Jessica Bakeman reports on politics and education policy in Capital New York’s Albany bureau. In a recent article focused on MaryEllen Elia, our recently appointed New York State Education Commissioner, Ms. Bakeman reflects on what may be a new strategy to fix the persistent problem of failing schools in pockets around the State.

In essence, Ms. Elia’s plan seems to rely on a “tough love” approach with district leaders and parents from the lowest performing NYS schools: ‘You have 2 years to fix these failing schools, or the state will do it for you’.

Unlike some observers, I strongly believe that the root cause of failing schools is not directly linked to teachers, administrators or common core.

The primary failure begins when we as a society allow virtually all of our lower-income children to be concentrated into just a few school districts — while continuing to operate dozens of boutique public school districts which serve children from predominantly upper income households.

Extensive research tells us that if we continue to follow this model, it will ensure that the achievement gap will continue to grow.

Whether accomplished through housing choice or school choice: economic, social and cultural integration at the K-12 level has been proven to be the best solution to close the achievement gap.

New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve — residents of villages, towns, neighborhoods and cities. The impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60+ years ago!

We can witness how “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard across New York State, very clearly corroborated by NYS Education Department statistics which prove that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality, which results in disparate student outcomes.

There really is no place for personal or private agendas on the part of our appointed and elected officials. Public officials are expected to set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.

It may very well be that Commissioner Elia — appointed by the NYS Board of Regents — has been tasked with sweeping the truth under the rug, because she is not talking about the only viable solution, which is to reform NYS Education regulations, many of which date to the late 19th Century.

I can grasp the enlightened self-interest of homeowners in Pittsford, Scarsdale, Briarcliff Manor, Bronxville (or in dozens of other public school districts in NYS which serve students from upper income households) who want to fight for their autonomy to keep ‘those other children’ out of their schools.

These are the very same wealthy and politically active adults who wield undue influence over our elected officials in Albany.

With that said, I’m dubious that any meaningful reform can take place until the specter of political influence is removed from our public education system.

Separate and Unequal

April 27, 2014


Westchester County in New York State seems to attract a great deal of attention in the media.


Not long ago, we learned from a posting on Zillow that property owners in Westchester County pay more in property taxes than the typical resident of any other major American county. The average property tax bill for a single family home in Westchester County comes to $14,829 a year (vs. the U.S. median of about $2,800).


There are a number of reasons why property taxes in Westchester County NY are the highest in the nation, but the primary reason is property taxes levied to support public schools.

In a county with a population of just under a million residents, Westchester County taxpayers are supporting some 47 completely autonomous public school districts!


Very recently, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino made headlines because he continues to battle the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over compliance with a consent decree approved in 2009 which requires Westchester County to take an active and affirmative role in desegregating local villages and towns in the county which have miniscule populations of African American and Hispanic residents.


Some commentators have applauded Astorino for defying the federal government under the guise that, “(Astorino) is doing his job by protecting the neighborhoods of those who worked very hard to live where they live!”


I’m fine with the notion that people ought to be able to live where they want to live.


However, because New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve residents of — villages, towns and cities, the impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60 years ago!


We can clearly witness that “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard in Westchester County.


It becomes very clear from reviewing NYS Education Department statistics that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality and results in disparate student outcomes.


The Village of Scarsdale is one of the communities identified in the Housing Agreement (consent decree) as racially segregated, and thus a priority area for new units of fair and affordable housing.


A report released in late April from US News and World Report reveals that Scarsdale High School was ranked among the very best high schools in Westchester County; in New York State; and across our nation.


In Scarsdale, no students at the High School receive subsidized meals, and just 9% of students are Black or Hispanic. About 8% of Scarsdale students have been classified with a disability, and 68% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings. Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Scarsdale schools was $27,219, with $17,450 focused on general education students.


Meanwhile, just 5 miles south of Scarsdale High School is Mount Vernon High School, where 70% of students receive subsidized meals, and where 95% of students are Black or Hispanic.


About 16% of Mount Vernon Students have been classified with a disability, and just 48% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings.


Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Mount Vernon public schools was $23,560, with just $11,641 centered on general education students.


The real test may be in graduation rates.  For the class of 2012, 95% of Scarsdale seniors graduated with Regents diplomas; at Mount Vernon High School, just 52% of seniors graduated with a Regents diploma.


The attitudes and actions of public officials should set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.


There really is no place in our current society for personal private agendas – working against the general public good – on the part of our elected officials.


Municipal and school district consolidation seems to be the only rational resolution — why is this solution so difficult to discuss and resolve?


I learned today from an article published in The Journal News that Westchester County has again refused to come into compliance with federal anti-discrimination law and sign a statement to affirmatively further fair housing throughout the county.

The official statement looks something like this: “… (Westchester) county is not going to turn over control of the local zoning of its six cities, 19 towns and 20 villages to bureaucrats in Washington for $5 million in grants.”

This is pure incendiary nonsense, really not different than shouting Fire in a crowded movie theater.

Recalcitrance on the part of the executive branch of Westchester County government will cost villages and towns $5.2 million in community development grants, which had been awarded in 2012 but have been withheld along with all the other rounds of funding since 2011. More than $7 million in grants from 2011 were lost in a similar fashion in 2013.

We elect our public sector leaders to make balanced decisions which are in the best interests of all current and future residents. There really is no place in the American governance process for elected officials to pursue their own personal agenda(s) at the expense of the public good.

Through his continued defiance of the terms of a 2009 agreement between Westchester County and HUD, Mr. Astorino has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that he is unable and/or unwilling to pursue the actions which are in the best long-term interests of the people of Westchester County.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  The Great OZ Has Spoken!”

It’s time, Mr. Astorino.  Time for you to resign from your current elected position to pursue your private agenda on your own time and on your own dime.

The Walrus recently learned that former Town of Somers Supervisor Mary Beth Murphy was appointed as executive director of the Westchester County Tax Commission by County Executive Rob Astorino, a fellow Republican. The job, which enjoys a six-year term, pays $132,155 a year.

Ms. Murphy told a local media outlet that she was “…very grateful for the opportunity to serve the people of Westchester, I was supervisor for 16 years, and I certainly dealt with tax issues during my tenure there. It brought exposure to multiple levels of government. “

The Westchester County Tax Commission ostensibly serves as the repository for the assessment rolls from the county’s multiple taxing jurisdictions; is tasked to provide advisory services to municipalities concerning assessments and assessment procedures; and produces an annual report to the county Board of Legislators.

Off hand, I’m thinking this person is absolutely unqualified and not fit to serve in this position. But, that is the nature of a system where officials are often elected to office based on a ‘beauty contest’ enhanced by a campaign war chest of dubious origin; then those ‘elected officials’ are free to appoint political hacks into positions which can have dramatic impact on society.

This pretty much says it all, another quote attributed to Ms. Murphy from her tenure as Supervisor in the Town of Somers: “We have a good way of reporting our tax bills, and did not see a desire for it by the constituency. The town has a very good reputation for its tax rate.”

According to what source? And on what standing?

The old “Home Rule” defense rears it’s head again. And, it was a great idea in pre-revolutionary war days. Sometime after the Civil War, Home Rule became obsolete, yet we still follow that logic in 21st century New York State?

Wondering why Westchester County has won the prize to become the highest property tax location in the U.S.? It’s entirely due to Home Rule and the incredible waste and duplication of services which result.

Most egregious? The folks in the wealthy white suburbs who are willing to pay through the nose to fund their quasi-private public schools, town and village police, etc. but who balk at the idea of providing any support at all to County taxes which in turn support social safety net services for their less fortunate neighbors.

A modest article published in the August 4, 2012 issue of The Journal News provides some continuing details on the apparent impasse between Westchester County Executive Astorino and HUD on the need for “source of income legislation” in relation to the 2009 settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The terms of the settlement require Westchester County to take several steps to break down the effects of housing discrimination, including building 750 units of affordable housing in mostly white communities and marketing those units in areas with largely non-white populations. At the time of the settlement, the County also agreed to “promote” source-of-income legislation. The definition of promote has been and continues to be a “sticky wicket” in the discussions.

Here is a link to the article:


As a taxpayer in Westchester County, I am very puzzled as to how this constant bickering can possibly be productive. I am further concerned that the continuing obfuscation detracts from the ability of our County government to do the work of the people, and further, is wasting precious County resources on legal costs and other unnecessary expenditures.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits credit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or source of income.

Housing Choice Vouchers (a.k.a. ‘Section 8’) are generally and widely accepted as a legitimate and stable source of income for housing purposes.

The great majority of people I’ve met who are eligible to receive Housing Choice Vouchers are people of good will who just want a decent and safe place to live and raise their children (or, in some cases, grandchildren) and to be able to feel confident their children have the same opportunity for a ‘free and appropriate public school education’ as other children in nearby neighborhoods and/or towns.

Landlords can most effectively screen potential tenants by: (1) employing a standard and uniform application; (2) run a credit report; (3) check references; and (4) verify income sources.

Using a consistent decision-making process for any prospective tenant is considered a “best practice” by a number of sources, including

Background & Definitions

The housing choice voucher program (often called “Section 8”) is a national program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market. Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by public housing agencies (PHAs). The PHAs receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to administer the voucher program. Since housing assistance is provided on behalf of the family or individual, participants are free to find their own housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments. The participant is free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family’s choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. Rental units must meet minimum standards of health and safety, as determined by the PHA. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.

Under certain circumstances, if authorized by the PHA, a family may use its voucher to purchase a modest home.

Source of Income Legislation in this context would cause “Source of Income” to become a protected class under Westchester’s Fair Housing Law, and would include any legal, verifiable income derived from social security, or any form of federal, state or local public assistance or housing assistance, including Housing Choice Vouchers.

Disparate impact is a legal concept used to describe situations where an apparently neutral practice has an unexpected or unjustified adverse impact on members of a protected class. Typically, a plaintiff must prove that the challenged practice or selection device has a substantial adverse impact on a protected group. Generally, this proof is offered through statistical comparisons.

Protected classes in the sale and rental of housing (as defined by the Federal Fair Housing Act) include: (a) race; (b) color; (c) national origin; (d) religion; (e) sex; (f) familial status; or (g) handicap.

Some clear and obvious examples of discrimination illustrated on HUD’s website include:
• Refusal to rent or sell housing;
• Refusal to negotiate for housing;
• Make housing unavailable;
• Deny a dwelling;
• Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling;
• Provide different housing services or facilities;
• Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale, or rental;
• For profit, persuade owners to sell or rent (blockbusting); or
• Deny anyone access to or membership in a facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of housing.

Note: The Fair Housing Act covers most housing. In some circumstances, the Act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.

Selected Census Demographics for Westchester County

Westchester County is a county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and — according to the 2010 Census — has a population of 949,113 residing in 45 municipalities. A quick review of some demographics captured in the Census reveals:
• Median Household Income: $79,619
• % of Persons living at or below Poverty Level: 8.2%
• % Persons under 18 years: 23.6%
• % Persons over 65 years: 14.8%
• % White, not Hispanic: 56.9%
• % Black or African American: 14.8%
• % Hispanic or Latino Origin:  22.4%

Housing Choice Voucher recipients in Westchester County have a much different profile than residents of the County overall. Based on data submitted to HUD from PHAs in Westchester which administer these vouchers (Form HUD-50058) for the period 4/01/2011 through 7/31/2012 , the voucher recipients are:
• Average Annual Income:  $20,236
• % of Persons living at or below Poverty Level:  Not Available
• % Persons under 18 years:  27.0%
• % Persons over 62 years:  29.0%
• % White, not Hispanic:  48.0%
• % Black or African American:  50.0%
• % Hispanic or Latino Origin:   34.0%


There seems to be sufficient evidence to warrant a statistical analysis to measure the probability that inaction by Westchester County on Source of Income Legislation has exacerbated disparate treatment of individuals protected under the Fair Housing Act and other protections guaranteed in the laws of our land.

Trouble in Paradise?

May 13, 2012

At an aggregate level, the population of Westchester County, New York is reasonably diverse: racially, religiously and economically. Get down to the details, and you will find classically segregated neighborhoods, towns and schools. There have been several attempts to break this socio-economic logjam, most recently a landmark consent decree between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Westchester County signed in 2009.

It is now May 2012, and Westchester County is in trouble. The County is in trouble with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because of some alleged oversights in how the County managed federal CDBG funds. U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote has ruled that Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino is required to promote ‘source of income legislation’, which would prohibit discrimination against tenants using Section 8, disability income or other government income to pay rent.

Mr. Astorino vetoed the legislation in 2010 and that veto was one of several matters the monitor assigned to the case was asked to rule by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The monitor sided with HUD but the county appealed that decision.

U.S. District Court Justice Cote said in her most recent ruling, “Under no reasonable understanding of the term can the County Executive be said to have discharged the obligation to promote source-of income legislation when he vetoed the legislation. The veto was an unambiguous breach of the duty to promote…The County Executive’s action constituted the very opposite of what was required under the Settlement, and placed the County in breach.”

County Executive Astorino has vowed to fight the federal government because – despite the written agreement and the court affirmation of his duties under the settlement – he says that he believes he is right.

HUD is withholding federal funding from the County until the County is in compliance with the settlement, an amount that has now reached $12 Million combined for 2011 and 2012, all because of this seemingly foolish ongoing legal stalemate.

Most unfortunate: The withheld money is for affordable housing; new sidewalks; and nonprofits including A-Home ($30,000); Westchester Residential Opportunities ($145,000); and the Housing Action Council ($120,000); each of which is working closely with Westchester County to meet its obligations under the settlement.

It is also money for homelessness prevention; scholarships for disadvantaged youth; summer evening programs for teens; and a medical van for seniors. It adversely affects communities that aren’t even part of the settlement.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development invests a great deal of time and resources each year to ensure that eligibility for various housing-related subsidies is carefully indexed to local markets.

In Westchester County, HUD defines a 2 person household as “low-income” if their gross annual household income is $58,250 or less. That is almost 400% of the Federal Poverty level.

One of the HUD programs available to low-income residents in Westchester County is the “Housing Choice Voucher Program” (a.k.a ‘Section 8’) which assists low-income households by limiting their contribution to their monthly housing expense to 30% of their gross monthly income. There are 17 Section 8 program offices in Westchester County. Each office is an independent program with its own waiting list for assistance, program guidelines and areas of assistance. The availability of apartments which accept Section 8 assistance for renters is limited due to the lack of non-discriminatory ‘source of income’ requirements for landlords.

Westchester County is also in trouble because it is planning to increase the amount that lower income working parents are required to pay for subsidized child care. Westchester County’s plan to increase this share from 20% to 35% of “above-poverty income” will severely and negatively affect many households which are already struggling with the high costs of housing and transportation. Safe, affordable and quality early learning is a societal mandate if we are to have a productive workforce today, and for the future.

We know from 2010 Census data that 30% of Black (or African American) households were headed by a female householder, no spouse present, three times as high as White alone households (9.9 percent), and the “majority of female family households with no spouse present contained own children of the householder…”

2010 Census data for Westchester County tells us that 36.9% of households headed by a single female with children under 5 years are living at or below the federal poverty level.

For a 2-person household, the 2012 definition of living at 100% of the Federal Poverty level anywhere in the continental U.S. is an annual income of $15,130. (Note the disparity between this definition of poverty, and HUD’s definition of “low-income” at $58,250 or less.)

Some will say that there is no connection or correlation between the housing case and the child care subsidy case.

What I see here are two seemingly unrelated actions which will have disparate negative impact on people of color, particularly single female heads of household.

This sort of behavior by an elected official is not only wrong, it seems to be a clear violation of the purpose and intent of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.