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Our Albany scofflaws 

Just picture it: state police swooping down on the capitol building in Albany, arresting Governor Pataki and members of the Senate and Assembly, and hauling them off to jail.

            It won't happen, of course. If you or I refused to obey a judge, you knowwhat would happen. But not with this court order. Not when the issue is giving urban school districts enough money to adequately educate the state's poorest, predominantly minority, children.

            We've reached what should be the end of the line in the suit commonly known as CFE: the Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. the State of New York. Filed more than 10 years ago, the suit is based on the state constitution, which guarantees all New York children a "sound, basic education." CFE charges that the state doesn't give New York City enough money to do that. And as the CFE suit has wound its way through the state's legal system, two courts have agreed with CFE and ordered the state to come up with a new school-aid plan.

            The state has appealed, and dragged its heels, and deliberated. In the end, the governor and the legislature haven't been able to agree on how much money is needed. And so the deadline for a new aid plan --- July of this year --- came and went.

            Then the court appointed a three-member panel to come up with a figure. Last week, the panel announced its findings: New York City schools should get $5.6 billion more. Billion, not million. Every year.

            And, the panel said, New York schools should get $9.2 billion more for capital improvements: more classrooms, science labs, libraries, and the like.

            The panel's report is simply a recommendation. The final number will be set by State Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse, whose eloquent, forceful ruling in 2001 first ordered the state to come up with a new funding plan. Odds are, though, his figure will reflect the panel's work.

            The CFE case dealt solely with New York City, but all of the state's urban districts are in a similar situation. Those districts hope that if and when the state obeys the court order, it will also increase aid to the other urban districts, including Rochester. Need and justice may not move things, but politics might; legislators from other cities won't want their districts to be left out.

            But are we really at the end of the line now? What will happen if the governor and the legislators continue to delay?

            We have, as Rochester School Board member Rob Brown puts it, "a constitutional crisis," with the governor and the legislators flatly refusing to obey the court. "We spend all this time teaching our children about the separation of powers," says Brown, and state government blithely ignores it.

            "I had hoped that the state legislature would resolve this and come up with a compromise," says School Superintendent Manuel Rivera. "They were under the gun. They had a timeline. There couldn't have been more pressure."

            And note: This case has dragged on for more than 10 years. The delay, as the court's panel says in its report, "has adversely impacted almost the entire school lives of countless children."

            Clearly, it costs more to educate children from impoverished, poorly educated families than it does to educate children from wealthy, well-educated ones. And poor children are often affected by much more than poverty; many of them don't have a stable family structure.

            "What it brings home," says Rob Brown, "is that there is no political will to solve the problem of educating poor minority children."

            At every step in the CFE suit, the case for giving substantially more money to urban districts has been made. And still we wait.

            Meantime? Enrollment in Rochester has been declining, and the district will be closing schools as a result. But my hunch is, that will provide only minimal, temporary relief. Expenses continue to go up, health insurance and retirement costs among them.

            "We'll have to cut back on areas that are not mandated," says Rivera. He anticipates staff and program cuts --- which, he notes, will feed "the system of haves and have-nots within this county."

Banning the truth

It's hard to be shocked by anything TV networks do these days, but the latest news is very troubling stuff.

            NBC and CBS have refused to air a paid United Church of Christ ad. The ad, which promotes UCC as a welcoming denomination, shows a burly, bouncer-type man admitting some people to a church and turning others --- including two presumably gay men --- away. It ends with this tagline: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." The two networks say it's controversial, it's "advocacy," and they don't run such ads.

            That's indeed a hoot. Political ads aren't controversial? Political ads aren't "advocacy" ads? Automotive ads don't advocate anything? Viagra ads don't advocate anything?

            The ad (online at the UCC website www.stillspeaking.org) is an innocent little thing that simply tells the truth: Some churches, as any Christian knows, do not welcome everybody. And yes, indeed: Truth is often controversial.

            Many cable channels are running the ad, so the NBC-CBS foolishness didn't keep UCC from spreading its message. But the two networks' stand is a warning: This is where we're headed with the growing concentration of megamedia. The networks will protect the nation from controversy. And if they'll screen ads for controversy, how long will it be before they start screening news reports?

            Just as troubling is this New York Times report: CBS officials were worried about the ad's "implied exclusion of gays" --- and about government reaction. An anonymous CBS executive "confirmed the contents of a CBS staff report that mentioned the Bush administration's backing of [a] proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage," the Times reported.

            That ought to make your hair stand on end, regardless of your politics.

            Want to comment? Write or The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester14607. Please include your name, address, and daytime phone number.

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