Thursday, May 26, 2011

Teacher Evaluations and New York State Tests

The Albany school budget has passed. The people who run the charter schools in Albany have revealed themselves as unethical rascals. What’s next on the education horizon? New teacher evaluation reforms. As we look more closely at education, the teacher is increasingly getting the brunt of the blame for poor student behavior.

It would be naive to say there weren't any bad teachers out there, because there are. It would also be short sighted to downplay the importance on a child’s life of having a good teacher, because everyone knows that an amazing teacher can literally change a child’s life. (Click here to listen to Planet Money’s podcast on the economics of a good teacher). But when it comes to education, it seems like our eggs are all in one basket. The basket of: if you have a good teacher, they will produce high test scores in a child and then and only then will we have a well educated population.

Most likely driven by the above theory, Governor Cuomo pushed State Ed and the Legislature to have the New York State test be 40% of the new evaluation for teachers. But how valuable are these tests? A standardized test can be a useful tool to assess a large body of students. Having a national or even state-wide benchmark to ensure students are achieving at a certain level seems very logical. However, would that test still be logical if there was no benefit to the individual student? The New York State tests that students take are presented and graded in such a way that they are not reasonably able to be used for individual student assessment.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reader Comment: Top 5 Results of Tuesday's Budget Election?

There are election results and then there are the results of the elections. We'd like to compile the Top 5 Results of Tuesday's Budget Election.

What do you think was the most dramatic outcome of the budget election on Tuesday? Was it the school budget vote going through? Was it the library vote not going through? Was it the fliers surrounding the school budget vote? Were it the people who won the library trustee seats?

Let us know. Either leave a comment, send us an email (, or leave a comment on our Facebook page.

We'll put together a list from the comments for next week's Top 5.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Albany Votes and Anonymous No Longer.

Albany went to the polls yesterday and passed the Albany City School District budget. It looks like the library budget did not pass, although according to their website, they are going to do a recanvass of the voting machines. Below is information taken from the WNYT website:

Albany City SD

School budget passed: 3,555 yes to 3,382 no
Proposition 2 (sale of 270-272 Central Ave.) passed: 4,694 yes; 1,068 no
Proposition 3 (sale of Philip Livingston school) passed: 5,673 yes; 1,017 no
Proposition 4 (no-cost construction project) passed: 4,002 yes; 2,644 no
Proposition 5 (Library budget) FAILED: 3,490 no; 3,462 yes
Library trustees: 2 open seats
  • Donna Dixon -- 3,383 (winner)
  • Timothy D. Smith -- 2,706 (winner)
  • Felix Mendoza -- 1,408
  • Jose M. Lopez Jr. -- 1,318
It's interesting to look at the numbers of votes, the totals are below:

School budget passed: 6937 total votes (3,555 yes to 3,382 no)
Proposition 2 (sale of 270-272 Central Ave.) passed: 5762 total votes (4,694 yes; 1,068 no)
Proposition 3 (sale of Philip Livingston school) passed: 4657 total votes (5,673 yes; 1,017 no)
Proposition 4 (no-cost construction project) passed: 6646 total votes (4,002 yes; 2,644 no)
Proposition 5 (Library budget) FAILED: 6952 total votes (3,490 no; 3,462 yes)
Library trustees: 8815 total votes (people could vote up to two times, so divided in half= 4407.5 although this does not count for bullet voting)

From these numbers, there was clearly a focus on the library budget (there were 15 more votes cast on the library budget vote than on the school budget vote). I'm looking forward to looking at the actual voting tallies as compared to past budget votes to see how much the false propaganda spread by Charter School supporters affected voting.

That's right, thanks to the Times Union's Scott Waldman's reporting, with assurance we can now say that the negative propaganda sent out was sent by Charter School supporters. Specifically, it was sent by School Performance, Inc. Also known as SPNY. As reported by Waldman in the TU (story link here), "Tom Carroll, who founded the Brighter Choice Foundation -- which supports all of the city's 11 charter schools -- is on the board of School Performance Inc., according to the most recent public records available. Chris Bender, executive director of Brighter Choice, has also served on the School Performance board."

A little digging gives the following information:

Monday, May 16, 2011

School District and Library Budget Vote Thoughts

There is an optimistic side to me that doesn't go away, no matter how far I march into this sometimes cynical life. One of my optimistic beliefs has to do with voting. I believe that an informed vote is a correct vote, whether it agrees with my informed vote or not. Because of that, it's hard for me to push someone to vote one way or another. Although I'd like to see votes go my way, I appreciate that this world is made up of many different people that have needs that don't always match my own. With these thoughts in mind, I'm going to share my opinions on tomorrow's budget votes and whether you agree or disagree, I hope that you go out and vote. Poll locations can be found here.

School Budget Vote: Ginnie's Vote: YES
It's funny when I jump up on a soap box and wax poetic and then go ahead and contradict myself. But, we're in a situation where it's hard for me to imagine a truly informed NO vote. The school district levy is 0%, which was achieved through the teachers sacrificing for their students and through hard work on the part of the school board and administration. A NO vote is listening to the vitriol spouted by a cowardly anonymous source. I can't fathom an educated reason to vote NO on this budget. If you have an issue with the way the district is run, then you should pay attention to the candidates for the School Board, voting NO doesn't change your taxes dramatically but it does directly hurt Albany children. For more information on the School budget, you can look here, and past Albany Spark posts on the budget are here and here.

Library Budget Vote: Ginnie's Vote: YES
My family uses the library so much that in good conscience I couldn't vote anything except YES. We borrow stacks of books, audio books, movies, music. My children have done countless crafts and if I added up the hours we've listened to the Pine Hills children's librarian read books during story time, it would probably easily equal several work weeks.

Two Seats on Library Board up for Election

People only seem to pay attention to things when it comes to money. This is especially true when looking at the Library and School District votes. People get up in arms about the budget, but then barely pay attention when seats on the boards that create that budget are up for election. If you are really outraged or excited about the library budget vote, there are two seats up for election on Tuesday and you should put effort into researching the person you are voting for on the library board. They will help determine the future budgets and direction of the library.

The library has asked each of the candidates running for office for a bio and has put it here on their website. Two candidates will be elected, which means that as voters, we can vote for up to two candidates (if you feel passionately about a candidate, you can just vote for one, which is called a "bullet vote"). These candidates are, in ballot order:

1. Donna Dixon
2. Felix Mendoza
3. Jose M. Lopez Jr.
4. Timothy D. Smith

Find out about them and support the one that shares the same vision for the library that you do. Then go out and vote and encourage others to do so as well. The more citizens voting, the better our city!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Reminder of Why Albany is Great

Out of the negative, there is always a light of positive.  The recent orchestrated attack against the Albany City School District's budget vote has outraged many who live in Albany.  People are speaking out at community meetings, one family has decided to answer the mailed out "window signs" by giving out poster boards to anyone who wants to put a sign in their window, and finally, people are sending emails urging others to vote yes.  One of the best examples of this is below, written by Leo and Martha Levy.  Thanks to Leo and Martha and all who are coming together and reminding us of why our city is so great.  

We are writing to urge you to vote "YES" for the proposed 2011-2012 budget for the Albany City School District.  (The rest of this message is commentary -- and links to information -- and pasted articles.) 


We have not been pleased with the manner in which Governor Andrew Cuomo has sought to portray New York State's public school districts  as well as school district administrators, teachers and other staff (and, by extension, the children and families who are dependent upon those public school districts) as better able to sustain fiscal sacrifices in these difficult economic times than those New York State residents who (in these difficult economic times) are earning annual incomes above $200,000.  Still, that is our current political reality -- and the Governor's current political power has made it necessary for school districts around the State to either find significant sources of funds that are independent of State aid (e.g. increased property taxes) or to significantly cut back on expenditures -- or to do both.

Recognizing that the mood of many local property taxpayers is such that a school budget based on a property tax increase to make up for all lost State aid likely would lead to the defeat of that proposed budget at the polls, it was with some relief that we saw the cooperative effort between the Albany Board of Education and the administration and teachers of the Albany City School District that yielded a proposed budget for 2011-2012 that had no increase in the tax levy over the current year.  It might not have been the budget that we would have crafted, we thought, but, surely, it was a prudent budget to present to Albany's voters for approval.  Who would oppose such a budget?  Perhaps there would be little need to campaign for the budget's passage by the voters on May 17th.

We did not foresee the actions of those who are determined to weaken the public school system to the point that it will no longer be viable.

A few days ago, we, along with many other citizens of the City of Albany, received a large, glossy postcard in the mail that, in urging defeat of the proposed school budget, offered blatantly misleading statements.  The mailing prompted a front-page article in the Times Union on 5/10/11, an article, whose text is pasted below, that noted that the source of the expensive mailing was not identified -- "Phantom call for 'no' vote: Uncredited brochure calls for turning down Albany school budget."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Photos of the Negative Fliers

Although most people got the negative fliers, several people either didn't or didn't hold onto them. Below are photos of them.

First, to put things in perspective, a snapshot of Albany's budget from the Times Union:

Flyer 1: Front and back:
Sent about 3 weeks before the vote

Flyer 2: The window sign
Sent the week before the vote

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Enough is enough.

Educating children is an uphill battle. There are so many variables, so many things that can go wrong. If you add to that an urban district with a high population of children coming from underprivileged homes, the variables are even higher. Teachers and administrators need a lot of support to give these children the best possible chance to be all that they can be in life. Because every child deserves that.

This is not to say that we should give the Albany City School District a blank check to go and voraciously spend money. In fact, we should carefully pay attention to the budget and ensure our voices are heard. We should come to the budget discussion with facts and knowledge, not scare tactics and lies. That only hurts the children of Albany and the tax payers of Albany.

Although there is no proof on what group has sponsored these recent mailers and negative phone polls, there is no doubt that those sponsors do not care about educating the children of Albany. It's also evident that they have deep pockets. The estimates I've heard for the mailers is in the range of $5,000 per mailing (this is a broad estimate not based on any specific numbers). The calls, let's say cost $1000 each. I've heard of two. With two mailers and two negative survey calls, that estimated cost is about $12,000. So, bottom line, they are so against the children of Albany getting a good education, they are willing to throw real money at it. In a time when people are tightening their belts, a time when the teachers have put their students before themselves, a time when the children need funding more than ever, it's especially insulting.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Courage...and Cowards in Albany

There is nothing like an act of courage to attract opposition from cowards.

Last week, the teachers of the Albany Public Schools, along with the senior administrators, sealed the deal on a courageous negotiation. The teachers, through their union, agreed to freeze their pay for a year as a way to help this community in a time of need. The administration agreed to avoid teacher layoffs. This is a great agreement for our community. It saves money when we need it desperately. It saves teachers, and after all, we aren't going to educate anyone without teachers ! All in all, everyone did the right thing.

It took courage on all sides to arrive at this agreement. It took the vision to believe that we could achieve a 0% tax levy increase in a year when everyone is hurting for money. No other school district in the state has managed to accomplish this.

Well, you know what happens when you do the right thing in Albany. Someone is bound to object.

In an act of extraordinary cowardice, an as-yet unnamed group mailed out thousands of glossy, expensive flyers to folks all over Albany. I hardly know where to begin in tearing into this junk mail:

* This flyer said that "taxes are too damn high". Aside from the error in grammar (they should have written "too damned high") this was awfully offensive language to send into people's homes. Some of us have children, and we like to teach them to communicate politely. I didn't appreciate having this sort of language broadcast into my home via the US mail in one-inch high red letters.

* The flyer made the false claim that the tax rate under our new school budget would be 20% higher than two years ago. The writer of this flyer must have a really good crystal ball, because the tax rate for 2011-12 hasn't been established yet. No one knows what it will be. What we do know is that the tax levy contains 0% increase. The tax rate is th eproduct of several factors; the only one under the control of the school district is the levy. The levy has been set for no increase.

* Let me just say this again: the tax levy is rising 0% this coming year. For the last three years it has risen an average of about 2.9%. If the writers think taxes are too high, surely a 0% increase would be a GOOD thing to be supported? Explain again why, if taxes are too high, one would oppose a no-increase levy?

* Here's the best part: the flyer has no information about who sent it. It is unsigned. I am a fanatical supporter of free speech. Voltaire said it best: "I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

People have the right to engage in whatever form of political speech they like, and no matter how offensive, wrong or false their statements are, we protect their right to offend, make mistakes, and lie. But if you're going to make a major political statement, at least have the decency to sign your name. Even the average twelve-year-old knows that if you want to say something, have the guts to say it openly and identify yourself. John Hancock set a wonderful example for us all to follow way back in 1776.

Engage in civil, courteous, constructive debate, and let us know who you are. Don't hide behind the mama's skirts of anonymity.

We've seen these kinds of childish tactics before.

I look forward to learning who the gutless cowards were who sent this flyer.

What do you think?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Top 5 Things to Preserve in Your Freezer

Everyone knows that buying produce locally is better. You use fewer fossil fuels, money is kept in your community, its easier and cheaper to buy organic, and it’s reputed that produce ripened in place is better for you. If you live in California, you can probably buy your produce locally year round. But as you know, living in the northeast, we have several months of plenty followed by many months of scarcity. If you are working toward getting more of your food locally, how can the average person realistically do that year round?

The answer of course, is preserving food. Preserving food is simple in theory, harder in practice. When most people think of preserving food, they think of canning and drying food and just shut down. Although neither of these methods are hard to master, they are less daunting when doing them with someone who has experience. But, even someone who can’t boil water can freeze something. Take a look at the Top 5 below and think about the amount of freezer space (really, how many old kinds of ice cream do you need on hand?) and the amount of time and pick one thing to preserve this year. I promise, if you do it, you’ll feel like a rock star. You might even start shopping for an energy efficient chest freezer! Instructions for how I freeze all produce below is at the bottom:

1. Blueberries: Right when school lets out and into July, blueberries are in season. There are a bunch of U-pick places (and even a fabulous free place by Grafton), we usually pick at Indian Ladder. It’s a fantastic family outing and as a parent, nothing is more satisfying than making your children work for their food. Remember that at least one quart should be for family consumption, but if you aim to have each older child pick their own quart and you pick two, you’ll have a good start. Do this twice and you’ll be silly with blueberries for the season. You can make muffins, snack on them, make pies, toss them in salads, they are delicious, local, and good for you.
2. Corn: This is my favorite thing to freeze because freezing your own is so much better than what you buy in the freezer section. My frozen corn tastes like summer corn and is so delicious in just about everything. I continually freeze the corn through the summer, I always buy a dozen ears of corn from the farmer’s market. The ones we don’t use, I cut the kernels off the cob and then do the preserving method below. If you are a big soup maker and have the space, I’d recommend hanging onto the cobs as well, toss them in the bottom of the soup pot and the winter soups will have an amazing sweet corn taste. Now, you can easily toss handfuls of corn in soups, stir frys, or even just cook it to serve as a side. It’s local, delicious, and again, good for you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Big News for Albany!

Last night, I was exhausted. The running around to all of the baseball games and spring events caught up with me and I turned in early. This morning I awoke refreshed and with a packed inbox of exciting news. Sometimes it's not the early bird that catches the worm! The rundown: The ACSD is now looking at a 0% tax levy, with zero teacher layoffs, and zero schools closing (details to follow), plus it looks like we're even closer to getting some chickens. The Common Council voted yes 8- 7 to allow backyard hens in Albany. Because the vote is so close, there's a chance the Mayor might veto the bill. For or against, let the mayor know of your stance: 434-5100 or email:

If you've been following the ACSD budget, you're aware that the projected tax levy for next year was 1.7% (please remember from previous posts that this does not necessarily have anything to do with how much more your taxes may or may not go up, the ACSD has nothing to do with that exact figure). After a teacher's contract agreement that was reached yesterday, the tax levy increase will be 0% (again, this is coming from the school district, if the assessments change, which the school district cannot control, your taxes may still go up). Although I do have some reservations about the budget, those reservations come from some concerns about programs and me being overly fiscally conservative. On a whole, I'm astonished by this budget. It's amazingly good for a very bad fiscal time. It's an easy Yes vote.

Some details: