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De Blasio Attempts to Undo Negative First Impressions


de blasio press conference distance

De Blasio at a press conference (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


It's hard to go a few hours in New York political circles without hearing a joke about the mayor being late. Mayor de Blasio earned the taunts, having had a punctuality problem, which offended many New Yorkers. These days, de Blasio is almost never late for public events, though, seeming to have corrected what should have been an avoidable mistake of his early tenure.

Still, nearly two years into his term, de Blasio is dogged by a reputation for tardiness, as well as other negative elements of the first impression he gave many New Yorkers. The mayor is now in the midst of efforts to solve a public perception problem that siphoned some of his popularity and led de Blasio to adjust his approach on several fronts.

While you only get one chance to make a first impression, de Blasio and his team are at work to see how much they can do to change popular criticisms of him and the general sense, among some, that he has the city headed in the wrong direction.

Along with chronically late, some have come to see de Blasio as dogmatic, narrow-minded, and insulated; Self-aggrandizing, with his head in the clouds - more concerned with national politics than New York potholes; Ineffective at mitigating problems like homelessness; Anti-business, anti-wealth, and, perhaps most damaging, anti-cop.

Fair or not, these are the details of the de Blasio caricature. Most don't see de Blasio as all these things, but each appears a popular - or damaging - enough characterization that the mayor has sought to correct them all.

Negative public perception of the mayor has been fueled by unnecessary errors, like showing up late or frequent trips out of town; by calculated decisions - insisting Albany approve a tax increase on the city's highest earners, for example; and by those who never liked de Blasio, disagree with his worldview, and want to see him defeated.

The number of de Blasio critics has grown, media memes have taken hold. This summer, as cries about the mayor's focus and about a rise in street homelessness blared, de Blasio's poll numbers sunk.

The mayor appears to have taken notice.

Consciously, assertively de Blasio is working to change his first impression. The mayor talks about the NYPD in almost exclusively positive terms now; he has made more appearances on the radio and on Staten Island, partnered with real estate developers and other business leaders, and even begun treating his predecessor with more esteem.

To some extent, he has already been successful. With wealthier New Yorkers and police unions, de Blasio appears to be digging himself out of holes he burrowed last year. But while de Blasio insiders feel they are on firmer footing, they await public opinion polls showing more widespread improvement.

"The mayor has made a concerted effort in the last year to reach out to members of the business community," said Kathy Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for NYC, a leading business group, "to get to know them, to hold roundtables with various sectors - finance, media, tech - where he has listened to the issues that the key industries are facing. For those that have had the opportunity to sit down with him, to get to know him, they have felt very positive about his commitment to many priorities that the business community shares."

On the day of this article's publication, de Blasio was set to "meet with CEOs from the TAMI – technology, advertising, media and information – sector" and then hold a press conference outside a home on Staten Island to make an announcement about Sandy recovery, according to his public schedule.

"There's an appreciation that he's made a real effort to build relationships," Wylde said on Wednesday in a phone interview, "most recently including reaching out to Mayor Bloomberg."

Wylde confirmed that de Blasio's changed tone toward Bloomberg and the fact that they had planned an event together had been received positively in the business community, which Bloomberg is of and adored by. The event, a tree-planting to celebrate completion of a Bloomberg initiative, was rescheduled due to the killing of police officer Randolph Holder.

De Blasio's relationship with the police and strident NYPD supporters has been more tense than with any other group. Holder is the fourth police officer killed during de Blasio's mayoralty, a statistic not lost on his harshest critics, who despised the mayor's campaign - which focused on NYPD reform and criticized Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly - and predicted a return to 'the bad old days' with de Blasio in office.

The city has not experienced such unraveling, but as de Blasio and Bratton reform policing, scrutiny of public safety is heightened. As is de Blasio's perceived level of support for the police. While Holder's death is certainly a setback, the mayor has made some headway since last winter, when two officers were murdered and others turned their backs on the mayor.

Last December, before those officers were killed, de Blasio reacted to the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner by explaining that he and his wife had to teach their son to take extra care when interacting with police. In 2015, his tone is different. De Blasio reacted to Holder's murder by stating that "We need to understand that the police are us." Officers did not turn their backs on the mayor at Holder's funeral, at which he made remarks.

Since last December, de Blasio has become more protective of the police. He announced new bullet-resistant vests and technology for officers; and funded 1,297 new officers in his latest budget. He has heaped praise on the NYPD at numerous ceremonies and press conferences.

Late last month, one of de Blasio's loudest critics, sergeants union president Ed Mullins, said that the mayor "takes a look a little differently at policing today than he did nine, ten, twelve months ago," according to the Daily News.

Mullins, who is a registered Republican, also said that he continues to see a philosophical difference with de Blasio.

That has been and will continue to be key for de Blasio: figuring out certain shifts in rhetoric and behavior that smooth important relationships with people who don't share his liberal bend, building broader support, and also remaining true to his progressive bona fides and base.

Asked about the mayor's efforts to correct negative impressions and build better relationships, de Blasio spokesperson Karen Hinton said in a statement, "The Mayor is the same man today that New Yorkers voted for two years ago. That said, an effective leader always adjusts to changing circumstances involving city programs and services. Mayor de Blasio listens to the views of all New Yorkers and works to reflect their input in actions and policies that are appropriate and fair."

Wylde, of Partnership for NYC, indicated that this is happening. She gave the mayor and his team credit for working with business leaders to alter some of the more "intrusive" City Council bills aimed at regulating industry and personnel decisions; and praised the mayor for his essential support of state-level changes to the corporate tax code.

Of de Blasio and the city's business elite, Wylde said, "The political ideological alignment is never going to be there, but that doesn't stand in the way of the commitment that the business community feels to having a strong city and supporting the mayor's efforts to ensure that New York has a great education system and its economy continues to thrive."

Asked if grumbling about the mayor had quieted in the business community, Wylde said, "New York City is a place where there's always grumbling, but people understand the city is doing well."

Of de Blasio's 2014 pursuit of higher taxes on top earners and different 2015 relationship with business, Wylde said, "He hasn't called for a tax increase since, and that's appreciated."

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

As Sheldon Silver Heads to Trial, A Democratic Challenger is Poised to Run


Paul Newell Sheldon Silver

Paul Newell at a housing rally (via @NewellNYC)


Manhattan District Leader Paul Newell is gearing up for his second bid to replace Assemblymember Sheldon Silver. Newell told Gotham Gazette that he has started fundraising and is "close to running." A political lifetime ago, in 2008, Newell ran a grassroots campaign to unseat Silver, who was then at the height of his power.

Things have changed since then. Silver was indicted on multiple corruption charges earlier this year and then deposed from the Assembly speakership that he held for 21 years. His trial starts November 2, almost exactly one year before Election Day, though Newell would be challenging Silver in the September 2016 Democratic primary. That is if Silver is still in office and decides to run for reelection.

Silver has already pleaded not guilty to charges that he hid what amounted to political kickbacks, traded state funds for referrals to his law firm, and influenced real estate companies to do business with his law firm. "This is going to trial and I hope, I'm confident I will be vindicated after a full hearing," Silver told reporters earlier this year. Silver will remain in office unless he is convicted.

According to the state Board of Elections website, Newell has raised a little over $46,000 this year through his Friends of Paul Newell committee and has a little over $47,000 on hand.

Newell ran in 2008 as an anti-Albany candidate, pushing ethics reforms and calling out Silver as an impediment to real reform in Albany. The stance won him the endorsement of the New York Times, whose editorial board wrote:

"[T]here are two Democratic races in New York City that offer a chance to make a change in Albany or, at least make a strong statement about how badly change is needed. The most important of these races is in Lower Manhattan, where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful people in the state, is facing his first real challenge in decades. It is still an uphill fight for any opponent, but the race has already made one difference. It has brought the ever-secretive Mr. Silver out to meet voters and campaign for his job."

Silver faced Republican challenger Maureen Koetz in 2014. She ran on Silver's mishandling of a number of sexual harassment suits against his members, but Silver won easily. Generally Silver has escaped facing any well-funded challengers thanks to his immense power and connections.

Newell said Silver's very public fall from grace this year has residents of lower Manhattan's 65th Assembly District excited for new representation.

"Mr. Silver has the right to a trial, but there is no question the era of Sheldon Silver is over," Newell told Gotham Gazette. "Lower Manhattanites are aware of that. We are going to have new representation whether it is now or two years from now. We have a representative who no one wants their photo taken with, someone who can not actively represent our community, not because he is distracted, but because he no longer has the capacity to build the type of coalitions you need to help the district."

Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, said that should Silver survive his trial and run for reelection, Newell could easily find himself the underdog again. "The bottom line is you can't beat somebody with nobody even though Silver is clearly weakened," said Muzzio.

Newell, who has served as district leader since 2009, is a community organizer who currently consults for a number of non-profit organizations. He's used his non-paid role as district leader to raise his profile, and this year there have been more opportunities as his district faces the reality that their representative, who was once arguably the most powerful man in Albany, will no longer be bringing millions of dollars in funding to community organizations. Newell has been outspoken about the need for local service organizations to reduce redundancy and work together in what are sure to be leaner times.

Newell also said Silver's replacement has to focus on reform of social service funding in the state "so that it isn't based on who sits where in Albany." He said going forward Silver's replacement, whoever it may be whenever it might be, will have to work at "building coalitions statewide" and working with the new leadership in the Assembly and Senate.

In the wake of Silver's arrest, Newell quickly took to The Daily News to write an op-ed expressing disappointment in Silver on behalf of the community and outlining the need for reform in Albany. He also explained his on-the-ground role as a district leader.

It is unlikely Newell will be the only one looking to either challenge or replace Silver. Another district leader, Jenifer Rajkumar, is also rumored to be interested in the seat. Rajkumar was defeated by incumbent City Council Member Margaret Chin, a Silver ally, in a 2013 bid for the Council. Rajkumar did not return Gotham Gazette's calls at publication of this story.

A number of other potential challengers appear to be waiting for the outcome of Silver's trial before committing to a run. Many observers expect that if Silver doesn't run, he will certainly have a horse in the race.

"If he gets convicted everybody and his mother is going to jump in," said Muzzio.

No matter how many candidates run, it's virtually certain the race will focus on Silver, Albany, and ethics.

The attention on the race could boost voter turnout. In 2008 only five percent of the district's 127,000 residents voted in the primary contest between Silver, Newell, and Luke Henry. Silver won 68 percent of the vote with 6,743 in his favor. Newell received 23 percent with 2,301 votes and Henry received 879 votes.

Newell said that regardless of the outcome of the trial anyone who challenges Silver next year is not likely to face the same resistance he did in his unsuccessful 2008 bid.

"It's unlikely you will have 25 members of the Assembly standing with [Silver] on Grand Street like I did in 2008," said Newell.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Brooklyn Neighborhoods Look to Address School Overcrowding, Avoid Rezoning Issues Seen Elsewhere


bk overcrowding forum

The community school forum (photo: @JoAnneSimonBK52) 


As rezoning problems plague some city school districts, leaders in one area of Brooklyn are looking to avoid similar pitfalls while reducing overcrowding.

In Carroll Gardens last week, local officials and parents gathered in the PS 58 auditorium to discuss overcrowding issues facing three elementary schools. Like others across the city, District 15 - which includes the schools at hand, PS 58, PS 32, and PS 29 - is facing challenges around booming development and school-aged populations, school crowding and zoning.

Wednesday’s forum, featuring several area elected officials, school leaders, and moderated by Professor David Bloomfield of CUNY, was an attempt to get ahead of these issues.

“Often when we’re dealing with overcrowding, we’re not able to address it until it’s a full-blown crisis,” said Paige Bellenbaum, a local district leader. A parent of second- and third-graders at PS 58, Bellenbaum noted that since 2005, the school’s enrollment has more than doubled.

Bellenbaum and other concerned residents heard from and spoke to a panel of elected and appointed decision-makers. The panel included local lawmakers, Department of Education (DOE) planning officials, the School Construction Authority (SCA) external affairs director, PTA parents with rezoning experience, and others.

Amid unprecedented growth and development in District 15 - which contains Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, and Sunset Park schools - those who spoke cited the need to “work together in advance to get ahead of the curve,” as Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon put it. City Council Member Brad Lander and State Senator Daniel Squadron, also co-organizers of the event, expressed a similar point.

As the district looks to the DOE and SCA to add capacity and rezone neighborhoods, anxiety is high. Local officials organized the forum to begin a dialogue earlier than has occurred in other places facing similar issues.

In District 15, the average utilization rate for classrooms is already 111.5 percent. PS 58, its principal explained, has been forced to cap entry into third and fourth grades. “In 2005, enrollment was about 400 students. In 2015, it was 996,” Bellenbaum said.

Recently, overcrowding-caused rezonings of four district schools last year and the 2012 rezoning of two Park Slope schools have caused controversy. Perhaps compounding anxiety about rezonings are the current uproars concerning PS 8 and PS 307 in downtown Brooklyn and PS 191 and PS 199 on the Upper West Side. PTA parents from other public schools that had experienced the rezoning process gave advice to parents from District 15 at last week’s forum.

Kim Glickman, co-president of the PS 8 PTA, offered her advice to District 15 parents on participating in school rezoning processes. “As leaders of your own schools, you need to be able to understand what the triggers causing the school to be overcrowded are and to be able to speak to them clearly,” Glickman said.

Because race and class lines are not as sharply drawn around the three District 15 schools as they are in the other aforementioned school pairings, it is unlikely that a rezoning dispute in the neighborhoods will be the kind of “gentrification battle” seen elsewhere. PS 58, PS 32, and PS 29 were also all deemed either “good standing” or “reward” status by the DOE in its assessment after the 2013-2014 school year.

Still, school district rezonings almost always leave some parents frustrated as their home zones are changed and their children are assigned to different elementary schools than they had planned.

Although overcrowding has not yet reached a crisis level in District 15, it has had a corrosive effect on its schools, speakers at the forum said. And, given the scale of development happening in the district - the Lightstone Group’s 700-unit residential complex is being built in the PS 32 zone, for example - the creation of many more school seats will be necessary to accommodate all of the students it will likely receive. Already, PS 32 has been using trailers in its rear yard for about fifteen years because of overcrowding.

The Lightstone building students (“200-ish” of whom will eventually go to PS 32, according to Council Member Lander) will get seats in the school. A 436-seat annex will be added to the school, Lander and CSA officials recently announced.

“So, it’s good that we’re building 400-plus seats,” Lander told community stakeholders. “But it does speak to the fact that it won’t create enough new capacity to solve our problems collectively.”

The annex is also not slated to be completed for a few more years, at which time the rezoning conversation will be at the forefront as officials determine which students are assigned to the new seats.

As Community Education Council 15 President Naila Rosario explained with a powerpoint, overcrowding is already having negative effects, including the elimination of enrichment programs, worse building maintenance, and the loss of rooms for art, music, and special services.

Though overcrowding appears in many ways as an inevitable result of more people moving into a neighborhood, it is perfectly preventable, according to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy group. Haimson, who was at last week’s forum and frequently speaks to school capacity issues, says policymakers can take concrete steps to keep overcrowding from happening.

“The median utilization rate for elementary schools is over a hundred percent across the city,” Haimson told Gotham Gazette. The problem, she said, is fixable, though there has been a lack of political will. The DOE’s five-year capital plan includes 38,754 new seats for students, a figure that Haimson and her allies believe should be at least doubled.

The PS 32 annex is part of that capital plan, and while it will add seats in District 15, it is clear the district will need even more capacity to serve all of the students in the area.

A 2014 report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that one third of elementary schools in New York City registered at least 138 percent of their capacity in 2012. During February of last year, schools chancellor Carmen Fariña created the Blue Book Working Group, which was tasked to review the space utilization formulas of the DOE’s “Blue Book” and recommend reforms to it.

After the group gave its recommendations to the DOE last December, the department did not publish them until July, when it announced that some of them would be adopted. But it rejected the recommendation to shrink class sizes to those outlined by the Contracts for Excellence Law: on average, 19.9 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22.9 for grades 4-8 and 24.5 for grades 9-12. As DNAinfo recently pointed out, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to abide by these sizes during his mayoral campaign.

City school officials were criticized several times at the forum last week in Carroll Gardens.

The DOE has not built schools in Sunset Park, which has District 15 schools, where money was allocated to do so in order to ease overcrowding. “Sunset Park has been slotted to have schools for at least the last ten years,” one audience member said. “It’s not a budget issue.”

One parent, to enthusiastic applause, asked the panel why schools weren't included in new residential developments. When in response, SCA External Affairs Director Michael Mirisola said that his organization is not able to force the creation of schools, an audience member angrily interrupted, “Why not?”

It is up to local elected officials and the de Blasio administration to require public benefits like school seats in development deals. Officials are really only able to do so when developers are utilizing rezonings and other public incentives when they build. The administration and local officials in District 15 are currently negotiating a possible deal with the developer of the former Long Island College Hospital (LICH) site, where a rezoning may be allowed so that a larger development can be built in exchange for public benefits including school seats.

Haimson touched on another overcrowding issue, though not one at play in District 15 per se, decrying the state ensuring in law that any newly approved charter school is guaranteed space. “Here, we have this massive overcrowding problem in New York City where there are communities that have waited 20 years for a school, and yet any charter school can snap its fingers and the city has to give them space or pay for their rent,” Haimson told Gotham Gazette before the forum (she also spoke briefly as an audience member during the Q&A).

The DOE has faced criticism from Brooklyn residents for its handling of the PS 8/PS 307 District 13 rezoning, among others. Early talks with the department could prevent District 15 from having an adversarial relationship with the DOE when its rezoning process begins in earnest. The purpose of last week’s forum was to get dialogue started so that the lines of communication are open and community input is front and center.

“By coming together here with no specific group of so-called winners or so-called losers or people who want one thing and others who have a different goal, it is a really important step,” Sen. Squadron said in his remarks. “But it does not end here, because we have also seen that early engagement alone does not force the Department of Education to do what they're supposed to.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been corrected to indicate the schools at the center of rezoning talks on the Upper West Side - they are 191 and 199, not 32 and 29 as initially indicated

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 26


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be dominated by the World Series, we know that. The New York Mets begin their quest for the title against the Royals in Kansas City on Tuesday night, followed by another game in KC on Wednesday and then games in Queens on Friday, Saturday, and, if necessary, Sunday. If the series continues, games six and seven would be the following Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov. 3 and 4) back in Kansas City. On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced a wager over the series, with the loser having to wear the jersey of the winning team to work for a day. There are other aspects of the bet, too, with significant home-state items to be sent from loser to winner.

Now, on to politics sans sport.

It was a quiet political weekend. Mayor de Blasio, City Council Member Dan Garodnick, and others touted the new Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village sales deal to the complex's tenant association on Saturday afternoon. [Read CM Garodnick's thoughts on the sale in this Gotham Gazette op-ed]

On Monday, de Blasio has no public events scheduled. Governor Cuomo is in New York City Monday, though, to make an announcement at 1:30 p.m. at Chelsea Piers.

There is a lot happening Monday and beyond. Services will occur this week to honor Police Officer Randolph Holder, who was killed on October 20. As has been the case since Holder was shot and killed, criminal justice reform and policing are sure to be sources of significant attention this week.

Thursday is the three-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy hitting New York; there are sure to be both rememberances of the people and property lost, as well as assessments of progress made in recovering from Sandy and preparing for the next big storm.

See our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet to discuss a bill that would ban the sale of personal care products or over the counter drugs that contain microbeads, as well as pass a resolution on the Microbeads-free Waters Acts.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to discuss bills related to the use of biodiesel.

On Monday morning, current and former elected officials and others will honor recently-retired former Assemblymember Joan Millman. Comptroller Scott Stringer is among those who will speak.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit the High School of Fashion Industries to kick off College Application Week and make an announcement.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at City Hall, Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez will announce new legislation aimed at reducing the number of guns in New York and nationwide. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries; Public Advocate Letitia James; Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams; Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson; Leah Gunn Barrett, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; and NYC families impacted by gun violence will also participate.

At 3 p.m. Monday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Hometown Rally to cheer on the Mets as they start Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night in Kansas City. Other elected officials, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James are set to participate.

Later, Mark-Viverito will speak at the 2015 Roy & Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government, where she and the City Council are receiving an award for their Participatory Budgeting program. [Read more about the award and the participatory budgeting program in our new in-depth report: Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn't Every Council Member Doing It?]

Then, Mark-Viverito "speaks at 2015 Shine Event for LGBT Immigration Equality."

At 7 p.m. Monday the Bronx Young Democrats will discuss the achievements and current initiatives of young female Bronx leaders. The event will feature Darcel Clark, Democratic candidate for Bronx District Attorney; City Council Member Vanessa Gibson; State Assemblymember Latoya Joyner; and Marsha Michael, Attorney & Law Clerk.

At 7:15 p.m. the Immigration Equality event “SHINE”, celebrating women’s leadership in in the LGBT community, will honor City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and  Denise Chambers, Immigration Equality client and asylum winner from Trinidad.

On Monday evening, several uptown Manhattan Democratic clubs are hosting Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer for a discussion of relevant issues. City Council Member Mark Levine will also participate in the dialogue.

Monday evening is the Riders Alliance gala. Public Advocate Letitia James is among those set to attend.

Monday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event: CM Mark Treyger (District 47, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.

Tuesday
On Tuesday, at 8:30 a.m., Stroock, the public affairs law firm, will host a Government Leadership forum  “What is the Future of Organized Labor?” Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council; Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 Teamsters; Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers; and Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association will be on the panel. Robert Abrams, former New York State Attorney General and Chair of Stroock's Government Relations Practice Group, and Alan M. Klinger, Co-Managing Partner and Co-Chair of Stroock's Litigation Practice Group, will moderate.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is in Westchester County meeting with elected officials and touring different areas.

At 10:30 a.m. the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) will meet on a number of matters including its ongoing search for a new Executive Director.

At 11 a.m. Vocal-NY, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and others will hold the Fair Chance Rally. The purpose of the rally is to raise awareness about the Fair Chance Act, which makes it illegal for New York City employers to ask about one’s criminal record until after a job offer is made, and is going into effect.

At the New York State Legislature on Tuesday: the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation and Assembly Climate Change Work Group will have a roundtable discussion on Climate Change.

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 11 a.m. the Committee on Women’s Issues; the Committee on Health; and the Committee on Education will meet for a joint oversight hearing on sex education in NYC schools. They will discuss three bills that would: require the Department of Education to provide a report on student health services to the Council; require the DOE to report annually on information about health education and HIV/AIDS education for students in grades six through twelve; require the DOE to submit an annual report on the sexual health education received by instructors in public middle and high schools.

Prior to that City Council hearing, at 10 a.m., there will be a "press conference to call for comprehensive sex education in NYC schools" led by Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Chair of the Committee on Women's Issues; Daniel Dromm, Chair of the Committee on Education; and Corey Johnson, Chair of the Committee on Health; as well as representatives from Planned Parenthood of New York City; NARAL Pro-Choice New York; New York Civil Liberties Union; and Reproductive Healthcare Advocates.

On Tuesday at 2 p.m. at 250 Broadway, "State Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), together with Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Member Annabel Palma and Make the Road New York, will release a bombshell investigative report "The American Scheme: Herbalife's Pyramid 'Shake'down.""

At 4 p.m. Safe Passage Project will hold an event composed of two parts. The first will be discussing the unmet needs of recent migrant children and young parent from Central America. City Council Member Rory Lancman will make opening remarks. There will be multiple related panel discussions thereafter.

Tuesday evening, Governor Cuomo is set to deliver remarks at the Business Council of Westchester’s Annual Dinner.

At 6 p.m. the city Panel for Educational Policy will have a public meeting in Manhattan. At the event the Chancellor will give an update on current policies and the panel will discuss a number of important topics including: Race and Diversity in School Admission, Aggregation of Community District Budgets Together with a Proposed Budget for Administrative Expenditures of the City Board and the Chancellor, and more; while also taking public comment.

At 6:30 p.m. during The Hispanic Leadership Awards, City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer will lead a celebration honoring several people for their outstanding leadership in the Latino community, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who will receive a Distinguished Public Service Award.  

At 7 p.m. City Council Members Donovan Richards and I. Daneek Miller will hold a Southeast Queens Transportation Town Hall. Representatives from DOT, MTA, TLC, and NYPD will attend.

Tuesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Wednesday
At the New York State Legislature on Wednesday: The Assembly Standing Committee on Aging along with the Assembly Task Force on People with Disabilities, the Assembly Subcommittee on Community Integration, and the Assembly Subcommittee on Outreach and Oversight of Senior Citizen Programs, will hold a joint public hearing regarding the “New York State Office for the Aging’s study on the benefits of creating an office of community living”

At 6:30 p.m. several groups host “Why She Ran: A Conversation With Women in Politics” discussing the challenges women face in New York politics and encouraging women to run for office. Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras, and Council Member Helen Rosenthal will speak at the event. Sponsors of the event include the Working Families Party, Eleanor's Legacy, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Higher Heights for America, Ladies of Labor, Shirley Chisholm Institute, NOW-NYS, Women's Organizing Network, and WIN NYC.

Also at 6:30 p.m., school district 3 will host a Town Hall meeting with Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Wednesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 6 p.m.
  • CM Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8, Manhattan/Bronx) 6 p.m.
  • CM Helen Rosenthal (District 6, Manhattan) 6 p.m.
  • CM Ritchie Torres (District 15, Bronx) time TBA
  • CM Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens) 8 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.
  • CM Jumaane D. Williams (District 45, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.

Thursday
On Thursday beginning at 8:30 a.m. the Urban Land Institute will hold a conference about the best new practices to help fund public transportation infrastructure in the New York metro area in the face of withering public funding, including solutions through partnerships with the private sector.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10:30 a.m. the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to hear communication from Orlando Marin of the City Planning Commission
  • At 1:30 p.m. will be a City Council Stated Meeting; prefaced, as always, by the Speaker’s pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

At 5:30 p.m. United States Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates will discuss the administration’s top goals and priorities at the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School; following the speech will be a Q&A session.

At 5:30 p.m. The Hopkins-Hunter Forum for Education Policy, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and The Hunter College Gifted and Talented Program will host “The Excellence Gap: The State of Gifted and Talented Education,” an event that will discuss the income based education gap among students, and talk about suggestions on how to address the issue in the future.

At 6 p.m. Mayor Bill de Blasio will be hosting a fundraiser for his 2017 campaign, as reported by Politico New York.

Thursday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.
  • CM Corey Johnson (District 3, Manhattan) 4:30 p.m.
  • CM Donovan Richards (District 31, Queens) time TBA
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
On Saturday and Sunday, Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will hold two Spooky Parties at Gracie Mansion, inviting families with children 5-10 years old to come tour their haunted house. Families must have tickets through the ticket giveaway being held prior to the event.

On Sunday at 2 p.m. a large group of Democratic political clubs and progressive organizations will hold a Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Forum. Representatives from the Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and Lessing campaigns will participate.. The forum will be moderated by Ronnie Eldridge.

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Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

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by Colin O'Connor, Konstantine Beridze, and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, October 19-23


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday October 23

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio and other officials announce sale of Stuyvesant Town & Peter Cooper Village, via Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office; Governor Cuomo receives an award and announces planned protections for transgender New Yorkers at the Empire State Pride Agenda gala, via Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office

de blasio stuyvesant town

Cuomo pride transgender

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Cuomo To Extend Protection For Transgender New Yorkers: At the Empire State Pride Agenda gala on Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he will take executive action to extend legal protections for transgender New Yorkers.

2. City & State Make New Moves In K2 Fight (Separately): Governor Cuomo announced on Tuesday that New York is expanding its public awareness campaign against synthetic drug abuse with ads and a 33-foot-tall billboard in the Bronx that reads "Synthetic marijuana can kill!" On the same day, Mayor de Blasio signed three measures into law that criminalize the manufacture and distribution of synthetic marijuana, commonly known as K2, intensifying the city's ongoing crackdown.

3. Federal Court Upholds SAFE Act: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the New York SAFE Act on Monday, keeping in place signature Cuomo gun regulations which were passed in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

4. Stuyvesant Town Sold: This week, the Blackstone Group, a Wall Street investment firm, reached a deal to buy Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, a 11,232-apartment complex near the East Village. As part of the deal, 5,000 units will be preserved for middle-class families. The deal was negotiated with the de Blasio administration, City Council Member Dan Garodnick (who wrote this Gotham Gazette op-ed with his thoughts on the deal), and other key stakeholders.

5. De Blasio Moves On Bail: In the aftermath of the killing of Police Officer Randolph Holder on Tuesday evening, Mayor de Blasio and others are scrutinizing the processes by which the alleged killer was still on the streets given a long criminal record and recent arrests. De Blasio is calling on the state to change its bail laws: as he and allies such as City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito ask for elimination of bail for low-level nonviolent offenders, they also want to see judges allowed to consider the dangerousness of someone facing charges when setting bail.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 38 female firefighters in New York City’s over 10,700-member force.
  • 43% of Assembly housing chair Keith Wright’s congressional campaign has been funded by real estate interests regulated by his committee.
  • 5,485 classrooms in New York City are overcrowded, according to data from the teachers’ union - a 15% drop from last year.
  • $21.1 million increase in spending by lobbyists to influence Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers in the first six months of 2015, bringing the total spent so far this year to $130.9 million.
  • 28 separate incidents of rape behind bars were reported by Rikers Island inmates last year - though the city Department of Corrections failed to inform the NYPD about any of them.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for Governor Cuomo and gun control advocates as a federal appeals court upheld key components of New York's SAFE Act.
  • It was a bad week for former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, each of whom saw legal setbacks as they approach their separate corruption trials, set to begin early next month.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time last year, on October 23, 2014, Dr. Craig Spencer, who had just returned from treating Ebola patients in Africa, became the first person in the city to test positive for the Ebola virus, sparking fear and urgent efforts to contain the spread of the deadly disease.
  • Around this time 7 years ago, on October 23, 2008, the New York City Council voted 29-22 in favor of extending the term limit on the offices of Mayor and others to three consecutive four-year terms, allowing then-mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for office a third time (and win) in the 2009 mayoral election.
  • Around this time 20 years ago, on October 19, 1995, the Metropolitan Transit Authority approved a fare hike of 25 cents, bringing the single-ride fare to $1.50.
  • Around this time 51 years ago, on October 22, 1964, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner and the City Council reached agreement on a plan to raise the city's minimum wage to $1.50 an hour - the highest in the nation - though it was struck down later that year, on the grounds that state law prevented cities from increasing the wage on their own.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

Spurred by Buffalo Billion, Reformers Look to Fix State Business Subsidies, by David Howard King

In Effort to Ensure Sound Education, City Battles Student Homelessness, by Colin O’Connor

As Healthcare Landscape Changes, City Hospital Authority Charts New Path, by Christian Zhang

One 'Raise the Age' Story at Center of Push for Legislative Action, by David Howard King

Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn’t Every Council Member Doing It?, by Colin O’Connor

The Future of Stuyvesant Town & Peter Cooper Village, by Council Member Dan Garodnick (opinion)

There is Nothing Innovative About Displacement, by Tarry Hum (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • WNYC's Robert Lewis and Data News Team put together an in-depth series on "The Hard Truth About Cops Who Lie."

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max

Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn’t Every Council Member Doing It?


PB NYC East Harlem

PB voting in East Harlem, photo via PB NYC


In four years participatory budgeting has exploded from four to 27 New York City Council districts. With over 51,000 voters casting ballots last cycle to allocate a total of $32 million dollars to projects across the city, New York‘s experiment in direct democracy has quickly become the largest of its kind in North America.

"This is the biggest year of participatory budgeting yet, with 27 Council members asking their constituents to decide how to spend at least $1 million on improvements in their communities...this is truly what democracy is about,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, an early PB adopter, said at a recent conference on advancing the city’s progressive agenda.

On Monday, October 26, Mark-Viverito and her colleagues will be recognized for their efforts at a ceremony in Manhattan where they will be presented with an innovation award and corresponding $100,000 prize. Last month, Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government recognized the growth and impact of participatory budgeting in New York City by awarding the Council the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government.

The award “spotlights...programs that engage all citizens, particularly those from overlooked communities, and that serve as effective models of participatory democracy for other communities throughout the United States,” says Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Ash Center’s Government Innovation Program.

City Council members decide individually whether to run participatory budgeting in their home districts, and exactly how much of their capital budget allocation to devote to public determination, with $1 million the minimum. Capital projects are infrastructure items, like playgrounds, dog runs, and neighborhood benches. They can also include technology for schools, like laptops.

Under Mark-Viverito, who became Speaker in early 2014, the Council has promoted PB expansion and provided greater support through its central staff to those Council members opting in.

With more than half of the City Council’s 51 members now running the program - and much fanfare around it - it is curious to some why all members haven’t adopted the program. In the latest PB cycle, the city's fifth, which began this fall, only three additional Council members signed on, increasing participation slightly from the 24 who ran the program last year, when there was a major jump after an election that saw many new, young, and progressive candidates elected.

What’s holding the remaining Council members back? Gotham Gazette sent emails to representatives of six Council members not running PB, only two of whom responded: representatives of Council Members Rory Lancman, of Queens, and Inez Dickens, of Manhattan (both Democrats), explained their rationale.

One common theme in the two responses is that participatory budgeting provides superfluous community input. There are already sufficient avenues of constituent-Council member interaction, and it is already up to Council members to take constituent opinions into consideration when allocating the funding they have to work with.

“Local community boards, which are composed by local residents and constituents, submit to their local council members their capital priorities, projects, and concerns,” wrote Council Member Dickens’ press secretary, Frances Escano. “As the collective voice of the community, their expressed views on the capital projects that need funding provide a significant input on what needs must be addressed.”

Council Member Lancman‘s reply gets at a concern expressed by other Council members Gotham Gazette has spoken to: the significant staff time and energy that PB requires. "Participatory budgeting takes an extraordinary amount of office time and resources for no discernible improvement in outcomes over working through the existing vast civic infrastructure for public participation,” Lancman said in a statement. “My district does not lack for opportunities and vehicles for community engagement, which I'm proud to say my constituents take ample advantage of."

These responses seem to miss the point, says David Beasley, Communications Director for the Participatory Budgeting Project, the nonprofit that helps run the program. “Participatory budgeting should not replicate the existing power structures,“ he asserted in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “that‘s not what PB is for.“

According to a press release from Speaker Mark-Viverito’s office, the voter demographics from the most recent PB vote (ballots were cast in April at the end of the 2014-2015 cycle) serve as a shining example of this ideal. Nearly 60 percent of PB voters identified as people of color; approximately one in ten were under 18; nearly 30 percent reported an annual household income of $25,000 or below; more than a quarter were born outside of the U.S.; nearly a quarter reported a barrier to voting in regular elections, with one in ten reporting they were not U.S. citizens; and 63 percent identified as female.

Participatory budgeting allows votes from anyone living in the City Council district at hand, with the exception, in most cases, of those younger than 16. Some Council members have allowed those as young as 14 to vote.

In their 2014-2015 Participatory Budgeting Report, released Tuesday, October 20, the Urban Justice Center and PBNYC showcase another telling statistic: 51 percent of PB voters, “were not part of a community group or organization.“ That is to say, it is many voices not present on community boards, PTAs, neighborhood civic associations, et. al. that participatory budgeting incorporates into public discourse. In Council Member Carlos Menchaca‘s Brooklyn district, to give one example, more monolingual, non-English speakers voted for a PB project than did in the general election when Menchaca was chosen in 2013.

The direct democracy, ability to shape one’s neighborhood, and low barrier to entry seem to be the cause of the participation outlined above.

Through a series of public assemblies, residents work with elected officials over a period of eight months to identify neighborhood concerns, create projects to address them, and put the ones with the most interest to a vote.

The practice culminates when district residents fill out ballots to allocate at least $1 million in capital funding toward proposals developed by the community to meet local needs. Absent much of the typical bureaucracy of community politics, participatory budgeting lures previously dormant New Yorkers into the public sphere.

PBNYC, the umbrella organization uniting the City Council, the Participatory Budgeting Project, the outreach nonprofit Community Voices Heard, and 63 community-based organizations across the city, oversees the entire operation; and the coalition continues to launch new ways to wrangle more participants. The organization‘s recently launched “Ideas Map“ is one of their major additions for the just-started 2015-2016 cycle. Anybody who wants to can go online and submit their capital funding idea for their district, specifying the project’s location on the digital outline of NYC. (A tip: participating PB Council districts are lit up, but eager residents can post suggestions in non-PB districts as well. Perhaps a nudge toward more Council enrollment.)

Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn let on in an interview with Gotham Gazette that Council members‘ decisions to not run PB may be about more than already getting “significant input” from their constituents. Confining community recommendations to established local channels is a way for Council Members to retain their power, Williams said. While legislators can largely choose to reject suggestions from community boards, participatory budgeting completely cedes a portion of a Council member‘s budget to popular vote.

"It's one thing to receive input, it's another thing for someone to actually vote on it and for it to be a binding decision," said Williams, whose district 45 residents last year elected to spend over $300,000 on schools including classroom computers, smartboards, and renovated bathrooms.

Jumaane Williams(CM Williams - photo: William Alatriste)

Council Member Menchaca - whose district 38 constituents cast over 6,000 ballots last year, also allocating funds for a litany of school upgrades in addition to outdoor fitness equipment for Sunset Park - takes Williams' point a step further. Menchaca sees resistance to PB as stemming from an overly cautious, controlling, and outdated form of governing.

“One of the main things that I get in resistance from members or other people...is the fallacy that I am relinquishing power,” Menchaca says, “because I got elected to make these decisions - what am I doing giving it back to the people?...I think that‘s just an old-school way of understanding the role of government and the role of people and the role of democracy, a true participatory democracy that empowers people in decision making.“

While Menchaca is clearly a true-believer, and puts his money where his mouth is, other Council members run the program, but to a more limited degree.

“You may miss some very good projects...if there is no other way to get some things funded,” says Williams, acknowledging that not everything on a PB ballot will get funded.

Lancman‘s other reason for not participating in PB--that it requires “an extraordinary amount of office time and resources for no discernible improvement in outcomes“--may hold the most weight. It is something that other Council members have expressed concerns about in off-the-record conversations.

The $32 million spent last year on participatory budgeting projects represents just .4 percent of the average $7.9 billion spent on city capital projects annually (2003-2012), according to an IBO report. Yet implementing a robust and dedicated PB program drains Council members of a significant amount of effort and resources - during the height of PB season, Council members often have to dedicate one staff member (of units that usually only run about five deep) to PB full-time, with others chipping in part of their time.

“It is a commitment,” says Williams, “there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You jump in, you can’t really jump partially in...It touches most of my staff in different ways.“

Menchaca also acknowledges the effort required. “This has to be your priority,” he says, “Everything is built around PB in [my] office. It is at the core of what I do.” Even with this type of attention the council member says, he needs more resources. “I could use another five people to help staff the PB portion of my operations.“

Budget info, as seen in the IBO report, shows that over the course of three years from 2013-2016, Council members are committed to spending $1.765 billion in capital funds. Divided by 51 Council members (though the money is not evenly divided), this comes out to about $34.6 million each over the course of those four fiscal years, or $8.65 million per Council member per year. In that context, $1-2 million toward participatory budgeting in a given year is fairly significant.

The benefits of participatory budgeting also extend outside of its explicit function. The most notable of these benefits, according to the Urban Justice Center report, include better informed policy decisions, increased resident trust in government, and more cohesive community bonds.

On a practical level, needs revealed by the participatory budgeting process can inform and direct further non-PB government spending. In its 2013-2014 report, the Urban Justice Center found that seven out of ten Council members running PB programs used their capital expense funds left over from the PB process to implement projects suggested during PB that did not garner enough support to be selected by constituents.

The same report also suggests how participatory budgeting has the power to affect city-wide change. Following a flood of PB proposals to renovate decrepit school bathrooms, the DOE elected to dedicate $100 million to repair deteriorated lavatories - $50 million more than it had promised. The increase in funding came out to three times the amount spent on all PB-designated capital projects that year.

On top of this, Council members acquire valuable, new community contacts through participatory budgeting. “I‘m developing social networks that didn‘t exist before...and...I‘m utilizing the networks that I‘m building here to deal with the other issues outside of PB,” says Menchaca.

As an example, he cites a recently-made connection with an employee of BioBAT, a bio-tech incubator, “maybe I can get her involved in organizing small-businesses if there is an infrastructure issue,” he said.

Menchaca(CM Menchaca, left - photo: William Alatriste)

The benefits of these new networks go both ways, too, as the Urban Justice Center report found that by working with Council members and city agencies to create and implement capital projects, community members develop greater trust in government. Confident that Council members will be responsive to their input, residents feel free to reach out to their representatives if an issue comes up - even outside PB.

In one case detailed by Beasley, of the Participatory Budgeting Project, this past year Council Member Menchaca was considering a large development project in the middle of a local park. Community members caught wind of the project and pushed back hard. They insisted it would cost too much money. According to Beasley, Menchaca paused, reevaluated the project and said 'I think you‘re right. We have this money in the budget; what should we spend it on to make this park better?'

It is this type of empowerment that Council Member Williams was seeking when he first started his PB program five years ago. “The most important thing that I do is probably pass the budget and that’s the thing that my constituents understand the least,” Williams told Gotham Gazette. “[Participatory Budgeting] was a good meld of empowering and allowing people to get involved in the budget process. It allows them to get their hands dirty.”

Increased public awareness of discretionary funds is something the city could use too. Also known as “member items,“ discretionary funds have historically been one of the most abused pots of City Council money. It was no coincidence that Speaker Mark-Viverito‘s decision to provide centralized funding to PB came in conjunction with several rules making discretionary funds more equitable and transparent.

This summer, Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn, also an early PB adopter, launched an interactive map that tracks capital projects in his district, including those funded through PB and not. Lander told Gotham Gazette that "the long-term answers is a citywide system that tracks all capital projects" so that constituents can see the progress of government-funded efforts.

The first years of PBNYC saw expansion by just a few districts per year after the initial class of four. It was only in the fourth year, when, after an election and under Mark-Viverito, the City Council dedicated centralized resources to PB and the number jumped by 14.

In this sense, though, David Beasley doesn‘t see this year’s three district growth as anything abnormal.

Participatory Budgeting, “hasn’t had time to stabilize and really set in,” he said. “It is still almost brand new...For some people PB is an obvious answer, for others they want to see that it works.“

He‘s quick to add, “we think it‘s been proven through the evaluations from the Urban Justice Center...but we‘ll see how the reports continue to go.”

Council Member Menchaca is convinced and sees the growth of PB as inevitable, but that it might take just a couple more years. “I think we need to elect new people,” Menchaca said regarding those who don't run the program in their districts, “[PB] becomes a political strategy for empowerment.“

Gensis-Muelens Dixon, a 13-year-old from the Flatbush area and a constituent of Council Member Williams, is feeling empowered. Together with his mother Taja Dixon, Co-Chair of District 45 Participatory Budgeting, he wants to secure funding to turn an empty plot of land into a community garden.

The pair proposed their idea at Williams' inaugural PB assembly, which Gotham Gazette attended. Their project aims to supply fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as foster the same community spirit the two have come to appreciate through participatory budgeting. As the meeting came to an end, Gensis gave a quick word to Gotham Gazette about his experience in the two years he and his mother have been participating in PB.

"It is really amazing how much people think about their community," he said. "Usually, in this area at least, you would think that some people just don't care and to see that this many people care about these little things in their community is inspiring." 

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by Colin O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

One 'Raise the Age' Story at Center of Push for Legislative Action


Cuomo prison raise the age

Cuomo at The Greene Correctional Facility (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


In the Summer of 2010, Benjamin Van Zandt was a smart, quiet 17-year-old; an excellent student enrolled in AP classes, a math whiz and violin player, and on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. Van Zandt was a resident of Selkirk, a small town just outside Albany known for its rail yards and manufacturing plants.

Only four years later, at the age of 21, Van Zandt became the youngest state inmate to take his own life when he hanged himself with his bed sheets and shoe laces in his cell at Fishkill Correctional Facility.

A series of events that took place over a short time and are described differently by those involved sent Van Zandt's life off what most would consider a normal trajectory for a bright, young suburban kid. His mother, Alicia Barraza, blames her son's death on a specific statute in New York law that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be processed and tried as adults upon arrest.

"We have this shy, bright teen with so much potential who admitted mental health issues and admitted he started a fire," said state Senator Neil Breslin, who counts Barraza as a constituent, and Thomas Breslin, the judge who oversaw Van Zandt's plea, as his brother. "Does that mean he should be sentenced to jail with older hardened criminals who harassed and abused him? The answer to me is clearly 'no.'"

Barraza has become a leading voice in the 'Raise the Age' movement, which is pushing for New York to amend its laws so 16- and 17-year-olds have access to family courts, diversionary sentencing, treatment, and the rights afforded to other minors at the time of arrest. New York and North Carolina are the only two states with criminal justice systems that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, while a small number of others have 17 as the threshold for adult criminal responsibility.

What changes actually need to be made to the law are still being debated, though Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a vocal proponent of 'raising the age.' Law enforcement officials, including many district attorneys say the debate has been oversimplified and ignores some real-world dilemmas. Both Sen. Breslin and Albany County District Attorney David Soares say they support parts of the "Raise the Age" legislation proposed by Cuomo but both also say they have concerns that require significant discussion.

Cuomo's original proposal was dismissed by Republicans as weak on crime and by a number of Democrats who said it wasn't properly thought out and would make things worse for young offenders. After no agreement on Raise the Age last legislative session, Cuomo appears set to renew his push, while advocates are focused on grassroots efforts designed to help voters and legislators understand how one trip into the justice system for a young person can alter his or her life irreversibly.

During the Summer of 2010, Barraza says that her son, Benjamin Van Zandt, was quietly battling depression. His condition took a turn for the worse; he later told his parents that he was hearing voices and trying to quell them by starting small fires. Finally, in early August, Barraza said Van Zandt lost control and decided to act on the voices that had been tormenting him. He bicycled half a mile to the nearby suburb of Delmar, where he entered an empty house and spread gasoline around the rooms, eventually setting a fire. The home was nearly entirely destroyed.

At the time, the quiet neighborhood had been dealing with a series of break-ins and was on high alert.

A week later, police came to arrest Van Zandt, after he used a credit card he had stolen from the house. His father asked police if he could come along, as his son had told him of the depression and his hallucinations. The police denied the request, saying Van Zandt was being charged as an adult. The family scrambled to find a lawyer; by the time they found one and made it to the police station Van Zandt had already written a lengthy confession. The police had calmly offered Van Zandt something to eat and drink and told him to write down all the details of the arson.

From there Van Zandt was sent to Albany County Jail, not to a mental health facility. He was released on $50,000 bond, along with an agreement that he would receive psychiatric treatment and medication. Barraza said her son started doing better, first as an inpatient at an upstate psychiatric center, and later at home, thanks to medication and therapy.

Barraza, though, continued to worry. She says the Albany County District Attorney's office and the judge seemed keen on delivering her son lengthy jail time. She said Soares' office refused to talk to her and other family representatives about her son's mental illness and how he might get the best care.The family was told to either take the plea deal being offered or face trial.

Van Zandt caved and pled guilty in a deal that saw him relinquish any chance to be treated as a juvenile offender, agree to serve four to 12 years in adult prison, and pay $455,000 in restitution for the house he burned.

The Albany County District Attorney's office paints a different picture of events.

The office says Van Zandt created a fake Facebook profile to stalk one of his classmates. Then, when he found out that classmate and his family were out of the country, he packed a backpack with a jug of gasoline, a blow torch, and tools to break into the house. Once inside, they say he targeted his classmate's room, looking through personal items and searching for valuables, only finding some credit cards, and then set the house ablaze.

After, Van Zandt began ordering iPads and other electronics under a false name and having them delivered to a neighbor's house. Police were finally tipped off when Van Zandt used a fake Facebook account in an attempt to gain more personal details about his classmate's father because he needed them to use one of the stolen credit cards.

DA Soares' office says that Van Zandt's family members were adamant that he not be sent to the mental health system and that they referred to it as a "black hole." Technically, Van Zandt could have spent more time in a mental health facility than he was sentenced to in jail. Soares' office also said that the family could have presented a not-guilty plea based on mental health if they allowed the case to go to trial.

However, looking back at the case this week, Soares said he personally does not feel that a sentence to a mental health facility would have been appropriate in the case. "Someone who demonstrates the prowess to achieve what [Van Zandt] achieved is not someone demonstrating schizophrenic behavior," Soares told Gotham Gazette.

The Raise the Age NY campaign cites multiple studies that show youth are more likely to commit another crime after serving time in adult prison. In fact, one study shows that youth sentenced to adult prisons are 34 percent more likely to commit a felony offense upon release than youth sentenced to juvenile facilities.

The studies that apply to Van Zandt's case are even more striking. Youth in adult prisons are more likely to report abuse from guards and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon. They constitute the population that is most likely to face sexual assault and are 36 percent more likely to take their own lives.

Barraza said her son started doing well after being diagnosed and treated for severe depression and psychosis. During his stay at Woodbourne Correctional Facility he received counseling sessions. He was valedictorian in his GED class and he enrolled in the Bard College Prison Initiative to earn a college degree. Barraza and her husband visited most weekends.

The calm didn't last. Van Zandt's studies were interrupted when he was caught bringing a piece of bread to his cell. He was transferred to Midstate Correctional Facility and placed in a mental-health unit. He became despondent, and was later caught carrying drugs for other inmates. He was transferred yet again, winding up eventually at FishKill. There, he was put in solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates.

During his time in jail, Van Zandt was beaten, tormented, and raped by older inmates. Finally, he took his own life with a makeshift rope fashioned with bed sheets and shoelaces.

A number of legislators have balked at Raise the Age efforts on principal. "It never hurts to appear tough on crime, especially in an election year," Paige Pierce, executive director of Families Together New York, told Gotham Gazette. She and other advocates think Van Zandt's story can show legislators that the current system doesn't just punish hardened criminals, but could in fact ruin the lives of those with mental-health issues or of teens who simply make one wrong choice.

DA Soares, who has clashed publicly with Gov. Cuomo on a number of occasions said there are many aspects of what has become known as "Raise the Age" that he agrees with, including not jailing teenagers with adult prisoners. However, Soares said the issue has become oversimplified as part of a political campaign.

"There is an appearance that our criminal justice system conducts its affairs in a certain way in certain communities that impacts more children and even men and women of color," said Soares. "Those truths are things we can't get away from or solved without real discussion of criminal justice reform. It has to be more than just going out and getting a cause and giving it a hashtag and then having our politicians moving forward without thought to the collateral damage."

Soares said the that the governor and legislators need to get serious about discussing clearing criminal records so that offenders can better reenter society. "Until we are talking expungement and allow folks to apply for jobs, we are not talking about real reform," said Soares.

"It is offensive to me that our state government is prepared to spend million to lock up brown and black kids in separate facilities but they are unwilling to spend money to help them succeed," Soares said, referring to separate facilities for younger offenders. "Our state government is more willing to invest in our kids' failure than their success."

As for Van Zandt, Soares said he feels the prison system failed him and that he should not have been housed with adults. He called his death "tragic."

Barraza said she feels all that happened to her son from August 2010 to October 2014 was a result of the Albany County DA office and the sentencing judge's efforts to appear tough on crime by giving a troubled teen a stiff adult penalty.

In some sense it appears she is right. Soares told Gotham Gazette he doesn't feel, based on Van Zandt's meticulous planning, that he should have received a lighter sentence.

"This is not a young person who just walked in and set fire to a home. That is just not the fact pattern we were presented with," Soares told Gotham Gazette. "The fact pattern we do have is a young man who planned ahead, packed a backpack with gasoline and a blowtorch and then after setting fire to the home began to methodically pursue criminal benefit. There was nothing about what he did that indicated a mental health problem, other than his family's surprise."

Barraza has dedicated herself to making sure New York changes its laws so that no other teens suffer like her son and no other parents are left helplessly watching their teenage child in the bitter realities of the adult prison system. She, other activists, and legislators - including the governor - appear determined to see Raise the Age take a prominent place on the 2016 legislative agenda.

But, Barraza is also still looking for answers from her son's case. She still wants to know why the authorities decided her son needed to be sentenced as an adult.

"I would like an explanation of why our son, who was clearly mentally ill, was denied youthful offender status," Barraza told Gotham Gazette. "It was just pure punishment. As soon as he pleaded guilty he had no chance of rehabilitation."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

As Healthcare Landscape Changes, City Hospital Authority Charts New Path


Dr Ram Raju via Twitter RamRajuMD

HHC's Dr. Raju (photo: @RamRajuMD) 


New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation was thrust into the spotlight a year ago when, last October, its Bellevue Hospital treated Craig Spencer, the doctor who returned from West Africa with Ebola. But every day, HHC also serves many thousands of New Yorkers, some of them uninsured or undocumented. The quasi-public agency is one of the largest, yet perhaps least-understood parts of New York municipal government.

HHC plays a key role in providing New Yorkers health care, but it has operated on shaky financial footing and its current CEO, Dr. Ram Raju, who is appointed by the mayor, is overhauling its operations. This change comes at a critical time as insurance payment models, federal funding, and city residents’ needs are all changing.

What is HHC?
HHC is a public-benefit corporation—similar to the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority)—that runs the largest public hospital system in the United States. Consisting of 11 hospitals in four of New York City’s five boroughs, HHC treats around 1.4 million patients per year, according to its 2014 Report to the Community. HHC also administers MetroPlus, a low-cost health insurance program open to New York City residents.

As a “safety-net” hospital whose stated goal is to provide healthcare “regardless of ability to pay,” around 80 percent of HHC patients are Medicare or Medicaid recipients, or uninsured. The system also serves the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants—of which 200,000 are undocumented and uninsured, according to the New York Immigration Coalition—living in New York City.

Starting next year, HHC will also provide health services to inmates at city jails and prisons—a role Mayor Bill de Blasio assigned to the agency in June after a city investigation revealed that contractor Corizon Health Inc. hired doctors with disciplinary problems and criminal convictions.

“De facto, it serves a lot of very vulnerable patients in New York, in very high volume,” said Andrea Cohen, senior vice president for program at the United Hospital Fund, a healthcare research and advocacy nonprofit. “What it does today is provide an essential safety net.”

At a November policy breakfast hosted by Citizens Budget Commission, HHC CEO Dr. Raju explained his general healthcare philosophy and the organizing principle behind HHC services. “I would argue,” he said, “you do have a stake in the good health of the cook preparing the meal in your favorite restaurant and the good health of your nanny, and the good health of your housekeeper. My health depends on that cook’s health, upon that maid’s health, upon your health.”

HHC was formed in 1969 to take over the city’s former Department of Hospitals. According to James Colgrove, a sociomedical sciences professor at Columbia, HHC was created partly in response to a perceived cost crisis earlier in the decade. With its own - albeit mayor-appointed - board of directors, HHC has “more bureaucratic flexibility and cost controls” than regular city agencies, Colgrove said. This means that HHC is more independant—both organizationally and financially—and less affected by changes in city policies and finances than typical city agencies.

The corporation’s budget in fiscal year 2016, which began July 1, is projected to be nearly $6.5 billion—of which only $215 million, or 3 percent, will come directly from the city. But with operational independence comes financial challenges--HHC projects an operating loss of more than $750 million in 2016, growing to $1.5 billion in 2019.

Ongoing and New Challenges
According to HHC’s preliminary 2016 budget, the corporation’s past and projected deficits are due to years of New York State Medicaid cuts combined with growing patient numbers. In 2014, more than 80 percent of HHC’s revenues were been from Medicaid- or Medicare-related fees. The remainder comes from non-Medicaid or Medicare fees and a variety of federal, state, and city grants.

President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act also includes reductions in Medicare and Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) funds—a form of supplemental Medicaid given to hospitals that serve large numbers of uninsured patients. The rationale behind these cuts is that with a smaller number of Americans uninsured, hospitals will not need as much federal funding—but that doesn’t mean HHC will benefit in the short-term. The corporation received $1.8 billion in DSH money in 2014—more than 27 percent of its intake that year—while it expects to only receive $1.2 billion by 2018.

HHC’s current financial situation isn’t new or surprising. That’s partly because it’s politically difficult to reorganize or close hospitals, institutions with large union staffs and high levels of community involvement. While running for mayor, de Blasio campaigned against the planned closing of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. Former Mayor Ed Koch’s decision to close HHC’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980, as part of an attempt to close a budget deficit, sparked protests across Harlem. “Concerns over cost are as old as hospitals themselves,” Colgrove said.

Debt-rating agency Fitch affirmed its ‘A-plus’ score on HHC bonds in February, saying HHC’s role as a safety-net provider positions it “well to secure sufficient levels of funding from city, state, and federal sources necessary to continue to operate and pay debt service.”

What lies ahead for HHC?
Raju, appointed by de Blasio at the start of 2014, announced in September plans to restructure HHC’s corporate hierarchy with the goal of ultimately expanding services and growing revenues. The plan came five months after Raju outlined his vision for a financially stable HHC by 2020.

City Council members expressed concerns about HHC’s deficit during a budget hearing in May. Watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission published a report last November describing the corporation’s “troubled” financial picture.

Raju’s plan is to replace HHC’s current structure of hospitals in a network with an organization based on lines of service. The new hierarchy will reduce bureaucracy and allow ambulatory and post-acute services to grow more quickly over the coming years, Raju told Politico New York last month.

Cohen said Raju’s plan doesn’t pose immediate financial risks for HHC—but has a large upside potential should it succeed.

“[HHC] has had a deficit for a long time, but it has always found new ways to restructure,” Cohen said. “Dr. Raju’s strategy is growth, and it’s a very ambitious and positive strategy.” New payment models in healthcare, she added, “allow strategies which don’t just look at the cost side but caring for the full patient.”

Another part of Raju’s goal for 2020 is to expand HHC’s MetroPlus insurance membership to 1 million—an additional potential source of revenue. Although MetroPlus was the most popular plan on New York’s health insurance market in 2014 and more than 428,000 individuals were enrolled in 2015, that’s only a 7 percent increase compared to 2010.

“The whole system is really undergoing substantial transformation, and HHC has absolutely embraced it in a huge way, but it’s hard,” Cohen said. “There is execution risk, but they are ambitiously tackling it.”

***
by Christian Zhang, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

In Effort to Ensure Sound Education, City Battles Student Homelessness


de blasio taylor homelessness

De Blasio speaks, with DHS' Taylor foreground (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


This summer saw the city’s street homeless population become a tabloid sensation, with Mayor de Blasio seemingly forced into addressing the increase in homeless people on New York sidewalks. With shelters overflowing despite the city opening dozens of new ones, and a typical warm-weather increase in those who prefer the street to the often dangerous conditions of those shelters, the mayor announced several emergency measures and appears to be at least slightly stemming the tide.

Yet, the dawn of a new school year brings into stark relief perhaps the most tragic aspect of the city’s homelessness crisis: some 84,000 children in the public school system are homeless or in temporary housing, and many of them are struggling in school.

A new Independent Budget Office report shows a 63 percent rise in student homelessness over the four school years ending with 2013-2014, posing a major challenge for a mayor who says that “education determines a child's destiny.” While de Blasio and his commissioners open new shelters and new community schools, enroll more homeless youth in school, increase funding for eviction protection, and up outreach to families facing loss of housing, the deck continues to be stacked against homeless students.

Transient Scholars, Homeless Youth
The troubling number of 84,000 homeless students stems from a recent report on the 2013-2014 school year by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH). Written in conjunction with the city Department of Education and its Students in Temporary Housing Unit, the study outlines the regional severity of the problem in order to magnify its educational consequences.

In the worst cases, 40 percent of a school’s student body can be homeless - which here is defined as being in a shelter or doubled up with another family. For the eight most affected school districts the rate hovers between 13 and 17.6 percent. In more affluent areas the problem is largely muted, but no city school district has a homeless rate of less than two percent.

Regardless of where they live and go to school, the ICPH report makes clear that homeless children face constant barriers to academic achievement. Homeless children often struggle to maintain consistency, cannot read at grade level, and are behind their housed peers on virtually all measures of educational aptitude.

“Graduation rates, attendance, statewide assessments, grade promotion, you name it,“ Jennifer Pringle, project director at Advocates for Children of New York, told Gotham Gazette. “On any measure that you look at, kids in temporary housing underperformed not only in comparison to permanently-housed kids, but also compared to kids from low income backgrounds.”

These gaps are not by small margins either. Homeless children are three times more likely than their housed peers to be placed in special education programs, four times more likely to drop out of school, eight to nine times more likely to repeat grades - approximately one in ten are held back each year - and twice as likely to score poorly on standardized tests in math and reading.

Learning gaps between homeless and securely housed students only grow larger with age.

Much of the gap results from poor attendance. In the 2013-2014 school year, 38 percent of homeless students were chronically absent, meaning that they missed more than 20 days of school - approximately one month of school.

In a recent interview with BronxTalk, Abelardo Fernandez, co-director of South Bronx Rising Together (SBRT), a community coalition targeting disadvantaged youth, pointed out the absurdity of expecting kids to do well under such conditions. “We can‘t really talk about third grade reading or eighth grade math...unless we can make sure that kids are coming to school every single day,“ Fernandez said.

A large part of homeless absenteeism is simply that kids cannot get to school. In another ICPH study (this one focusing on the 2011-12 school year) 43 percent of homeless respondents listed transportation as a major obstacle to school attendance.

This problem should already be accounted for. The McKinney-Vento Act, the foremost piece of federal legislation concerning homeless children, is supposed to “ensure that homeless children and youth have transportation to and from their school of origin.“ Yet federal funding is limited - $1.5 million annually to New York City for the DOE's Students in Temporary Housing Unit - and across the city it is clear that this need is not being met.

While the Department of Education technically fulfills its legal obligation by giving each homeless child or parent of a young homeless child a Metrocard, the truth is that in many cases this is simply not sufficient.

“Parents of young kids are often unable to accompany their kids on public transportation,” explains Pringle, of Advocates for Children, “because they need to find a job, they need to find permanent housing.“

For the 28,000 children in the homeless shelter system, commuting to school can be especially challenging, Pringle adds, as most families entering the system are placed a significant distance from their school of origin. “Say you‘re from East New York and now you are placed in a shelter in the South Bronx...the commute is just too long.“

The result: homeless students transfer schools at a rate far beyond that of housed students: three times as often. Homelessness can lead to multiple school changes: one-fifth of homeless students transfer schools twice or three times in a year.

Continually ripped away from their communities, homeless children face nearly insurmountable educational and psychological setbacks. A report from the U.S. Department of Education estimates that each school transfer is equivalent to six lost months of school.

Social ramifications are often felt even harder by the child than academic ones. Transferring schools doesn’t just mean readjusting to new teachers and curriculum, it also means losing entire support networks - friends, coaches, mentors. The psychological weight of ongoing insecurity is crippling: 47 percent of homeless children experience intense levels of anxiety, depression, or symptoms of social withdrawal, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The educational environments into which homeless students are thrust often prove equally unhelpful. Pringle points out that “The default for so many years has been to transfer to the local school. Well guess which schools have open seats mid-year? It‘s the low-performing schools.”

A continuously incoming and outgoing population of homeless students does not help the schools themselves. Often located in high-poverty neighborhoods and already stretched thin in terms of guidance counselors and other key resources, schools struggle to adjust to the tide of perpetually behind new students. “The issue of churn,” Pringle says, “is a tremendous challenge.”

Teachers will work with students who come to them mid-year, but this slows down a classroom in which students are frequently already struggling to read or do math at grade level. Challenges are compounded: homeless students struggle because they are uprooted from their educational home and thrown into struggling schools, which are struggling because they serve high percentages of high-needs students. These schools often tend to have the highest rates of teacher turnover.

Mayor de Blasio has tried to alleviate some of the weight on the shelter system and is having some success, albeit small. His eviction-prevention programs have helped thousands of families keep their homes and through his Living in Communities (LINC) program the administration moved 1,553 families out of homeless shelters over an initial eight-month period ending in May.

Yet the shelter vacancies left by these few departures are often quickly filled: 49,000 children and their families loom just outside the shelter system, “doubled-up” in close quarters staying with sympathetic family or friends. In trouble and often just barely able to secure a place to sleep because of the children’s school needs, these families teeter on the edge of family shelter life, which is often a worse alternative to an overcrowded apartment.

“You go and you stay with some family for a while, you stay with another family for a while, and the probability of eventually ending up in a shelter is very high,” said Ralph da Costa Nunez, President and CEO of ICPH, in an interview with CUNY-TV. In an overcrowded apartment, he points out, all it takes is an argument among residents or a suspicious landlord “checking in” on his tenants, and everyone can be out on the street.

“That’s why we never see [shelter numbers] go down,” explains Nunez. “[Doubled-up families] are just waiting to come.”

With such a vast population in need of immediate assistance the question for de Blasio, his schools chancellor, and his homeless services aides is not one of how to eradicate homelessness. As Nunez puts it, “it’s not a crisis…it is a fact of life.”

Instead the mayor and his team must search for a way to give homeless students a fighting chance.

De Blasio and Fariña Efforts Thus Far
Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina is at the front lines of having to figure out how to help homeless students. The academic fate of homeless students is part of her responsibility as the leader of a school system with 1.1 million students in 1,800 schools.

This work is taking place at many of the city’s “Renewal Schools,” which have emerged as both a social and political battleground.

On one flank, de Blasio, Fariña, and their staffs are fighting dismal attendance and homelessness rates; fifty-one of the 94 Renewal Schools are located in the seven districts with the highest concentration of homeless students.

On the other, they eye Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who will formally re-evaluate de Blasio’s mayoral control of city schools again in 2016, after giving him just a one-year extension. The assessment of de Blasio as an education mayor will in large part be based on Renewal School performance.

It is a control that de Blasio is desperate to maintain. “I can tell you that none of the big changes we have made in our schools, and none of the changes we are going to make, would be possible without mayoral control,” he argued in his recent “Equity and Excellence” education speech.

Knowing that they must address student homelessness and the educational attainment of homeless students in their turnaround plans, Fariña and de Blasio have launched a slew of programs.

Among the most prominent of these efforts are the massive expansion toward universal pre-kindergarten and middle school after-school programs, and the Community Schools Initiative, which brings additional resources, including medical services, into school buildings to support children and families. Most of the renewal schools are part of the community school program.

In addition to increasing academic performance in early years, multiple studies have shown pre-K to aid children’s behavioral and social-emotional development, areas in which homeless students typically lag behind. In de Blasio’s words, early education “is the critical moment where success begins.”

After-school programs give homeless students a space away from crowded, chaotic shelter environments to do homework and participate in enrichment programs, and they supply parents with extra time to search for employment and housing.

The Community School Initiative focuses on removing many non-academic barriers to educational success (though not transportation). At P.S. 15 in the Bronx, for instance, the school has installed laundry machines to help ensure kids do not have to come to school wearing dirty clothes. It is also a way to get parents into the school building.

“Some schools might have a food pantry so hunger doesn’t distract from learning,” de Blasio said, while others, he says, have established mental and physical health services to deal with their disproportionately sick and undertreated populations. And, the city announced a public-private partnership with Warby Parker whereby students at community schools are able to access eye exams and free glasses.

When asked about the DOE’s efforts to support homeless children, Deputy Press Secretary Jason Fink cited the “additional services” provided by the community schools as critical in supporting high-needs populations. In a written statement, Fink also reiterated the importance of addressing absenteeism, a problem Fariña says is “the only thing Renewal Schools have in common.”

In his recent education address, de Blasio said, “attendance—a leading indicator of academic improvements— has gone up at 72 of the 94 schools.”

Fariña has been busy fostering a partnership with Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, DHS representative Jaslee Carayol laid out the details of the interdepartmental collaboration.

In March, Chancellor Fariña launched a pilot literacy program putting libraries in family homeless shelters across the city. So far 20 of roughly 150 shelters have received books, but the chancellor insists that this “only the beginning,” saying children without books is “something that we as a city should not let go by.”

In June, Fariña and Taylor continued their efforts, launching a joint task force to target and deliver aid to students and their families at risk of going into shelters. (Just this past month, de Blasio followed suit announcing the creation of a Public Engagement Unit that will have roughly the same task.)

And in August, the two departments—along with NYS-TEACHS—held “2015 Back to School Education Summit,” a conference aimed at facilitating a higher level of correspondence and knowledge between DHS shelter providers and the DOE staff assigned to work in shelters.

All these efforts are encouraging to homeless advocates. “They‘re listening,“ Nunez replied when asked what the de Blasio administration is doing differently from its predecessor.

Still, there are major obstacles to stopping more young people from becoming homeless and to ensuring that homeless students are able to learn.

De Blasio is frustrated by skyrocketing housing costs and persistent homelessness rates. He’s stymied by a lack of state and federal aid and though he has an ambitious affordable housing plan, it is just getting rolled out.

“The market dynamics here are forcing people out faster than all of our tools can compensate,” the mayor said in a recent interview with the Daily News editorial board.

Housing, Shelters, and Collaboration: Plans Moving Forward
If there is some hope in the student homelessness crisis, it is that the population is disproportionately young. “A little more than half of all children in the shelter system are under six…That’s your opportunity!” says Nunez, of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

The heavy proportion of young students applies to the public school system as well: 43 percent of unhoused students are in third grade or below. If the city is able to implement worthwhile changes and move quickly enough, its actions could have an especially potent effect.

Four general points of improvement emerge as goals:

Increased Affordable Housing
Nothing new here. Homelessness will not decrease if there are not enough affordable homes.

Student homelessness, the affordability crisis, and their effects on student learning are so staggering Chancellor Fariña suggested using public high schools as student dormitories back in 2013. "We need to turn some of our large high schools into dormitory schools," she said at a conference, before she was named chancellor by de Blasio.

Highly unlikely, a much more plausible solution would be to ensure the development of low-cost residencies, which is at the heart of de Blasio’s housing plan. Some, though, point out that even “affordable” units are too expensive for many New Yorkers living in poverty, some of whom work full-time.

Although the mayor has pledged to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years, the problem, as Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale put it in a recent Gotham Gazette column, is that almost none of them will be affordable to homeless people.

One key to housing, though, that many point to is simply a continued boom in residential building, as more units on the market may let some air out of the supply-demand problem leading to ballooning prices. This is part of de Blasio’s push to rezone a variety of neighborhoods across the city to allow for greater density. Part of the rezonings will be a commitment from developers for “affordable” units. The question will continue to be if they are affordable enough for the types of families facing homelessness.

Still, Alyssa Aguilera, political director of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots community organization, wrote recently, also at this publication, that Mayor de Blasio must simply “demand more dedicated housing for the homeless from developers reaping massive profits through tax subsidies and land deals.” She, like many others, also sees Governor Cuomo as having an essential role, calling on him to fully fund tens of thousands of units of supportive housing, under a NY/NY IV agreement.

Shelters as Community Resource Centers
Dr. Ralph da Costa Nunez sees better shelters, not more affordable housing as the most effective route to properly supporting homeless children.

He advocates for the idea that shelters need to be turned into community resource centers with a residential component.

“We still, after thirty years, see shelters as temporary emergency facilities,” he says. When families are staying longer than ever in homeless shelters, this no longer makes sense, he argues. “How can we get ahead of the curve?” Nunez asks, “Change the nature of what a shelter is. Stop opening shelters in communities that people hate.”

“Why aren’t we building, instead, ‘community residential resource centers’ that have a residential component for the homeless family, but also have a community piece,” Nunez continues. “You have the daycare here for not only the homeless families, but the community; the after-school programs for not only the homeless families, but the community; the employment program for the homeless families and the community. Now you have a community resource. Now you have something that people welcome.”

Better DOE-DHS Coordination
Even though the Department of Education and the Department of Homeless Services have teamed up several times recently, there’s room for the two departments to be more coordinated.

For one, the two departments count homeless people in different ways. While DOE includes doubled-up families and unsheltered people in their tally, says Nunez, DHS only counts the people registered within its shelter system.

The figure of 84,000 students without stable housing is not one that DHS recognizes, instead it puts forth the number of children sleeping in homeless shelters, which is around 28,000.

Jennifer Pringle, of Advocates for Children of New York, says that DHS should also consider other data points, while also improving shelter placement. She says that if the city wants to stabilize its homeless students, “One thing I would love to see is making sure that the DOE was integrated into the shelter intake process.”

This would involve several things, including “a much more deliberate attempt to place families in shelters located close to the communities of origin.” If there are not any local shelter spots—which is often the case—Pringle suggests flagging families with children as first for any spots that do open up.

She also suggests that families in cluster units—apartments in regular rental buildings used by DHS to house families—receive more direct educational counseling services. While a Students in Temporary Housing liaison from the DOE is stationed in every shelter, these liaisons are often difficult to access for families put in cluster housing.

Community Collaboration
“Homelessness is a structural problem,” de Blasio said when talking with the Daily News editorial board.

Elizabeth Clay Roy and Abelardo Fernandez, co-directors of South Bronx Rising Together--a coalition of government, business, and community leaders--have this concept as central to their approach.

“We are really focused on making sure this is a cross-sector initiative,” Ms. Clay Roy told Gotham Gazette of the community-based work the organization is doing in some of the most impoverished territory in the country.

In an attempt at systemic change, SBRT employs a method known as “Collective Impact...in which local institutions, community-based organizations, higher education, business, philanthropy, the government, and the public join together around a common vision and hold themselves accountable for achieving shared outcomes.” In Clay Roy’s and Fernandez’s case this means addressing the civic and social challenges of Bronx Community District 3.

SBRT’s Leadership Council is a key example of the Collective Impact design. Including professors from surrounding colleges, representatives from the DOE, NYCHA, Jobsfirst NYC; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.; the city’s Community Schools Director Chris Caruso; and a host of nonprofit leaders, the panel of experts works to provide “strategic direction”  to come up with solutions for the issues SBRT cares about most: child health, early education enrollment, success in school, positive community engagement, graduation rates from high school and college, and post-collegiate employment.

The ideas that come from this body, Clay Roy explained to Gotham Gazette, are then implemented through partnering community organizations and businesses. To help with their recently announced school attendance initiative, for instance, SBRT has enlisted Kinvolved, a tech company that works to increase communication between family and schools.

The SBRT dream is for its collaborative network to develop the community’s young residents into powerful, educated community leaders.

Yet as part of the poorest Congressional district in the nation--63.1 percent of children in SBRT’s target area are born into poverty--South Bronx Rising Together faces steep challenges.

One demographic central in this challenge is homeless students. Spanning school districts eight, nine, and twelve--respectively ranked tenth, first, and second in concentration of homeless students--the 1.6-square-mile area SBRT covers includes seven of the city’s 94 Renewal Schools.

If SBRT can help break through in Community District 3, the model is likely to be successful elsewhere.

Although the coalition has yet to release any concrete results, its “Collective Impact” strategy does have a history of success. The national organization StriveTogether has implemented the model to favorable results in multiple locations across the country. One of these places happens to be Cincinnati, the city whose “community learning centers” inspired Mayor de Blasio’s Community School Initiative.

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by Colin O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette 

Spurred by Buffalo Billion, Reformers Look to Fix State Business Subsidies


Cuomo Buffalo thank you

Cuomo in Buffalo (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


United States Attorney Preet Bharara's attention has been drawn away from his normal stomping grounds to Buffalo, intrigued by what critics say is a shadowy network of state authorities and state-controlled non-profits handing out large business subsidies and contracts with little to no oversight.

Watchdogs say that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, through SUNY Polytechnic head Alain Kaloyeros, is essentially rewarding campaign donors with major contracts while using state cash to win political favor in economically-depressed areas. That sense has been exacerbated by a forceful push back against transparency by both the Cuomo administration and Kaloyeros.

Last legislative session the renewal of the 421-A tax break for real estate developers was the center of debate over business subsidies thanks to Bharara's indictments of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both face corruption charges stemming from their involvement with a major donor who sought renewal of the tax break.

But Bharara's interest in Buffalo Billion has shifted the gaze of some reformers and legislators to discretionary subsidies that are controlled by the Governor. At the heart of the U.S. Attorney's investigation appears to be requests for proposals written in a way to ensure one company, led by a major donor to the governor, would win the lucrative contract at stake.

"We believe many of these programs are out of control," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been focused on these subsidies. Kaehny said the programs have been "generally wasteful and driven more by pay-to-play or interest in providing local pork than derived from sound public policy."

Kaehny, a number of other reformers, and a small group of legislators want to pull back the curtain on these deals and create a system of true accountability that would show how contracts are awarded, how many jobs the contracts create, and how much state money is spent per job. Kaehny isn't exactly holding his breath, though, because he believes the current system was designed specifically to obfuscate and confuse.

"We do not see any reasonable motivation for the convoluted governance structure created by the governor other than to avoid oversight," Kaehny told Gotham Gazette. Kaehny said Cuomo has "created a legal fiction" involving SUNY Research Foundation and the Fort Schuyler Management Corporation, which sign contracts "on behalf of" state agencies like SUNY Poly. The state funnels money for a number of programs from Empire State Development Corporation, a state-run authority that has virtually no legislative or public oversight.

"Funding also comes from theoretically independent state authorities like NYSERDA and the Power Authority, which are told by the governor to provide money, power and land to SUNY Poly, which then gives resources away to select businesses," said Kaehny. "We believe this complexity is a deliberate effort to avoid transparency and accountability by the governor."

Some lawmakers are in the early stages of exploring legislative changes to how the state approves business subsidies. A few of them have been motivated by an Investigative Post report that the Cuomo administration dropped requirements to hire workers of color in one Buffalo Billion contract from 25 to 15 percent.

Others have been troubled by Cuomo's efforts to entice General Electric (GE) to move its headquarters back to the state. So far Cuomo has refused to detail what kind of incentives he has offered the company. Some legislators are concerned the company has yet to make good on its pledge to clean up the PCBs it poured into the Hudson River years ago and that its headquarters would have no economic benefit for the state.

"We have a real problem in New York with learning from history," said Ron Deutsch of the Fiscal Policy Institute. He said that New York has given businesses like GE, IBM, and Globalfoundries major incentives only to see them cut jobs, or move overseas. "We do nothing to hold anyone accountable" in the end, he said.

Cuomo has made it clear in conversations with the press that he sees no reason to scrutinize the Buffalo Billion program. Asked if he thought any procedures needed to be changed because of the investigation, Cuomo responded: "Do you know if there was any problem? No. If you knew there was a problem, then you would fix the problem. But we don't know any problem."

Good Jobs First, a national policy group that tracks business subsidies, actually rated New York 8th out of all 50 states on transparency for subsidy disclosures in a report released in January of last year.

Another study by the group found that New York spends more on "megadeals" than any other state. Megadeals are defined as subsidy agreements with businesses that cost $75 million or more. The 2013 report by Good Jobs First found that New York had spent $11.4 billion on such deals from 1984 to 2013.

When asked where New York's subsidy programs rank overall compared to other states, Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, replied, "Pick your metric."

SUNY Poly issued the following statement:

"In fact, neither SUNY Poly nor its affiliates have ever been in a position to unilaterally approve a single Buffalo project, including Buffalo project contracts or expenditures. The New York State system simply does not allow it. There are checks and balances at every step, layers of state oversight, internal and external audits, public hearings, public board meetings, and public votes."

So what can be done to prevent both the appearance and the reality of conflicts of interest; restore transparency and confidence in the system; and make sure someone is accountable for the way billions of dollars of taxpayer money is spent? Reformers have some suggestions.

One simple reform would be to ban businesses that win subsidies from donating large amounts to elected officials. The state need only look to New York City to see an effective model. In 2007, then City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached a campaign financing deal that drastically reduced the amount any government contractor or group with business before the city can give to any campaign.

"Even the appearance of conflict of interest is a problem," said Deutsch, of the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Another piece of the puzzle could be eliminating the LLC loophole so that businesses cannot create multiple fronts to pour cash into the campaign coffers of state electeds.

To enhance transparency, advocates say the convoluted route by which money goes from the state to businesses needs to be simplified.

Kaehny said he wants to see the Empire State Development Corporation become a one-stop shop for business subsidies. Preventing state-controlled non-profits from distributing state funds would theoretically increase transparency by streamlining the decision-making process.

Both the Comptroller and Attorney General do have some oversight capabilities, but the Comptroller had some authority stripped away in 2011 by a bill that limited the office's ability to audit SUNY and CUNY as well as its hospitals and construction funds. Fort Schuyler and SUNY Poly have led the distribution of Buffalo Billion funds.

DiNapoli noted the situation during a recent appearance on WCNY's Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter. "Our authority in some of these areas was curtailed a few years ago," DiNapoli said. "We complained about that at the time."

Kaehny said he wants to see the Comptroller and the Attorney General push publically on the issue of transparency. It isn't totally obvious how hard the Comptroller has been pushing for this information or not. If we had a right-wing Republican in the office I'm fairly sure we would see someone pushing relentlessly and using their bully pulpit when they weren't given the answers," Kaehny said, referring to the fact that all of the statewide offices are controlled by Democrats.

"The Comptroller could speak up clearly and directly and say: 'Here is what we don't know. Here are the dark spots. Here is where we see these structures created to defeat transparency,'" Kaehny said.

Still, many calling for change would like the Comptroller's office to have complete oversight over all subsidy deals.

One final, and perhaps farfetched possibility would be creating a State Independent Budget Office in the model of New York City's that would actually weigh the risks and possible rewards of highly nuanced tech and other business deals so that legislators and the public would understand where state money may be going. Deutsch said that someone needs to start asking a basic question: "How much is a job worth?"

The Cuomo administration has repeatedly stated that the Buffalo Billion will create 14,000 reliable jobs and attract $8 billion in investment as a result of the roughly $1 billion state expenditure.

It seems unlikely any of the reforms being discussed to the subsidy process will pick up steam in an election year, especially as Albany waits to see if Bharara's investigation leads to criminal charges.

"There are simple solutions," said Kaehny, "but they are very hard to get done because there is no will."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Note: this article has been updated with a clarification from John Kaehny that Reinvent Albany beieves "many," not "most," of the subsidy programs are "out of control"



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