Conversation with John Murtagh

| September 12, 2011

Meeting with Yonkers Mayoral Candidate John Murtagh

August 25, 2011

Thank you to Mr. Murtagh for taking the time to meet with us. We prepared a list of questions, based on parent feedback after sending a broadcast email asking for questions. While not everything we discussed (e.g. the Pearls playground/Habit for Humanity issue of a few years ago, names or references to specific people not in the room at the time) is in this transcript, I chose to include those moments from the discussion most relevant to the mayoral race in the context of educational policy, and Mr. Murtagh’s version for how to save and strengthen our schools. I’ve also sent a message to Mr. Murtagh inviting him or his campaign to clarify or correct any items in the text in the comments that follow.

JM: John Murtagh       KG: Kevin Gray     RG, CV: Other parents at the meeting      RBS: Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse

On Being Misquoted

JM: I’m going to answer #2 because it has stuck in my craw for too long…

KG: Then I’m glad we brought it up.

JM: …I used to say to people when I first got on the City Council, the councilman from the 5th district could get elected and could serve without particularly addressing school issues if he or she chose to do so because even 7 or 8 years ago, and I’m just stating the facts, I never, within my own district, nobody ever asked me about the schools. Nobody, it just wasn’t an issue. I won’t say “nobody,” but it wasn’t an issue…

CV: It wasn’t an issue to them.

KG: It wasn’t high on the radar.

JM: …That’s not true anymore. And that’s a good thing. I see 2 things, I see people have come to realize increasingly that, as I said on Channel 12 an hour and a half ago, people don’t look at a house and say, it has 2 bedrooms, a nice basement, and it’s got a great yard, and L.L. Bean’s a mile away. But they look at a house and say, It’s got enough bedrooms, a finished basement, and a nice yard, and there are good schools.

CV: Mm-mmh.

JM: The seniors…they finally started to recognize, “Hey, when I turn around to sell my house, the school district makes a difference.” It’s an obvious thing, but for a long time they didn’t seem to focus on that. The other thing I see…the cultural attachment to the Catholic school system, and for whatever reason, I don’t get into it, is not there anymore with people her age and certainly people younger than her. The folks I talk to now, my own neighbors, they would jump into Yonkers, the minute they are convinced that elementary, and they’re already starting to use the elementary schools already, they’re bailing out when they get to middle school, high school age. But, if they thought you could turn Roosevelt, really, they’d be there in droves. So, back to this question, what I’ve said, and what people have misconstrued was, not “John Murtagh doesn’t have to give a damn about the schools, to hell with ‘em,” what I said was, maybe I didn’t say it as artfully as I should have, but the answer was, a city councilman in the 5th district, 7-10 years ago, by and large, didn’t get asked about the schools. It wasn’t a big issue for the people in my neighborhood. Now, it is.

On Parental Voice In Yonkers Politics, and Ridge Hill

KG: …One of the questions on here was from a comment on our FB page about parental voice and having parents, it seems in the few months that I’ve been paying attention, that Yonkers is a strongly factional community, as an outsider coming in, I’ve observed a lot of strong factions. That was what drew me to connecting with these people whose voices I was hearing at the public hearings and in the emails because it seemed to be a possible faction that wasn’t represented.

JM: Well, I don’t want to be Pollyanna and say there are no factions, because there are huge factions. As I said before, I’m encouraged in that people are reaching across neighborhood lines, community lines and so forth…

KG: I’ve never been part of a group that had so many strongly conservative minded people, but also liberal people, some of the people in this group are very conservative, and some are very liberal, and I’ve never been as an adult, part of a group of people who’ve been able to put aside all of that stuff and focus on something they shared in common as much as this.

JM: Certainly, obviously, like anywhere else, you’re going to have people who are conservative, liberal, whatever it may be. More of the dividing lines, though, that I saw in Yonkers, certainly the desegregation issue, obviously it’s political and there are different views on that, but what I’m talking about was almost more geographic. Folks in that neighborhood had no idea what was going on that one, nobody was talking to each other, that has changed. And in the same way, you get conservatives, people who self-style themselves as liberal-conservatives, somewhere in the middle, and they come together on a common issue, Ridge Hill for example. Where were we going with this?

KG: Parental voice…

JM: One of my frustrations, and I’m not sure 100% how to cure it, and an organization like yours is may be a start, is that ultimately who are the 2 biggest stakeholders in a public school system? The parents and the students. You could make an argument that every taxpayer, they certainly are stakeholders, but every parent in a school system is by definition a taxpayer and a parent! If you want to give checkmarks, you can say, “Ok, you’ve got a voice because you’re a taxpayer, and you can say you’ve got a voice because you’re a taxpayer and a parent!” But when the budgets get negotiated, when the decisions are made, when the contracts are negotiated, you guys have no voice.

CV: Mm-mmh.

KG: We are literally left outside the room, with a cup at the door trying to hear what’s being said.

JM: I’m not, other than coming in at the 11th hour when government or unions or whoever says, “This is what we’re going to do,” and you get to scream about it. A far from perfect analogy, and it is far from perfect, and I’m not sure even logistically, right now in my mind, it’s more of a feeling, a frustration that, what to my mind are the biggest stakeholders have an equal voice. I haven’t quite figured out in my own mind exactly the best way to change that. But, a less than perfect analogy, let’s go back to the Ridge Hill project. If you haven’t figured out, I’m not a fan of Ridge Hill. That project, the developer and the government, at least the majority and the administration, very consciously tried to shut the public out of that process. I mean it was conscious, the developer didn’t meet with anybody, they didn’t go out to community groups, they didn’t go out to neighborhood associations, it was just lock-down, shut-down, “This is what we’re doing.” This is one of my fun factoids. As a sitting council member, I sued the Yonkers City Council because they held meetings and didn’t hold public hearings that were required by law and they passed the Ridge Hill project. I went to court as a councilman, put in the odd position of suing my own council, and got a judge that overturned it and it’s probably a better project, it’s still not as good as it should have been, but that’s how that process worked. The downtown project here, which is a victim of the economy now, that developer held something like 60 community meetings over the course of a year. And very genuinely went out, and I’m not saying they changed everything or did everything everybody wanted, but they genuinely went out time, and time, and time again and met with community groups and presented what they had in mind and took back comments. A completely different, not a perfect analogy, but clearly from an administration standpoint, the BOE is management, the union is labor and they have to negotiate the contract across the table. There has to be a role there somewhere that you should be having a much bigger role than coming to our council meetings, lining up for an hour and a half in a hot un-air conditioned council room in June and…

RG: At the end, when everything is settled.

JM: …and not even having all the information. Not having almost any information. Sometimes, and I’ll be very frank with you, and get in trouble because I’m on tape, as a councilman, you sometimes sit there and people get up and say things, and I won’t say you get angry, that’s not the right word, maybe you get frustrated, because Mr. X or Mrs. X says something and you want to say, you can’t, but you want to say, “But you don’t understand, that’s not right.” And you have to pull back and realize of course they don’t understand. They were never given the information. It was never communicated to them. There has to be a better way to do that. I mean something as simple as guaranteeing there is always a parent on the BOE with kids in the schools, well, maybe. That sounds almost trite.

KG: It sounds obvious.

JM: It sounds obvious. I think a lot of it probably is, what’s the word, again, at risk of talking in cliches, a need to change the culture. Rich Martinelli in our debate on Channel 12 today, he said something about how the mayor needs to have control of the school system. I said, “Rich, the mayor appoints the entire BOE.” How much more control…

On An Independent School Board and the Mayor’s Office Staff

KG: …And sets the budget. An interesting thing that has come up in conversation amongst ourselves is the state system imposed on the big-5, is that something to reconsider? And I know some people who would be fired up about changing that with a state amendment to the constitution. To separate the board, make them elected, separate the budget with an up-or-down vote like in New Jersey, or smaller cities in NY.

JM: Yes. It’s something that should be discussed.

KG: I don’t know if it would be better, but…

JM: Clearly, what we’re doing right now isn’t working. Maybe the infrastructure could work with the right culture with a willingness to engage parents, a system where the BOE has a budget, they give it to the mayor and say “This is what we want,” the mayor says you’re getting that, or this much less, presents it to city council who votes on it. Maybe that system can work if you have the right people with their heads and their hearts in the right places and they’re willing to listen. No system will work if you have bad people with bad intentions, or misguided ideas. An elected school board is like an elected city council. It works wonderfully if you elect the right people and if they run for the right reasons. If you’re going to elect a bad city councilman who just wants to have power, that person might run for board of ed. Next year because that will be seen as a stepping stone to city council. So, in that sense, you can’t take human nature out of the equation, there is no perfect system. Certainly we have to figure out how to get more information to parents and get more and earlier information back. That is not in any way unique to the schools. I would say the same thing when we go to budget, we hold 2 budget hearings a year. At the risk of criticizing people I’m going to ask to vote for me, I’ll be the first to tell you that in a city of 200,000 it is very frustrating to show up at the auditorium of the Will Library for a budget hearing and have 20 people show up and 15 of them are members of the firefighters, police, and DPW. Literally I’ve been in budget hearings in the last 7 years where you could count on one hand the number of tax-paying home-owning residents that show up. Is that a failure of communication on our part? In part it is. Yes, we held a public budget hearing and we announced it publicly. Yeah, you put a thing on channel 78, but you didn’t really tell people. People with busy lives, how are they supposed to know? That problem, and the lack of information out there, people get up at budget hearings and tell you, “You’ve got to cut x program,” or, “Why do you have to hire x number of people?” I don’t necessarily have all the information the mayor has. Somebody asked me the other day, and it doesn’t matter what it was, some issue, and they said, “If you’re elected mayor, are you going to do x or not?” I said, “Here’s where my head’s at right now. Barack Obama said we’re going to end the war in Iraq. But, I said, I have to believe that even if you’re a US Senator, the day you become President of the United States, they hand you that binder, you open it up and go, Oh.”

KG: It’s going to be different than we thought it would be.

JM: Absolutely! By definition, you can’t know everything the President does, right? Similarly, I’m not suggesting there’s national security secrets here, but on some level, the mayor and his commissioners are more into the minutae by definition than a council member or any member of the public. I might say, “People don’t have enough information to always comment intelligently on the budget,” but the mayor might say the council members don’t always have everything they need to know. That’s a global issue for me that I haven’t quite figured out how to resolve. One of the things that I talked about with somebody recently, hashing it out one night, is a whole host of discretionary positions in the mayor’s office, 4 or 5, besides deputy mayor and chief of staff, there are 4 or 5 positions that they do whatever the mayor needs them to do. And, they are paid pretty well for it. Maybe more than they should be. Low 6-figure salaries, maybe $120,000 a year. Couldn’t one of those positions, and I think it should be, and it will be, call it whatever you want. Youth Advocate, Child Advocate, but somebody whose only job in city hall, the schools would be the most obvious, but literally spends, all they do is say, “How is everything we’re doing impacting children, or families with children, and what could we be doing differently, better, more effectively, what are we delivering at the end of the day?” We’re spending $18,000 a year, some people say $20,000 per child, and we have a 63% graduation rate in the high schools. We’re doing something wrong somewhere. And Geoffrey Canada in the movie has that great line, that we’re suddenly giving birth to a generation of children who are stupid or there is something else we’re doing wrong. We didn’t have these kinds of graduation rates, so what else is going on? It’s much more complicated than just education, it goes beyond the classroom, obviously. If ⅔ of our students are living at or below the poverty level, through no fault of that child, they’re coming to school with a whole host of issues that will impede their education…

On $.36 Per Tax Dollar Going to Education

KG: Mr. Pireorazio spoke to the parents and mentioned the .36 per dollar spent, and you were in the  back of the room that night…

JM: Yes.

KG: In the middle of that presentation he had one sentence where he said, “If you want to change this, think carefully about who you’re voting for.” And that we’re spending .36 per dollar collected, the Westchester average is closer to .76 per dollar spent on the schools. Mr. Lesnick pointed out to us a couple of places spending around $.50 per tax dollar, and his answer to this question was that we may not get to $.76 per dollar, but that we can certainly do better than $.36. And referred to a similar reality to the one you just described that the landscape changes once the candidate becomes mayor and there are different things that have to be considered than what was anticipated earlier. I’m not going to tell you it should be $.58 or $.72, but it should be more than $.36.

JM: You remember the other night when I offered Chuck the deputy mayor’s job, right? He comes up to me afterwards, and he says, “Well actually, I want to be school superintendent. That pays twice as much.” But, all kidding aside, Chuck and I might be more on the same page here than either he or I realize. Listen. The .76, I’d have to see a full-blown analysis, and more importantly, and I don’t know the answer to this off the top of my head, but how that compares to RBS. Comparing us to the other communities, with the possible exception maybe of Mt. Vernon, and that might not even be a fair comparison, but certainly to the other communities in Westchester, it’s just not reasonable. Pound Ridge, Scarsdale, go down the list, clearly, they don’t have to deal, they don’t have to have the police force that we do. Many of them have volunteer fire departments. There’s a whole host of things that they don’t have to focus on on the municipal side that we do. Bronxville does not have an Office of the Aging, we don’t have a Veteran Services Agency. What that brings you to is, ok, then not only do we need to do a top-down analysis of the schools to make sure whatever we’re spending now is being spent wisely, getting as much into the classroom and into curriculum and education as possible, but we also have to do that on the municipal side. The example I gave the other night, and it’s certainly not the biggest dollar item by any stretch, but when you have a city hall that has an office of economic development, an office of downtown waterfront development, and industrial development agency, well, can you save x million there? And if you can, what do you do with that? All of a sudden you can talk about reallocating that. I don’t know what the numbers would be, but if there’s another $3, $4, $5 million into the schools, that’s a good start. I don’t want to single out any department, but Yonkers Economic Development, in my memory, I’ll go back 10 years, we got some new highrises on the river, we got Costco and Stew Leonards, and we got Ridge Hill. And we have downtown on the drawing board. At the same time that we lost Stewart Stamping, a manufacturer that had been in this city close to 50 years and took 200+ skilled jobs away. Precision Valve, a company that was founded in this city, I went to high school with the father of the guy who founded it, that took 450-500 skilled jobs down to South Carolina, so I’m not even sure what we’re getting for our quote “economic development office.” We’re getting movie theaters and the mall at the same time that we’re losing close to 700-800 skilled manufacturing jobs, the jobs you can support a family on, as opposed to the jobs at Ridge Hill which, are maybe, great starter jobs or great jobs for college kids, but you’re not supporting a family working at the movie theater.

KG: I did some research on that and they hired about 90 part time employees, and 10 full timers.

On Yonkers Municipal Employee Salaries

JM: And they don’t have to give them health benefits. I’m now beating up the econ. Dev. People and that’s probably not completely fair, but my point is, yes, we have to revisit everything in the budget. You can’t avoid police, firemen, sanitation, is whatever it works out to be, some 75% or something of the municipal side of the budget and 80% of that is salaries and benefits. Now, which opens up another can of worms that I’d be happy to discuss, but we probably don’t have the time right now. If you join the NYCFD tomorrow you’re starting salary is $36,000. If you join Yonkers, you’re starting salary is over $60,000 close to $65,000. It’s just wrong.

KG: I’ve been told that Yonkers is the highest first-year salary for firefighters in the United States.

JM: Yes. But, those contracts were negotiated 10, 12, years ago, when he was the mayor, and by NY law and the Triborough Amendment, we can’t change that. State law mandates that when your contract expires, same with teachers, that we have to honor every provision in their contract until there’s a new contract in place. What incentive do they have to negotiate with us?

KG: Especially when things get bad.

JM: Yeah! If I could sit here with an expired contract with everything still in place, what incentive do I have to negotiate and give anything up? And this is why Pat Puleo could look at me with a straight face and say, when I said, “If everybody gave up their raise last year we wouldn’t have to lay off a single teacher.” “My members will never agree to that.”

CV: And then she convinced them not to.

JM: I said, “I bet a couple hundred of them would!” They were about to get laid off! I just don’t understand the mentality. I will never understand the mentality. And it goes beyond the salaries…

RG: What I heard from one of the delegates in the teachers’ union is that they did that once, about 3 or 4 years ago, and then they never got anything in return, they didn’t get art back, they didn’t get…

JM: That’s always their argument, and I’m not going to say there haven’t been years in the past where we haven’t, where people have asked for give backs and so on and so forth, but listen, if you have to sacrifice and struggle in, I’ll make up a number, in 2004, well, in 2011, if the economy is in the tank and 250 people are about to lose their jobs, and programs are cut and classrooms are crowded, it’s not an argument to say, “Oh, but I sacrificed 7 years ago.” Yeah, you did, you’re absolutely right. And it’s a shame I have to ask you to do it again. But, the economy’s in the tank, tax revenues are down 50%, we can’t raise taxes even if we were inclined to on property owners 9% because, in the middle of the budget talks my neighbor stops me outside my house and says “John, if you hear of anything, I just got laid off.” She was white collar, now how am I going to turn to somebody like that and say, “We’re increasing your property taxes 9%.” You can’t do it. So I understand the argument that “We gave back then,” or “The firefighters didn’t give back then,” or whatever it may be, but, maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m Pollyanna, but my attitude is, I appreciate that, I hear it, I know the history, but I’m dealing with the here and now.

CV, RG: The distrust…

JM: Yeah, there’s distrust all over, absolutely. And as I said, there’s distrust…

KG: Didn’t they say they’d do it if they were given a written guarantee it would bring the teachers back, right. And then when that, I guess when that didn’t materialize, that night they voted it down. The people who were losing their jobs took the certainty of losing their jobs over the uncertainty of a reduction in salary not knowing it would be used to bring them back.

NY State Funding Formula and Lobbying

KG: One thing we haven’t talked about is the relationship with the state, Carmen just reminded me there are some people who wanted us to ask about that. The state funding formula has come under scrutiny by a lot of parents this season, and whether or not it’s fair, whether or not it shortchanges Yonkers compared to RBS, so, we’re just curious what you think of that, and as mayor, how would your approach to state level legislators and Albany might be different from what it has been? I’ve been told the current mayor goes to Albany with a spokesman, and doesn’t take the commissioners, doesn’t take the council members, and a lot of people are frustrated by that.

JM: That is in, so many words, true. First of all, what exactly the state formula is, if you ask 4 people in Albany exactly what it is, you get 4 different answers. It’s amorphous calculation somehow. In my mind there is no question that we are not treated fairly in the formula because it is based on geographic flip of the coin, we’re being thrown into Westchester county instead of upstate New York…but even under the lousy formula, when they count children at the 2008 level and RBS have all shrunk while we’ve grown by 1,500 students. Even under the lousy formula, you’re still screwing us.

KG: That feels pretty obvious.

JM: It is obvious.

CV: Then why haven’t we been able to get that fixed? What would it take?

JM: My personal, my opinion is, it is purely political. Your state assembly is controlled by the Democratic block out of NYC, and because the assembly, like our lower house of Congress is based on population, I think the majority of assembly people come out of NYC, but if not, the majority, a large portion. So, you have a large block in the assembly concerned with NYC. The leadership of the state Senate, Republican, comes out of Long Island and upstate New York, that’s where their focus is, their concern is. We’re lost children in the middle as far as that goes. We’re not NYC.

CV: How do we…

JM: Realistically, on a pure political level, I’m not sure there is any short answer to how that changes. Political dynamics are what they are. So, I don’t know that realistically, you can change that. It should be obvious, it is obvious to everybody that we’re not getting what we should. And as I said, even if they want to argue the formula works you can’t argue against the fact that we have 1,500 more kids than we had 3 years ago and growing, and at the same time that RBS are shrinking, yet you don’t change the calculations and the numbers, so that means they’re getting overpaid and we’re getting underpaid. That has to be completely obvious to everyone, and if they’re not willing to acknowledge that and change it, then that’s just a completely…

CV: But does the mayor have any role in speaking about it, bringing it up?

JM: Absolutely! One of the problems is that because we’ve been talking about it so long, even people in Yonkers are fed up with hearing it. Almost after 20 years, people are just tired of it. Just because we’ve been saying it for that long doesn’t make it any less true, it’s just that people are starting to view it as making excuses. If, every time Mike Spano [at the WBWPC forum at the YWCA] crossed his arms and pointed in different directions, every time he did that I was waiting for Chuck to turn around and say, “No Mike, we’re not pointing like this, we’re pointing like this!” [points directly at wall with one finger]. It’s the state. And it is. So, we have to figure out a way to fix that, and I’m not sure other than just constantly the bully pulpit, the mayor of Yonkers does not have any literal control over Albany, it truly is a matter of developing relationships. You’re right that the mayor and the schools superintendent, to their credit, they go up on a regular basis during budget season to Albany to lobby on this issue. The city council certainly is never included in those trips has made an annual trip itself that, to me, was just a show. We would drive 3 hours to Albany, spend the night in a hotel, get up, and meet with Mike Spano, Andrea Cousins, and Jeff Kline, 3 people who…

KG: You can drive 3 blocks away and see here.

JM: Exactly. In fact this year, I finally put my foot down and said, “Guys, why are we going to Albany, it’s just a waste of time.” And we met with Andrea here in her office, and that was the famous meeting where Tom Abinanti, the newly elected assemblyman from Greenburg who represents literally 2 blocks of Yonkers comes into the meeting 40 minutes late, sits down, and says, “Well, you know, taxes are a lot higher in Greenburg, the problem is people in Yonkers just don’t pay enough taxes.” Even Mike Spano almost reached over the table to strangle him. I think there needs to be more coordination between administration and council as far as a lobbying effort and so forth.

CV: Anybody else?

JM: And the schools. I feel like we all go up there and say it, but it tends to be that the mayor’s up there today, and some parents from the PTA are up there, and now the city council goes up for a day in March, and talk to people we see on the circuit anyhow, I mean I probably see Andrea Stewart-Cousins twice a week whether I want to or not, you know. Just because we run into each other at things we need to go to. So, a more coordinated effort. The city has a lobbyist. The schools have a lobbyist whose name escapes me, who is a joint lobbyist for something called like The Big-5 School Districts, it has a name. So she’s lobbying for each city.

CV: We should contact her.

JM: Well, you could contact her, but the conflict should be obvious already. I remember Dennis Shepherd nearly went through the roof, his first year on the city council, when we went up to Albany and we went off to dinner, and this person joins us. And Dennis starts talking about the formula, and how the formula doesn’t treat Yonkers fairly. And she says, “No, no, no, you can’t talk about that.”

CV: Our lobbyist?

JM: Our lobbyist! She said, “You just have to ask them for other sources of aid, you can’t…”

KG: You have to work outside the formula.

JM: Yeah! Because the formula helps the other cities! Of course! So, something has to change there.

CV: Who employs her?

JM: I assume she’s under contract with the Board of Education, so I assume the school board. I don’t know, but I assume that’s what it would be. She’s a nice, bright lady, but to me there’s just an inherent conflict of interest there.

On Changes The Next Mayor Can Make “Right Away”

CV: What do you think you would be able to do, right away, a difference in our schools.

JM: [pause]

KG: Now we’re getting to the hard questions!

JM: No, it’s not a hard question, it’s an easy question. It’s a frustrating question.

CV: We understand.

JM: Because the answer is, when you say what can you do right away, the answer is on a very practical level, I’m not sure there is a whole lot you can do. Day one as mayor, I can walk in and say, “Guys, all the cars, I’m taking them away. Sorry commissioners, you have to drive your own cars to work.” That’s a very hard, simple thing, and I’m just using that as an example. That’s a concrete thing. Day one I can do this. The mayor doesn’t run the schools day-to-day, again, the mayor appoints the board, and the board hires the superintendent, and the superintendent has a contract. I’m not criticizing Bernie Peirorazio, I don’t want someone saying “He’s getting rid of the Super.” And I’m not saying that at all. In that sense, I don’t the mayor, day one, there isn’t some magic action the mayor can take. I think the most important thing is the next mayor, whoever it is, has to make it crystal clear, every day, starting day one, that the YPS, and we haven’t talked about charter schools or anything like that, but the Yonkers school system, and education generally in Yonkers, is the most critically important thing for the city of Yonkers. It’s, going back to my comment about how people don’t buy a house because it’s near an L.L. Bean, I can’t think of any better economic development tool…

CV: Why did it take so long?

JM: …than a good school system. Channel 12 asked today about crime in Yonkers, and obviously to the extent that you have teenage and grown gang criminals or whatever it may be in the streets of Yonkers, you have to have a zero-tolerance policy policy, but long term, education is a crime prevention issue, there’s no sugarcoating it. So, that to me is the, and I hope it doesn’t sound to loosy-goosy or like I’m avoiding the issue. Because of the way our system is structured, I’m not sure that day one the mayor, I’m the mayor, and I can’t walk into the BOE and say, “Change that, do that, fire her, replace him, promote this one.” You can’t do that. It’s not allowed. But, you have to start setting a tone, not from day one, I hope I’m setting the tone already, you can decide that, of saying, children, schools, and education; because education is not just Yonkers Public Schools as they are currently constituted, as I do think there is more room for charter schools, and parents’ options, but it just has to be the first thing you wake up talking about and go to sleep talking about. For me it is everything else. It’s economic development, it’s crime prevention, it’s all those different things. Shame on us for not engaging the…

CV: Education…

JM: …business community on every level. There’s a guy in Chappaqua, I can’t think of his name, there’s one of these hedge-fund masters in Chappaqua who recently donated, everybody heard about the $100 million donation or whatever it was to the Newark schools…

KG: From Facebook.

JM: This guy in Chappaqua donated $20 million to the Newark schools. And, I said to somebody, obviously, he didn’t live in Yonkers, but I said, he donated to Newark and he lives in Chappaqua, he had to drive through Yonkers to donate the check!

KG: That’s a good point.

On Private Investment in Public Education and The Teachers Welfare Fund

JM: I think that goes, again, to setting a tone. I’ll go back to March. I sat with a fellow, and I don’t want to use his name, but I sat with a fellow back in March, and he was born in Yonkers. He was raised in Yonkers. He graduated from the DiChiaro School when it was School #8 on Bronxville road, and he moved back to Yonkers as an adult. 10 years younger than me, he’s 40 years old. And he’s a hedge-fund millionaire beyond, and for all practical purposes, and he donates enormous amounts of money, from everything I understand, to school reform in New York City. And these aren’t his words, so don’t quote me, but for all practical purposes he said, I’m not going to waste my money in the Yonkers school system, it’s beyond help.

CV: How do you feel about that?

JM: The guy’s living in Yonkers, how do I feel about that? It’s not, clearly not, but to an outside observer, where is City Hall in support of the school system? Where is the YFT, which constantly says, quote, “It’s all about the children” but is willing to let hundreds of bright, young teachers get laid off, programs get cut, and fights us for years in the courts to keep us from even looking at the books for the Teachers’ Welfare Fund. $4, $5 million a year that we put into, I’m sorry, but a slush fund for the teachers’ union, because that’s all it is, I don’t know what they’re spending it on. They have salaries and then they have benefits, and then we put $4 or $5 million into a “welfare fund,” and the teachers union, that’s all taxpayer money, teachers union spends a year dragging us through court, and it costs about $500,000.

KG: And, I don’t know that that’s over yet. I haven’t read that those records have been turned over yet.

JM: They were ordered to, but I don’t know whether they did. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not beating up the teachers, I have a friend whose sister is a teacher in the YPS, and she was telling me last night how this little kid kept coming to school in a little spring jacket, and finally it was December and the teacher said something, and the kid said, “I have to wait until my sister outgrows her winter coat.” So the woman went out and bought the kid a coat. This is the school teacher, I mean, we have tremendous teachers. But, to an outside observer, look, this guy is a hedge-fund millionaire, why? Because he knows how to invest, and he’s an intelligent investor. He’s looking and he wants a return. Not literally a return, but if I’m going to support school reform, I want to support it, you know, down with the Harlem Success Academy with Geoffrey Canada, With E[?] Moscowitz [sp?]. We have to start convincing people that we can do that in Yonkers.

CV: I don’t know. I feel like we were on the way, and then last year, it went “pop.”

JM: The other day, again, I’m not going to go into who and what, but I met with people the other day in Albany to talk about these very, not government Albany, but people who are interested in school reform and what we can do and so on and so forth because we’ve got to start. You know, it frustrates me, there’s people doing this in Buffalo. They’re starting to do it in Buffalo now. And they’re certainly doing it in New Jersey, you know, it’s right here in the region. And Newark, NJ is in worse shape than we are, let’s be honest. Again, I’m not dumping on, I happen to be a big fan of Cory Booker’s, the mayor up there, and I’m certainly not dumping on Newark, NJ, but they don’t have even the tax base we have, they don’t have the middle class neighborhoods we have, they’re whole city is in tough shape. They have no base. And yet, they’re trying to do school reform and they’re doing it well enough that they’re attracting that private capital, that private investment. Charter school investment, whatever you want to call them.

On Charter Schools

RG: When you say school reform, I wasn’t here, so, does that mean charter schools?

JM: In my mind, in part, it does, yes. People always, one of the criticisms you hear all the time, and I know I’ve heard it for years, I heard it before I was in politics, and I hear it now, “All the politicians don’t use public schools, their kids don’t go to public schools.” You heard me say the other night, I don’t apologize for the fact that I chose to send my children to Catholic school. And I certainly don’t apologize for choosing to send them to Fordham Prep. because it’s tradition in my family. My younger son who graduated last year is like the 6th or 7th member of the family. I don’t apologize for that. The problem is that I choose St. Joe’s Grammar School over School #8 on Bronxville Rd., the problem is that other people don’t have that choice. Somehow we have to change that system. I get that there good charter schools and there are bad charter schools, but you know what, there are good public schools and there are bad public schools, there are good restaurants and there are bad restaurants. I don’t want to be flip, but Pat Puleo always gives me, “Well, you know that school, they’re not really doing anything great.” And I’ve heard from people that that charter is ok, it’s not the greatest, but, it’s certainly no worse than what we’re doing in our public schools, and it’s an option for people. The city of Albany…

CV: But doesn’t the money, some of their money come from our city?

JM: Sure it does. And the students are our, well in their case, they do bring kids in from the Bronx. So, but that money, as I understand comes from NYC. I mean, the answer to your question is, yeah, it’s taxpayer dollars, but it’s educating a Yonkers child.

CV: At the same time, our other schools are needing the money, so I don’t know how strong I feel about adding more charter schools because supposedly they’re not outperforming our public schools.

JM: This one isn’t. In New York City, a lot of them are.

CV: In New York City, but here we go, we’re in Yonkers.

JM: Yeah, but we’ve never tried.

CV: But when you look at the other schools that we have to support. They don’t have the psychologists that we need right now, and the high schools are down…

JM: Alright, you’ve got funding issues, no question. But we have to start thinking creatively on any number of levels. Frustration? We have 2 guidance counselors in our high schools for 400 students, 500 students, whatever it may be. Obviously that doesn’t work. Then, layoffs come. The union won’t budge. High school guidance counselors got laid off and bumped, it’s called “bumping rights.” Elementary school guidance counselors who were otherwise going to get laid off, bumped high school guidance counselors, so now an elementary school guidance counselor is suddenly the guidance counselor for seniors applying to college. They could be a perfectly good guidance counselor but not know anything about the college application process. Yonkers Partners in Education, starts setting up college resource centers in our high schools, and the unions are attacking them for it.

On YPIE, YFT, Bookmobiles, and Counseling Centers

KG: The College Counseling centers? They sued them over that, didn’t they?

JM: I don’t think they sued them, but those are union jobs, you’re taking union jobs.

KG: Let me tell a couple of stories, then. Apparently there was a library cut, librarians cut, and the parents came together and figured out how to get a library bookmobile donated to the school and outfitted it…

JM: And they didn’t let…

KG: …and the teachers didn’t take their classes to the bookmobile in the parking lot because it was a union decision that that was an inappropriate thing to do to take students to. So the kids still didn’t have any library.

JM: I think it was school #15, but that’s a true story.

KG: And the story with the Counseling Centers provided by YPIE being actively resisted. So, a few minutes ago you spoke about changing the tone and there being these legal proscriptions against going in and just saying, “This will change.” In the case of changing the tone, and as a person new to this community seeing this with outside eyes, I would love for someone to just stand up and say we need to stop working against each other. When…

CV: Yes!

RG: Mmm-Hmmhph!

KG: …when we first started talking about this being a group that was going to organize itself, however loosely, and at least let people know we are paying attention as a force for change, one of the very first feedback moments I had was a teacher I met who recognized me from speaking at the council meetings. I replied that we’ve started this new group called Yonker Parents United…In any case, she said, “Yeah, I’ve seen that, a couple of the teachers showed me that on the computer.” And, having shared that story of meeting this teacher, I later found out that same teacher advised other people in her building to not have anything to do with us. That our job as parents was in the PTA and that we were crossing a line…

CV: [Nodding head in agreement]

KG: …does this sound familiar?

CV: [Nods head again, RG too}

KG: And as you can see by the heads nodding at the table, this was apparently not an isolated incident. And so, my being a parent with a 4yo daughter just starting her journey in the YPS, and that’s the taste in my mouth, that’s my personal experience, confirmed by other parents, when we talk about increasing parental voice in the system, I don’t think teachers, or at least the teachers union, understand how adversarial they come across to the people who are sending their children into their buildings every day.

JM: I don’t know if they don’t understand, or if they don’t care.

KG: Either way…

JM: …I agree with you. I hear the frustration from the parents…

KG: …I don’t even know which is worse.

JM: …from teachers.

KG: I can’t even imagine a person, I’ve committed my life to education, and I cannot imagine the mentality of someone who has a group of 25 kids and a bookmobile in the parking lot that their parents provided…

JM: You have to understand…

KG: …then somebody gives them a phone call and says, “We’re not going to do that.” I can’t imagine myself saying, “Ok. I’m not going to do that.” That’s like…

JM: There’s an enormous amount of pressure…

KG: I couldn’t look at those 25 kids…

JM: …in the middle…

KG: …and feel like I was doing them justice…

JM: …in the middle of the whole budget thing, I got up to speak one night, and this was the NE Yonkers Republican Club, so obviously, it’s a political meeting. But, I got up to speak, and I was talking about all these issues, I made some comments about the union and the union president and so forth, and as I’m speaking, there was about 30 people, all members of the Yonkers Republican Club, and as I’m sort of, I hate to say it, but unloading on Pat Puleo and the union, out of the corner of my eye, a couple sitting there, she is a Yonkers school teacher. And I thought, now I’ve just opened the Pandora’s Box, right? But because it’s me I just keep talking, I don’t suddenly clam up, I say my peace, and people ask questions about this, that, and the other, and she doesn’t ask anything. Meeting breaks up, we all adjourn to the bar to have a beer or whatever and this individual comes up to me and she unloads on the union. She says, “You’re absolutely right, that meeting last week when they took the vote, it was an absolute travesty, people were afraid to speak out…” so the rank and file, I’m not going to say there aren’t bad ones, or ones that when they’re told, “Don’t go to the bookmobile” may not go because they really think that’s the thing to do, but there are a lot who, I think, are really afraid of the pressure…

KG: What kind of internal culture is that? To be afraid of your union leadership?

5% = $50 million

JM: Oh, absolutely! But I’ve told this story a million times, not this budget but a year ago. Again, I don’t want anybody to sacrifice, I don’t want anybody to give up anything they don’t have to give up, but we’re looking 1.5 years ago at teacher layoffs, police layoffs, fire layoffs, sanitation layoffs. And I had one of our city auditors, outside guys, do me a favor, if every single employee in the city of Yonkers took a 5% paycut, what would it do? Incidentally, a 5% pay cut might be, for an average person, $3,000 before taxes.

KG: That’s what it might be for that first year fireman, $3,200 or thereabouts.

JM: He said, “You’d save $50 million. You’d have no tax increase, no layoffs no nothing.” So, I say this, and the unions just go crazy. Including the guy who comes up to me and says, “Easy for you to say, it’s a part-time job.” I said, “You’re absolutely right, it’s a part-time job. I have a law practice, and if you think I’m not making 5% less in my little law practice than I was a couple of years ago when the economy was booming,” I said, “Don’t cry for me, my family’s not starving, but I’m not making what I was a couple years ago now that nobody’s buying houses, and I’m not doing any closings and I’m making less money than I did and that’s the economic reality.” But, the union leadership was all over me. I take my dogs out, and this is literally, in the middle of the budget hearings, and one morning, 6:30am in the morning, and I go out the door to walk the dogs over to the park and the garbage truck’s coming down the street. And I say, “Hey, guys.” They jump off the truck, they empty my garbage, and the guy comes up and he says, “John, I want to talk to you for a second.” He says, “Is it true what I heard you say the other night?” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “If everybody would just take a 5% then nobody would lose their job?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’d do that. I’d be willing to do that.” This is the garbage man. But, you think he’s going to the union hall and say that?

RG: It’s like I said before, it’s just distrust and unions, city officials, it’s like the story from Spencer who had his mistress, that was on Wikipedia.

And, that’s where we went off the record, then wrapped things up. Thanks for reading.