Pass out unsigned fliers that play to people’s fears. One leaflet in Orchard Park claimed that the downsizing movement could “lead to regional schools [and] . . . the elimination of [the] police department.”

What’s next, swine flu and socialism?

This is not going to go away anytime soon, as Donn noted in another recent column.

I guess it now is official. This is not an accident or an aberration. It is a movement.

First, West Seneca and Evans. Now, Orchard Park. Voters there Wednesday, by a nearly 2-1 ratio, approved a measure to downsize the Town Board from five members to three. If folks in an upscale bedroom community are this fed up with government, the minirevolution seems unstoppable.

Kevin Gaughan is not some Tinker Bell sprinkling fairy dust in people’s eyes. The civic activist who is driving the downsizing train has clearly tapped into a current of communal frustration. The ire is fed by decades of decline and the failure of elected officials—many of them molded by political machines—to do much about it. In town after town, people are grateful for the chance to make even a marginal change.

Where does the "movement" go from here?

We'll no doubt see more referendums to downsize town councils. At some point, however, someone is going to decide to add meat to those bones.

The politicians could take the initiative and start negotiating agreements to consolidate services to save costs.

Villages could be folded into towns via referendums, and a change in state law that takes effect next year will make it much easier to put that issue to voters.

The there is the sacred cow of education. At some point, someone could very well challenge the status quo that sees 27 schools districts in Erie County -- plus two BOCES districts. 

The Town of Cheektowaga has four school districts operating within its boundaries. If someone gets it in their head that the town board ought to be downsized from its current seven members, including the supervisor, then what could or should be done with 24 school board members?

Murder and mayhem

Two crime reports have caught my eye, both of them depressing from a Western New York perspective.

The Daily Beast, Tina Brown's very readable Web site, studied crime statistics provided to the federal government by the nation's colleges and universities and identified the 25 safest and least safe campuses. Buffalo State College made the wrong list.

Meanwhile, a study of homicides in New York State shows that nearly one in five killings is the result of domestic violence. Moreover, the incidence of so-called "intimate partner homicides," the largest category of domestic killings, jumped 25 percent statewide last year, including 45 percent outside of New York City.

The report by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services showed there were five domestic homicides last year in Erie County, up from three the year before, and two in Niagara County, vs. one in 2007.

The Albany Times Union has a story that summarizes the study's findings.

... while only 4 percent of male homicide victims 16 and older were killed by an intimate partner in 2008, the figure was nearly 50 percent for women 16 and older.

"That is a stunning statistic," said Amy Barasch, executive director of the state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, which advises and trains state leaders and agencies

Chris Collins sounds a few campaign themes

The state Democrats are in town and just by coincidence, according to Chris Collins, the county executive held a press conference outside the Dems' meeting at the downtown Hyatt in which he ripped into David Paterson, Andrew Cuomo and the rest of their party.

Elizabeth Benjamin of the New York Daily News has the details.

Collins comes off as sounding like a potential candidate for governor, provided Rudolph Giuliani doesn't run.

Reported Benjamin:

Cuomo and Paterson, Collins charged, have "accepted failure" in New York, which is why the state has the highest taxes in the nation, and is the "least business-friendly state."

"That is Andrew Cuomo’s definition of acceptability," Collins said disdainfully."They have no message they have no vision they accept failure and are proud of it."

Tell us what you really think, Mr. Collins.

He also took a shot at Cuomo over his approach to government consolidation.

As a parting shot, Collins slammed Cuomo's signature issue -- the government consolidation bill that Gov. David Paterson signed into law in June. The county executive called the measure "laughable," noting it exempts school districts and authorities.

"Talk about smokescreens and shell games," Collins said. "He is laughing at the public. He is getting lauded for doing something, and he did nothing."

This coming from a guy who hasn't exactly embraced regionalism, consolidation, whatever you want to call it, in our neck of the woods. Couldn't even bring himself to support a countywide planning board, a rather mild step towards removing the many government silos in the community.

Collins' comments make me curious as to his vision for the state when it comes to bringing order to the chaos caused by a bazillion cities, towns, villages and school boards.

Meanwhile, back at the Democratic pow-wow, Cuomo, who did a recorded robocall for Mayor Byron Brown during the final days of the mayoral primary, heaped praise on hizzoner, reports our own Bob McCarthy.

Brown was chosen to introduce Cuomo at his morning speech. And the mutual praise Brown and Cuomo heaped on each other only heightened speculation that the mayor could be a candidate for lieutenant governor with Cuomo.

"He is only getting better; he is a star on the rise," Cuomo said of the mayor. "He is energetic, professional and is delivering to the City of Buffalo. That's why we love him."

Of course, Cuomo's public integrity unit is just about the only investigatory agency of consequence that is not investigating the Brown administration and his political allies.

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