Monday, June 30, 2014

NY's top court says local governments can ban fracking

Posted By on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 12:07 PM

Fracking bans in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield will stand under a ruling issued this morning by the state's top court.

A panel of State Court of Appeals judges said that towns and villages can use zoning laws to prohibit fracking, as Dryden and Middlefield did. They basically said that oil and gas drilling, including fracking, are heavy industry and incompatible with community character. The court's decision basically says that the state's Oil, Gas, and Solution Mining Law doesn't preempt municipalities' authority to regulate land use.

"Plainly, the zoning laws in these cases are directed at regulating land use generally and do not attempt to govern the details, procedures, or operations of the oil and gas industries," the decision says.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Replacing schools comes with a hidden price

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 1:18 PM

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has been pretty clear that he doesn't like phasing out low-performing schools in favor of new schools as a way to improve academic achievement.

The model is one of the options the State Education Department allows school districts with failing or so-called priority schools to use to turn around low achievement. The failing schools are gradually closed over a four-year period and new schools are opened usually starting with a freshman class. 
Bolgen Vargas. - FILE PHOTO
  • Bolgen Vargas.

Vargas doesn't like the approach because it doesn’t work. Students get shuffled from one building to another, and often many of the same people who were teaching in the failing schools end up in the new schools.

Parents aren’t happy about it, either. Frequently they have moved to an apartment or house because it's closer to a certain school, convenient to where they work, or maybe there's a specific school program that appeals to them. Then they learn that their family’s daily routines are being upended. This is extremely stressful for many district families.

But those aren't the only problems. A bigger concern is what happens to students’ motivation when they are in a school that’s being phased out. Motivation plummets, behavior problems rise, and attention to learning becomes difficult. These students become disconnected.

The schools that are being phased out see their resources and amenities dry up. And students literally have one foot in the door and the other out the door — and it shows up in low attendance and low graduation rates.

Vargas says that recent graduation data helps to make his point about these schools. Below are the nine schools that began phasing out under former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard and their graduation rates for the 2009 cohort. These percentages include students who graduated in August 2013:

Skilled Trades High School                                                            56.10 percent
Business, Finance, and Entrepreneurship High School          53.60 percent
Global Media Arts High School                                                       54.80 percent
School of Imaging and Information Tech                                      46.80 percent
Bioscience and Health Careers                                                    40.00 percent
School of Engineering and Manufacturing                                   36.50 percent
John Marshall                                                                                    28.40 percent
International Finance and Economic Development                   26.30 percent
Thomas Jefferson                                                                             20.00 percent

Most of the grad rates for the non-phase-out schools were near or above 50 percent, with School of the Arts and School Without Walls above 85 percent.  The grad rate for Rochester's 2009 cohort, if you include August graduates, was 48.10 percent.

As bad as some of these numbers are in the phase-out schools, they might have been even worse. Vargas’s rationale for starting the All City High program was to create a safety net to catch some of these kids in schools. The program is intended to offer flexibility and support to students who were at risk of dropping out or had already begun working part-time jobs, but are short of credits to graduate.

District spokesperson Chip Partner says that Vargas believes that the district’s graduation rate should begin to improve because the school closings are complete. The impact the phase in-phase out model had on the system should be diminished, Partner says. 

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the district’s backup plan to turn around East High School, should the plan with the University of Rochester not move forward, is to phase in a new school as the old East is phased out.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Council hears recommendations for Frontier upgrades, other projects

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 5:14 PM

Soon, the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council will have to figure out which of 200 or so projects to recommend to the state for funding. That's approximately the number of applications the council received.

And this afternoon, council members heard presentations from sector-specific work groups about the projects they say should get priority. There were a lot of them, and they ranged from an agriculture-centered revolving loan fund to the purchase of ultra high-tech equipment to be shared by local optics and photonics companies.

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Report takes on beach water quality

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 11:22 AM

A new report pegs Ontario Park beach in Charlotte as one of 17 public bathing beaches across the county with persistent contamination problems that lead to a large number of temporary closings.

The report from the Natural Resources Defense Council says that each of the beaches failed to meet public health benchmarks more than 25 percent of the time each year between 2009 to 2013. The annual report provides a national overview of trends in beach closings, but also includes contains a state by state rundown of public beaches and how often they close to swimming. New York's section is available here.

The report lists the number of times each beach was sampled, and the percentage of those samples that didn't meet federal beach water safety guidelines. Here's what it says about Monroe County's public swimming beaches:
Out of 248 samples from Ontario beach, 40 percent didn't meet the guidelines;
Out of 84 samples at Durand-Eastman Beach, 21 percent didn't meet the guidelines;
Out of 92 samples at Hamlin Beach State Park Area 3, 13 percent didn't meet the guidelines;
Out of 91 samples at Hamlin Beach State Park Area 4, 27 percent didn't meet the guidelines.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The under-reported power of parental engagement

Posted By on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 4:08 PM

I get a kick out of seeing young people receive recognition for their achievements, graduate, and step out on their own. These young people inspire hope for a better world. 

At the last monthly Rochester school board meeting, several dozen students received awards for outstanding athletic achievement. The presenters made a point of telling the audience that the students had high attendance and gave their grade point averages. Many of the students have averages above 4.0 and they are planning on attending colleges such as the University of Rochester and Yale.

A couple of school board members noted that good things like this do happen in the district, but they don’t get reported. One said that the media tends to focus too much on stories about how city children can’t learn because they’re poor.

The board members are partly right. A lot of good things happen in every school district, including Rochester’s, that go unreported. And a lot is written about the concentration of poverty in the city’s schools. But that’s because it’s an inextricable fact. Of course it doesn’t mean that poor students can’t learn. But does anyone seriously believe that students benefit from poverty?

It’s hard to hear that Rochester’s graduation rate remains dismally low without wondering why this group of students did so well. What’s the secret ingredient? Better teachers? Brighter students? Better managed schools? More resources? 

That’s the million-dollar question, and surely there’s more than one answer.

But there was one thing that almost every student who received an award last week had in common. Nearly every one of them was accompanied by a parent or family member. Some were teary-eyed. Some were busy taking photos and videos. And others just watched with obvious pride.

Parental engagement in most city schools is undeniably low. And there are many explanations for it — some more valid than others. Yes, it’s possible to mitigate some of the effects of poverty. It’s difficult and costly, but it can be done. But last week’s awards ceremony was a reminder that the most effective mitigation of poverty’s influence on students just might begin with parents.

County pursuing larger Frontier Field project

Posted By on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 11:13 AM

Monroe County officials have applied for $4.5 million in state grant funds to help cover the cost of a planned $7.5 million project at Frontier Field.

Last night, the County Legislature's Planning and Economic Development Committee gave the county administration permission to make the application. But the vote was something of a formality, since the administration had to submit the application to the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council by June 16, which it did.

The county already has a Frontier Field project in the works. Its proposed 2015-2020 Capital Improvements Program — essentially a multi-year plan for construction projects and major equipment purchases — calls for the county  to spend approximately $2.4 million for maintenance work and upgrades at the stadium. The work spans six years, and Rochester Community Baseball will kick in some funding, too, says the draft CIP.

The grant funding will allow for additional work to support what's included in the CIP, says Democratic Legislator Josh Bauroth says. The legislation, submitted by County Executive Maggie Brooks, says the expanded project will include replacing the field.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Rochester grad rate down slightly

Posted By on Mon, Jun 23, 2014 at 1:39 PM

The Rochester City School District is the only one of New York’s big five districts, which consists of New York City, Yonkers, Syracuse, and Buffalo, to have its graduation rate drop.

Rochester’s graduation rate for students who entered the 9th grade in 2009 and graduated in June 2013 was 43 percent, down from 43.4 percent for students in 2008 cohort. Buffalo’s students made the biggest gain at 53.4 percent, up from 46.8 percent for the students in the 2008 cohort. The statewide graduation rate increased slightly to nearly 75 percent.

Students need to pass eight Regents exams with a score of 65 or higher to graduate with a Regents diploma in New York.

WEEK AHEAD: Meeting on East High plan; Finger Lakes council choosing projects

Posted By on Mon, Jun 23, 2014 at 9:54 AM

The Rochester school board will hold a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24, to discuss the University of Rochester’s proposal to turn around East High School.

Under the proposal, which must be submitted to the State Education Department early next month, UR would become East’s Education Partnership Organization and essentially manage all aspects of the school.

The meeting will be held at central office, 131 West Broad Street. BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO

The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council meets Tuesday, June 24, to discuss priority projects for the year.

Each year, the council solicits applications for state funding, then reviews and ranks them before forwarding them on to state agencies. The applications have been submitted and the ranking process starts soon.

During the meeting, the council’s work groups will present their recommendations on which projects or project types should get priority.

The meeting will be held from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Wegmans Conference Center, 200 Market Street, Chili. BY JEREMY MOULE

Friday, June 20, 2014

[UPDATED] Medical pot, schools project, judges, and sparklers mark end of Legislature session

Posted By on Fri, Jun 20, 2014 at 11:12 AM

Soon, it could be legal to sell and use sparklers in New York, but not to light up medical marijuana.

As the State Assembly and Senate wound down its session last night (and this morning), they acted on a slew of bills dealing with big statewide issues and matters that were specific to single communities. So in the spirit of the glorious mess that is New York's wait-until-the-last-minute legislative session, here are some highlights:
  • Sparklers could once again be legal in New York, as long as Governor Andrew Cuomo signs the bill passed by the Senate and Assembly. The state currently treats them the same as illegal fireworks.
  • Cuomo and Legislature leaders hashed out a deal on medical marijuana which, as the Gothamist website so eloquently put it, doesn't include marijuana. Instead, it'll allow five state-selected organizations to grow a limited number of  pot plants, but not for patients to smoke. Most likely, the state will allow the distribution of pot extracts and oils, which can be eaten or consumed as inhaled vapor. As of this afternoon, the Senate and Assembly had passed the legislation, so the bill will now head to the governor.
  • The Senate and Assembly passed bills that would add Family Court judges. Under the legislation, New York City would get nine new judges in 2015; Albany, Broome, Chautauqua, Franklin, Nassau, Oneida, Oswego, Schenectady, Suffolk, Ulster, and Westchester counties would each get one new judge in 2015; and Delaware, Dutchess, Erie, Monroe, and Warren counties would each receive one additional judge in 2016.
  • The Assembly and Senate also passed legislation to fund the second phase of a large Rochester City School District construction project. The legislation for the $1.2 billion Facilities Modernization Project was not supported by all members of the local delegation, however. Democratic Assembly member David Gantt voted against the measure, saying he was concerned about an ongoing FBI investigation into the project's first phase. Republican Assembly member Bill Nojay voted against the bill for the same reason.
  • Both houses of the Legislature passed legislation allowing the state to sell property at the Industry Residential Center in Rush to Monroe County. The county is using the property for its new juvenile detention center.
  • The Assembly passed legislation to allow Monroe County to tack a surcharge onto wireless phone bills. County officials say the fee will help pay for the county's 911 and emergency communications systems. The Senate hasn't passed the measure yet, and it's unclear whether it plans to vote on it during this morning's session.
  • The fate of the Child Safe Products Act is still up in the air. The Assembly has passed the bill, but it's unclear if it will get a vote in the Senate. The bill has much support, except from lobbyists who've worked hard to kill it.
This post was updated at 2:30 p.m.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bill to add Family Court judges set for vote; but Monroe would have to wait

Posted By on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 2:51 PM

It's the final scheduled day of the State Legislature session, and the Assembly and Senate have long lists of bills to plow through. And each chamber's agenda includes legislation to add Family Court judges in some New York counties.

But the matching bills are a little different than the proposal introduced by Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein. That legislation would have given Monroe County an additional judge in 2015; Albany, Broome, Chautauqua, Erie, Nassau, Oneida, Oswego, Schenectady, Suffolk, and Westchester counties would also have received one additional judge each, while New York City would have received nine new judges.

The final legislation adds judges in more counties, but breaks the additions into two waves:
  • In 2015, Albany, Broome, Chautauqua, Franklin, Nassau, Oneida, Oswego, Schenectady, Suffolk, Ulster, and Westchester counties will each receive one new judge. New York City will still receive nine new judges;
  • In 2016, Delaware, Dutchess, Erie, Monroe, and Warren counties would each receive one additional judge.
In other words, Monroe County would still get an additional judge, just not until 2016. Voters won't choose that judge until the 2015 elections.

When the Legislature approved the 2014-15 state budget, it included $5 million to add 20 new family court judges in 2015. It'll have to include funding for all 25 new positions in next year's budget. 

For decades, New York's Family Courts have been coping with growing caseloads. The courts handle a range of matters, including domestic violence, child custody, child abuse and neglect, adoptions, and juvenile delinquency.

Between 2003 and 2013, Monroe County Family Court saw a 6 percent increase in annual petition filings. But the last time the court received an additional judge was in 2000.

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