Monday, December 31, 2012

'Cliff' notes

Posted By on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 11:45 AM

Hold your nose and close your eyes: it looks like we’re going over the fiscal cliff. But the fight Congress is having with President Obama is a bit of a short-term distraction. The deals being discussed in Washington will do little to address the country’s real long-term economic crisis: rebuilding the US work force.

Almost every credible economist is rightly concerned about the nation’s debt problem, but they also tell us we can’t cut our way to solvency. And instead of cutting funding to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we should be planning for the efficiency and solvency of these popular and much-needed programs.

The real problem is the shrinking growth of revenue. And nowhere was it more evident than shopping at your nearest mall over the holidays. If you walked through any major store and looked at where the item was made, you would have struggled to find anything made by US workers. Dishware, linens, clothing, furniture, televisions, small and large appliances — the majority of it is produced by low-wage workers in China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan.

Thirty to 40 years ago, most products were made by US workers earning a living wage. To say the situation has changed dramatically is an understatement. The devastating impact manufacturing job losses have had here in our own community is obvious.

Even though training in technology offers new and displaced US workers some opportunity for employment, it doesn’t begin to solve the problem. Technology often replaces workers while it simultaneously increases productivity.

Though it’s great theater, it’s likely that Obama and Congress will spend much of the next year wrestling for political opportunism. That should come as no surprise; this is the most unproductive Congress in decades.

Meanwhile, most cities in the US are trying to figure out how to pay for plugging pot holes, while China just tested its high-speed rail system. India is producing engineers, mathematicians, chemists, and physicists by the ton, while many American students are getting priced out of an affordable education.

Ignoring the American work force is the real fiscal cliff.

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West Webster coverage: too much?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 11:14 AM

I realize I'm leaving myself wide open here, but I'm uncomfortable with the wall-to-wall coverage of the tragic deaths of Webster firefighters Mike Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka. Photographers need their shots, obviously, but live Tweeting from the funerals? It feels perverse, and I'm not sure what the news value is.

My co-worker, Jeremy Moule, disagrees. He says the public needs to understand that Chiapperini and Kaczowka were real people; they deserve that, he says, given that they chose to risk their lives for the public good. I completely agree, but I think you can do that without the funeral play-by-play.

Another co-worker, Eric Rezsnyak, says the news value is questionable and that the media seems to be trying to out-grieve each other. You need to collapse to the floor wailing, he says, or else be accused of not being sad enough. The irony is that approach is about the mourners, and not the mourned.

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Week Ahead: Lots of school board action

Posted By on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 9:33 AM

This story has been corrected.

The Rochester school board will meet at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, January 2, to elect a board president.

Malik Evans, who has been president for five years, is seeking re-election. Evans’s challenger is fellow board member Van White. The two would likely have different approaches to supervision of the superintendent and district affairs.

The meeting will be held at central office, 131 West Broad Street.

Also this week, the board will hold a working meeting on the superintendent’s proposed facilities modernization master plan. Working sessions are typically opportunities for board members to ask questions and review plans.

The meeting is at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 3, at central office. Tim Louis Macaluso

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Some useful gun-death statistics

Posted By on Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 9:12 AM

Over the weekend, a fellow City staff member shared a link detailing all of the gun deaths since the Newtown shootings. As of this morning, 321 people have been fatally shot since December 14, says the Slate.com article. (According to the Rochester Police Department, there had been 36 murders in the city in 2012 as of December 19: 26 involved a firearm.)

Slate is working with the anonymous operator of the @GunDeaths Twitter feed. In explaining the partnership, the writer makes a couple of interesting points about the statistical challenges of tracking gun-related deaths:

- The most recent comprehensive gun-death statistics available come from the Centers for Disease Control, and they are for 2008 and 2009. "It seems shocking that when guns are in the headlines every day, there’s no one attempting to create a real-time chronicle of the deaths attributable to guns in the United States," the Slate article says.

- The article also says that its counts don't include suicides, which make up an estimated 60 percent of gun-related deaths.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

School board leadership challenge

Posted By on Fri, Dec 28, 2012 at 9:39 AM

It’s probably a safe bet that Malik Evans will be re-elected president of the Rochester school board at the board's January 2 meeting. The 5:30 p.m. meeting is at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street.

Board members will elect a president and vice president for one-year terms. Evans has already served five terms as president, winning most of them unopposed.

But this year could be different. He has a challenger in fellow board member Van White, and White’s interest in the job has curiously pitted two men who were once the closest of political allies against each other.

And the outcome could be unsettling, particularly for Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

School board members earn about $22,000 annually for what is, arguably, a part-time position. The president receives an additional $10,000. Evans says one of his most relevant qualifications for the job is the experience he’s gained from doing it the last five years.

“I think the job of the president is to keep the board functioning as a cohesive unit,” he says. “It should not be about yourself.”

Evans says the president has to be a consensus builder, even when a decision doesn’t necessarily reflect his personal views.

“It’s not the Malik Evans show,” he says. “I’ll work with everybody to get to a decision, and as I’ve said before, a decision is based on [counting] one, two, three, four votes.”

But White, who is actively lobbying his fellow board members for support in his pursuit of the presidency, has a different view. He tends to believe that board members can be led to a decision, and he’s been more successful than most of his colleagues at getting his proposals voted into policies. And while he speaks highly of Evans, he also says it’s time for change: citing a list of well-known statistics about the city school district’s low academic achievement.

“Our priority has to be to have fewer priority schools,” White says, referring to the State Education Department’s label for failing schools. Rochester is at the top of the heap of New York districts with the most failing schools.

“We’re hemorrhaging students to charter schools,” White says. “We can’t keep going in this direction.”

Evans has grown into the suit, becoming one of Rochester’s most well-known pols. But White is not a typical politician. He’s difficult to pigeonhole, tends to go his own way, and is not a darling of the city’s Democratic political elite.

But the problem for Evans and White, both long-time board members, is that the board’s relationship with its past superintendents hasn’t always been productive. This was most evident during Jean-Claude Brizard’s tenure. Some board members worked aggressively to support Brizard, while others worked just as aggressively to oppose him.

There’s also, as there is with many school boards, various understandings of the board’s role: policy makers with a light hand of supervision of the superintendent, or a more hands-on role defining the superintendent’s objectives and specifying how they should be reached.

Much like City Hall's complaints about giving the school district $119 million every year for operational expenses and not having any say in how that money is spent, some school board members complain they don’t always have control over many of the superintendent’s decisions. But they receive the calls from angry parents and residents when he’s made the wrong choices.

White has been the most vocal about his concerns with the superintendent’s leadership. He does not subscribe to the ideology that board members should be behind-the-scenes policy makers, either.

“If those students do not have books, the board is responsible,” he says. “If black males are not graduating, the board is responsible. We can’t serve in that capacity and be passive policy makers. We’re elected and retained to get results. We’re not the customers and we’re not spectators of whatever the superintendent decides to do. Yes, we have a great quarterback in Bolgen Vargas, but we are a team."

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The trouble with tracing guns

Posted By on Thu, Dec 27, 2012 at 9:19 AM

This post has been edited to provide additional clarity.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has managed to trace the guns that William Spengler Jr. used in his assault on Webster firefighters, reports the Democrat and Chronicle.

Spengler, who police say fatally shot himself after shooting four Webster firefighters, killing two of them, was a convicted felon barred from owning or possessing guns. But police say he had a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle — the same make and caliber rifle used in the Newtown shootings — as well as a shotgun and handgun. The ATF will work with state police to follow leads coming out of the trace, the D and C says.

The ATF's turnaround on other gun traces has not always been so quick. A New York Times story published on Christmas day details some of the obstacles the bureau faces when it comes to gun traces.

The agency is statutorily prohibited from developing a computerized registry of gun transactions, the Times says. So instead of punching in a serial number and getting the history of a specific gun, the agency has to do it manually. That means ATF agents have to make a series of phone calls: first to the manufacturer, then a distributor, then the dealer who ultimately sold the gun, says the Times article.

In some cases, they also have to search through boxes of paper records from companies that have closed down, the article says.

The gun lobby sees a national registry of firearms transactions as encroaching on the Second Amendment and members of Congress have sided with the lobby. The time for that sort of thinking is past. Spengler managed to get a cache of weapons, and if somebody broke the law by selling him guns, that person (or persons) should be held accountable. A speedy trace, which in this case the ATF was able to do, is essential to making that determination.

And the results of that trace should be made public. People deserve to know how deadly weapons end up in the wrong hands.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

AP: Fracking not likely to start in 2013

Posted By on Wed, Dec 26, 2012 at 9:10 AM

An Associated Press report says that New York is unlikely to see the start of fracking in 2013, even if the state does green-light the process.

The article gives two simple explanations. For one, industry officials expect that if the state OK's high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in deep shale formations, getting a permit could take up to a year.

The other issue is purely economic. Natural gas prices are incredibly low right now and shale gas is more costly to extract than natural gas drilled conventionally. Since there's something of a glut on the gas market, many drilling companies have pulled back on their shale gas drilling.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Slaughter calls for federal assault weapons ban

Posted By on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 2:25 PM

Representative Louise Slaughter says she wants Congress to re-enact a federal assault weapons ban.

Discussion about the legality and availability of rapid-fire weapons has spiked following the tragic shooting of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school last Friday. Police and media reports say that the shooter, identified as Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster .223 rifle, which looks like it'd be more at home on the battlefield than at a deer hunt.

During a conference call with media this afternoon, Slaughter said "there is no reason on earth for anybody to own a military weapon." She put her support behind Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has called for the re-authorization of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Feinstein was the original author of that bill.

Slaughter says it's important for the ban to address not just the weapons, but high-capacity magazines. Lanza had several 30-round magazines for the rifle, which the Hartford Courant says didn't even fall under Connecticut's ban. (New York has a ban on magazines that fit more than 10 rounds, but there are loopholes and grey areas in that law. New York has its own assault weapons ban.)

The last attempt to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban took place in 2008 and pro-gun members of the House were able to shut it down, Slaughter said. She said that there now may be bipartisan will to pass legislation.

"I think the country's different," Slaughter said. "I believe their constituents are going to demand it."

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Could the city school district be the next Oldsmobile?

Posted By on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 10:10 AM

There was plenty of brie, sugar cookies, pizza, and beer at two holiday parties I attended last weekend. And there was also a lot of chatter about the city school district.

“Remember General Motors in the 1970’s?” asked one partier. “They built cars and trucks, they weren’t any good, and buyers began looking elsewhere. That’s the city school district.”

It’s not exactly a fair comparison, but there are some similarities.

While schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas promotes his proposal to overhaul the city’s aging schools, he’s also been contemplating what to do about the district’s failing schools.

Out of 60 schools, more than 50 are now on the list of what the State Education Department calls priority and focus schools. The designations are given to the state’s lowest performing schools. And Vargas will soon have to submit plans to Albany on how to improve many of them.

The SED still offers the same group of options on how to go about this: closing the schools, phasing out low-performing schools and phasing in new schools, turning the school’s performance around, or a complete redesign of the school. The latter usually requires partnering with a nonprofit company on the latest program showing promising results.

The SED approves and then funds whatever approach is taken. But the problem is the Rochester school district has tried so many, and it’s difficult for parents to point to one that’s been an overwhelming success.

Just like GM customers found alternatives in the 1980’s and 90’s, district parents are seeking alternatives, too. Stopping the flow of city students to charter schools is hard to imagine. It’s even harder imagining how the district can stop middle-class families from leaving the city. Fewer parents are buying what the district is selling.

And as GM executives learned, once the brand is damaged it’s difficult to woo customers back to the showroom floor.

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Last Senate race decided, for now

Posted By on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 8:45 AM

It appears that the State Senate will, once again, operate with perilously thin margins.

A state judge has decided on the last unresolved Senate contest from the November elections. The judge ruled that Republican George Amedore beat Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk in a district stretching from Montgomery County to Ultser County, with final counts placing him ahead by 39 votes, reports the Albany Times Union. Tkaczyk plans a further appeal, the Times Union says.

If Amedore's victory withstands the legal challenge, that would give Republicans the 32 votes they'd need to control the chamber, say media reports. But that number includes a Brooklyn Democrat, Simcha Felder, who's said he'll conference with the GOP.

The Republicans have also agreed to share control of the chamber with a breakaway conference of five Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference. But that agreement predated final results in several close races. Even with the races decided, the Republicans' ability to control the chamber hinges on their Democratic allies. If Felder and the IDC were to return to the Democratic conference, Democrats would have the 32 votes necessary to control the chamber. (That number grows to 33 if Tkaczyk ends up winning her race.)

And yesterday, Democrats elected Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins to serve as their conference leader (YNN's Capital Tonight political blog has a good post on the vote). She replaces Senator John Sampson. That's an important development since, reportedly, the IDC members originally went out on their own because they were unhappy with Democratic conference leadership.

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