Monthly Archives: October 2014

New York’s school-bond boondoggle

By E.J. McMahon Oct 7, 2014 – New York Post

On Election Day, New York voters will be asked to let the state borrow up to $2 billion to help public schools buy computer hardware they don’t urgently need and create space for pre-kindergarten programs that most districts outside New York City can’t afford.

Specifically, Proposal 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot would authorize a state general — obligation — bond issue to finance new interactive “smart boards,” servers, laptops, desktop computers and iPad-style tablets; “high-tech security features” such as surveillance cameras; and broadband Internet and wireless connections.

Districts could also apply for bond funding to “construct, enhance and modernize educational facilities” for pre-K and to replace any temporary “transportable classroom units.”

The ballot language is laced with marketing spin, from the title, “Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014,” to highly dubious promises that the $2 billion will “equalize opportunities for children to learn” and lead to “high-quality” pre-K programs.

Ignore the spin. Even New Yorkers inclined to write a blank check for education should think long and hard before they say “yes” to Prop 3.

To start with, New York’s state and local debt burden is already enormous, totaling more than $17,000 per resident.

Passage of this bond proposition would push the state government closer to its statutory debt ceiling — even as Albany struggles to fill funding gaps in long-term capital plans for basic infrastructure like mass transit, roads and bridges.

And while bridges and subways undeniably are long-term investments, buying computers would be a wasteful use of the state’s increasingly scarce capital-bonding capacity.

To justify bonding, the law implementing Proposal 3 assumes that classroom technology financed with school-bond funds will have a “probable life” of eight years.

In fact, that’s at least three years beyond the life span generally assumed by large corporate and government institutions.

And even under that unlikely assumption, most of the nifty smart boards, iPads, laptops and other devices purchased under the bond act will be worn out or obsolete long before the debt is paid off — even if the bonds are issued for relatively short average durations of 10 to 15 years.

New York has already found a much better way to subsidize classroom technology and school construction: through annual budget appropriations.

Constructing new classrooms has long been underwritten by Albany’s generous school building-aid program, which this year alone will provide $2.7 billion to underwrite up to 95 percent of eligible capital costs in districts across the state.

And, under New York’s post-Newtown SAFE Act, building aid also can now be spent to improve school security.

Over the past five years, Albany has earmarked $192 million in computer-hardware aid for schools, including $38 million in the current budget. Has it been enough?

As of December, the state Board of Regents seemed to think so: In their request for a total hike of $1 billion in state education spending, the Regents sought only $1 million more for computer aid.

Most striking is that none of New York’s many public-school-advocacy groups, from school boards to teachers unions, had identified classroom technology as a funding priority before the “smart schools” bond scheme first popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, in Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State speech in January.

The one district most likely to tap its full allocation under the proposed bond act is New York City, which could reap $780 million to expand classroom space for Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-K program.

This would be on top of the added annual state aid the governor provided to finance de Blasio’s pre-K launch without a city tax hike.

But universal pre-k is not a priority in most other Empire State school districts. They’re having a hard enough time keeping their existing K-12 spending beneath the state property-tax-cap, even as enrollments drop.

The annual payments on $2 billion in bonds could ultimately come to more than $130 million a year. A far better way to “equalize opportunities to learn” would be to spend that money on added annual aid to public and charter schools serving the state’s neediest children.

E.J. McMahon is president of the Empire Center for Public Policy and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow.

Committee backs partial disclosure (SAFE ACT)

Advisory opinion urges releasing FOIL request information
By Casey Seiler, October 4, 2014


In an advisory opinion issued Friday, the state Committee on Open Government says the State Police should not deny Freedom of Information Law requests seeking “aggregate” data such as the number of assault weapons that have been registered under the provisions of the NY SAFE Act.

State Police officials have for almost a year refused to release any data about the number of weapons registered under the controversial gun control law.

They have consistently pointed to a little-known clause tucked into the speedily passed law that renders registration information contained in the state’s databank confidential: “Records assembled or collected for purposes of inclusion in such (a) database shall not be subject to disclosure,” the law reads.

To the derision of anti-NY SAFE activists and transparency advocates, the State Police has held that the statute covers any data derived from those records, as well. Critics say that the policy prevents New Yorkers from assessing the effectiveness of the registration law.

“Those records you seek are derived from information collected for the State Police database and are, therefore, exempt from disclosure,” State Police spokeswoman Darcy Wells said last November in response to a FOIL request from the Times Union, one of numerous media outlets that have sought the data.
COOG’s new advisory opinion, written by Assistant Director Camille S. Jobin-Davis, disagrees with that policy.

The NY SAFE Act clearly “makes application records assembled or collected and maintained by the State Police confidential,” the letter states. “There is no exception indicated, however, for data derived from those records. Specifically, there is no indication that aggregate data or that which can be derived from the collected records is protected.”

The letter says that the clear legislative intent of the confidentiality protections afforded under the NY SAFE Act was to shield the permit holder from potential danger or harassment. Aggregate data — such as the raw number of weapons registered — wouldn’t compromise that mission.

“In our opinion,” the four-page letter concludes, “none of the discretionary exceptions appearing in 87(2) of the Freedom of Information Law would permit the State Police to deny access to aggregate data regarding firearm and assault weapons permits reported without identification of individual applicants. On the contrary, we believe that data of that nature must be disclosed pursuant to [the provision of FOIL] which specifies that ‘statistical or factual tabulations or data’ contained within internal agency records be disclosed. Accordingly, it is our opinion that such non-identifying data is required to be disclosed upon request.”

Robert Freeman, the executive director of COOG, has been offering essentially the same opinion since the initial rejections of FOIL requests from the Times Union and other media outlets.
The opinion does not compel the State Police to release the data, Freeman said in an interview on Saturday morning.

“The hope is that (COOG’s) opinions are educational and persuasive, and encourage adherence to the law,” Freeman said.

The letter was copied to the State Police’s records access officer. A spokeswoman for the force did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

The NY SAFE Act — which was introduced, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in less that 24 hours in January 2013 — also allowed firearms permit holders to make their data exempt from FOIL by filling out a simple application.

Salsa Celebrity Willie Colón Endorses Rob Astorino

astorino-colonWillie Colón with Rob Astorino. (Photo: Astorino Campaign)

By Ross Barkan | 09/26/14 9:31am New York Observer

Rob Astorino is ready to dance the salsa.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, still far behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the polls, picked up the endorsement of salsa musician and activist Willie Colón this morning. Mr. Colón, who endorsed moderate Democrat Bill Thompson in last year’s mayoral race, said the “Latino vote is a joke” and urged his fellow countrymen to stop automatically backing Democrats.

“We vote and work to get our Democratic candidate elected and after they win. They forget their promises. There is little or no access. Trying to meet with them is like having an audience with the Pope. Probably easier with his holiness,” Mr. Colón, who is a Democrat, said in a statement.

“Why? Because the Latino vote is a joke. Democrats know we don’t even think about swinging to the other candidate. That’s out of the question because it’s evil; because you’re a traitor if you vote for the Republican,” he continued. “So, no matter how bad the Democrat is, even if he’s going to jail; we still have to vote for them.”

Mr. Colón said he personally likes Mr. Astorino, the Westchester County executive and a fluent Spanish speaker, and praised him for not hailing from a “royal family or political dynasty,” a reference Mr. Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

“Rob Astorino doesn’t come from a royal family or political dynasty. He doesn’t think his family was born to rule,” Mr. Colon said. “I met him last year and he came across as a sane, humble, confident man. He didn’t just realize a couple of months ago that he needed to speak Spanish to get votes!”

Mr. Colón, like Mr. Astorino, is not often enamored with the political left. He fought on Twitter with the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, a socialist reviled by the American government but loved by many leftists.

Mr. Colón is one Mr. Astorino’s few prominent endorsers. Mr. Cuomo, who has raised more than $30 million and flooded the airwaves with advertisements, is running with the backing of most major labor unions and elected officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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