I live in Westchester County, NY – the place they say has the highest property tax burden in the U.S.

Our Governor – Andrew Cuomo – also comes from Westchester County — and he has made it his mission to support effective ways to reduce and/or eliminate the government waste which necessitates the high property taxes we pay.

The incredible inefficiency of having 400+ independent government entities operating within Westchester County certainly is a primary culprit for the dubious honor of being named the highest taxed county in the U.S.

The largest portion of property taxes paid is attributable to funding public schools — 41 regular school districts in a county with less than 1 Million in total population.

Each of these districts is ‘self contained’ in that they have their own administration, buildings, and all of the fixed cost infrastructure which gets paid for whether there 275 students served (Pocantico Hills at an average per-pupil cost of $42,000) or 25,000 students (Yonkers at an average per-pupil cost of $19,600).

Contrast this to Montgomery County, Maryland — about the same physical size as Westchester, and with a very diverse population of just under 1 Million, demographically quite similar.

Montgomery County has just one school district which educates all of the 150,000 public school students in the county at an average per-pupil cost of $15,421.

Just about every year, Maryland Public Schools are ranked at the top in the nation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/maryland-schools-insider/post/maryland-schools-ranked-number-one–again/2012/01/11/gIQA7NEqrP_blog.html

While Montgomery County — perhaps due to its ethnic, racial and economic diversity — is not number one in the state, it seems to consistently score in the top 10, and compares very favorably against the composite Westchester score.

It’s really time for the taxpayers in NYS to put aside the political rhetoric and to find a way to reduce overall costs, whether through actual mergers and consolidations, or through consolidation of services which are not directly related to the classroom.

We can do better, and we must!

Paul Ryan is at it again.


Paul Ryan was born in 1970 in the small city of Janesville, Wisconsin: population 60,000 of whom 95% are white.

He is a product of great intentions gone off course.  Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) was intended to eliminate racial and (by association) economic segregation in public schools across the U.S.

Who could have predicted that post-war U.S. euphoria would bring suburban sprawl, fueled by the automobile and the feverish building of highways which enabled the exodus of primarily white, middle-class families out of central cities into first-ring suburbs.  By 1960, about half of Americans lived in suburbs vs. city centers, a dramatic shift from pre-war demographics.  So, as the population shifted to suburbia, economic and racial segregation became even more pronounced than prior to the Brown decision.

I suspect that when Paul was growing up, attending Parochial Schools in Janesville, he never had a black friend, never spoke with a black person, and was virtually isolated from people who didn’t go to his church and didn’t look like him.

It’s hard to imagine, but I think Paul is probably a decent guy who has been deprived of the opportunity to get to know other people, and to develop an understanding of their culture and the insidious, subtle and generally invisible battles they fight every day.

No excuses here.  Just a dose of reality.

Back where I come from they used to say, “Never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”

Despite the grand intentions of the Brown decision, other factors have crept in to render the decision impotent, and Paul Ryan seems to be the poster child for a societal problem we need to fix before the pot boils over and destroys our society.

We have some 700 public school districts across New York State, and as Governor Cuomo pointed out recently in an interview, “It’s not about more money gets us more results.  Because if that was the case, our students would be doing better than any students in the country, because we are spending more than anyone else.”

No one could successfully argue that the K-12 public education system in New York State is either (a) effective, or (b) efficient.

Designed and governed under assumptions which were likely correct in the 19th century, we continue to operate our schools as though we live in a world where the horse is the primary means of transportation; where oil lamps and candles are used for illumination after dusk; and where young people are needed early and late each day to do chores on the farm.

An article published on February 7, 2014 in The Journal News (http://www.lohud.com/article/20140207/NEWS/302070065/City-rural-schools-say-they-re-underfunded) helps to illustrate some of the complexities in state funding formulas which seem to have disparate negative impact on small city and rural school districts which are more likely to be both ‘high need’ and ‘low resource’.

Digging further into the mystery of school funding in New York State led me to the NYS Association of Small City School Districts, and the December 2013 newsletter, http://scsd.neric.org/newsletters/2013/2013%20SCSD%20Newsletter%20december%202013%20FINAL.pdf.

One of the outcomes of ‘The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’ was a promise made in 2007 by our elected officials in Albany that state funding would be adjusted to take into account both the availability of local resources and the relative “need” of students in each district.

As Governor Cuomo pointed out, we are already spending the most of any state on education, and our overall results are mediocre.

Indeed, it is not how much we are spending, but how the money gets spent.  If our elected officials want to constrain education spending, they need to pass legislation which removes costs from the system.  One way to accomplish that would be through school district consolidation to remove redundancies and spread fixed costs over a broader base.

Another way to accomplish holding the line on spending would be to divert aid from wealthy, high-performing districts and re-direct that aid to low-resource, under-performing districts.

When it comes to educating our young people, there really doesn’t seem to be any “starve the beast” solution on the horizon.

Let’s pay attention to this issue now, because if we don’t fix it now, it will only continue to fester and act as a drag on the economic and fiscal viability of New York State.

Many of the ‘fact checkers’ who examined President Obama’s remarks in his State of the Union address took exception to his notion that a $1 investment in quality early childhood education can return $7 in future benefits.

They cited some recent studies which have shown that the big vocabulary and social development gains for at-risk students in pre-kindergarten programs often disappear by the time these same students reach third grade. Unfortunately, one of the most recent studies (2012 HHS Head Start Impact Study) offered plenty of statistical data, but no explanation or hypothesis to address this counter-intuitive information.

In the U.S. we have 2 parallel childhood education systems: one for pre-K children which is federally funded and delivered through private, not-for-profit providers; the other for K-12 children which is funded by local and state sources and delivered through K-12 public school districts.

The funding streams are disconnected and the two systems are not required to talk with each other. It often turns out that children do not retain all of the benefits of a quality early childhood education program when the alignment and vertical integration issues between these 2 systems are ignored.

There is clear evidence which tells us that in those school districts where quality early childhood education (Head Start, etc.) is closely aligned and integrated with the K-12 structure, the performance drop-off is greatly reduced and/or eliminated.

A recently released report from Center for American Progress – http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education/report/2013/02/07/52071/investing-in-our-children/ – touches on this and makes some recommendations that might help improve the connection between the systems.

I personally love the idea of tying federal match funding to a robust Quality Rating Improvement System!

A recent pilot program – STEPS – took place in the South Bronx over 3 years, beginning in 2009.

The STEPS project was inspired by the questions surrounding the large number of students from low-income areas in NYC who continue to struggle in elementary school, particularly concerned with the students equipped with the solid initial advantages of Head Start who clearly were losing those advantages by the time they reached third grade.

One key finding of the project came from K-3 public school teachers who indicated that, prior to STEPS, they had received almost no assistance, training or tools to develop the skill set needed to understand and address the social-emotional issues that can undermine both individual student and overall classroom progress.

These teachers – several with over 20 years experience teaching in elementary classrooms – stated that – like child development – the field of social-emotional awareness is almost never covered in teacher training programs; and is almost never raised once teachers begin working.

Here is a comment from one second grade teacher who participated in the STEPS pilot:

“Nothing disrupts a class as much as a child having a melt-down. Nothing discourages the other children as much. And nothing makes a teacher more upset. Ask any teacher. But I have to tell you, I’ve been teaching for 24 years and never, not once – not in my own graduate school education, not in any professional development course, not in my supervision at school – did anyone ever give me the understanding, or the language, or the strategies to help me deal with kids’ social-emotional problems, before STEPS came along. It’s like no one wants to acknowledge that these things happen. It’s like it’s something we are all ashamed of. So until now, I’ve coped on my own.”

So basic and so powerful, yet it took until 2012 for someone to uncover this magic ingredient!

This and other related projects should be telling us that quality early intervention is important, and until we start to look carefully at our childhood education system from birth to 18+, we really won’t be creating sustainable and positive models which can improve outcomes for our future workforce.

Strategic investments in R&D programs like STEPS have tremendous potential in the area of human capital formation, and our future ability as a nation to be economically competitive, both domestically and globally, is closely correlated to the investments in strategic systemic change projects we make today.

Logic, Simple and Fair

October 10, 2012

On the eve of a major national election, it really does not seem to be productive to have adults pointing their fingers and blaming others when we know good solutions require diverse perspectives, compromise and critical thinking.

Fact is: President Obama has championed some great solutions and legislation, only to be continually stymied by some in Congress who steadfastly refuse to debate or discuss.

I’m having some real trouble trying to understand: Why or how is any of this Barack Obama’s fault?

What I’ve observed over the past several years is the GOP Cabal led by John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell hell-bent on stopping anything that could possibly improve our domestic economy.

Yet, despite their herculean efforts – as close to Treason as I can envision – the S&P 500 hovers near an historic high and the unemployment rate has steadily descended, most recently clocking in at 7.8%.

President Obama inherited a society and an economy which suffers from at least 4 decades of whipsaw and erratic decisions.

Our public education system is broken. There are some bright spots: for example, Maryland and Florida. In general, we need to stop pointing fingers, and get to work to move our K-12 system into the 21st century.

We have way too much government. Not at the Federal level, specifically. Not at the state level, specifically. But, we’ve not really stepped back since around 1776 to figure out: How could we be most efficient? How could we be most effective?

I know for sure that New York State – where I live and pay obscene amounts of taxes – sales, property and income – is completely out of touch with the real world.

There is hope and potential out there, but it won’t actualize because of empty political rhetoric.

Real and sustainable progress is only possible if we as a nation demand that our leaders stop bickering and start collaborating.

Otherwise, we will soon end up as a colony of China (or the Koch Brothers).

In the New York Times on July 23, 2012, Laura Klein posted a very provacactive and strong op-ed piece on the failures of special education programs in NYC.

While I absolutely agree with Ms. Klein, I have some additional thoughts I want to share.

Our current K-12 education model was really conceived around an agrarian society and has not been updated (in New York State) since 1907, or so.

Many changes have occurred in our economy and society since then, with accelerated change beginning in the 1960’s.

Today, even in “traditional” 2-parent households, it is quite unusual to find only one parent in the workforce, and that poses a challenge where the K-12 model is 8 AM to 3 PM, and the workplace model is 8 AM to 5 PM.

Now, factor in the growing number of single parent households in America.

If we look back to 1965, we find that about 10 percent of American children lived in single parent households.

In 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted an exhaustive study looking at changes in family structure in 27 industrialized countries.

That OECD study found that in the U.S., about 26% of children were being raised by a single parent, compared with an average of 15% across the other countries.

More telling: 72% of African-American children today grow up in a single parent household.

In the larger picture, females constitute about 83% of the total number of single parents, and single fathers around 17%, and years of evidence tell us that – although the wage gap has narrowed over time – today’s women earn 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Extensive research in child development over the past several decades has confirmed that the early years (birth to age 8) form the foundation for a full range of human competencies and are the time when young people are most receptive to the effects of both positive and negative experiences.

Researchers have identified several risk factors which – when present – predict adverse outcomes for children, and when absent (or carefully mitigated) can reduce or eliminate the long-term probability of negative outcomes for children, which include reduced economic success and lower quality of life in adulthood.

The single most predictive risk factor is poverty, which is often accompanied by limited parental education achievement; parental mental health problems; social isolation or neglect; and living in an environment where crime and violence regularly occurs.

Two widely-cited intervention programs, the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program, used randomized child assignment and long-term follow up to study the effects of early interventions on social behaviors of severely disadvantaged children.

In both the Perry and Abecedarian Programs, there was a consistent pattern of successful outcomes for the children in the program compared with control group members.

Participants in the more intense Abecedarian Program had an increase in IQ which persisted into adulthood. This early and continued increase in IQ is important because IQ is a strong predictor of socio-economic success.

Effects of these interventions also reflected a wide range of positive social behaviors, including higher scores on achievement tests; achieving higher levels of education; the need for less special education intervention; placement into higher wage jobs; more likely to own a home; and less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated (when compared to individuals from the control groups).

Many studies have shown that these aspects of behavior translate directly or indirectly into high economic returns.

One economist (Heckman) has estimated the rate of return (the return per dollar of cost) to the Perry Program is in excess of 17%, which is clearly higher than long-term returns on stock market equity and suggests that society at large can benefit substantially from these kinds of interventions.

It is my contention that investing in high-quality early education programs which are both reflective of the economic realities of today (read: 7 AM to 7 PM) and fully articulated with public schools and the expectations of kindergarten readiness will rapidly change the paradigm noted in Ms. Klein’s essay, and will also create a long term benefit to the U.S. economy.

If we continue to push children along through the K-12 system ill-prepared for future workforce opportunities, we will continue to wring our hands and despair that jobs are moving overseas.

In early July 2012, our national unemployment number came in at 8.2%, yet there were some 3 Million private sector jobs open and unfilled.


Jobs are open and unfilled for a number of reasons, often related to labor mobility and/or experience and training. A poorly educated individual is just not a good candidate to help bolster our domestic economy, and that is a tragic waste of our limited resources.

If even some of the research on the importance and economic return for investing in quality early childhood education is true, then why aren’t we demanding that our public school systems re-engineer themselves to address our 21st century economy?

Elected School Boards?

April 7, 2012

Very frustrating, very disappointing, very stupid….

The Mount Vernon City School District (NY) has been an underperforming district for at least 2 decades.

Instead of finding ways to improve student outcomes, our elected Board of Education demonstrates their collective incompetence by mysteriously ‘suspending’ Superintendent Dr. Welton Sawyer in early November 2011.

Now (fully 5 months later), we learn that the reason for the suspension was something called, ‘irreconcilable differences’.

We also learned that we, the hard working, money earning Mount Vernon Taxpayers, will continue paying Sawyer’s $269,403 yearly salary through May 31, even though he hasn’t worked full time since Nov. 4, when the Board of Education suspended him.

Further, we will also have the privlege of covering five years of Sawyer’s post-employment health insurance, as well as 50 percent of his health insurance bill in the second five-year period. (That is what he would have received under his employment contract after working a minimum of five years.)

Other financial perks for Sawyer include 10 unused vacation days and $42,500 in tax-deferred annuity retirement payments.

If this isn’t proof that our Elected School Board is a recipe for disaster, what more evidence do we need?

Oh, wait! There’s more!

In another bone-headed move, our elected School Board members decided that because the newly created and state-approved Amani Charter School would take “money away from financially distressed public schools”, they refused to fund it.

Amani appealed to the State (which had approved the Charter after an incredible uphill battle) and the State agreed to pay Amani directly by intercepts of state aid to the MVCSD since it opened in the fall of 2011.

Our elected Board of Education filed legal papers in state Supreme Court last year asking for a reversal of state education officials’ original approval of a charter.

Ruling on the suit in October 2011, the judge vacated the Charter, but the Regents reapproved it a week later, followed almost immediately by the District appealing the Regents decision, and renewing the legal battle.

Amani Executive Director Debra Stern said recently she hopes the state will, once again, reinstate the Charter saying, “This school has been under attack since its inception. We view this as an attack on the basic civil rights of high-needs, high-poverty kids in Mount Vernon.”

Now, those who know me know that I’m not a big fan of Charter Schools in New York State.

I mostly don’t care for them because they tend to create plenty of tension between the parents of students who ‘win the lotto’ and those who don’t — see: “Waiting for Superman”.

I also am not fond of the way charter schools are funded in New York State — but that is a state legislative / policy issue, not a local issue.

In fact there are some examples of fabulous School District & Charter School partnerships and cooperation that have led to great outcomes.

Public School #68 in Buffalo had deteriorated to become one of Buffalo’s worst performing elementary schools serving students in a very low-income neighborhood. Now known as the Westminster Charter School, it’s charter was sponsored by the Buffalo Board of Education and it has become a nationally recognized model of school transformation — now the inspiration and centerpiece for a recently awarded $6 Million federal Promise Neighborhood grant.

We — the taxpayers of the City of Mount Vernon– need to get involved in our schools. We need to look at what is working elsewhere; what is being done and spent here; why; who is making the decisions; and what are the outcomes?

Most people from inside (and outside) our city assume that the School District and the City are one in the same.

Some of us know the School District and the City are two completely independent entities which — for the most part — are not working in harmony to create efficiencies, champion best practices, and to achieve optimum outcomes for the children and taxpayers in Mount Vernon.

We just can’t allow this to continue for one more week — we need radical change in the City Charter and in our School District governance model — NOW!

I am writing from Toney Westchester County, NY.

Our current County Executive, Rob Astorino, recently decided to charge mostly poor families in our County an extra $120 a month for subsidized child care, while most families still grapple with the worst effects of the recession.

Much like presidential candidate Mitt Romney, County Executive Astorino is sending the message that he is out of tune with the proletariat, and that he has distain for the lower and middle-income people who are the majority of the workforce in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

Our County Executive recently announced that he would ask for permission from New York State to increase from 20 percent to 35 percent the amount of money charged families who use subsidized child care. Now, two years into his four year term, Astorino has been consistent in his apparent campaign targeted at cutting child care and a number of other services that help to keep the working poor working.

In the end, Astorino knows that this gets relegated to be a ‘women’s issue’ and he knows that women have little, if any, influence on election outcomes.

In fact, equal access to quality child care is way more than a ‘women’s issue’, it is a long-term societal issue.

The positive impacts of quality early care and learning on early cognitive development have been well documented.

Children from households with 2 parents who are both college graduates probably benefit the least from high-quality child care, because they start out with a ‘competitive advantage’ from their home environment.

The children who need the most help — those from single parent households where the mother’s highest level of educational achievement is GED or less — are the most in need of rigorous, reliable and high-quality ECE programs.

The positive impact of universal and equal access to quality ECE is clear: on individuals, on families and on society overall, although the positive program outcomes are more often gleaned from European data because of the political ‘yo-yo-ing’ that exists in the U.S.

Westchester County is one of the highest cost areas in America.

Why wouldn’t the residents and businesses in Westchester NOT want to set an example for other U.S. areas in terms of equal access to high-quality early care, if for no other reason than to create a salubrious environment for employers that need a productive workforce?

In the final analysis, discrimination against children due to economic circumstances has disparate impact on children of color.

Isn’t this just another proof that the housing lawsuit really may have merit?

Back in the day, I was given a wonderful opportunity.

I was in 4th grade at PS 83 in Buffalo, NY and I was selected to be part of an experimental program that brought 16 students from various neighborhoods around the city – 8 male, 8 female – together in a 5th grade class at PS 68 with a very experienced and high-performance teacher.

Our group stayed intact from grade 5 to grade 8, and we graduated in June 1965 with the other students at PS 68, going on to the high school in our respective neighborhoods.

Sad to say, over the years, PS 68 lost its luster. It eventually sunk to the level of a failed elementary school.

In the mid-1990’s, M&T Bank discovered PS 68 and decided to adopt the school, investing not only dollars, but some of the intellectual capital of its employees and management team.

With the help of business leaders from M&T, and over a period of several years, PS 68 was transformed from a failed public school into a District Sponsored Charter School.

Today – now known as the Westminster Charter School – PS 68 is at least as good as it was in 1965 when I graduated from 8th grade.

On December 19, 2011, the neighborhood which is anchored by the Westminster Charter, Highgate Heights Elementary and Bennett High schools received notice that they had been awarded a $6 million federal grant to improve services in the neighborhood!

The Buffalo Promise Neighborhood was one of only five U.S. communities, out of more than 35 applicants, to receive the U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhood implementation grant in 2011.

In 2010, the Westminster Foundation was one of 21 national recipients of a federal Promise Neighborhood planning grant, which led to the establishment of the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood.

As a graduate of both PS 68 and Bennett HS, I’m proud to see this 360 degree transformation coming to life!

Thank you, M&T Bank, and all of the partners who have worked together to make this possible!

How Very Sad

May 18, 2011

I live in the City of Mount Vernon, New York.

Mount Vernon is a small city (70,000 residents) located immediately north of New York City.

As a stand-alone city, Mount Vernon is fully self-sufficient, including a school district.

The Mount Vernon City School District (“MVCSD”) currently has about 8,600 students.

According to recent census statistics, there are about 12,500 residents of Mount Vernon in the 5 to 18 age group, which implies that nearly 4,000 young people who live in the City of Mount Vernon attend schools outside of the District.

What seems to have occurred over the past several decades is an economic exodus from the MVCSD, among families with economic resources in search of school environments that have a high probability of both admission to — and graduation from — a “good” college or university that will lead students to a career which allows income (cash-flow) sufficient to support a middle class life style.

This economic exodus has helped to support and/or encourage a concentration of higher need students into MVCSD (and other similar districts which are predominantly urban).

Dozens – maybe hundreds – of studies have confirmed that the primary predictor of success in school is highly correlated to household economic status.

Subsequent demonstration projects have shown that creative interventions can offset socio-economic disadvantages, and put children from economically challenged households on par with their middle-class peers.

On May 17, 2011 a small group of eligible voters – less than 10% — flocked to the polls in Mount Vernon and defeated the proposed MVCSD budget for 2011-12.

I am not smart enough to determine if the proposed school budget was an optimum budget, but I do know that the presented budget was very much like the contingency budget that will likely be adopted instead.

So, the small percentage of eligible voters who came out to the polls accomplished little, except to highlight that the civic participation among citizens of the City of Mount Vernon is awful.

No excuses.

In a city where over 30,000 residents are eligible to vote, why are just 8.5% turning out to vote?

I think the MVCSD is one huge culprit in this mess.

Where were they with proactive information?

I’m not a happy tax payer. I really would like to think that young people in my community have an equal opportunity with their peers in other communities, across New York State, and the U.S.

I don’t think we are there now, and I’m angry!