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."
 The TU article's author, Scott Waldman, apparently followed up on his suspicions concerning the origin of the mailer.  The TU article reports that the local charter school movement's leaders who were contacted by the TU writer denied any involvement with the mailing that, in the words of the TU article, "gives an inaccurate projection of a tax-rate increase."  (A second postcard has since arrived at our home.)

Following up on 5/12/11, the Times Union offered an editorial under the headline "One secret, many questions."  The editorial, pasted below, cautions: "Voters should be wary of an anonymous campaign against the Albany school budget.  This isn't how fair elections are done."  The editorial notes: "Albanians deserve to know's really one of their neighbors exhorting them to vote against the budget, or some outside group with a financial interest in harming public education."  Commenting further on the anonymity of the mailer, the editorial suggests: "Perhaps it's the fast-and-loose way with numbers that the sender would rather not be held accountable for."  The editorial concludes: "They [Albany's voters] could do what any responsible voter should.  Get the facts and make up their own minds, and give anonymous, suspect material all the consideration it deserves between the mailbox and the trash."

Now, we have learned that a telephone "push poll" is in progress concerning the proposed Albany City School District budget.  A "push poll", rather than seeking information about the opinions of those called, is designed to influence those opinions by presenting one-sided information embedded within the questions asked.  In one case reported to us, the so-called poller began arguing when the Albany citizen who was called challenged the accuracy of the information in the question being asked.

We cannot let this kind of nefarious and anonymous behavior lead to the defeat of the proposed budget.

At a time when school districts around New York State are asking voters to approve 2011-2012 budgets with significant tax increases, the Albany City School District is presenting a 2011-2012 budget for approval on May 17th that asks no increase in the tax levy.  (In the latter regard, to forestall misunderstanding, we must note that the "tax levy", the total amount of money that needs to be raised through property taxes, is not the same as the "tax rate".  The latter is determined after the tax levy is set, and the tax rate is dependent upon such factors as property assessment changes and the movement of properties onto and off the tax rolls.  Even with no increase in the tax levy, there is likely to be a change in the tax rate.)

In order to assist in reaching a zero-growth tax levy, Albany's teachers, through their union, agreed to a wage freeze for the coming year.  This agreement will eliminate the threat of teacher lay-offs during the 2011-2012 budget year.  The Albany City School District's administrators also have agreed to a wage freeze.

At a time when enrollment in the Albany City School District's schools is growing, the proposed budget commits to keeping open for the year all the district schools now in operation.

To get more details about the 2011-2012 budget proposal, please visit the Albany City School District's web pages at  We also recommend that you link to the single-page summary about the 2011-2012 budget proposal that is titled "Facts vs. Fiction" -- at

Again, we believe that a "YES" vote is merited on the Albany City School District's budget proposal.
Please note:
  • Balloting will take place between 7:00 AM and 9:00 PM on Tuesday, May 17th.
  • In addition to the proposition concerning the proposed 2011-2012 budget, the Albany City School District ballot has three other propositions.  Two have to do with the sale of surplus property; and one asks permission to undertake renovation work at three schools, with that work to be paid for by State aid and not by local taxes.  We believe that these propositions each merit "YES" votes.  (More information about the propositions can be found on the Albany City School District's website at
  • The Albany Public Library's proposed budget for 2012 also will be on the ballot -- and we are urging a "YES" vote for the Library budget as well.  (You should already have received a separate e-mail from us in that regard.)
  • If you need help knowing where to vote, you can get information about new and changed locations on the website of the Albany City School District at or from a detailed street listing at

On May 17th, please vote "YES" for the proposed 2011-2012 budget for the Albany City School District.

Thank you.  (We must add a final note.  Developing family matters may keep us away from the computer for much of the next few days.  We are sorry that we may not be able to respond before May 17th to follow-up questions.)

Leo & Martha



Phantom call for 'no' vote

Uncredited brochure calls for turning down Albany school budget

By SCOTT WALDMAN Staff writer
Updated 11:56 p.m., Monday, May 9, 2011

Read more:

ALBANY -- It will stop you at the mailbox.

"Albany School Taxes Are Too Damn High," the mailer reads in bold red-and-yellow lettering.

The glossy mailer, which urges a "no" vote on the proposed school budget, started arriving in city mailboxes late last week. The brochure is professionally produced and gives no indication as to who is behind it. The anonymous mailing is legal, according to federal law, and there is no way to definitively say who sent it out.

"Whoever is willing to put up thousands of dollars to have done this must have some motives," Albany Superintendent Ray Colucciello said. "It's thousands of dollars to hurt 8,500 kids."

However, the permit number is the same that appears on at least five mailings by the Brighter Choice Foundation, which supports all of the city's 11 charter schools. That number belongs to the Mailhouse, a print-to-mail shop, and an employee there would not reveal who paid for the mailing.

Chris Bender, Brighter Choice executive director, denied that his group sent out the flier and claimed to have no knowledge of its existence until he received a phone call from a reporter. The Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, a pro-charter group run by Brighter Choice founder Tom Carroll, also denied any involvement. Both organizations have created offshoot groups for advocacy work and have recently run ad campaigns attacking Colucciello's pay.

The mailing is likely just the latest salvo in an escalating battle between the city's charter and public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded by taxpayers but are run by privately selected boards. The decrease in school dollars has intensified the battle in the last two years.

No other similar mailings have gone out around the state, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. He said the identity of the sender should be known since it is an attempt to influence an election.

"This is outrageous; in a sense, this is lobbying," he said. "There should be public reporting and public accountability."

A "no" vote on the city school budget could force another vote or a contingency budget that would restrict a small percentage of district spending. Such a vote would have no effect on the city's charter schools, which would continue to receive the same level of state-mandated funding.

While district residents have grumbled for years about increasing taxes and even distributed fliers at polling places, it is highly unusual for an outside group to spend significant money to encourage a "no" vote.

The mailer gives an inaccurate projection of a tax-rate increase. It claims that the proposed budget would set tax rates "a whopping 20 percent higher than just two years ago." It tells voters to "send a message" on May 17, when residents across the state vote on their district budgets. The actual tax rate increase over the last two years is closer to 17 percent.

The Albany district has proposed a $206.5 million budget. The tax rate is likely to increase another 4 or 5 percent, Colucciello said, but district officials claim that the actual rate will not be available until the city's housing assessment numbers become available later this year. Last year, a 3.87 percent tax levy increase resulted in a 10 percent rate increase.

City school officials lobbied against a proposal to grant charter schools access to low-interest public financing for new building projects. The district is the only one in the state that refuses to pay the state-mandated charter reimbursement rates, which were raised this school year. While the state Education Department has interceded on behalf of Albany's charter schools, it has yet to distribute the funds to the city's charter schools.

Albany's charter reimbursement rate is $14,072, but the district is only paying the previous rate of $11,712 per student, which has caused considerable hard feelings between charter advocates and district supporters.

Millions of dollars of district money is still owed to the charter schools. The KIPP Tech Valley Charter School alone is owed $600,000.

Last week, city teachers accepted a one-year wage freeze in return for a no-layoffs pledge, and brought the total number of job reductions to 38. The district has cut about 250 jobs over the last three school budget seasons.

Reach Waldman at 454-5080 or



Our opinion: Voters should be wary of an anonymous campaign against the Albany school budget. This isn’t how fair elections are done.
It isn’t just curiosity that makes us wonder who’s going to the trouble and expense to wage an anonymous campaign against the Albany school budget. Not knowing the origin of this material — material of questionable accuracy, no less — leaves the public to guess what the real agenda is behind it.
We’re not saying that the Albany City School District and its spending aren’t fair game for debate and scrutiny. They are.
But it’s also important that the debate be open and honest. Especially in an election, that starts with knowing who is doing the debating and where supposed facts are coming from. Albanians deserve to know whether, for example, it’s really one of their neighbors exhorting them to vote against the budget, or some outside group with a financial interest in harming public education. Or an out-of-state political or advocacy group with an ax to grind against public schools or public employee unions. Or a lone citizen who hates taxes or has a grudge against his old math teacher.
To be sure, anonymous speech is an American tradition, going back to the political pamphlets of the Revolutionary period. Citizens today might legitimately want to shield their identity while speaking out, to guard against retribution, for example. We’re hard pressed to see a good reason to hide here, though. It’s not as if anti-tax sentiments are unpopular these days, after all.
Perhaps it’s the fast-and-loose way with numbers that the sender would rather not be held accountable for. One mailer declares that if the 2011-12 budget passes Tuesday, taxes will have risen “a whopping 20 percent” in two years. In fact, the tax increase for next year won’t be known until after assessment rolls are updated this summer.
What the mailer doesn’t say is noteworthy, too, such as the fact that the district’s tax levy isn’t going up this year at all. Taxes may rise mainly because of changes in assessments; the district estimates that the tax rate will increase 3 to 5 percent, following last year’s rise of 10 percent.
In a regular election, a stealth campaign would be harder to wage. Groups or individuals that spend more than $250 in federal races or $1,000 in state elections to promote or oppose a candidate or a ballot issue must register with the state Board of Elections or Federal Elections Commission, and report their donors and spending. But in school elections, governed by Education Law, disclosure rules apply only to school board candidates. People and groups working for or against school budgets are exempt. And, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 ruled that the First Amendment protects anonymous literature distributed in a school budget election.
That leaves Albany voters to guess who’s behind all this, and where the money is coming from for at least two mass mailings and, according to the district, a “push poll” phone campaign loaded with leading questions.
Or they could not wonder at all. They could do what any responsible voter should: Get the facts and make up their own minds, and give anonymous, suspect material all the consideration it deserves between the mailbox and the trash.

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