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Gotham Gazette

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Opinion

Opinion

Keeping the Lights On Off-Broadway: How the City Must Step Up


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(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


Seeing an Off-Broadway play may have saved my life. Joseph Papp gave me my first acting job in 1985, in Shakespeare in the Park, and offered the cast free tickets to Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” running at The Public, which showed the devastation AIDS wrought on a community forsaken by governments and the press, and its fight to save itself. Seeing the play as a 22-year-old gay man, it scared me into celibacy for a few years, until safer sex guidelines were ingrained in our culture.

Off-Broadway, more than any other facet of New York’s cultural scene, shines a light on underserved communities.

It puts the city’s rich demographics on stage. Jose Llana, who played Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s musical “Here Lies Love” at The Public, said, ”I’ve learned that, as an actor of color, the most daring work, where people tend to hire people who look like me, is Off-Broadway.” Off-Broadway is also an economic engine for the city. Recent Tony-winning musicals like “The Band’s Visit,” “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Fun Home,” all originated or transferred from Off-Broadway, and those hits helped Broadway generate huge revenues, with almost $2 billion in ticket sales last year and contributing many billions more to the city’s economy each year. In the 2007-08 season—the last year a study was done, though another is expected soon —Off-Broadway itself enriched the local economy by almost half a billion dollars. But that success isn’t reflected in Off-Broadway wages.

Ironically, as Off-Broadway theaters become more inclusive in the stories they present and the artists they use to tell them, those from underserved communities are shut out from careers in the arts. Low wages hit early-career artists from working class and working poor backgrounds the hardest, barring entry for those who are disproportionately from communities of color and rural communities. A life in the theater is really available only to those who can afford it. Almost every Off-Broadway artist can tell a story of chronic economic distress: Nick Westrate was a recent Juilliard graduate when he enjoyed a continuous year of employment Off-Broadway, earning a special Drama Desk Award for his work in four different plays; three days before the ceremony, attended in a borrowed suit, he declared bankruptcy.

After two years of working exclusively Off-Broadway, two-time Tony-nominee Johanna Day lost her apartment of 14 years because she couldn’t afford it; she then painted houses in Virginia to supplement the income for her next Off-Broadway play, and still ended up losing money.

Obie-winner François Battiste, after working full-time at Lincoln Center while keeping his day job caring for homeless youth at Covenant House, and with a second child on the way, departed for more affordable Sacramento.

200 of these stories were the force behind our Fair Wage OnStage campaign in 2016, during negotiations between Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union of theatrical stage managers and actors, and the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers. Our group of activists organized over 1,700 Equity members and agitated for higher wages with grassroots actions, taking to social media to tell of the hardships brought by substandard wages. Without resorting to a strike, Equity won wage gains of 14% to 81% over the five-year life of the contract.

While proud of this success, we have further to go. In a 2016 Equity survey, Off-Broadway workers reported needing $815 net per week on average, or $1129 before taxes, just to pay their basic expenses.

Only one non-Broadway, non-profit space in the five boroughs, The Public’s Newman Theater, pays actors just over $1,100 per week. Twenty-six theaters pay actors anywhere from $650 to $950 per week. Over 30 fall below $650 per week, with many paying little more than minimum wage. Trump’s tax cuts make things even worse, eliminating protections for performing artists built into the old tax code. Actors incur many unreimbursed employee expenses. The new law eliminates itemization, and expenses often go well past the new, higher standard deduction, as much as quadrupling our tax burdens, according to Sandra Karas, Equity’s treasurer and a tax lawyer who’s prepared thousands of performers’ returns. New York City can help. New York City gives more money to cultural institutions and programs than any city in the country: last year’s Department of Cultural Affairs budget was $143.8 million, outpacing the arts funding of San Francisco, our nearest rival, by over $60 million. But 70% of the city Department of Cultural Affairs budget is reserved for 31 institutions in the Cultural Institutions Group, leaving over 1,000 other organizations to clamor for the rest. These august giants soak up most of the funds, so that very little reaches the people who make up the floor of our cultural ecosystem, the artists and the small companies that nurture them. We believe New York City can do better.

We propose the Fair Wage OnStage Fund, a concentrated allocation of money within the Department of Cultural Affairs budget, to subsidize professional stage managers and actors while they are employed in New York’s non-Broadway, nonprofit theaters, making up the difference between established union minimums and what we actually need to survive. Nonprofit theaters within the five boroughs using contracted Equity workers at minimums that fall below the necessary weekly gross salary—$1,129 per week, adjusted annually for inflation—would be eligible for the fund. Theaters would be responsible for raising the money to pay established minimum salaries and benefits, and could only use the fund to pay the difference between what the artists get and what they need. As an annual allocation, the FWOS Fund would have a built-in, yearly sunset provision, so it won’t interfere with union negotiations.

By our rough estimate, just over 1,500 contracted, Equity stage managers and actors worked in non-Broadway nonprofits in the five boroughs during the previous theatrical season, grossing an average of $646 per week. To fill the gap between this and the necessary wage, the FWOS Fund would subsidize these workers with, on average, around $483 per week. A nonprofit theater contract is usually nine weeks long. The fund would pay, on average, $4,347 per contract. For 1,500 contracts over a season, the fund would disburse roughly $6.52 million, less than a hundredth of a percent of New York City’s $90-plus billion budget.

New York can afford the Fair Wage OnStage Fund.

Unlike Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Long Beach, and the State of Minnesota, New York City has no revenue stream dedicated specifically to the arts. If the city seeks an untapped source, a tax of a fraction of a dollar on a Broadway ticket—with 13.79 million tickets sold last season—would pay for the fund and then some. Or, since the city’s lack of affordability affects so many of us, a proposed tax on unoccupied luxury apartments, which inflate housing prices all over the city, would be a just source of revenue to support the city’s artists.

Like other Department of Cultural Affairs initiatives regarding cultural institutions—studying the demographic makeup of staff; free admissions for public school students and for undocumented immigrants with city ID cards—the FWOS Fund would encourage cultural equity. In a city whose enormous wealth drives artistic workers further to the margins (or out of the city completely), where the rising cost of living keeps many from even getting in the door, the FWOS Fund would act as a stimulus package for the artistic workers who help generate wealth, but see little in return. As City Comptroller Scott Stringer put it in his report “Culture Shock: The Importance of National Arts Funding to New York City’s Cultural Landscape,” “A robust and healthy cultural sector supports a robust and healthy democracy and economy.” The FWOS Fund will cultivate a more robust, healthier Off-Broadway, helping New York retain its artists and attain its rightful status as an example for the rest of the nation in properly valuing its artistic workers and creating equal opportunity for all.

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Robert Stanton for Fair Wage OnStage. On Twitter @FairWageOnStage.

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It’s Time to Get Big Money Out of the Climate Change Fight


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(photo: John McCarten/NY City Council)


The window for meaningful action on climate change is narrowing. Every year, as more climate impacts become “locked-in,” changes we have to make to save the planet become even harder to implement. Right now, fossil fuel industry campaign contributions to politicians are holding back the solutions we need.  

If we want to pass climate policies that could actually help reverse the climate crisis, then we also need to fix our democratic system that gives too much power to wealthy donors and big polluters. In New York, a state where wealthy donors contribute an outsized proportion of funds to campaigns, we have the opportunity to build a public campaign financing system that can address this imbalance. These two crises are interconnected.

Nationally, the fossil fuel industry has tightened its stranglehold on American politics. In the 2018 election cycle alone, $89 million in campaign contributions came from the oil, gas, and coal industry with the vast majority going to Republicans. Contributions from the fossil fuels sector put a stop to ballot initiatives that would have created landmark state climate and energy legislation here in New York—and across the nation.

In the battle over fracked gas development in New York, oil, gas, and fracking support industries spent $10.7 million on contributions and $33.5 million on lobbying from 2007 to 2013, stalling several fracking restriction measures. While grassroots activists eventually succeeded in pushing Governor Cuomo to take executive action to ban fracking, this influx of pro-fracking cash signals potentially bigger battles ahead as the state considers a 100% renewable energy target.

In 2018 in Washington state, $31.5 million was pumped mostly from mostly out-of-state oil and gas industry into a campaign that ultimately defeated a carbon tax measure that would create revenue for renewable energy and vulnerable communities. And a proposition that would have set restrictions on gas fracking in Colorado was defeated after oil and gas spent over $26 million in the state.

That is why a growing chorus of environmental advocates is calling for public financing of elections — which expands the contributions of small donors through public matching programs. With a fair elections system, elected officials would be more responsive to the electorate, an overwhelming majority of which believes we need bold policies to address climate change.

One of our best hopes today is here in New York, where lawmakers are on the cusp of passing groundbreaking climate policy and the state budget has just included a commission mandated to develop a public financing system for the state.

Public financing of elections would fundamentally change how Albany works, and amplify the power of working people and people of color. In the long term, fair elections mean that our elected officials will be more engaged with constituents in their districts and responsive to public concerns and needs.

To implement an effective fair elections program, legislators and Governor Cuomo must appoint commissioners committed to expanding access to our democracy. A robust program would also include a 6-to-1 contribution match for low-dollar sums, lower contribution limits, and an independent agency to administer the program. In order to limit the influence of big donors who seek to block effective climate policy and other urgent reforms, the commission must act quickly and decisively. Kicking the can down the road is not an option.

Simultaneously we can pass the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) to put New York on a path to 100% renewable energy economy-wide. The CCPA is ground-up policy, with a coalition of over 160 groups from across the state backing the proposal. The bill puts in place requirements for energy investments to go to disadvantaged communities, and working groups that include community group representatives to oversee implementation of state energy plans. This means more people could be part of shaping an equitable energy transition for New York.

The impacts of climate change are not felt equally by all. We need to ensure a more inclusive political process to address everyone’s needs, especially those most vulnerable to climate impacts and pollution, and communities that have been historically excluded from political decision-making.

We have the technology we need to begin a rapid transition to a renewable energy economy. Our ability to implement climate solutions is, therefore, a political question. With the majority of New Yorkers in support of government action to curb climate change, a legislature that is more responsive to the electorate could usher the ambitious climate policies we need. Public financing and bold climate measures like the CCPA can reorient our politics to expand who is heard and who is at the table.

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Bill Lipton is the New York State Director of the Working Families Party. Adrien Salazar is a Campaign Strategist with Dēmos and one of the 2019 Grist 50 Fixers. On Twitter @BillLipton of @NYWFP & @adrien4ej of @Demos_Org.

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Invest in City Parks to Improve Our Public Spaces and Save the Environment


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(photo: @RiversideParkNY)


Parks are an essential part of any city’s infrastructure. Getting into nature at an urban park lowers stress, eases depression, and fosters happiness. Parks help build community - people get out and meet each other, kids play together, mothers talk, residents meet neighbors.

Parks are particularly invaluable in New York City, the nation’s most densely populated city. And we are fortunate to have so many parks to enjoy! More than 81% of New Yorkers are within walking distance of public green space. New Yorkers are visiting city parks in unprecedented numbers. The city’s parks get more than 100 million visitors a year.

More than just places to commune and recreate, these greenspaces are also one of the city’s most valuable environmental assets. They provide clean air, help mitigate climate change, connect residents with nature, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Parks are a major source of the city’s urban tree canopy. That canopy removes 1,300 tons of pollutants from the atmosphere and stores 1.2 million tons of carbon per year. Trees are vital for mitigating the urban heat island effect and can lower air temperatures by up to nine degrees, cut air conditioning use by 30%, and reduce heating energy use by a further 20-50% -- all of which help decrease climate-changing emissions.

The city’s parks and trees also contribute to our resiliency, capturing almost 2 billion gallons of stormwater runoff each year.

The New York City Parks Department manages 30,000 acres of land, about 14% of the city. Sadly, Parks receives less than 1% of the total city budget, leaving our greenspaces at risk.

This is shameful. While New York spends $178 per capita on its parks. Minneapolis spends $233, and Washington D.C. spends $270.

The average city park has not seen a major renovation for more than 20 years. According to a Center for an Urban Future report, there are cracks in virtually every retaining wall in city parks, deteriorating bridges, toilets that flush directly into waterways, drainage systems that can’t handle the runoff from even a gentle rainfall, and myriad other problems. Managers can’t do any kind of systematic planning and major infrastructure projects are often put on hold for years.

Inadequate funding for proper maintenance has also led to a rise of invasive species in parks. Just over a year ago, invasive beetles were found in Prospect Park that cut off the supply of water and essential nutrients to trees.

The great irony of all of this is that New York’s parks are iconic. Central Park and Prospect Park are routinely found on top parks lists.

That’s why NYLCV has joined the Play Fair coalition with New Yorkers for Parks, DC 37, and more than 100 other groups. Play Fair is a multi-year advocacy campaign for parks and this year, we are calling for increasing the Parks Department budget by $100 million for better maintenance.

This investment could ensure that the city’s natural forests will begin to receive the proactive care they need to remain healthy and resilient in our changing climate. Maintenance workers would have the resources they need to protect our trees from invasive species and maintain the trees we need to absorb carbon and air pollution.

It would go a long way towards fulfilling the goals of the 25-year Forest Management Framework for the restoration and conservation of the city’s hard-working natural forests, for which NYLCV has been advocating.

Investing in maintaining our parks will make New York City more sustainable, improve resiliency, and conserve nature. It’s time we Play Fair for our parks.

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Julie Tighe is President of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), the only non-partisan, statewide environmental organization in New York that takes a pragmatic approach to fighting for clean water, healthy air, renewable energy, and open space. On Twitter @julietighe17 & @nylcv.

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We Can’t Effectively Plan for Climate Change without Real Community Dialogue and Long-term Planning


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(photo: Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)


As we march toward a new climate reality, are we leaving the public behind? The New York City Panel on Climate Change’s (NPCC) 2019 report, released on March 15, offers a sobering new lens known as the Rapid Ice Melt scenario: the metropolitan region could experience 9.5 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. That’s six inches short of the height of a regulation basketball hoop.

The real ‘March madness’ spilling into April and beyond is that we have barely any plan or resources to adapt our broader metropolitan region and, most important, effectively educate and engage the public about the financial, environmental, and social tradeoffs that will become increasingly necessary as waters rise. These are hard conversations. But they are also an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about how we will shape our cities for generations to come.

In this discussion, process and communication matter. Mayor de Blasio’s surprise roll-out on March 14 of the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project, which features a precedent-setting plan to infill up to 500 feet of the East River to protect the Financial District, echoes cautionary tales of two other disputed plans that have fallen short of the kind of public engagement necessary to succeed.

A substantially updated and fast-tracked proposal for the resiliency of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the aborted Long Island City Amazon campus reveal an unwelcome common thread: big ideas that carry great importance for the economy, environment, and resilience of our city require understanding, buy-in, and a sense of how they fit into a plan for the larger whole, before they are presented to the public.

Questions remain about the details of alternatives for the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project, not to mention what follows. Does our city of water become a city of levees? What about equity? And are we setting a damaging standard for environmental impacts?

It is hard not to consider the ghosts of past land use decisions that we have made, that have led to our present predicament: Water Street, Canal Street, Pike Slip, areas long since filled in to support our growth. Without a full understanding of (and say in) the trade-offs, it will be hard for the public to feel comfortable with a presumed conclusion.

Adapting to climate change is increasingly not just a choice about strategy, but about what fundamental changes to our coastal cities we are open to. All options should be on the table, but the public needs to see the iterations that got us to this point. These are first steps that will ricochet across land use decisions throughout New York City and beyond.  

These are also decisions that require long-term plans, funding, and supporting governance frameworks that span beyond electoral cycles. Even if a Rapid Ice Melt scenario is not realized, the more modest sea level rise projections will mean that the Financial District, Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, Red Hook, the Historic Navy Yard, the Port of Newark, and the New Jersey Meadowlands, to mention a few, will all be under water daily by the end of the century if no action is taken. The questions expand: what is the future that we want, who will pay for this change, and how equitably will resiliency measures be distributed? We’re in this together.

New York is not alone of course. Miami, Norfolk, New Orleans, and scores of other coastal cities nationally and globally face these realities. But few rival New York City’s indomitable force of economy, innovation, and diversity. If we can’t do it here, this begs the question: can we do it anywhere?

While there was virtual radio silence greeting the release of the NPCC report, more than 1 million students across the nation and around the world walked out of class to express a serious statement about a need for real action to address our future. Those whose lives will be most affected by climate change get it.

We must address a true national emergency, together, and come to conclusions, together. As we consider bold steps forward, we must be informed by science, and organize robust and real public discussion to address the urgency. Can we talk?

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Roland Lewis, President and CEO, and Kate Boicourt, Director of Resilience, are leaders of the Waterfront Alliance. On Twitter @OurWaterfront.

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The Business Imbalance is Bad for the City


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The political imbalance in New York City between business and “anti-business” forces is becoming untenable.

What is happening here has been in the works for many years and was not difficult to predict. Rising income inequality and the perception of a corrupt ruling class brought us the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the 2016 presidential candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

As the nation gears up for the 2020 presidential race, rhetoric pitting “corporate interests” against “the people” is once again front and center. And this is cascading down to our local politics in a way that risks damaging our city’s economic potential.

“Business” has become such a bad word that some elected officials have shunned accepting campaign donations or even attending meetings and events that might suggest an affiliation. And public policy debates are increasingly premised on the notion that business is an adversary and somehow acting in nefarious ways.

We must not continue down this path at the local level.

The business community is a pivotal constituency in New York City’s continued success. For example, the real estate industry has a huge stake in keeping the city humming if for nothing else than because their assets are inextricably linked to the city’s prosperity. Employers here want New York’s quality of life to remain high so their best employees don’t move to other cities. Why wouldn’t we want them to be at the table?

Drowning out the voices of business enables the loud voices of an influential few to drive public policy – without adhering to the will of the many. Pushing out Amazon – which had support from a majority of New Yorkers to locate a new campus here – is a “prime” example. In that instance, several high-ranking elected officials refused to even meet with the company. Two-thirds of New Yorkers agree that the loss of Amazon, its projected 25,000 jobs, and its tens of billions of dollars in expected tax revenues is bad for our city.

Now there’s another issue that is playing out in a similar way.

The state currently allows restaurants in New York City to pay waiters $10 per hour, so long as tips ensure that the employee is earning at least the minimum wage (now $15 per hour) at the end of the day. It’s called the “tip credit,” and it enables restaurants – which often have notoriously low profit margins – to reduce their labor costs. Surveys show that tipped workers end up earning $25 per hour, on average, when tips are included. Some make even more.

The issue should be a no-brainer. Indeed, the vast majority of restaurant owners and their wait staffs want to maintain the current system. (When Maine phased out its tip credit in 2016, thousands of servers led the successful fight to restore it because their paychecks were diminishing.) But a well-funded contingent of celebrities and misinformed activists are trying to drown out these voices in order to eliminate the credit in New York – and sadly, it seems to be working.

Some elected officials are repeating inflammatory talking points, namely that waiters are somehow not earning the minimum wage under this system. That would be of paramount concern to me, as well, were it not absolutely false. Yet no one seems to be listening to the facts, so unwilling they are to believe that employers and their employees could actually be on the same side of an issue.

New York City loses when policy debates adhere to this ‘business versus anti-business’ divide, particularly when the business side is assumed to be biased and dismissed as a result. I am certainly not advocating for pay-to-play politics, which is unethical, illegal, and at odds with the development of smart public policy. We need robust, thoughtful solutions that will move New York forward, remembering that we all believe in a better, stronger city for the future.

This requires public servants to engage with all parties and then make determinations based on all of these points of view. If we don’t maintain that balance, and base decisions on facts and impartial analysis, poorly-informed public policies will increase – and New York City will be worse for it.

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Jessica Walker is President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. On Twitter @jessinharlem & @ManhattanCofC.

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Doing Good Things Badly: Congestion Pricing and MTA Reforms


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(photo: governor's office)


Everyone complains that our regional mass transit system is in disrepair, but no one wants to pay to make the needed fixes and modernizations. Have we finally found a way?

Ten years after legislation was first proposed by Mayor Bloomberg, the state Legislature passed a plan for what has been named “central business district tolling,” otherwise known as congestion pricing, in Manhattan as part of the fiscal year 2019-20 budget. The basic concept is that driving into the central core of Manhattan – defined as south of 61 Street – will incur a fee to achieve the multiple worthy aims of providing revenue for mass transit investments, cutting down on intense traffic congestion, and curbing air pollution.

Full details are still to come, with responsibility for administering the fee collection system vested in the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), a subsidiary of the MTA, and the new charges will not go into effect until 2021.

Congestion pricing systems have been in effect in London, Stockholm, and Singapore for some time, but this will be the first such system in a major city in the United States. Given its novelty, the intensity of resistance from suburban legislators and officials (and indeed, even from some in Queens and from my dear, admired friend Dick Ravitch, a former MTA chair) and the distaste for user fees in general, it is a major accomplishment that this proposal was adopted.

Kudos are due to Move New York, the Riders Alliance, various other groups and officials, including Governor Cuomo, and the many voices in the business community who showed the foresight to press for this groundbreaking outcome. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that the legislation is imperfect and the so-called governance reforms to the MTA that were included may be a cure that is worse than the disease.

Will the new tolling generate enough revenue to fund all the transit system’s capital needs? The law requires that tolls set by the TBTA be sufficient to generate enough revenue to finance $15 billion to fund all or a portion of the 2020-2024 MTA capital plan, which is expected to be more than twice that amount in order to overhaul subway signaling and get the system to a modern state of good repair. This projected total seems to assure that exemptions (i.e. for disabled drivers) and credits (i.e. for people who live in Manhattan below 61 Street and have annual incomes below $60,000) will not be so extensive as to force excessively high tolls on other drivers. Good.

Let’s hope that a rising tide of complaints doesn’t sidetrack this initiative by the time it is supposed to be implemented a whole two long years from now. The revenue is to go into a “lockbox” to be used 80% for MTA subway and bus needs, 10% for the Long Island Rail Road, and 10% for Metro-North. This seems to be an appropriate distribution and is far better than some of the more project-specific kinds of allocations that had been discussed in previous iterations of proposed congestion pricing schemes. But $15 billion is not enough to fund everything needed, not by a longshot. So two other new revenue sources have also been adopted into law and earmarked for MTA capital use.

First, specific amounts of the projected revenue to be generated from a new internet sales tax are to be deposited in the MTA lockbox. It is appropriate to impose a broad-based tax on internet sales, but it would be better to make it part of the state’s general operating revenue stream. If the estimated revenue turns out to be unduly optimistic there will be pressure to reduce the amounts going to the MTA.

Second, the tax on transfers of residential property has been increased. Again, it is not optimal tax policy to earmark general taxes to a particular use, and this one can be expected to be somewhat volatile. Nevertheless it is far superior to the pied-a-terre tax that had been advocated by some.

It must be remembered, however, that no matter what the new law says, the revenue from these new taxes and indeed, from the new tolls, cannot be guaranteed to be dedicated to the MTA in perpetuity. A lockbox enacted by the Legislature can also be modified or eliminated by a subsequent law. Presumably, covenants in the bonds underwritten by these revenues will help assure that cannot occur if and when money gets tight in another area of government services.

These new revenue streams dedicated to the MTA also do not change the fact that regular, planned fare increases will be necessary, largely to support the authority’s annual operating budget. That budget continues to grow too rapidly, in part due to exorbitant labor costs, which must be addressed in the near future but elected leaders do not appear inclined to tackle. Moreover, the revenue from these new sources must additions to, not substitutes for city and state aid to the MTA. Those resources will continue to be needed.

There is also a welcome new requirement that the MTA conduct an assessment of all its capital assets and needs over the next 20 years, although it doesn’t kick in until 2023.

Also, in the grand bargain that is the state budget, the governor has succeeded in imposing more obligations, costs, and controls on the MTA. It seems that after trying unsuccessfully to convince the public that he is not in control of the transit authority, he has decided to completely own it and subject it to endless oversight and review by (no doubt costly) consultants and advisory bodies. He is, in effect, going to create studies and reviews of his own actions.

The new law decrees there shall be a “complete personnel and reorganization plan” for the MTA submitted to its board no later than this coming June 30 and, in addition, there shall be an independent forensic audit conducted by a certified public accounting firm, a fiscal review by a different financial advisory firm “with a national practice,” a new construction review unit composed of a panel of internal and external experts, and a traffic mobility review board that will not only advise the TBTA on setting the new congestion tolls but, inexplicably, review the MTA capital plan!

Finally, the governor has touted that he is responsible for changes to the law on appointments to the MTA board so that no member serves for more than a very short period after the official who appoints the member is out of office. The goal is apparently to assure that everyone is beholden for their seat to the official (governor, mayor, county executive) that appointed them and that the next elected official has the prerogative to assert ‘ownership’ over the seat.

It is inevitable that appointees to prestigious boards like the MTA feel allegiance to their appointing official and since the sources of the MTA’s power and revenue derive from the political process this is appropriate – to an extent. But the way this or any governor should assert their authority over the MTA (or any public authority, e.g. the Port Authority) is to appoint a full-time Chair and CEO and allow and expect that leader to run the agency. All gubernatorial concerns and requests should be directed to and through that CEO, not through extra-agency review panels or by going around the CEO to the staff.

Pat Foye has been appointed and confirmed in that role and it is to be hoped that Governor Cuomo will now step back and let him get the MTA to marshal its new resources and do its job professionally and effectively. That is the only governance reform that is needed.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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Giving Our Children Tools to Eat and Live Healthily


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(photo: 123rf rawpixel)


It’s 10 a.m. in Ms. Montalvo-Teller’s second grade science lab at P.S. 75. A group of students are happily scarfing down kale, arugula, and bok choy leaves they grew themselves. While they enjoy their snack, Ms. Montalvo-Teller engages them in a science lesson about what parts of the plant we eat. And, Ms. Montalvo-Teller says, many will then go home and pester their parents to buy more of the tasty greens for dinner.

These kids are getting great food and nutrition education that will help them develop as healthy eaters and advocates for good food. Yet there is no guarantee that students in the school down the street, or in other schools across the city, are getting similar opportunities. In fact, according to a recent study, almost half of our city’s schools lack access to external food and nutrition education programs.

We face incredible odds in helping our children eat well. Show us a parent who hasn’t had to contend with the colorful sugar-cereal aisle, the athlete’s face on the soda can, or the fast food toy promotion. And parents who struggle to put any food at all on the table face even more challenges.

That’s where school-based food and nutrition education comes in. The evidence shows, and parents know, that when children are excited and empowered to eat well, they will.

Kindergarteners visiting the local farmers market. Fifth-graders cooking and sharing a meal together. High school seniors learning to combat how structural racism makes healthful foods inaccessible in some communities. In all its forms, food and nutrition education engages students in navigating our challenging food supply. And, with students eating up to three meals and a snack during the school day, they have the chance to put new skills into practice within hours of learning them.

With school-based food and nutrition education, we can improve our children’s health, our communities’ health, and even the health of our planet. Food and nutrition education is a key to combating childhood obesity. In New York City, one in five kindergarten students is obese and the ratio is even higher for black and Latino children.

Eating a nutritious diet improves students’ physical, mental, and emotional health. They learn better today and avoid a host of chronic diseases down the line. Many of our city’s communities lack access to healthy and affordable food. Students who have learned to look critically at the types of foods available in their neighborhoods go on to launch campaigns for better choices in their local bodegas.

And of course, we can’t ignore climate change. Children who learn about the impact of food and agriculture on the environment grow up to be conscious consumers and advocates for a more sustainable food system.

All New York City students deserve healthy, equitable, sustainable, and culturally-responsive food access and education. Yet the city’s Department of Education (DOE) does not provide any data on which students are getting food and nutrition education, how much they are getting, or who is delivering it. Anecdotally, we know there are more teachers like Ms. Montalvo-Teller in schools across the city. And according to a Tisch Food Center report, we also know that there are dozens of organizations that provide food and nutrition education to just over half the city’s schools. Yet the picture is far from complete.

That is why we are behind a bill in the City Council, Intro. 1283-2018, that would require the DOE to report on school-based food and nutrition education. DOE needs to shine a light on the gaps in food and nutrition education so that parents, students, educators, advocates, and policy-makers can craft equitable policies that direct resources to the schools and students that need them most. The City Council can’t legislate the implementation of food and nutrition education, but it can require reporting and transparency, which will help highlight and expand what is already happening.

We wouldn’t give a child a book and expect them to understand it without learning to read and analyze the words. Faced with today’s food supply, children likewise need and deserve education that empowers them to prepare, enjoy, and ask for good food. As the children in Ms. Montalvo-Teller’s class will tell you, growing your own salad is a fun way to eat your greens. Let’s make sure food and nutrition education like this is on every student’s academic menu. Passing the food and nutrition education reporting bill is just the first course.

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City Council Member Mark Treyger represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s education committee; Gale Brewer is Manhattan Borough President; and Dr. Pamela Koch is Executive Director of Columbia University’s Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. On Twitter @MarkTreyger718 & @galeabrewer & @pam_koch & @tischfoodcenter.

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Lessons from ‘Renewal’ and Beyond: What It Takes to Turn Around Our Lowest-Achieving Schools


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(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


For decades, school and district leaders across the country have struggled to answer a fundamental question: how to turn the tide for our nation’s lowest-achieving schools. Some have resorted to school closures, choosing to start anew and relocate those students to better-performing options. Others have tried to “turn around” underperforming schools, in the hopes that an influx of resources, a greater emphasis on data, and strong leadership could spur improvements in student achievement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, in particular, highlighted the promise of that alternative to school districts across the country. Rather than shutter 94 poorly performing schools across New York City, he provided a slew of targeted supports that included additional teacher training, new curricula, extra mental health counseling, and resources from community-based organizations. These additional services came with the conditions that schools set clear goals and remain accountable for sustained improvement.

Over the course of four years, Renewal reflected a clear commitment to supports over school closures and a systems-wide approach; important ingredients of a successful turnaround effort. However, the initiative failed to incorporate input from practitioners and community members, creating a disconnect between policies and ideals—and the actual work of teaching and learning within their classrooms.

Earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio had no choice but to end his $773 million school turnaround experiment, facing scrutiny over not only a lack of local engagement, but the nearly 75 percent of Renewal schools that failed to exhibit significant improvement over four years.

In the wake of this latest setback, district leaders and policymakers across the country are still searching for the answer to this fundamental question. Atlanta Public Schools has shifted to a broader, system-wide effort to elevate all 89 schools in the district. Rhode Island continues to grapple with the ongoing struggles of its turnaround schools, even amid promising practices like common planning time for teachers, culturally responsive curricula, and concerted family engagement efforts. And Tennessee is experimenting with approaches that range from state-run school districts to innovation zones that offer extra resources and charter-like autonomy.

School turnaround remains one of the greatest challenges in education today. Yet, in response to this challenge, we are not using tools and strategies that have actually proven to increase student achievement. Research that my colleague and I conducted last fall shows that only 11 percent of service providers supporting the work of school turnaround have demonstrated evidence of impact.

While some providers may not have been evaluated yet, and others offer consultations or services that are more difficult to measure, the key take-away here is that states and districts are prioritizing partnerships with providers that have never demonstrated evidence their turnaround tools work.

For an issue as intractable as school turnaround, shouldn’t we put our best strategies forward?

First and foremost, we need to recognize that school turnaround begs a system-wide approach, a tenet that Renewal did take to heart. New York City Department of Education officials strove to leverage an ecosystem of partners to support students’ academic, psychological, social-emotional, and basic needs. Renewal’s successor, the Comprehensive School Support initiative, will offer a similar, system-wide approach, leveraging a data-driven system to surface the resources and supports that all students need.

What is still missing from this picture is deep engagement of stakeholders across the school building and broader community. In a system-wide approach, district officials must work side-by-side with principals, educators, school support staff, health providers, out-of-school time providers, and community leaders to establish an overarching change vision for each school.

They must investigate the traditional causes of decline and failure, ranging from significant teacher and leader turnover to chronic budget cuts and a lack of community engagement. And they must take on the role of offering the evidence-based, capacity-building tools and resources that this ecosystem of partners needs to successfully off-set those root causes.   

Most importantly, they must accept that effective school turnaround is a long-term effort, not to be achieved in just three years.

Over time, we have worked with Gallup-McKinley County Schools in New Mexico, one of the largest and poorest districts in the state, which has recorded substantial, enduring increases in student proficiency. And in Ohio, a network of 20 turnaround schools demonstrated significant gains in student achievement.

Undoubtedly, school turnaround will remain one of education’s most difficult challenges. However, we now know it can be done with an attention to system-wide stakeholder engagement, evidence-based tools, and the right supports from our school districts.

Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza should take note as they make their next attempt at turning around New York City’s struggling schools.

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Coby Meyers is associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development and Chief of Research for the UVA Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, an initiative that has supported effective school turnaround efforts in New Mexico, Ohio, and districts across the country.

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New York City Can’t Be Foolish When It Comes to the Census


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Council Member Rivera, one of the authors (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Monday may be April Fool’s, but the one thing New Yorkers shouldn’t be joking about is the importance of the 2020 Census.

April 1 marks one year until Census Day, and in preparation, elected officials are fanning out throughout the five boroughs to talk to New Yorkers about the importance of participating in the census. You may be asking – why is there so much urgency when we still have a year to get ready to fill out this form?

The census is more than just a simple count of persons. It determines the economic and political reality of the United States and its localities, including our city.

Virtually every domestic policy decision the federal government makes in the next ten years will be conditioned by how many people it believes live and work in the country and its specific regions, states, cities, and other municipalities. And the census affects whether New York will continue to receive roughly $73 billion in federal funds for programs like SNAP, Section 8, WIC, and Medicaid, as well as how much representation New York has in Congress and the Electoral College.

If we don’t invest in a serious outreach and education effort, New York State could be at serious risk of an undercount on April 1, 2020 -- when counting begins -- and an underinvestment for New York for many years to come.

New York has struggled with census response rates going as far back as 1990. In 2010, the initial response rate for New York City was 61.9 percent, compared to 76 percent nationwide.

This is because more than half the people in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn live in official “hard-to-count” neighborhoods, which is also the case for those in specific neighborhoods in Manhattan and Staten Island. These areas may be home to large populations of young children, people of color, foreign-born individuals, low-income households, limited English proficient communities, and frequent movers.

And while new changes to the census process such as improved language access and the ability to respond online will help, numerous obstacles must be overcome to reach these populations.

But as co-chairs of the New York City Council’s 2020 Task Force, we are working to re-engage these communities. We are working with each of the city’s 51 Council members to coordinate outreach with local organizations that have a proven track record in their communities.

We are also keeping up the pressure on elected officials to invest serious financial resources in outreach and education. We are disappointed that in its new budget the state only allocated up to $20 million for this critical effort, far short of the $40 million that advocates have been calling for. We need more details about how this funding will be distributed and will keep fighting to ensure that community based organizations in New York City get the funding they need to get an accurate count locally.

We need these resources because the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to ensure there is an undercount in states like New York, including fighting to place a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

Regardless of the legal outcome of that fight, persuading foreign-born New Yorkers to participate will now require a level of outreach unseen in any previous census.

But regardless of the difficulties we face, we know we must succeed, in part because we both personally know what failure could mean for New Yorkers.

Our parents were able to provide wonderful homes for us because of the supplemental food programs that fed our families and the subsidized housing we lived in, and we were able to focus on our educations because of other financial support services that help low-income families like ours access funds for basic necessities. We probably wouldn’t have become New York City Council members without those programs, and we need to ensure that the next generation of New Yorkers who grow up in poverty have a shot at becoming a doctor, a CEO, or an elected official.

We know President Trump is eager to see us fail. But we can make him look like the fool on April 1, 2020 if every New Yorker does their part, fills out the census, and fights for the basic right for everyone to be counted.

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City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Carlina Rivera are co-chairs of the New York City Council’s 2020 Task Force. On Twitter @cmenchaca & @CarlinaRivera.

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New York City Needs Real Criminal Justice Reform from Albany


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Speaker Johnson, the author (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


In New York, you can be locked up based on purported evidence that isn’t even disclosed to you, until a trial that can be postponed indefinitely, unless you are wealthy enough to pay your way out. That is the reality under our state’s antiquated laws governing cash bail, discovery, and speedy trial. With Democrats truly controlling both houses of the state Legislature and the governorship for the first time in decades, we now have a meaningful opportunity to modernize these regressive laws and bring justice to our criminal justice system.

We have made great strides in criminal justice reform in New York City. We have reduced arrests and eliminated prosecutions for low-level offenses that have no impact on public safety. Through bail funds, supervised release programs, and ability-to-pay assessments, we reduced our jail population from over 11,000 in early 2014 to just under 8,000 by the end of 2018. Despite these efforts, every day thousands of New Yorkers charged with a non-violent felony or a misdemeanor await trial on Rikers Island. They have not been found guilty of anything -- they simply cannot afford to pay bail. We need the state to act to end this gross injustice.

Our discovery law compounds the injustice of indefinite detention by forcing people charged with crimes to make crucial decisions about their cases without knowing what evidence the government has or doesn’t have. It allows District Attorneys to withhold even basic evidence, such as police reports, until the eve of trial, a form of institutionally-sanctioned sandbagging. Currently, defense investigators must scramble at the last minute to locate favorable witnesses or secure video evidence that could exonerate someone, but which may be long gone by the time of trial. By hamstringing the defense through New York’s blindfold law, we have turned “innocent until proven guilty” into “guilty until it is too late to prove otherwise so you just give up.”  

Lawmakers in Albany have nothing to fear from discovery reform. New York is one of only four states – the others are South Carolina, Wyoming, and Louisiana – that do not allow a defendant to know anything about the witnesses against them before starting a trial. But we don’t even need to look outside our city to see how progressive discovery practices can work -- for decades the Brooklyn District Attorney's office has committed to open discovery without compromising the safety of witnesses.

Our state’s bail laws are as antiquated as our discovery laws, but our city’s programs designed to reduce the jail population have proven that we don’t need to derail people’s lives by setting cash bail in order to ensure that they return to court. Eighty-eight percent of people released on their own recognizance return to court, as compared to 91% released on bail and 92% placed into supervised release.

We cannot justify spending $250,000 per year to incarcerate someone for a 3% higher chance they come to court, especially with a cheaper alternative that produces better results. Cash bail takes people away from their families, from their jobs, and from their lives, and forces family members to choose between putting food on the table and paying exorbitant fees to a bail bond industry that profits off of their poverty.

Cash bail is nothing more than punishment for the poor. Harvey Weinstein simply paid his way to freedom, while Kalief Browder languished on Rikers for years, because of a system that, as New York Times bestselling author Bryan Stevenson wrote, “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

Our speedy trial laws are controlled entirely by the state. Under New York law, there is no right to a speedy trial -- there is only a right to have prosecutors state they are “ready” for trial within 90 days for a misdemeanor and six months for a felony. This framework encourages prosecutors to manipulate the system by using procedural maneuvers to postpone cases when they are not “ready” in order to minimize their speedy trial obligations.

In many instances these three nightmares coalesce: a person can’t make bail, can’t start their trial, and can’t get access to the documents that provide the basis for their prosecution and defense. We continue to do what we can in New York City to right these wrongs. But the truth is that we need the state to act right now to reform its laws and achieve real justice in our criminal justice system.

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Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council. On Twitter @NYCSpeakerCoJo.

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Fair Wages are Good for the Economy, Albany Should Pass an Expanded Prevailing Wage


may bdb nycha active construction

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


As the next state budget is being debated in Albany, increasing attention is being paid to the state’s prevailing wage laws. With so much misinformation out there, let’s set the record straight. Paying construction workers a middle class wage is a net positive for New York’s economy.

Specifically, the issue is how construction workers are paid for projects that receive public funds. Since 1897, projects receiving taxpayer funds are required by New York State law to pay fair wages to their workers. The problem is that developers are increasingly exploiting loopholes created by the growth of public-private projects, which blur the lines of what’s considered “public work.”

One recent example is the Chelsea assisted living facility on Long Island. The project received $15 million in public funding, but because that money came through the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency (IDA), there was no requirement to pay workers a middle-class wage.

Legislation currently making its way through the legislature would close that loophole. The bill,

S1947(Ramos)/A1261(Bronson), would clearly define “public work” as any large-scale project that is paid for with public funds. By ensuring that projects subsidized with public funds support middle class wages, the law will strengthen the middle class and the state’s economy.

Chances are that you’ve seen folks in the business community argue the opposing viewpoint – but when you look under the surface, those arguments tend to rely on overly simplistic or just plain inaccurate information.

Take the industry-backed argument that paying workers a middle-class wage would force costs to skyrocket and immediately put an end to all development. When a wealthy developer complains that much about paying a fair wage, you have to wonder how little they’re actually paying their workers.

As an academic, I rely on data and evidence to form a judgment. The data show that labor costs for construction projects usually amount to about 23-24 percent of the total project cost. To keep the math simple, let’s say that a prevailing wage law results in a 10 percent raise for construction workers in a given region. At most, that would increase total cost by 2.5 percent. A 2.5 percent cost can be easily offset by the efficiencies gained from paying the highly-trained workers you attract with a prevailing wage. Trained, skilled workers mean higher productivity along with fewer accidents, errors and change orders.

Of course, that’s only looking at the prevailing wage from the point of view of big developers. If we look at the prevailing wage as regular New Yorker taxpayers, the benefits multiply.

The overwhelming body of research shows a strong positive connection between prevailing wages and economic development. Prevailing wage laws increase consumer demand, helping to build a strong middle-class community. That helps more than just those families. For every dollar spent on a prevailing wage project, $1.50 is generated for the local economy. In addition, when workers are paid a fair wage, they pay more in taxes and are less dependent on government assistance.  

In a state like New York, prevailing wage laws also protect local workers. When developers are forced to pay middle class wages, they hire skilled, local workers instead of trucking in cheap labor from outside the area.

Next time you hear developers make outlandish claims about the devastating impact of a prevailing wage, remember that the only impact they care about is to their own personal bottom line. By not paying fair wages, they’re forcing the rest of us to carry the burden of the inevitable consequences of lower pay and working class poverty. In economics we call this a “market failure” as builders shift costs to taxpayers to keep their wages low and profits high. As taxpayers, we’re the ones left holding the bag.

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Kevin Duncan is a professor of economics at Colorado State University-Pueblo and has been a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

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