Monday, March 31, 2014

Panel's report warns of climate change future effects

Posted By on Mon, Mar 31, 2014 at 4:41 PM

Climate change is affecting every continent and we are not prepared.

That is essentially the one-sentence summary of a report released today by a working group of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is the authoritative voice on climate change.

“We live in an era of man-made climate change,” Vicente Barros,co-chair of an IPCC working group, said in a press release. "In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future.”

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WEEK AHEAD: Bus route changes; Thurston improvements; RCSD and state budgets; Land Bank meeting

Posted on Mon, Mar 31, 2014 at 10:32 AM

A public information session will be held on proposed RTS service changes. The RTS is proposing to adjust the bus lineup schedule and route structure as a result of the new transit center, which is supposed to open later this year.

The meeting is from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 3 in the Southeast Neighborhood Service Center, 320 North Goodman Street. It is accessible via RTS Route 9 — Bay/Webster.

More information:

Rochester City Council members Adam McFadden and Matt Haag will present and discuss final design aspects and solicit feedback for the Thurston Village Revitalization Project.

The project includes the design and construction of right-of-way improvements on Thurston Road between Ravenwood and Brooks avenues. The city will explore opportunities for improvements in aesthetics, lighting, safety, trees, walkability, traffic, signs, and gateway features.

The meeting is 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 2, at Rochester Presbyterian Home, 256 Thurston Avenue. BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN

Rochester school Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and the school board will hold a public meeting to discuss the 2014-2015 proposed budget.

This is the public’s opportunity to comment on the $784 million budget, which emphasizes full day pre-kindergarten, reading proficiency, and expanded learning. The meeting is at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, at 131 West Broad Street. BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO

Over the weekend, the four men in a room finished up state budget negotiations. Members of the State Senate and Assembly will begin debating and voting on the bills today.

Today is the last day for lawmakers to pass and enact an on-time state budget, since the 2014-15 fiscal year starts tomorrow, April 1. Though there are questions about whether that’s technically possible, since the bills have to be available for legislators to read for a certain length of time.

The budget includes:
• $94 million in aid for the City of Rochester, a $6 million increase over the governor’s proposal;
• $510.1 million in aid for the city school district, up from $478.5 million in 2013-14;
• $1.5 billion for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to freeze property taxes. Under the proposal, property owners will get a tax credit if their local and county governments develop plans to consolidate services;
• $162 million for the Environmental Protection Fund, an amount that is $9 million higher than last year;
• Funding for the Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice, which will be tasked with reviewing the state’s approach to prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds.
• A pilot public campaign finance program for the 2014 comptroller’s race. But good government groups and public campaign finance advocates say the plan is ineffectual;
• $1.5 billion over five years for universal pre-k; the Rochester district would get $10.8 million under the 2014-15 budget plan.

At 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 2 City of Rochester officials will hold a public meeting to explain how the Rochester Land Bank Corporation will bid on properties at an upcoming tax auction.

The Land Bank will use money it received from the State Attorney General’s Office to purchase properties at an April 11 auction. Prior to the auction, land bank officials will develop a list of properties they’re interested in and present it to the city treasurer.

By statute, the land bank gets first dibs on foreclosed properties. The land bank can acquire the properties for the minimum bid, even if another bidder offers more. It plans to purchase 50 properties at the upcoming auction.

City officials formed the land bank to help return vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties to productive use. It plans to turn the houses over to the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership's HOME Rochester program. Through the program, houses are rehabbed and sold at market value to first-time homebuyers.

Wednesday’s meeting will be held at Rochester Central Library's Kate Gleason Auditorium, 115 South Avenue. BY JEREMY MOULE

Friday, March 28, 2014

[UPDATED] Rochester reportedly getting small, one-time boost in state aid

Posted on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 12:31 PM

The new state budget will reportedly include $6 million in extra aid for the City of Rochester, according to Gannett's Albany reporter, Joseph Spector. State lawmakers are currently negotiating the budget bill. 

The City of Rochester has a $28 million gap to fill in its upcoming budget, which is due out in May. Mayor Lovely Warren has been making regular trips to Albany to lobby for more aid. Rochester gets the lowest aid per capita of the major upstate cities, while being required to give its school district more.

The State Assembly's budget resolution included a one-time $12.4 million aid boost for Rochester, but the Senate's bill didn't include anything. It appears that the $12.4 million figure has been knocked down to $6 million. 

Warren asked the governor for funding for a number of initiatives and projects in the new budget, including $100 million for a downtown performing arts center. She made the requests in February. 

A press release from Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle and Senator Joe Robach, announcing the aid boost: 

March 28, 2014 (Rochester, NY)

“In a continued effort to meet the needs of our constituents, while working with local government and our Mayor, we’re happy to deliver more resources for the City of Rochester. Our ability to successfully rebuild Upstate New York is inextricably linked to the need to make essential investments in our cities. That is why throughout the budget process we have remained committed to ensuring the needs of the City of Rochester are met by securing funding that is essential to its fiscal stability.

“We are pleased to announce that the City will be receiving $6 million in state aid in addition to the $88 million already allocated in Aid and Incentives for Municipalities funding in the original budget proposal. This appropriation is being made available in direct response to the City’s need for additional funding to combat its chronically high poverty rate.

“This action is a step in the right direction toward resolving the historic disparities within the AIM funding formula and will greatly assist the City in addressing this year’s fiscal challenges. Looking forward we remain committed to providing the City with the tools it needs to ensure its long-term success.”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Warren asks Cuomo for $100 million for downtown arts center

Posted By on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 5:36 PM

Channel 8 is reporting that Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren has asked Governor Andrew Cuomo for $100 million for a performing arts center downtown. 

Warren has long insisted that any new performing arts center should be downtown. The Rochester Broadway Theatre League has been looking for a new home, but is currently attached to the Medley Centre project in Irondequoit. That project seems stuck in permanent limbo, however, which may leave an opening for the city. 

Former mayor Tom Richards was reluctant to get involved with the RBTL theater. He was convinced that it would run a deficit, and said the city was not in a financial position to support a performing arts center. 

Local officials say Cuomo's tax freeze plan is misguided

Posted By on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 1:08 PM

Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal to freeze property taxes has plenty of critics, now including the Monroe County Council of Governments. The Council of Governments is made up of the leaders of local towns and villages, the City of Rochester, and the county. It also includes representatives from local school districts.

Under Cuomo's plan, property owners across the state would get tax credits to offset local property tax increases. But to receive those credits, the local governments — including school districts and county governments — need to take steps to share or consolidate services with other nearby governments. Cuomo and legislative leaders are currently negotiating the final 2014 state budget, and the tax freeze proposal is part of those talks.

During a press conference this morning, representatives of the Council of Governments said that Monroe County municipalities and school districts already have a long history of sharing services. They said that the governor's proposal ignores that fact and inappropriately shifts the blame for high property taxes to local governments.

"We can't consolidate our way to fiscal health because local governments are not the problem," said County Executive Maggie Brooks.

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Dozens speak out about East High's problems

Posted By on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 10:27 AM

When a school is failing as badly as East High, the surrounding community seems to go through many of the same emotional transitions as a person dealing with a life-threatening illness. There’s the initial shock, followed by denial and anger.

Many of those raw emotions were evident at a meeting at East last night, where about 100 students, parents, staff, and residents reacted to the State Education Department’s command to fix the school. (Reporters were initially blocked from attending the meeting, but after much wrangling, the district relented.) 
Superintendent Bolgen Vargas - FILE PHOTO.
  • File photo.
  • Superintendent Bolgen Vargas

Some students and parents said they're shocked by the news, and many students vigorously defended their teachers.They said their success in school is a direct result of their teachers’ hard work and caring.

East’s librarian said she's angry because she doesn’t have the resources to help the school's nearly 1,800 students. How can Superintendent Bolgen Vargas tell parents to get library cards for their children when the district’s libraries are minimally staffed? she said. 

“If we’re trying to support reading and writing, why are we taking away [positions]?” she said. “We’re in a crisis mode.”

And many of the parents and students at the meeting said they're angry at the parents who don't engage with East. Many don’t attend open houses, sports, or other activities, they said, and this has multiple results. Students are often not praised or supported for their accomplishments, they said, and they often view the lack of interest as permission to not attend or care about doing well in school.

Several parents described coming to school events and seeing only a handful of other parents in attendance.

“There’s only so much staff can do without parental support,” said Frances Drumgoole, a home school assistant. “I think sometimes parents have given up on the district, unfortunately.”

And some students pointedly told Vargas that moving students to different schools, or closing failing schools and opening new ones hasn’t worked in the past. The same students and the same teachers are just moved to different buildings, they said. And some said they feel duped. Why enroll in a city school, even though it has appealing programs, they said, if it’s in danger of closing?

Though some people called for more volunteer help, finding solutions to East’s problems will be difficult. The SED has given district officials until the end of April to come up with a plan for East. The options are: turn it over to SUNY, close the school and open another one, convert East to a charter, or partner with some other entity to run the school.

East’s future really depends on how much longer the community is willing to watch the school's health decline. Real improvements start when the community says enough is enough. 

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Warren's handling of the Redon crisis shows progress

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 3:58 PM

Mayor Lovely Warren. - FILE PHOTO
  • Mayor Lovely Warren.
The pitchfork-and-torch crowd must be disappointed by Mayor Lovely Warren’s handling of the crisis involving her deputy mayor. Leonard Redon was recently charged with speeding and DWI. He offered his resignation, but Warren refused to accept it. That doesn’t mean he won’t be held accountable. Redon still faces serious legal charges. 

Warren seems to have learned from her less-than-deft handling of the speeding scandal in January. In that case, Warren’s obfuscation prolonged the story — and her own pain — much longer than if she’d just come clean immediately.

With Redon, though, Warren seems to have gotten it together. Whether or not you agree with her decision to give Redon another chance, she was forthright about the incident and her reasons for handling it the way she did. She sent out a press release the morning after Redon was stopped, and her spokesperson held a press conference later that day. That’s progress.

I do wonder, though, if Warren sacrificed the high ground when she misled everyone about her own speeding stops earlier this year. Warren wasn’t driving — that was her uncle, who was head of her security detail at the time — but she was in the vehicle. Her uncle worked for her, and if she had told him to slow down, especially after being stopped the first time, he would’ve undoubtedly listened. It might’ve appeared hypocritical for Warren to bring the hammer down on Redon so soon after her own ethical crisis.

Now, about the DWI charge. Like Nestor Ramos, my colleague at the D&C, said in a column last weekend, no one is immune. And I, too, have had relatives arrested for DWI, and another who nearly died in a DWI-related accident. If it were up to me, a nondrinker, anyone who had even one alcoholic beverage would be forbidden from getting behind the wheel.

Redon reportedly used personal time following the incident to seek counseling. I hope he spent part of that time with MADD to see firsthand the lifelong effect this careless choice can have. 

RIT's platinum building

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 2:59 PM

The Golisano Institute of Sustainability building at RIT. The three tall contraptions in front of the building are vertical axis wind turbines. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • The Golisano Institute of Sustainability building at RIT. The three tall contraptions in front of the building are vertical axis wind turbines.
When Rochester Institute of Technology built its Golisano Institute for Sustainability, school officials said they wanted to set an example. The building would house a young program with a mission of incorporating environmental principles into industry and corporate decision-making. And officials said they wanted its home to embody the same mindset.

The result: a building that's been certified LEED Platinum by the US Green Building Council. LEED is a certification program for so-called green buildings. A construction project gets points for incorporating energy- and water-conserving features and technologies; for using recycled materials and minimizing construction waste; and for using locally-sourced or environmentally preferable materials inside and out. Platinum is the highest LEED certification level a building can achieve.

RIT held an event this morning to announce the certification. Tracie Hall, executive director of the US Green Building Council's upstate New York chapter, said the Golisano Institute for Sustainability building is among the top 1 percent, performance-wise, of all LEED-certified projects.

But a few of the event's speakers pointed to another critical aspect of the building: it's educational potential. It is a college campus building, after all. The building, which has its own energy grid and alternative energy systems, is one big lab, speakers said. The students will learn from the projects and experiments happening in the building and they'll take that knowledge out into the world, they said.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Local public health officials encouraged by lead trends

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 1:41 PM

Childhood lead exposure hasn't been eliminated in Monroe County, but the numbers look a lot better than they used to. Much of the credit goes to local efforts to attack the source: lead paint in homes, particularly in older rental units.

This morning, the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning released 2013 county figures on childhood lead exposure. Of the 13,607 children aged 1 and 2 tested for lead, 197 — 1.5 percent — were found to have elevated blood-lead levels. That seems like a slight increase from 2012, but approximately 340 more children were tested in 2013. The testing increase occurred entirely in city or city-suburban ZIP codes, according to the coalition. 

And the 2013 figures still represent a massive improvement from 2001, when 13,259 children were screened and 1,179 — 9 percent — were at or above the threshold of 10 micrograms per deciliter.  A paper by Monroe County Health Department staff, also released this morning, says that the countywide decrease in children with elevated blood-lead levels occurred at a rate almost double state and national decreases.

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RCSD budget: layoffs or not?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas’s proposed $784 million budget  for the 2014-2015 school year emphasizes year-long reading support, expanded learning in more schools, and full-day pre-kindergarten. Vargas told board members at a meeting last night that if they’re serious about improving student achievement, that his is the right strategy for getting there.

Vargas said he will close a $42 million
Superintendent Bolgen Vargas - FILE PHOTO.
  • File photo.
  • Superintendent Bolgen Vargas
 gap mostly by reducing about 205 positions. About 79 will be teaching jobs, 15 administrative positions, and more than 100 support staff positions. But Vargas said he is not proposing significant layoffs, since the district has more than 200 vacancies and about 125 employees expected to retire.

The reduction in staff, roughly 3.7 percent of the district’s work force, is a result of declining enrollment, Vargas said. He repeated his concern about what is now a clear trend of losing students to charter schools. About 4,200 former district students will be enrolled in local public charters next year, he said.

Vargas is the first superintendent in recent memory to sound alarms about charter encroachment. He said that charters will subtract about $54 million from next year’s budget, and that it could reach $100 million in five years.

“If enrollment continues to decline, once you reach 15 percent of the district’s population, it becomes more difficult to improve,” he said. That’s because the district will be left with fewer resources for students with the most academic needs, he said. 

While enrollment drives everything, the way to prevent further erosion of the student population is by improving student outcomes, Vargas said. And his budget invests in early education. To strengthen the pre-k program, Vargas proposed giving all students RTS bus passes so transportation won’t be hindrance to the programs.

The budget adds expanded learning to five more schools – 300 additional hours of instruction time – and two schools would get an additional 200 hours of instruction time.

Vargas proposed having at least one social worker in every school to address students’ social-emotional needs. He also plans to eliminate in-school suspension rooms in k-6 schools with fewer than 700 students. In-school suspension rooms would continue in larger schools.

The proposed budget continues to reflect Vargas’s plan to redistribute resources to better provide amenities and extracurricular activities. Art, music, and physical education will receive a boost in funding, and Vargas said he wants to see a districtwide marching band.

But the budget also comes with caveats: a reduction of $1.2 million for nursing, and a reconfiguration of space by converting Schools 2, 29, and 44 to k-6 buildings — saving about $2.4 million.

Vargas also plans to limit cashing-out of vacation time to one week per year, and to reduce overtime and operating expenses.

The proposed budget contains some assumptions about funding. For example, Vargas projected $3.5 million in additional funds from the state, though the state budget has not been approved. And he doesn’t anticipate increases in the costs for charter schools, which the district would have to cover. 

And the proposed budget is based on what Vargas has interpreted as the board’s top priorities. There’s not a lot of room for last-minute changes, and there was no mention of implementing recent recommendations solicited from the community for improving city schools.

Vargas has also assumed that there will be no input from City Hall, which could present a last-minute problem if Mayor Lovely Warren requests changes based on her educational vision for the city.

Vargas acknowledged last night that the budget doesn't meet all of what he says are the district's priorities. He would increase it immediately if he could, he said, but there are limits to what he can provide.

The board will hold public hearings on the budget on Thursday, April 3, and Tuesday, April 22. Both meetings are at the district's central office, 131 West Broad Street, at 6 p.m. The board has to approve the budget in April and then give it to City Council for its approval.

Update: Tuesday, March 25 at 10:40 a.m.

After reviewing the proposed budget, Dan DiClemente, president of the Board of Education Non-teaching Employees, said he's concerned that there will indeed be layoffs.

In a phone interview earlier today, Clemente said that he believes about 40 BENTE employees will lose their jobs, and that he expects about 26 of them will be employees in clerical positions.

DiClemente said that BENTE employees were already cut in last year's budget. And he questioned how the superintendent can stress improving customer service when he's reducing the number of employees who do the work.

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