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Newsday.com

Talking tough

Gov should keep it up, and back it up, when it comes to sweetening pensions

May 20, 2008

Ah, political courage. It's as refreshing as it is rare in Albany. But we've glimpsed it over the past week, as Gov. David Paterson and Assemb. Speaker Sheldon Silver have stood up to unions that would sweeten members' pensions at an untold public cost.

Unions typically lobby for pension enhancements each spring, toward the end of the legislative session. Lawmakers have been all too willing to give away the store, with the understanding that unions will help them win re-election in November. But this accommodation burdens the budgets of state and local governments - and ultimately, of taxpayers.

As a former state senator, Paterson knows the game. He has publicly warned the unions and has reiterated his commitment to hold down spending.

This takes courage. Paterson has never run for governor, and he will need significant cash if he decides to run in 2010. His father, lawyer Basil Paterson, has represented several of the state's largest unions. Son David's stand sends a message that he's his own man.

We hope that the governor follows through on his promise and vetoes any pension-sweetening bills that make it across his desk. Freezing health care benefits for retired civil servants and giving DC37 municipal employees a second chance to buy into an early retirement plan - receiving full benefits at 55 instead of 62 - are two of the 120 budget-bloating proposals before the legislature now.

Silver stopped the action on all 120 bills over the weekend by calling for a new, unbiased review of their fiscal impact. This followed a revelation that the actuary the legislature had been using to analyze the bills, Jonathan Schwartz, was being paid by unions. Talk about a conflict of interest.

Paterson and Silver have made a good start at pushing back against powerful special interests. They should continue to set such limits.

Newsday.com

Top 10 Teachers' Retirement System pensions

FROM NEWSDAY STAFF

9:01 PM EDT, May 4, 2008

Top 10 pension earners in the New York State Teachers' Retirement System. Five of the 10 are working in Long Island school districts.

$316,245: James Hunderfund, 64, retired from Commack in 2006. Now in Malverne, making $200,000.

$205,809: John H. George, 65, retired from North Tonawanda in 2006.

$196,050: William J. McDonald, retired from Floral Park- Bellerose in 2005.

$195,403: William J. Brosnan Jr., 61, retired from Northport in 2006. Now at a school support center in Holbrook, making $176,000.

$194,200: Thomas J. Caramore, 61, retired from Bellmore-Merrick in 2005. Now in Baldwin, making $212,000.

$192,399: Joan L. Colvin, 66, retired from Jericho in 2007. Returned to work at Jericho, making $180,000.

$190,123: Les A. Black, 62, retired from Brentwood in 2006.

$189,909: Sidney A. Freund, 59, retired from Dobbs Ferry in 2006. He had worked earlier in three Long Island districts.

$187,468: Carol D. Eisenberg, 69, retired from West Hempstead in 2007. Now in East Islip, making $173,910.

$186,826: Lawrence F. Pereira, 63, retired from Massapequa in 2005.

Copyright 2008, Newsday Inc

                          

Newsday

 

Analysis: NY's special interests well-fed by your tax dollars

By MICHAEL GORMLEY

 

Associated Press Writer

 

April 12, 2008

 

ALBANY, N.Y.

 

The Legislature took a lot of heat last week for its secret budget negotiations, its abandonment of public conference committees required by its own 2007 reform law, and its refusal _ with Gov. David Paterson _ to release details of how they would spend New Yorkers' money until the bills were already passed.

 

But it wasn't a complete secret. The unions and other special interests that have poured $171.2 million into lobbying over the last year and gave candidates millions more for campaigns were in on it.

 

In the hectic final days before New York's $121.7 billion budget was adopted Wednesday, lawmakers debated bills for hours in televised sessions. But most of the decisions had already been made behind closed doors, sometimes with lobbyists at the table. The public, who pays for it all, was shut out.

 

Take Verizon Communications, a major employer in New York. The company spent $3.2 million to lobby lawmakers and tossed another $157,620 at their campaigns, according to a report released last week by the state Public Integrity Commission.

 

One of Verizon's interests in Albany is a cell phone bill of rights measure that would bar companies from requiring a customer to renew his or her service plan when adding a new phone, and prevent a company from making the period of a contract longer. The industry is fighting this consumer-friendly bill, which remains stuck in committee.

 

Sometimes the money is not spent to block, but to get.

 

The New York State United Teachers and United Federation of Teachers unions spent almost $3 million lobbying in 2007, the year the report examined, and contributed $841,703 to campaigns. On Wednesday, the Legislature provided a record $1.75 billion increase in state school aid despite a gaping deficit and falling revenues. In addition, the powerful unions secured a legislative change among thousands of pages of budget bills that prohibits school districts from using student performance on test scores as a basis for denying teachers tenure.

 

And most of the gush of education cash will go to salaries and hiring more teachers and administrators, said E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, part of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute. Adding more teachers and staff is often masked by saying the money will pay to reduce class sizes, a more popular notion for the public.

 

"It feeds the bottom line and increases the union argument for paying them more," he said.

 

The result of taxpayers providing a big increase in state aid this year? Big increases in local school taxes next year.

 

"Because there's no cap on school taxes, when you feed the bottom line with a big increase in one year, it usually translates to bigger property taxes in coming years because the state aid increases aren't sustainable," he said.

 

He said last week's haul for public schools in the state budget proved this about the school unions: "There is no question they are the tail that wags the whole dog."

 

But others are helping.

 

Health care and hospital groups spent more than $3 million lobbying and kicked in $931,091 to campaigns as they fought back efforts by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer to shift more money from institutions to outpatient care, which is cheaper.

 

The Trial Lawyers Association also spent $959,733 in lobbying and $585,134 in campaign contributions while they fought "tort reform," which could force lower judgments in lawsuits.

 

It's all legal. The U.S. Supreme Court calls its freedom of speech.

 

"In Albany's pay-to-play culture, those with the bucks speak with a megaphone, while the rest of us are reduced to a whisper," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 

His group put out its "Fat Cat Factor" annual list of top lobbyists and how much they paid to influence legislation and legislators. The top 10 lobbyists alone made $2.8 million in campaign contributions last year.

 

"If the average member of the public wonders why things have gotten so bad in Albany, one reason is the way the system is run," Horner said. "The reason often is that the interests of the status quo are deeply entrenched, and moving any kind of reform is daunting."

 

___

 

Michael Gormley is the Albany, N.Y., Capitol editor for The Associated Press. He can be reached by e-mail at mgormley(at)ap.org.

 

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

 

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Newsday.com

2 LI schools take top honors at robotics contest

BY CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ

christina.hernandez@newsday.com

10:21 PM EDT, March 29, 2008

Hundreds cheered as robots made of aluminum and steel -- and sometimes wood -- zoomed around a track at Hofstra University Saturday in the Long Island FIRST Regional Robotics Competition, where two Island schools took top honors.

More than 1,100 students and 46 teams -- 40 from Long Island -- maneuvered 130-pound robots, manipulating large plastic balls to earn points.

Patchogue-Medford High School received the highest honor, the Regional Chairman's award, for exemplifying the purpose and goals of the competition, whose acronym stands for "for inspiration and recognition of science and technology."

"These kids have worked so hard," said Danielle Voje, an adviser of the team. "They design everything on their own."

Sayville High School, Somerville High School in New Jersey and Champion High in Warren, Ohio, also earned spots in next month's championship in Atlanta, where more than $9 million in scholarships is up for grabs.

Christian Jimenez-Cruz, 17, a junior at Westbury High School, helped design his team's robot, Mini-Me. Inspired by forklifts, Mini-Me can reach a height of about 7 feet.

"It's really small," he said. "But we just press a button and it rises above everyone else."

Kelly Reilly, 16, a junior at West Islip High School, controlled the robot Critical Mass with a joystick. "I think it's fun," she said. "We get to work out problems and figure out how to make stuff work."

Tshekedi Noel, 18, a senior at Uniondale High, said strategizing was the most difficult part.

Michael Rocco, 18, a Great Neck South High senior, said the team is in a robotics class but spent countless extracurricular hours on the robot, Rebellion.

Students at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park made their robot, EMP, or Electromagnetic Pulse, of mostly recycled materials, like wood and old pipes. "We had a different approach," said Sulaiman Usman, 17, a senior. "Everything was lying around."

Glen Cove High School's robot was named Will Smith, after the team's "Men in Black" meets the "Lady in Red" theme. Team members wore dark suits, while their adviser, Lisa Pignataro, was decked out in a floor-length red dress.

"This has been such a positive experience, a booster for their self-esteem," she said. "We've inspired a lot of girls, too. They're watching me ... using power tools in an evening gown."

Mark McLeod, a computer science engineer who is Hauppauge High School's team adviser, was named volunteer of the year. "What's really nice about this program, it gets the kids to work with real engineers," he said. "The number of kids going into technical fields is really dropping. We're trying to increase exposure."


Newsday.com

LI schools sorely lacking in holistic education

BY FRANCIS PIZZARELLI

The Rev. Francis Pizzarelli, a member of the Montfort Missionaries, is founder and executive director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson and host of a weekly cable TV program on teen issues.

March 30, 2008

Are schools merely wastelands that produce humans with basic functional academic skills, or should they be creative environments that empower students to think and act critically as contributing members of society? What are our schools preparing our students for?

As national testing scores have declined, efforts at school reform have focused on improving the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Yet, too many students graduate from high school and do not know how to think critically, problem solve and/or resolve interpersonal conflicts. Effective communication skills are weak at best, and self-esteem as valued human beings is sorely lacking.

If this were not the case, we would not be witnessing the escalation in school violence (which is directly linked to all of these neglected skills) and the growing number of high school students in almost every community who are getting lost in the cracks, invisible to too many school administrators and school boards.

Earlier this month the press reported that more than 200 high school students had walked out of class at a Levittown high school to protest the proposed firing of young teachers, most likely to bridge a budget deficit. The students had the courage to make a statement because their education is important to them. The response of the school administration was to give detention to the students who did not return to class.

Whenever we choose to speak out - or in the case of the students, walk out - we face possible consequences for that choice. And the students should be held accountable. But this walkout was also what educators call a teachable moment, where the consequences could have led to a learning experience and not merely a punishment. Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity for all involved.

More valuable than detention would have been an assignment for the students to research the basis of the attendance policies that govern their school district, or to appear at a school board meeting to express their views about the issues that led them to protest.

In reclaiming our schools, we must strive to create environments that support the holistic education of our children. Most districts are still interested in educating students only from the neck up. We need to look at the total person and respond creatively and effectively to all of his or her needs, which includes becoming an engaged citizen of our democracy.

I wonder how many teachers in Levittown, or in other districts where people read about the protest, had the courage to process with their classes what the students did in that walkout. Were faculty members willing to talk about the issues objectively and empower their students to critically look at the situation?

Sometimes, given the huge emphasis on standardized testing these days, I wonder why more students don't walk out and protest the questionable quality of their educational experience. Most likely, that kind of thinking isn't even on their educational radar. These are not concerns that are raised in most social studies classes. For teachers sometimes it's safer to hide behind Regents preparation than to explore and challenge students to think critically about the social and  political issues that shape their lives.

A handful of high schools are making an effort with holistic education, challenging students to think globally and act locally, and instilling the appropriate skills so that the students can become change agents as adults. Of course, where educators try to encourage such thinking, there is always the risk of coming under fire from some parents or other people in the community. More teachers and educational leaders need to operate out of courage, rather than fear.

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