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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." 

***
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.

***
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"

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 19


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio was in Israel over the weekend, where he spoke at the Annual Conference of Mayors, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visited recent terror attack victims, and made several other stops, including at the Western Wall and at a school educating a diverse student population. De Blasio spoke against a new wave of anti-Semitism and called for a "broken-windows" approach to combatting hate.

De Blasio is flying back to New York Sunday evening, he has no public events scheduled Monday.

Coming up this week, the 'new' Bill de Blasio will continue to show, with the mayor set to hold a joint press event with his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, on Wednesday. De Blasio and Bloomberg have appeared together several times since de Blasio came into office, but have not held a joint event, as they will for the planting of the millionth tree in the "Million Trees NYC" program launched by Bloomberg in 2007.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read 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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
On Monday, starting at 8:30 a.m., the City Council Progressive Caucus and allies are holding a conference to discuss progressive public policies and legislative priorities aimed at inequality and improving communities. Keynote will be given by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with panel discussions on defending workers' rights, expanding and modernizing democracy, moving toward a greener city, and community safety and empowerment.

Afterward, at noon outside of SEIU 32BJ headquarters, Progressive Caucus Members and allies will “rally on their legislative priorities aimed at offering genuine opportunity to all New Yorkers, especially those who have been left out of our society’s prosperity.” Caucus Co-Chairs Donovan Richards and Antonio Reynoso, Vice-Chairs Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos, and other caucus members will be joined by “event sponsors Local Progress and Working Families Organization and advocates from SEIU 32BJ, VOCAL NY, Communities united for Police Reform, Bag It NYC, Streetwise and Safe and BRT for NYC.”

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, Black Live Matter / Fight for $15: A New Social Movement, a discussion on the convergence of the two movements and the chances of them sowing the seeds “for a broader social and economic justice movement” - featuring Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter and Domestic Workers Alliance; Jelani Cobb, Journalist & Professor at UConn; Hillman Judge; and Kendall Fells, SEIU / Fight For $15.  

On Monday morning’s The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will appear in one segment, discussing several topics, and Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris will appear in another to discuss his bail elimination proposal.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Immigration will hold a joint oversight meeting with the Committee on Courts and Legal Services to evaluate Attorney Compliances with Padilla vs. Kentucky and court obstacles for immigrants in Criminal and Summons Courts.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Civil Rights will meet to hear several new bills related to protecting against discrimination; clarifying that any “person providing goods, services or accommodations” as stated in the Human Rights Law also includes government bodies; forbid any accommodation provider from discriminating based on income source; and make it unlawful for anyone who provides housing to refuse it to a person based the perception that the person is a victim of domestic abuse or violence. 

On Monday at 1:30 p.m. in Niagra Falls, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman "will discuss steps his office is taking with local officials to combat the use of designer drugs."

At 5:30 p.m., New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, together with the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the Council will host a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration.

Also at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Borough Board meeting to hear details from the Department of City Planning (DCP) on the “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” and “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing” proposed zoning text amendments.

At 6:30 p.m.,  Sanctuary for Families’ 13th Annual Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards & Benefit will be honoring Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, Senior Advisor on Gender Equity and former Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, and others.

On Monday evening, Speaker Mark-Viverito will attend "the Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Services Gala."

Monday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • Mark Treyger (District 47, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.
  • Steve Levin (District 33, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday
On Tuesday at 9 a.m., on the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano School of International Affairs will hold a panel titled Hurricane Sandy +3: Building Resilient Neighborhoods. Conversation will focus on the state of the post-storm infrastructure in the areas where the storm hit hardest. The panel will include Daniel A. Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency; Joel Towers, executive dean, Parsons School of Design at the New School; Klaus Jacob, special research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Onleilove Alston, executive director of Faith in New York; Hugh Hogan, executive director of the North Star Fund;Shermane Margaret Stewart-Lester, lay leader at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Far Rockaway.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Borough Cabinet Meeting.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m. the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to discuss land use applications.
  • At 1 p.m. the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to discuss land use applications.

At the New York State Assembly on Tuesday: at 10 a.m. the Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities will convene for a public hearing on “The Adequacy of Supports and Services for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.”

On Tuesday, Public Advocate Letitia James chairs COPIC Commission meeting at Borough of Manhattan Community College (stream: http://livestream.com/BMCCMedia/events/4439178) at 10 a.m. Then, at 11:15, she is a panelist at "NASP's "The State of WMBE's Doing Business in NYS: From the Legislative Perspective" and at 6 p.m. she hosts "Staten Island Clergy Council Education Forum."

At 11:15 a.m. Monday near Stuyvesant Town, Mayor de Blasio and "local elected officials and tenant leaders from Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village will hold a media availability" about the imminent sale of the property.

On Tuesday at 1:15 p.m. from the 25th Police Precinct at 120 East 119th Street, "Mayor de Blasio – alongside Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton – will sign Intro. 917-A, criminalizing the manufacture, possession with intent to sell, and sale of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic phenethylamines; Intro. 897, allowing the City to apply public nuisance regulations to violations of the new criminal provision barring the sale of K2; and Intro. 885-A, allowing the city to revoke, suspend or refuse to renew a cigarette dealer license due to the sale of synthetic drugs or imitation synthetic drugs...After, the Mayor will appear live on Power 105.1 with Angie Martinez to discuss the K-2 legislation."

At 4 p.m. Mark-Viverito will host a press conference "to celebrate $1.2 Million in funding for STARS Afterschool Initiative with Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland at P.S. 50 on 100th Street in Manhattan. Then, at 8 p.m., Mark-Viverito will host "#SheWillBe Twitter Party to Discuss the City Council's First In The Nation Young Women's Initiative...Join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #SheWillBe."

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday Community Voices Heard will hold a rally titled “March on the Mayor: Stop Privatization, Start Funding NYCHA.” The demonstration will demand a stop to increasing privatization and an increase in funding for the New York City Housing Authority by $2 billion starting this year.

At 6 p.m. the Brooklyn Historical Society will host Life After Surveillance in Bay Ridge’s Muslim Community, a discussion about the post-9/11 surveillance in Bay Ridge and how this surveillance sowed seeds of distrust in the neighbourhood. Panelists include moderator Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of City Limits; Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York; Moustafa Bayoumi; award-winning writer, and Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York; and Dr. Ahmad Jaber, an OB/GYN at the Lutheran Medical Center in Bay Ridge and a Muslim religious educator.

Tuesday "evening, the Mayor and First Lady Chirlane McCray will host the Gracie Gala Dinner," according to de Blasio's public schedule. The Gracie Mansion Conservancy will hold an invitation only fundraiser to celebrate the grand re-opening of Gracie Mansion after recent repairs. The fundraiser will feature the mansion’s new art installation, Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York, curated with help of the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Governor Cuomo will attend "the Nassau County Democratic Committee Annual Fall Dinner."

Tuesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • Jimmy Van Bramer (District 26, Queens) 6 p.m.
  • Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens) 7 p.m.

Wednesday
On Wednesday in the Bronx: Mayor de Blasio and his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will meet to plant the millionth tree in the Million Trees NYC program, a Bloomberg initiative begun in 2007.

On Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. Comptroller Scott Stringer will hold a “Queens Hearing for Business Owners and Entrepreneurs.” The event is the next installment of the Comptroller’s “Red Tape Commision Hearings” dedicated to listening to ideas and suggestion that would make it easier for entrepreneurs and business owners to grow their businesses, while partnering with the government. The event will bring together Borough President Melinda Katz; Queens Chamber of Commerce; Queens Economic Development Corporation; the Queens Tribune; and co-chairs of the Red Tape Commission Jessica Lappin and Michael Lambert.

Also at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly will headline a Fordham University event “Governance in New York City: The Bloomberg Years.”

At the New York State Legislature on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection and the Committee on Aging and the Subcommittee on Consumer Fraud Protection will hold a joint public hearing on “State resource funding to protect consumers, including seniors, from frauds and scams.”
  • At 11 a.m. the Senate Task Force on Workforce Development will convene for a public meeting “To examine initiatives and determine best practices for job skill training and re-training programs, and provide recommendations to foster workforce development in New York State.”
  • At 12:30 p.m. the Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities will hold a public hearing regarding the “Transition of Behavioral Health Supports and Services into Managed Care.”

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Harry Siegel of The New York Daily News and Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute will try to answer the question, “Is The NYPD Doing Its Job?” The discussion will be moderated by social critic Kay S. Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, and will explore the new tracking system aimed at reducing police brutality and assess Commissioner Bratton’s effort to implement the program.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, City Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez and Mark Levine will host the event "Jewish Poverty in New York City" along with a group of civic organizations including YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, the Russian-speaking Community Council of Manhattan and the Bronx, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Fort Tyron Jewish Center, the Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood, the Hebrew Tabernacle, and The Workmen’s Circle.

Also at 6:30 p.m., City & State NY will be host its 2015 New York City Rising Stars: 40 Under 40 celebration. The list features stars in government, advocacy, labor, and consulting.

At 7 p.m. the Department of Education, the School Construction Authority, elected officials, and parents will meet for “Let’s Talk About Overcrowding.” The event will focus on the issue of overcrowding in public schools in Cobble Hill and Caroll Gardens, in addition to addressing several other school-related issues. State Senator Daniel Squadron, State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, City Councilmember Brad Lander, City Councilmember Steve Levin, and others will participate.

At 3:30 Wednesday in Manhattan, Families for Excellent Schools is planning to hold another rally to support charter schools, this time featuring charter school teachers, about 1,000 of whom are expected to rally.

Wednesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event is via CM Mark Levine (District 7, Manhattan) 6 p.m.

Thursday
At 8 a.m. Thursday, The Sixth Annual MAS Summit for New York City will commence. The Municipal Art Society summit will run through Friday evening and include two days of networking opportunities and one hundred speakers. Notable presenters include: Commissioner Vicki Been, of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development; Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs; Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development; New York State Senator Chuck Schumer; Purnima Kapur, Executive Director for the Department of City Planning; and many more to speak about “The City We Want.”

Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Land Use Hearing.

At the City Council Thursday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Finance will meet to discuss the extension of credit against the unincorporated business tax and the general corporation tax.
  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Transportation will meet to hear several bills related to the TLC and commuter vans..
  • At 11 a.m. the Committee on Land Use will meet, with agenda TBA.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services will hold a hearing on new accessibility-related bills.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will meet for oversight on coastal storm resiliency in the city two year after the SIRR report.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Economic Development will meet on bills that would require the NYCEDC to submit annual job creation reports to community planning boards; require SBS to collect data on gender and racial diversity among “executive level employees” in city contractor companies.

At the New York State Assembly Thursday, a “Budget oversight hearing for the Assembly Standing Committees on Local Governments and Cities.”

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Public Agenda will hold “Restoring Opportunity: The Role of Education,” an event to discuss how the education policies of both New York State and the entire nation need to change in order for the country to truly offer the opportunities promised by the American Dream. Brian Lehrer, from WNYC, will moderate the discussion, interviewing Andie Puriefoy, the former president of the Public Education Network and Alison Kadlec, an expert of higher education reform.

At 7 p.m. BRIC will host the panel discussion “Breaking Down the Walls: #BHeard on Immigration, a Community Town Hall.” The talk will be moderated by Brian Vines and feature City Council Member Carlos Menchaca; Linda Sarsour, Arab American Association; Adrian Carasquillo, immigration reporter for Buzzfeed news; Alina Das, NYU professor; and Shena Elrington, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Popular Democracy.

At their annual fall dinner Thursday, Empire State Pride Agenda will award Governor Cuomo with the 25th anniversary Silver Torch Award for “his extraordinary efforts to make marriage equality a reality in New York — paving the way for the freedom to marry nationwide” and “his more recent commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic in New York.” Along with Cuomo, other speakers will be Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; City Public Advocate Letitia James; Pride Agenda Board Co-Chairs Norman C. Simon and Melissa Sklarz; and Pride Agenda Executive Director Nathan Schaefer.

Citizens Union, the good government group, will hold its 2015 Annual Awards Dinner Thursday evening. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will give featured remarks. Citizens Union honorees include Mylan L. Denerstein (Public Service Award), Adam Flatto (Business Leadership Award), Haeda B. Mihaltses (Public Service Award), and Stephen P. Younger (Civic Leadership Award).

Beginning Thursday evening and continuing through Friday, the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute will host “Youth, Jobs and Future: Responses to Youth Unemployment.”

Thursday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Helen Rosenthal (District 6, Manhattan) 6 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday: at 10 a.m. the Committee on Higher Education will convene for oversight on college testing access.

"The next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board will be held on Friday, October 23 at 10:00 AM."

At the New York State Assembly on Friday: at 10:30 a.m. the Assembly Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions and the Assembly Standing Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry will hold a joint public hearing on “Providing Affordable and High Quality Cable, Broadband, and Telephone Service.”

Friday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event is via CM Carlos Menchaca (District 38, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.

Saturday at 10:30 a.m., New Yorkers Against Gun Violence will hold Walk Over the Hudson for Gun Sense, a march in response to recent bursts of gun violence across the US. The event invites citizens to show their “commitment to background checks, safe storage, and other common sense gun safety laws.”

At noon Saturday, BetaNYC will hold an event to improve CityGram.NYC, a website which allows New York City residents to subscribe to open government data based on their geographic location and areas of interest.

Saturday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event is via CM Carlos Menchaca (District 38, Brooklyn), 2 p.m.

On Sunday, the de Blasio family will open their doors to the public at a Gracie Mansion Open House. A ticket giveaway will take place on the event website. In celebration of the Mansion’s 35th anniversary, the open house will feature 49 new works as part of the “Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York” show.

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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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (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 12-16


week in review bus readers

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


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday October 16

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Mayor de Blasio and former Mayor David Dinkins at the ceremony naming The David N. Dinkins Municipal Building, via The Mayor's Office; Hillary Clinton and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a protest rally in Las Vegas before the Democratic presidential debate, via Pedro Julio Serrano

BdB Dinkins via mayors office

HRC MMV

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. MTA Funding Deal: This past Saturday, after months of debate, city and state officials reached a deal over funding for the MTA’s capital plan. New York City will pay an additional $2.5 billion, while the state will contribute $8.3 billion to meet what was the outstanding need of the $26 billion plan to expand and repair the MTA system over the next five years. As part of the deal, the state cannot divert funds from the capital plan, as the state has repeatedly removed money from the MTA budget in the past. Questions remain, however, over how the state and the city plan to pay for their shares - Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said his conference won’t support new taxes to pay for the commitment and questioned new borrowing. De Blasio’s team is expected to outline its plans as part of a reworked capital budget in 2016.

2. De Blasio’s First Town Hall: Mayor de Blasio held the first town hall of his mayoralty in Washington Heights on Wednesday evening. The mayor took questions from a crowd of about 250 during the two-hour town hall with a focus on rent security and tenant protection. The town hall seems to be part of a shifting strategy for public interaction that began in late August, when Mayor de Blasio began making more appearances on TV and radio shows, as well as more formal in-person outreach to New Yorkers.

3. Cuomo Team Returns to Puerto Rico: A delegation of New York State officials led by Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul returned to Puerto Rico this week in an attempt to help the territory deal with its debt and health care crises. The delegation included Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, Medicaid Director Jason Helgerson, and Assemblymembers Marco Crespo and Richard Gottfried. Cuomo led the first delegation to Puerto Rico about a month ago.

4. De Blasio to Israel: The mayor headed to Israel late Thursday to deliver a keynote address at the annual Conference of Mayors, where he will speak on the topic “Anti-Semitism in the West: How Cities Must Lead.” During the three-day trip, Mayor de Blasio will meet with Palestinians at a bilingual school in Jerusalem, a break from his predecessors, who only met with Israelis while visiting Israel in the past - though mayor won’t be meeting with official representatives of the Palestinian government. Questions remain around the private funding of de Blasio’s trip.

5. Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force: Governor Cuomo's "Common Core Task Force" met for the first time Friday. The panel, made up of 15 educators, lawmakers, and business leaders, could suggest overhauling the Common Core standards in New York. Governor Cuomo announced a ‘total reboot’ of Common Core was necessary after roughly 20 percent of state students opted not to take standardized tests aligned with the tougher standards. On a related note, earlier in the week, the State Assembly education committee held a meeting on the state's most struggling schools. After Friday's meeting the Common Core Task Force announced plans for at least a dozen public forums and that it had appointed its first "student ambassador." [From September 29 when the task force had just been announced: Absent from Cuomo's New Education Task Force: A Student]

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • $1.67 million in unclaimed funds have been returned to the city after Public Advocate Letitia James led a push for the city to recover money from New York’s unclaimed funds registry, which found that the city had more than 2,000 accounts with unclaimed funds.
  • $174,000is outgoing Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson’s new judicial salary, which he intends to collect in addition to his pension, which is estimated could be as much as $142,000 per year, according to The New York Post.
  • 41 months in federal prison for former Rikers correction officer Austin Romain for accepting over $11,000 in bribes as part of a scheme to distribute marijuana to Rikers inmates.
  • 3 states, 8 people, and over $100,000 in illegal weapons were involved in a gun-running ring busted by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. 112 guns were sold to an undercover police officer during the year-long investigation into the gun-smuggling ring.
  • 11-year difference between the life expectancy of residents of Brooklyn’s impoverished Brownsville neighborhood and the residents of Manhattan’s more affluent financial district.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who this week had the Manhattan Municipal Building renamed in his honor.
  • It was a bad week for Wendell Walters, former assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for accepting $2.5 million in bribes.

THE FLASH:

  • Around this time 103 years ago, on October 14, 1912, then-presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a Manhattan man while campaigning in Milwaukee. He went on with a scheduled speech despite his wound.
  • Around this time three years ago, on October 16, 2012, the FBI arrested Mohammed Nafis for plotting to detonate a 1,000 pound car bomb in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  • Around this time last year, on October 14, 2014, Mayor de Blasio kicked off two Hurricane Sandy-related employment programs in Queens as a means to better connect residents with jobs and training programs in the storm-ravaged Rockaways.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

The Mayor's Media Blitz, by Ben Max

Reform Proposals Fly as Panel Evaluates Ethics Watchdog, by Samar Khurshid

Measuring the Mayor’s Education Agenda, by Kaela Sanborn-Hum

Albany Transparency and the MTA Funding Deal: Show Us Our Money, by John Kaehny (opinion)

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

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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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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

Note: this article has been updated

The Mayor's Media Blitz


de blasio media parade col day

The mayor & the media (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Have you heard Mayor de Blasio's voice lately? He's been trying harder to ensure you have, sharply increasing the frequency with which he makes extended appearances on television and radio, and holding events to interact directly with New Yorkers.

Instead of New Yorkers only hearing and seeing quick clips of the mayor on networks covering his press conferences, de Blasio has pursued greater control over his message, making many more broadcast appearances. The push is indicative of a mayor seeking to correct a public perception problem, lift slumping poll numbers, reconnect with his base, and woo more allies.

In September, for example, the mayor averaged about one TV or radio interview per day. In July and August, the mayor averaged just one TV or radio interview per week. Going back to June, it was about two per week - more frequent than during the typically slower summer months that included a family vacation, but less often than recently.

The uptick began in late August after worrisome public opinion polls and de Blasio criticizing media coverage of his administration. The trend then took hold in September as the mayor seized on Pope Francis' visit to New York and the start of a new school year.

The effort to be on the airwaves more is "clearly part of a concerted effort," says Democratic political strategist Alexis Grenell. "It allows him to connect with the electorate, which is good for him and good for the public. Arguably, he should be doing more."

Not coincidentally, the mayor's media blitz has also coincided with an increase in planned in-person interactions with the public: de Blasio did pre-K canvassing, spoke about his housing plans at a church, and held a parents' night at a school, all in Brooklyn; he hosted his first town hall meeting, also focused on housing, on Wednesday evening in Washington Heights.

"It's about time," said Dr. Christina Greer, a Fordham political science professor. Greer thinks that although a bit late into his term, it was smart for de Blasio to do the initial town hall and that it is key for him to be on the airwaves more. "He needs to control the narrative, and you need to give yourself the opportunities to do so. If you don't leave City Hall, the media can craft the narrative more. If you get on the airwaves, you can deliver the message...if you go to the people, they hear it directly from you," Greer says.

With information provided by the mayor's office and gleaned from press advisories, Gotham Gazette counted 13 appearances by de Blasio on radio and TV over 79 days from June 1 through August 18. In the following 55 days, de Blasio made 36 such appearances, beginning with a 40-minute interview on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on August 19.

Asked about the sizeable increase in broadcast interviews, Karen Hinton, the mayor's press secretary, emailed Gotham Gazette to say, "Whether it's walking through a neighborhood - something the Mayor often does spontaneously - or taking questions from the public during a radio show or a Town Hall, Mayor de Blasio is always looking for new ways to communicate with New Yorkers so he can learn more about their problems and find solutions."

Even frequent de Blasio critics see progress. Republican political strategist Jessica Proud told Gotham Gazette that she sees a different, and welcome, approach by the mayor and that she suspects Hinton has been a key force behind it. Proud, who helped run the campaign of de Blasio's general election opponent, Joe Lhota, said the mayor still has a long way to go, but it is positive for all involved if he is on the airwaves more and doing town halls.

"I see a little bit of progress, yes, but he will need a more aggressive pace if he wants to dispel that rap on him," Proud said of the impression that the mayor has been in his own progressive bubble. She said that the mayor and his team have been too siloed, and even as they branch out, they must continue to do more appearances in places like Staten Island, and that the mayor should appear on a broader diversity of radio and TV programs.

"Going on The Brian Lehrer Show, that's right in line with his base and his audience," Proud said, referring to the popular political talk show that appears to be de Blasio's favorite on-air venue. "The media and the public would relish the chance to have more in-depth conversations with him" on a wide variety of topics, she said.

Evan Siegfried, also a Republican strategist, says that more on-air hits are a good thing for any politician, but that de Blasio needs more accomplishments to boast, which comes down to his policies.

Polls show that the mayor must improve voters' perception of him and the direction of the city under his leadership. It's not clear whether New Yorkers are worried about de Blasio's openness to ideas that don't fit his typical focus on inequality and progressivism as he defines it. Proud argued, though, that "there are a lot of city opinion leaders, civic leaders that do matter - their perception of you has a ripple effect."

Grenell, Greer, and Proud all agree that more public exposure is smart for de Blasio in particular because he's actually good at delivering his message. "Some people aren't their own best messengers and need other people to articulate their vision," Greer says, "but [de Blasio] is not that person, he's actually the best person to explain his ideas, he's very good at it."

Grenell thinks similarly: "When you listen to the mayor on the radio, he excels, it is only good for him."

In short, being on the airwaves more, holding more public events to interact with New Yorkers is both good government and good politics.

Still, within de Blasio's media hits lies an ongoing problem for the mayor: his presence on the national stage and the perception that he is not as focused on city governance as he should be.

A handful of the mayor's recent TV appearances have been on national programs, like ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, but that has been a trend for the mayor. The real increase in de Blasio's media presence has been on local radio, with more appearances on WNYC as well as 1010 Wins, Hot 97, and AM 970 The Answer.

While he has mostly feuded with The New York Post, de Blasio has been critical of the media in general, though less so since August, when he expressed concerns with press focus on topics he finds less appropriate than policy points of his agenda.

One way to get around displeasing newspaper coverage is to do fewer press conferences and make more interview appearances over the airwaves. Even if somewhat filtered by the radio or TV host, live appearances offer direct channels to those who tune in.

"I'm baffled by why he and his handlers haven't done this more," Dr. Greer said, "because when he talks to the voters, he resonates. When he talks about New York City he makes you feel like no one wants to fight for New York City more than him."

Greer asserts that de Blasio's favorability will rise "if he does a sustained effort at TV and radio." Similar to Proud, Siegfried said "de Blasio should also be willing to sit down with adversarial media outlets for interviews. It would demonstrate he is not afraid to talk to people that might not laud him with praise."

Greer also said de Blasio should appear on a wide variety of outlets, though she didn't necessarily say they should be "adversarial."

"Hearing him on a station that's not say, NPR, it gives him access to people are who are not necessarily paying attention to the political scene throughout," Greer said, citing what she called a strong appearance on Hot 97.

It's a novel approach aimed at correcting course as de Blasio nears the halfway point of his term: more broadcast interviews, town hall-style events, and even attempting to mend fences with his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

While the mayor is not shying away from his progressive brand of politics and battle with inequality, he and his team are perhaps recognizing a need to change the narrative and do some things differently in order to capture more good will and public approval.

To date, October hasn't shown the pace of radio and TV appearances de Blasio struck last month, when he was not only tying his agenda to the Pope's visit and promoting his pre-kindergarten program, but also addressing the NYPD's mishandling of former tennis star James Blake and sparring with Governor Cuomo over MTA funding.

When de Blasio returns from a weekend trip to Israel, he'll give indication of whether he intends to resume the more frequent pace of media appearances some say is essential to his potential success.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@TweetBenMax

Reform Proposals Fly as Panel Evaluates Ethics Watchdog


cuomo parade banner

The governor's office, on the march (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


The 2011 law that created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to be the top ethics watchdog in the state contained a proviso that the body would be periodically reviewed to find ways to improve its functioning. That mandate fell upon the New York Ethics Review Commission, more commonly known as the JCOPE review commission, which held its first-ever public hearing on Wednesday at New York Law School in downtown Manhattan.

The forum was sparsely attended with barely 20 people in the audience including legal experts and good government advocates who suggested ways that JCOPE could become a stronger, more efficient oversight entity. Their recommendations, though diverse, centered on a few core issues that plague JCOPE: the extent of its jurisdiction; the protocol of appointments; transparency in its internal functioning; and its online resources.

The review commission is comprised of eight unpaid volunteers, six of whom were at Wednesday's meeting. The hearing was in part held as the commission works toward preparing a report due by November 1, though that deadline appears fungible. Commission chair and former state Senator Dale Volker, stated at the outset that the review body's mission is to be an advisory charged with reviewing and evaluating the performance of JCOPE and the legislative review commission.

"We're looking at how well they're performing under current law as it's written and not to redefine the scope of what these bodies are charged with doing or establish new regulatory structure," he said.

Unfortunately for them, and perhaps New Yorkers, this mandate precludes the major recommendations made by Evan Davis and Dan Karson, members of the New York City Bar Association's Government Ethics Committee. They presented a joint report by the City Bar and good government group Common Cause New York titled "Hope for JCOPE."

Davis made it a point to say that the JCOPE commissioners are "very good people who all want to do the right thing and our disagreement with them is about what is the right thing in the circumstances presented today." With hypothetical ethics lessons, he tried to illustrate the legal technicalities and grey areas which JCOPE could address.

Karson focused on JCOPE's controversial appointment process. Of the 14-member commission, eight members are legislative appointees and six are gubernatorial - members come via the very entities which fall under the commission's purview.

"By its very design, the legislation for JCOPE provides that appointments will be made along party lines and in reality precludes membership other than by the two major political parties," said Karson. "Political party affiliation can prevent, effectively, JCOPE in conducting an independent investigation."

He emphasized that the structure and rules of the body allow micro-minorities of two or three members to veto decisions to initiate official investigations into members of legislature, legislative employees and candidates.

"The fact that the party leaders name eight members and political affiliation is a specific qualifier in the gubernatorial appointments creates the appearance of political influence and partisanship," he said.

Karson recommended that the express political test for gubernatorial appointments be eliminated; that the governor's appointments be reduced to four; that legislative appointments be reduced to six; and one member each be named by the state's Chief Judge, the Attorney General, and the Comptroller. Also, he suggested that the commission's size be made an odd number to ensure there can be no deadlock vote in case of full participation.

Karson said there should be firewalls between JCOPE commissioners and public officials who appoint them to prevent any communication. He also specifically addressed the issue of self-dealing by legislators through state-funded non-profit organizations, insisting that JCOPE publish lists of these organizations and prohibit any involvement by legislators, their staff and immediate families.

JCOPE's independence, or lack thereof, was also the focus of testimony by Talia Werber, policy and research manager at Citizens Union, a good government advocacy organization.

Werber submitted a number of recommendations for the commission on two fronts: operational management and legislative changes.

Among Citizens Union's proposals are: independent budgeting for JCOPE; investing in database resources and information technology; an open process of personnel selection; making internal workings public and transparent; improving the process of financial disclosure reporting by coordinating with different agencies; reducing response time to complaints; and improved guidance of grassroots lobbying to ensure ethics compliance.

Werber also reiterated Karson's concern over the structure of the commission, calling for a seven- or nine-member body with a reformed appointment process similar to that of nomination and selection of appeals court judges.

Laura Abel, senior policy counsel at Lawyers Alliance for New York, believes that JCOPE's heavy focus on small community-based lobbying organizations diverts resources from more pressing issues.

"I sometimes think of JCOPE as being like a puppy who's so busy yapping at passersby that when the burglar walks in the front door, it's too tired to do anything about it," she said at the hearing.

JCOPE Has been notoriously quiet in terms of exposing high-ranking corruption or major governmental malpractice, even while the drip of indictments by the U.S. Attorney's office continues.

Abel recommended changes to the lobbying disclosure process that would make the commission's job more efficient and make it easier for small lobbying groups to follow the rules.

Part of JCOPE's responsibility is to publicly provide the data it collects. However, it hasn't used the resources at its disposal to do this in the most efficient way. Prudence Katze, research and policy Manager at Common Cause New York, said JCOPE's website is "confusing" and "clunky" and that it needs to be more proactive in rulemaking to "facilitate easier reporting for lobbying entities but also make the data easier to understand."

"JCOPE has the power to shift the pattern of corruption in albany by becoming a proactive force but only if everyone understands the rules and consequences," she said.

In a strange turn of events, the meeting temporarily went off track with the testimony of Elena Sassower, co-founder and director of the Center for Judicial Accountability, Inc. which she described as a non-partisan, non-profit citizens organization focused on New York's "pervasively corrupt" judiciary which is "actively abetted by the executive and legislative branches."

Sassower directed a scathing attack at both JCOPE and the review commission itself in a testimony that devolved into finger-pointing and heated words exchanged with review commission chair Volker. Sassower called JCOPE and legislative ethics commission "corrupt facades" that have protected their appointing authorities from investigation.

She questioned the review commission's methodology and the protocol of dealing with conflicts of interest, stating that they were "unlawfully constituted" and should shut down.

A salient, simple point she raised was that the JCOPE review commission's website is not easy to find since the name changed to the New York Ethics Review Commission.

Although Volker said the commission would not field questions or give responses, Sassower's testimony solicited a defense. He critiqued her for giving false testimony in the past (to which she responded she had never done so intentionally) and that she was simply repeating testimony that was not relevant to the review commission's mandate.

"Our job is not to condemn JCOPE but is to recommend possible change," Volker said.

As the meeting wound down, Volker said the entire panel would meet next week and that they hope to have their report ready by November 1. (Sassower kept volleying parting shots as they left their chairs.)

Although there were no members of JCOPE itself present at the hearing, JCOPE external affairs director Walter McClure said in an email, "JCOPE looks forward to the report of the Ethics Review Commission, which we hope will take into consideration the recommendations made in our February 2015 report."

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Measuring the Mayor’s Education Agenda


de blasio parents school brooklyn

De Blasio at a parents' night (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office via flickr)


There are three main data points by which New York City mayors are usually judged on their management of city schools: state standardized test scores; and rates of student graduation and college-readiness. As Mayor Bill de Blasio is now in his second year at the helm of the city’s 1,800 schools and 1.1 million students, his ability to improve these numbers is coming under intense scrutiny - from parents, pundits, and Albany lawmakers, among others.

To boost school and student performance and produce college- and career-ready graduates, de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have unveiled a series of new education initiatives, led by the much-heralded rollout of universal pre-kindergarten. The effectiveness of these programs and the pair’s stewardship of the city’s schools will largely be determined by the three aforementioned data points. Of key relevance within those larger statistics is also the outcomes for subgroups of students, like those with disabilities, and the so-called “achievement gap.”

In a recent speech called “Equity and Excellence,” de Blasio outlined a series of new education plans aimed at improving the opportunities and outcomes for city students. Many applauded the mayor’s announcements, which included more algebra, computer science, and reading coaches. Others, however, say benchmarks for student success are being set too far off and that more robust and immediate change is needed. Some continue to push de Blasio to close underperforming schools and embrace an expansion of charter schools.

“Our vision for the New York City public schools is that every school is going to be brought up to the point of excellence. We are putting an unprecedented level of resources in – that’s how we achieved full day pre-K for every child in this city - and that’s going to have a huge impact on the future of our children and our schools,” de Blasio said last week on 1010 Wins radio.

Over the course of two years, de Blasio and Fariña have put together an extensive education agenda. Progress, or lack thereof, will be a key to de Blasio’s 2017 re-election bid. More importantly, the success of the de Blasio/Fariña era of city school control will be key to the future of many young people. Parents and guardians of the city's 1.1 million students are seeing firsthand every day whether their children's schools give them confidence in those in charge.

As stakeholders and watchers keep tabs on the mayor’s education agenda and its impact, Gotham Gazette takes a detailed look at de Blasio’s major programs and how they fit into the assessment of this mayor’s education leadership.

First, the latest data on the three main metrics mentioned above:
TEST SCORES: The most up-to-date numbers say that about one-third of New York City students in grades 3-8 are proficient on state math and English-Language Arts tests. For math, it’s 35.2 percent proficient; for ELA, 30.4 percent. These numbers, released this summer, show a slight increase from the year before. (They also indicate performance on recently rewritten tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards - tests and standards that are the source of much controversy.)

GRADUATION RATE: The most recently published graduate rate, from 2014, shows 64.2 percent of high schoolers graduated in four years (including August graduates, the percentage rises to 68.4). Indicative of a long-term upward trend, this also shows an increase, with the August rate up 2.4 percent from the year before.

COLLEGE-READINESS: In 2014, 32 percent of students tested high enough to be considered “college ready.” The college-ready metric, initially introduced by the state, is determined by percentages of students who attain a score of 75 or higher on the English Regents and 80 or higher on the Math Regents (Regents exams are state standardized tests for high school students). This signifies that students will not require remedial classes to attend four-year CUNY universities.

Bill de Blasio, Education Mayor
To ring in the new year and quiet some of his critics, Mayor de Blasio gave a wide-ranging September speech to unveil several new education initiatives. Announcements of new efforts to ensure all students are reading at grade level; offer more algebra, advanced placement, and computer science courses; and individually guide the system’s most vulnerable students were mostly met with praise from officials, advocates, parents, and others.

Though all agree with the mayor’s expressed principles of “equity and excellence” in all New York City public schools, there are skeptics who question if the mayor is going far enough or fast enough, and those who question how well his programs, new and otherwise, will be implemented. After all, if one-third of grade 3-8 students are proficient in math or ELA, that means that two-thirds are not.

The numbers become even more frightening when looking at the city’s lowest performing schools, often in its poorest neighborhoods and populated by children of color, where there are in some instances grades full of students who do not meet the state standards.

De Blasio and others do question the new state tests and caution against using standardized test scores as the end-all. They also point to high poverty rates and the challenges faced by students that impede their ability to learn.

Still, the mayor consistently acknowledges there is a great deal of work to be done to make all schools good schools. He has little choice but to confront that reality. A new report from pro-charter school organization Families for Excellent Schools shows that black and Hispanic students beginning high school in New York City are one-fourth as likely as their white and Asian counterparts to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Much of the mayor’s wide-ranging education agenda - beginning with pre-K - is aimed at increasing opportunity and fostering greater equity.

Many ask how de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plan to measure progress on their signature changes to the city’s education system, looking for both what metrics and what benchmarks are in place to assess and ensure success. They and other top city officials are often hard-pressed to give data points other than the big three mentioned earlier, though they cite things like attendance rates and Advanced Placement course access and enrollment.

In de Blasio’s most recent announcement, he outlined several goals set a number of years down the road - such as increasing the proportion of high school graduates deemed ‘college-ready’ from less than half to two-thirds by 2026 - leading many to wonder about more immediate effects and goals. Some note that even a goal set that far into the future leaves one-third of city graduates not deemed ready for college.

Some schools and students must see immediate progress. Each of the city’s 94 “renewal schools,” the city’s persistently low-performing schools up against the prospect of state takeover, will have set benchmarks to meet, which usually include attendance and test score improvements.

De Blasio is banking on his pre-K initiative to be a game-changer. And it may be, but time and again de Blasio and others are asked how the program is being evaluated and there are few concrete answers, though a consultancy has been hired to track it. Much of the program’s efficacy will be pegged on the third-grade test scores of the students who have enrolled in the program (third grade is the first year of state standardized tests and seen as a key year for assessing whether students are reading at grade-level).

On the first day of school this year, in September, Mayor de Blasio celebrated the progress of programs implemented thus far in his tenure, including the expansion of UPK to enrolling more than 65,500 four-year-olds across the city; 130 new community schools; 126 PROSE schools, which are schools working with unique models and outside of some typical union rules; and free after-school programs for all middle-schoolers. Most of the celebration, though, involves their launch, and with much of it still new, like de Blasio as mayor, there is little else to measure yet.

The following week, de Blasio announced the roll-out of another wave of education programs buttressed by a vision of public schools running on the “twin engines of equity and excellence.”  Programs outlined included computer science and Advanced Placement courses for all; universal second grade literacy; “Single Shepherd,” by which at-risk students are provided individualized counselors; and college campus visits for all before ninth grade.

“Excellence and achievement cannot, and should not, discriminate...As we increase the number of student success stories, we have to make sure success is as common in East New York as it is on the Upper East Side,” said the mayor, striking the central theme of his campaign and his mayoralty.

Changing the largest school system in the country does not happen overnight, of course, and some defend the mayor’s extended timelines. City Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the Committee on Education and a former teacher, told Gotham Gazette, “I applaud the mayor for not allowing people to think [these reforms] can be done overnight. It takes awhile to change things, to change cultures, and to have real results.”

Along with Dromm, Gotham Gazette consulted several education experts and advocates to discuss the mayor’s education agenda and related metrics.

Pre-K
“In principle, [universal pre-k] is an extremely good idea, but in practice, it will depend on the caliber of the program,” David Steiner, executive director at Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and former New York State education commissioner, told Gotham Gazette.

“Research shows that teacher quality is the single greatest determinant of a student’s performance outside family background and context. So it’s the greatest in-school influence on student performance,” Steiner said, underlining the importance of “the caliber of instruction.”

As Steiner considers pre-K, he wants to know if teachers have “been prepared to handle the work that needs to be done to ensure that these young children can learn to read effectively.”

Suggesting a teacher residency program model in order to equip teachers with the clinical skills they need to ensure preparedness and high-quality instruction in the classroom, Steiner is among those who want to see systemic focus on teacher preparation and quality.

Along with teacher quality, Steiner cites sufficient socialization, play-time, and acquiring skills such as “phonemic awareness” for the students as critical to building the foundation for reading and long-term success in learning.

The de Blasio administration has indeed highlighted the significance of teacher instruction, offering the city’s first-ever “Citywide Professional Development Training specifically for pre-K,” with 6,000 educators participating at the launch of the program in 2014. It is not the residency system Steiner recommends, which would be more robust and expensive.

The mayor and others have continually stressed that pre-K is “high-quality,” but it is unclear exactly how prepared the teachers are and how strong the curriculum is - which is where internal and external evaluation will come into play.

There will, of course, also soon be those third grade test scores for the first class of pre-K participants. One major question about pre-K is whether initial gains that participants show last through third grade.

In the city’s implementation plan for UPK, a core feature of the model is “ensuring recruitment and retention of high-quality UPK lead teachers with early childhood certification.”

Instructional coaches from the DOE are placed in schools to provide professional development - which, generally speaking, has been a major focus of Chancellor Fariña, a former teacher and principal herself.

“As we move forward with this expansion, we must renew our focus on supporting our pre-K teachers and assistant teachers and creating an atmosphere of engaging and fun learning and play that puts our youngest learners on the path to success in kindergarten and their continuing education,” said Fariña at the initial pre-K launch, in 2014.

De Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell told Gotham Gazette that the first wave of pre-K metrics will be released this fall.

Norvell described skill acquisition as essential, along with classroom interactions, and available activities. Pre-K participants are, after all, four-year-olds. When asked about ensuring quality in pre-K, the mayor has often stressed that the curriculum involves establishing key learning basics, such as those needed to become a successful reader, as well as plenty of play, which also builds skills.

Norvell stressed that enrollment itself is key to the success of the program, especially among disadvantaged families. "This is a two-year expansion, and the first year was heavily focused on low-income communities that benefit most from high quality pre-K. In the ten lowest-income communities, enrollment more than doubled last year. And that focus continued this year, where we pushed and successfully enrolled more than 1,000 children whose families were in homeless shelters,” Norvell told Gotham Gazette.

Moving children from under-resourced and unstable environments into school a year earlier can have significant effects in terms of their socialization and language acquisition.

In a recent defense against accusations that pre-K success is being measured by enrollment and not quality, Norvell wrote on Twitter that a “focus on quality” is the “reason we spread expansion over [two years],” adding that there has been a “huge focus on [professional development] and pedagogical oversight.”

Community, Renewal, PROSE, & Charter Schools
Community schools and renewal schools -- at the heart of the mayor’s education reforms -- provide striking examples of divergent policy from de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

De Blasio has promised to close schools only as a “last resort,” focusing rather on providing more and better resources to schools which may be struggling. The city’s most-struggling schools are the renewal schools, almost all of which are part of the community schools program, which means these schools become hubs of services, such as providing health care for students or English classes for parents.

“Labeling schools ‘low-performing,’ labeling them ‘failing’ makes everybody in that school community feel like they’re failing,” David Bloomfield, professor of education leadership at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, told Gotham Gazette. “We have to get away from this notion of a failing school; it’s an incorrect description and an obstacle to reform.”

In this regard, Bloomfield appears aligned with de Blasio, who has decided that instead of closing schools and reconstituting them as smaller schools with a remade faculty, that he would flood struggling schools with resources.

Bloomfield believes rigorous testing implemented during the Bloomberg years showed itself to be a “disaster” and “misunderstands the educational situation of students. It ostensibly equates short-term test performance with long-term educational proficiency.”

Assessment of “student learning across multiple measures,” not simply discerned through testing, as well as “professional observation” to determine teacher quality would give a more accurate portrayal of student and teacher performance, Bloomfield says.

“We are investing in tools that we know help students catch up and succeed – more learning time, extra tutoring, coaches to help teachers improve instruction,” said the mayor at a press conference with students and faculty of Richmond Hill High School, one of the 94 renewal schools.

“We have a plan to fix long-struggling schools, and we’ll hold ourselves and these schools accountable for results,” de Blasio said. When discussing his stewardship of city schools and the mayoral control system that New York City mayors are allowed through state law, de Blasio has repeatedly said that he has the education system on the right track and that closing school doesn’t solve the problems facing the students in them. He says he will be judged by voters come 2017.

Still, critics believe that the community and renewal school school approach of extra resources is not the answer, but that closing schools and opening more independently-run charter schools is a better general alternative path.

De Blasio has been a vocal opponent of the expansion of charter schools, though his rhetoric on the subject has cooled of late. The mayor and others have talked of partnering with charter schools as an opportunity to increase the quality of education in public schools.

A controversial recent advertisement by Families for Excellent Schools, the pro-charter group, slamming de Blasio for “forcing kids into failing schools” is indicative of a long-running dispute. Prior to that ad, which is being followed by another critical of the mayor’s education leadership, and a large pro-charter, anti-de Blasio rally, the mayor announced a new program to fund 50 formal partnerships between district schools and charter schools.

The administration cites that it will be similar to the Learning Partners Program, matching “host” schools with “partner” schools for collaboration on areas of demonstrated need by the partner schools. Drawing from individual strengths, schools will apply and be matched in pairs “to learn from each other's best practices” creating District-Charter Learning Partnerships.

Moreover, another DOE effort to support struggling schools is the Progressive Redesign Opportunity for Schools of Excellence (PROSE) initiative. Led by the Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships (OSDCP), the initiative aims to design and develop new schools, overhaul under-enrolled schools, and support school flexibility.

While de Blasio and Fariña’s teams track multiple measures, and have revamped the system by which schools are graded to show a diversity of metrics instead of a single letter grade, much of this can be seen as alphabet soup by those who simply want to know: are schools improving or not? There’s no getting around the fact that schools will largely be judged by state leaders and others through their standardized test scores, seen by many as the best objective measure.

Clara Hemphill, senior editor of InsideSchools.org, a publication of The Center for NYC Affairs at the New School, says that “Tests tell you where a school has been, but not where a school is going. There is other data that is predictive of where a school is heading.” She described “improved attendance, increased enrollment, and increased satisfaction by parents, teachers, students” as evidence for “signs of a flourishing school.”

Universal 2nd Grade Literacy
Every elementary school will receive support from a reading specialist to ensure students are reading at grade level by the end of second grade, Mayor de Blasio announced, noting that early intervention determines long-term success for young children and the importance of early literacy.

The Mayor’s Office cites that “students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers.”

Hemphill is pleased to see the initiative: “The plan for 700 reading specialists is long overdue,” she says. “It’s the one thing that’s really been shown to work in helping kids who may have some difficulties to read get the skills they need.”

“Learning to read is critical,” Hemphill continues. “There are a large number of kids who don’t learn easily even with good instruction. Reading specialists are teachers with master’s degrees specialized in how to teach reading. Putting one in an elementary will go a long way.”

Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, suggested “process-based metrics” in which a student is evaluated over time to gauge improved reading skills for grade-level proficiency by the end of second grade. This would create stronger tracking and assessment well before those third grade tests scores come back.

“Our goal is to have all second graders reading with fluency by 2026. Teachers will track students’ progress through nationally-recognized assessments, and provide the right kind of additional support to those kids who need it,” announced the Mayor.

Clearly, the success of this initiative will mostly come down to student scores on the state ELA tests all students take in third grade. One especially important subgroup to watch will be English-Language Learners, or students whose first language is not English. While this is true throughout all grade levels, it is important at younger ages that students show they are beginning to master the official language of most of their schooling.

Algebra for All
“For New York City public high school students, algebra 1 represents either the gateway to advanced math or a huge, even insurmountable, stumbling block in their education,” begins an August 2015 report prepared by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. Why is that so? The report states that the vast majority of students can fulfill math requirements for graduation by passing the Regents exam for the algebra 1 course.

However, according to the Center’s analysis, of the estimated 75,500 students who entered high school as the prospective Class of 2014, more than 22,000 failed the Integrated Algebra Regents on their first attempt. “Those who failed the first time went on to retake the exam an average of twice more in later years in order to graduate,” and among the students repeating the exam, “the pass rate plummeted to as low as 20 percent.”

And the test has only become significantly more difficult. A new exam was introduced in June 2014, aligning with the tougher academic standards of Common Core, as required in New York State. The test now consists of material that used to be on Algebra 2/Trigonometry Regents exams.

The difficulty of the exam has elicited reactions ranging from concern to outrage given the high stakes for students who may not graduate on time - or even not at all - depending on exam results. Part of the issue at play with algebra, like in other instances, appears to be access.

De Blasio announced the Algebra for All initiative to ensure algebra courses for all eighth-graders citywide by Fall 2021, along with “academic supports in place earlier in middle school to build greater algebra readiness.”

Today, less than 60 percent of public middle schools offer some algebra coursework.

Computer Science for All
By 2025, every student in elementary, middle and high school will receive computer science education. Funded through a public-private partnership, city money will be matched by New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (CSNYC), Robin Hood Foundation, and AOL Charitable Foundation for a total of $81 million invested over the next 10 years.

Tim Armstrong, CEO and chairman of AOL, said that these contributions will, “allow children of all backgrounds to share equally in the future of a software-driven economy and continue to bolster New York’s position as one of the leading technology cities in the world.”

Speaking with Gotham Gazette, Natasha Capers, parent leader and Coordinator of Coalition for Educational Justice, shared in the praise saying “giving [students] this education [will] build the workforce” of the future.

An initial pilot program during the 2014-15 school year, the Software Engineering Pilot (SEP), has implemented computer science classes in 18 middle and high schools, enrolling 2,700 students for courses about web design, coding, robotics and more. Computer science classes will expand significantly in other schools beginning in Fall 2016.

Some do not see computer science coursework as necessary for every student. De Blasio and others who support the initiative say that it will have multiple positive effects, including engaging students in school, preparing students for the workforce, and enhancing thinking schools. If it is part of improvement in college-readiness and workplace success rates, de Blasio will get credit.

AP for All
Today, nearly 40,000 students are enrolled in high schools, grades 9-12, that do not offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Low-income students and black and Latino students are particularly affected, with only 44 percent enrolling in AP. Full implementation of AP for All is projected for Fall 2021, by which AP courses and prep classes will be available in all schools.

Again here, some may point to a far off goal. Progress will be measurable each year in terms of additional offerings, but it is a multi-year expansion plan, and one aimed at improving college-readiness, but also college graduation rates.

This initiative builds on the AP Expansion program created in 2013 by the NYC Department of Education which has implemented AP courses in over 70 schools since its launch.

A report reviewed by Inside Schools determines that “taking even one CUNY College Now or AP course reduces the likelihood that students will need remedial classes in college.”

Kim Nauer, education project director at Center for New York City Affairs, notes that statistically it is true that more students of all income levels are attending college but many are not completing their degrees. Taking AP courses in high school often serves as effective preparation for college course loads.

In fact, “we know students who take AP classes are twice as likely to graduate college in five years, compared to those who don’t,” noted de Blasio.

Students are also more likely to be prepared for college and careers with individual support from school guidance counselors.

However, in 2013, 61 percent of guidance counselors faced caseloads of 100 to 300 students -- far too many, critics say, to substantially help students individually prepare for college or career, much less navigate key aspects of their current schools. (The remaining counselors faced caseloads even higher.)

Thus, in addition to expanding AP course selection, the College Access for All program de Blasio announced will guide students through the college application process, in which “every student will have the resources and individually tailored supports at their high school to pursue a path to college.”

College campus visits, assistance in completing applications, mentorships with college students and strategies for family financial planning to afford college tuition are all resources which will be available for students, sixth-twelfth grade, launching in Fall 2016.

In increasing the focus on college preparedness and college goal-setting, de Blasio may be taking a page from the charter school book. Supporters often note that many charter schools have a college-going culture in place, talking with students about college from kindergarten onward.

Single Shepherd
The Single Shepherd program pairs counselors with specific students from sixth grade through their high school graduation and college enrollment, and is being piloted in District 7, in the South Bronx, and District 23, in Central Brooklyn. The program will launch in Fall 2016.

“Districts 7 and 23 have among the lowest graduation and college readiness rates in the city, and each serve high poverty, high needs students. We selected two districts with high need, in different areas of the city, and of varying size to serve as proof-points for the initiative so that with evidence, it can be scaled to other communities,” said Department of Education spokesperson Devora Kaye, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“The Single Shepherd role will focus explicitly on high school graduation, college readiness and on building a long-term relationship with their students,” Kaye continued. “Starting day one of implementation, we’ll be monitoring the progress of this program, and will expand it as we see progress.”

Students in the program, and the program itself, are sure to be measured in terms of improvements in attendance, grades, and test scores, along with graduation and college-readiness, as Kaye mentioned.

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director at the Alliance for Quality Education, also said it is important to watch suspension rates. Ansari, whose group is largely aligned with the mayor and the teachers union, highlights the importance of looking at graduation rates and college placement for students, but also said more schools should be implementing “restorative justice practices,” referring to an approach to school discipline and community building that strays away from suspensions in most cases.

The social and emotional well-being of students and parent and community engagement are “crucial” for student success, Ansari said. De Blasio and Fariña have devoted new resources to restorative justice and believe that keeping students in school when suspension is avoidable will give students a greater shot at success.

Students for which restorative justice is an alternative to out-of-school suspension are likely to be candidates for the shepard program, though that program is only seeing a small pilot in the next school year. Still, the shepard program is another example of the de Blasio administration infusing significant resources toward addressing education problems.

School Segregation
Professor Bloomfield brought up one key for any big city mayor, the differences in learning experiences and outcomes of students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. There has been a renewed focus of late on New York City’s segregated schools - the city’s schools are among the most segregated in the country, some of which has to do with the city’s housing, which largely determines elementary school enrollment.

There are enrollment and admissions policies that many want to see changed. Others, still, want to see the expansion of charter schools - less so to reduce segregation and more so to reduce the so-called achievement gap between black and Latino students on one hand and white and Asian students on the other. Many charter schools have proved to be more successful alternatives to nearby district schools when it comes to student test scores, and charter schools in New York City are almost exclusively attended by children of color.

This past summer, de Blasio signed the School Diversity Accountability Act, which tracks demographic data relating to grade levels and programs within schools, but lacks a mandate for actionable steps to reduce segregation.

Bloomfield says, “The way to address [the achievement gap] is not simply through remediation, which is more or less what the mayor’s laundry list of [new] reforms [are].” It is necessary, he says, “to make sure that all students have access to resources by making sure affluent and low-income students are educated together and all students are educated in integrated environments because all students benefit from that.”

“I want to include the shameful inequity in our competitive high schools Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech,” Bloomfield adds. “The mayor promised he would change that and he hasn’t come up with any proposals.”

Bloomfield refers to the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools. De Blasio said as a candidate and repeated as mayor, though not lately, that he wants to see the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools change away from a single test. On the issue of school integration, de Blasio has been cool to innovative admissions models, instead saying that his pre-K and affordable housing programs would foster more integrated schools.

Lori Podvesker, a parent-advocate and manager of disability and education policy at INCLUDEnyc, also discussed the problem of segregation in New York City public schools. Podvesker cites the lack of initiatives for District 75 students, who primarily have significant disabilities.

“It feels like students receiving [special education] services are getting lost in this conversation --  and the overall education conversation --  because everything is being applied to all kids and it’s really not true,” said Podvesker, who also sits on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

“A lot of students in District 75 don’t take standardized testing and are not going to college. So, the new ‘shepherd’ program -- what does that look like for those kids?”

She believes, “special education is siloed,” in the general public conversation on education. “Under Chancellor Fariña it’s getting better,” she says, “but I still feel like it’s an afterthought and it’s not part of decision-making from the beginning.”

Though disappointed the mayor has not been more proactive on special education, Podvesker noted the initiatives that have been announced are “amazing.”

As de Blasio seeks an extension for mayoral control next year from the state legislature and Governor Cuomo, he faces tremendous pressure to ensure that others see his vision for education as his supporters do. He must present immediate results beyond pre-K enrollment, and the mayor and his team know it. This summer, de Blasio took great pains to tout small increases in state test score results for students in grades 3-8, and will bring those gains to Albany, as well as his list of programs and any data he can to support their initial successes.

In Albany in 2016 and then at home in New York City in 2017, de Blasio will be forced to present data - have test scores continued to rise? Are they rising fast enough? Have graduation and college-readiness rates improved?

The mayor will also have to contend with the impressions of parents, each of whom has a personal experience with the school system.

De Blasio will surely use whatever numbers he can to make the case that he has the city’s students on the right track. He’ll also make his equity argument, spelling out opportunity and access, if not yet excellence.

***
by Kaela Sanborn-Hum, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette



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