Conversation with Mike Spano

| September 12, 2011


Thursday night, Mr. Spano spent nearly 90 minutes with a few parents in a living room in the Park Hill neighborhood of Yonkers. County Legislator José Alvarado accompanied him. While several parents asked questions, the transcript below simply uses ‘YPU’ to indicate when they were speaking. The following is a transcribed and edited account of that conversation. We have invited the Spano campaign to visit this page and leave a comment to clarify or correct anything in the transcript.

MS = Mike Spano

YPU = Yonkers Parents United

JA = José Alvarado

RBS = Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse

On the Education Redesign Team

MS: What I’m going to do as Mayor is this….we’re going to put together an eduction redesign team..I think it’s important.  The Superintendent does not like the idea…he’s already come out publicly against my idea…I’m going to continue to push for it no matter what. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to put PTA, Teachers Union, CSEA, all the stakeholders, a representative from the delegation, a representative from the city delegation, obviously a representative from the BOE, and we’re going to go through our budget top to bottom, and we’re going to see how we spend our money, are we spending our money wisely?  We’re spending $18,000 per pupil, is that a good number, it should be a good number, but there are places outside of Yonkers  who spend more, but, as you know, there are places outside of Yonkers that spend less.  We have places in Yonkers education that are doing really well, like in certain programs in the Yonkers BOE, the Yonkers High School program is doing really well, the Saunders program is doing really well, if you send your kid to grammar school most parents seem to want to send their kids to school 15, but we don’t have 40 school 15s. We’ve had some success. But we’ve had some failures.

We do need that education redesign team. And that is going to tell us are we spending the money where we should be spending it…do we need certain things in the BOE, I don’t know about you but I don’t think we need a TV show, I don’t think we need a press secretary, I mean there are certain things that the BOE has that we don’t need. I mean, I would rather see teachers in classrooms, but that’s what we need to look at.

Casino Money

MS: About two years ago, I don’t know if you remember, the mayor came out, he sent a bill to Yonkers Raceway for $20 million dollars, and said that they needed to pay a tax on the people who were using the facility…do you remember that? It was two dollars a person. I don’t know about you, but anything times zero is still zero.  They don’t charge an entrance fee. So you can’t charge them a tax on an entrance fee.  What our mayor said was you guys are going to pay two dollars per person who walks in to the raceway, and then the press was the mayor goes after the raceway for the $20 million, now meanwhile the $20 million that we’re talking about is a different $20million that comes from NYS and is there….that’s been covered.  This is the $20million that we saw in the paper, that they weren’t paying, right? And so there was a lot of confusion.

YPU: Two different $20 millions is what you are saying?

MS: DIfferent $20 million…there was a lot of confusion…

On Dependent School Districts

YPU: Education is important to me for, well, for a lot of reasons, obviously because I think it is morally important to us, we have an obligation to educate our children. The other side of it is that, for you to have a good strong economic base in your community, and for you to encourage businesses and people to move here, we need to have a good strong educational system. And that starts with, one, a good system, which I think in large respect we have, two, a system that doesn’t have all the drama, which I think is a problem for us, because each and every year is a drama. Now, that drama exists, I think, because we have a dependent school district. Yonkers is a dependent school district, so all our budgets, basically, need to be formed under one roof.  As a result, you’re sometimes put in a situation where parents or homeowners or residents are asked to choose between a police officer and a teacher, which is like asking them which limb to cut off. We need to have focus on education that is about education. It’s going to be hard for us to do it as a separate entity, but we’ve talked about that too [referring to a previous meeting with YPU parents], we’ve talked about separating the school district, which I would not be opposed to, but the problem is this, it’s a constitutional issue. BIg city school districts cannot levy their own taxes, they cannot incur their own debt, hence they cannot be separate. That’s in the state constitution. Even though we know it is a dependent school district, and at the end, must be voted on in the context of the city wide budget, I said why not allow a binding referendum to take place in Yonkers, on our schools, to allow the city, along with the other districts, from around the county, to vote on their budget.

YPU: They would be voting on the line items in the budget and you would give them an amount?

YPU: No, it would be a total tax levy.  At least it would be a debate about education and education only. Not a debate about how many cops and how many firemen we are going to cut, versus teachers. That’s where we’re losing the fight. We’re losing the fight there. The budget is done, the municipal side is set,

You know John Spencer did it very successfully, at the very beginning of his career, he said, “The state doesn’t give us enough money for education,” we had a governor who was willing to listen, we had a legislature that was willing to listen, we got additional dollars, the economy was with us, and additional dollars came down. The economy turned against us and the world is a different place now.  So we still never should have had that mindset of education is not ours. We’re the only community that I know, that will say you know, it’s not up to us, it’s up to the state to educate our kids. No, it’s not. It’s up to us to educate our kids. It’s up to us to have a good system.

RBS as Partners?

MS: I think one, we do the education redesign team, we look to see if we can create some efficiencies there.  Two, we will, where we don’t have the efficiencies, we’ll look at our own budget and when we do increases, we’ll try to make adjustments as best we can, within the tax-cap, remember we have a tax-cap we have to live within.  Three, I think this is really important, and I think it is something we need to do right after the election, I am talking in November, after election day, and I have spoken to Labor leaders about this, I’d like to speak to PTAs about it, and I think it is only something you can do after the election, because of the political component to it, and people are going to think it is just politics if I bring it up now.

We are going to need to form coalitions with other big cities. The cities, no matter how much money they get, and yes there are cities that get more than us and cities that get less than us, but no matter how much money they get, the cities are in the same boat. They have increasing pressure by having a poor population, by high unemployment.  We have a shrinking business base and we have a middle class that’s taxed beyond belief. That’s the same scenario that exists in every single big little city, whether it be Yonkers, Buffalo, Rochester, you can go outside of NYS and go into other states. We’re gong to need to form coalitions with those legislators, those labor leaders, and those PTAs. And then we can go to Albany and speak in unison. To go to Washington to speak in unison about some of our needs.  Because if our cities fail, and our cities have been held together for some time now with chewing gum and band aids.  If we allow them to fail, then you know what, Hastings will fail, Scarsdale will fall….

Save The Drama

MS: You know, there is only one school district in the state of New York this year that had the issues that we had. Everyone got the cut, everyone took the cut, but we’re the one school district that took the devastation, and I have to question that, I have to question why we don’t have a five year plan that we really abide by.  We should have a five year plan. We should know that this is what we’re faced with and these are the steps that we are going to take to deal with these things. They don’t want to make a five year plan available because then you can’t have everyone up in arms. And you know I don’t mind asking people to jump on board for a cause, and the cause of our kids is a good cause, right? I mean, that’s what we want, right? I don’t like when we put our community in a position to be afraid about the quality of their kids’ education. When you do that, they leave. You can ask the superintendent about this, was it two years ago, Patterson was the governor, right, and, I don’t know if you guys remember this, you probably remember this, but Paterson vetoed some education language in the budget, and as a result of his veto, he vetoed some $35 million in funds Yonkers was going to get. The Superintendent, instead of telling the delegation on Thursday night when he found out about it, held a special meeting of the city council on Saturday and basically told us the world was coming to an end. That there were going to be $35 million in mid year cuts, do you remember this? Mid year cuts, do you know what that means, that means $70million in cuts, which would have been utter devastation. I got together with Senator Cousins and the legislation was out of session, and we got something done that was only done maybe twice, that I can  ever remember, we got the president of the senate, the speaker of the assembly,  and the governor sign a letter committing that when this legislature went back into session, before years end, they would pass these dollars, I got the comptroller to agree to accept that letter, and our budget went on and we were fine. Now what I said to Bernard was “Couldn’t you have called us on Thursday before you got all our people crazed?” I’m not saying that you should ever hide anything from the public, but if we can deal with it without getting everyone all upset, then let’s deal with it.

Redesign Team Revisited

MS: I plan to be the kind of mayor who is engaging, who goes to PTA meetings, that will get a budget briefing, that will will get this education redesign team up and running so that we can get the ideas of people so we can put them forward and try to straighten our dollars out. And do it early so that people have an understanding of what it is we’re faced with.

MS: At the end of the day, the Superintendent will have the final word, because that’s the way the structure works, unless we get the ability of the state to change that.

On Labor Unions and Deficits

YPU: So, recommendations…

MS: Right now, it’d be recommendations. Now, I truly believe, watching Bernard in my time in office, knowing Bernard and going as far back as when he was Principal of Saunders, he’s a smart man, I think he’s good at reading the tea leaves and understanding a process and I think he’s going to see that there’s a new administration in town. That we are trying to solve our problems, that we are not going to be getting our public gall generated just for the sake of trying to shake money out of some level of government. I think he may like my approach and he may come on board and try to be helpful. He should be. There’ll be enough people around him to encourage him to do that. I will do it with positive reinforcement like I always do. I’m not the kind of person who throws a lot of runs and criticizes everybody for certain things, I save those moments for when they really have to be used. I try and build relationships and build consensus through a team when we try to get things done. And that’s what I’m going to try to do as mayor, but it’s not going to be easy. These are tough years. Our school district grew…we are not in bankruptcy, even though we have some very tough years ahead of us. They will be uncomfortable, just like they were in Albany this year. As you know, it was a $10 billion budget deficit in the state’s budget this year. It was uncomfortable, but not at the point where we were going to have to dismantle the entire government. We did a 10% across the board cut, except on education, which was 3%…

YPU: Let my interrupt for just one second. How do we feel that discomfort? You say it’s uncomfortable, what do you mean by uncomfortable?

MS: If you look at the budget, if it’s $50 million out of close to a billion dollar budget, that’s like 5%. So we have a 5% problem.

YPU: I’ll take your word for the numbers…

MS: It is going to be uncomfortable, but we can deal with a 5% problem.

YPU: Who’s we? You mean ‘downtown’ we?

MS: We as a city, we as a workforce, we as a school district…all of us together. If the hole is $50 million, in a billion dollar budget, it’s a 5% issue.

YPU: So, it’s belt-tightening uncomfortable.

MS: It’s belt-tightening, but it may be a little more than belt-tightening. Our unions needs contracts. We’re going to have to work with them in partnerships and I think that that’s an approach that will be a better approach for us, and I think that labor is probably 80% of the total budget. I think if we treat labor like the enemy, you shouldn’t be surprised when they start to act like the enemy. So don’t be surprised when trash piles up in the middle of the street. So, if you take the perspective, and I really liked the way Andrew Cuomo did this, Andrew Cuomo never once talked bad about any labor group in the state of New York. No matter what was said about him or the budget, he said we have the best workforce in our state. And I understand what they’re doing, I understand they’re trying to get as much as they can. We have a responsibility to the taxpayers. We’re going to try to make this work. I don’t want to balance the budget on their backs but I need them to be a partner with me. And you know what, we ended up doing a half-a-billion of dollars in savings in this year’s budget at the state level because of the deals that were made with the labor workforce.

YPU: Through concessions? Renegotiations?

MS: There were some concessions, some on both sides. There were certain things that labor wanted that the state could do that didn’t cost all that much money in exchange for other things, but we ended up getting the savings that we needed. That’s treating them like a partner. It doesn’t start by saying, you can’t treat someone like a partner when you say, “This is what I want to take away from you.” Then they’re not a partner.

YFT Concessions, and Is Yonkers Self-Sustainable?

YPU: This’ll be my last question, then I’ll let you finish, but there’s a perception that the YFT is the only labor union not to make concessions.

MS: My answer is this. Look at the budget, we are not going, we are not bankrupt. We have some tough years ahead of us, we have an adjustment of anywhere from 5% to 10%. If it’s 5 or 10%, we adjust to that, and no matter what we still need have 90% of the dollars we need to run this city. If you look at it from a glass-half-full perspective, somebody says, in this environment we are people losing their jobs, people not having the overtime, they are not getting the income levels they are used to having, if I told you I have 90% of your salary, they might just say, “Hey, that’s a good thing.” So, I think that Yonkers has always been a city perched on greatness, but it’s just been a city that has not been able to get it right, and has been unwilling to make the tough choices. For 16 years, instead of dealing with this 5-10% problem, they borrowed through it. One-shots, the education money, selling the Yonkers Public Library, they took that money put it in the budget, spent that. So, one-shots, one-shots. We are not one-shotting this budget. We are going to look at our budget, top to bottom, and we are going to balance it.

YPU: Create a self-sufficiency?

MS: That’s right. I want our city to run on its own. I don’t want us to have our yearly lives based on what people can or can’t give us. I don’t want our daily lives to be based on what people, as in other levels of government, it has to be…

YPU: Sure.

MS: …something we can afford as taxpayers.

YPU: And you think Yonkers can be sustainable?

MS: Yes. There have been years when we’ve demonized the delegation and I don’t know why, whether it was Andrea and Nick before Andrea, it was [?] before Nick, it was, “They never do enough for us, they don’t work hard enough for us.” That’s not the way you want to go. I work very well with José Alvarado, he’s the budget chairman for the [Westchester] Board of Legislators, he’s a very powerful person on the Board, it’s to my advantage as mayor to work with him. Because I need to enlist him as a partner, I need him to be a cheerleader on the Board for our effort. I shouldn’t dismiss him and tell him that he’s bad because, a personality is a personality, and it isn’t going to move our system, it’s not going to move us forward. That’s what I’ll do with the delegation, with the county delegation, the state delegation, and the federal delegation. We’re going to work together, and they are going to know exactly what my administration and our city needs and what it needs it for. We’re not going to have the gamesmanship and all the things we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the last couple years. I have been, for my time in office, a no-drama kind of person who rolls up his sleeves who works hard for the city and gets the job done no matter how I have to do it. And, as mayor I’ll be the same exact way. That’s the only way we’re going to flourish.

On the Board of Education

MS: …Now, I’m going to need some help because we’re going to have to redesign the Board of Education and we’re going to have to talk about how we’re going to do that. I think the difference between me and maybe other mayors has been that if I have to get state laws changed to get more access to the Board of Education and the way they do business, while I might not be able to separate them, I can get that access because I have a lot more influence at the state level to get that job done. That’s an influence that I know the Superintendent knows I have, so that if I say, “We’re going to do something and if I have to get legislative approval to do it, I’ll get it.” And I think it will be that type of…

YPU: …relationship…

MS: …the hammer, or the relationship, that’s going to help move the process along a little bit more. The bottom line is how we run our Board of Education will be very different. A Blue Ribbon Panel, something which was talked about today, something which our mayors haven’t done in the past couple years, allow a Blue Ribbon Panel to vet potential candidates who are nominated for our board, is something that is easy and immediately should be done. Picking them potentially by council districts so they’re a little more reflective of council districts is another way of doing it.

JA: And have one appointed by the council president and that breaks the tie.

MS: And I’m not opposed to any of that. What I’d like to do is, like I said, right after election day, there’s going to be another series of hearings, and I’m talking right after election day because if we’re going to do these changes we’re going to do them hard…

On the Family Business

MS: Well, my family’s been here for a hundred years, and while my family’s been involved in politics, no one in my family’s ever worked in a position in the city government, whether it be a councilman or a mayor. That was something that we just didn’t do. Not for any other reason, I mean, I was in the Assembly, and Nick was in the Senate. I think we did good jobs there, and that was important, but I think that the real change, the real fundamental changes, if you want to make a real difference, you do it by running for mayor. And that’s why I want to run for mayor. I think that all the things that I aspire to, all the things that I’ve talked about, all the criticisms I’ve given of every mayor for the past 3 mayors, or 4, are, I couldn’t really do anything about it because at the end of the day, they make the choices, they pick the school board, they pick the superintendent, they pick the commissioners…

YPU: It’s a strong-mayor form of government.

MS: It’s a strong-mayor form of government. I can criticize, I can critique, I can make suggestions, but at the end of the day, they run the city. And no one in my family’s ever been in that position and if given that opportunity I plan to make a real positive change…

On Distrust

YPU: …these things chip away at the ability…

MS: There’s been a real loss of trust. That distrust has bled itself into what we were just talking about. These are areas that, because they deal with loss of jobs, because you’re actually replacing with a volunteer a position that was paid for, you run into resistance from labor. It’s going to require us, and a mayor, to be much more up front, in much more of a leadership position than we’ve currently seen to work with Pat P. and YPIE in bringing about some kind of consensus. Pat, she knows numbers. She knows at the end of the day if she feels that she’s getting a fair shake she will give in on other items if it helps the overall picture, if it helps our kids. But if she thinks she’s not getting a fair shake, and there’s a distrust, a disconnect there, whoever it is, it’s up to the mayor to take the two in a room and beat them over the head, until they get it together. Of course, right now, there’s not a lot of real good communication going on.

JA: The level of arrogance…

MS: It will be up to our new mayor to bring them together. Now, it sounds overly simple and it will be much harder to implement, but that’s the only way it’ll get done. If you bring these guys together, you get them to understand there are real issues with this budget, I think that here is a…she doesn’t believe that the superintendent’s telling the truth…I can work well with the state-wide unions, I can work pretty well with [?] too. I think that sometimes, that there is that level of distrust and that needs to be dealt with. Rather than say one or the other is the boogey-person, I’d rather start off and say, “You know what, you have your interests, you have your interests, we all understand, but we all really have only one interest, and that’s the education of these kids.” And we can only do it with this much, because we don’t have…

On Transparency, and Why Be Mayor in the First Place?

MS: You know we have a Freedom of Information Officer who doesn’t do a heck of a lot…

YPU: My understanding is [someone in the mayor’s office] flips the switch off when things get hot [in the council chamber].

MS: I have not gotten one, I have not gotten a FOIL request and I’m a member of the state legislature. We’re going to replace him. And we’re going to get FOIL requests. Because that’s what it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to be able to ask questions, we’re supposed to facilitate that, and I can’t have a person who won’t do that, and I’m going to replace that person as soon as I can. Now, to talk about the City Council, by itself, and the minutes of their meetings and what they do, that should be something that they take care of. I’m a firm believer in separation of…

JA: And you know what Amicone…

MS: …you don’t have that now, and I’m going to push for that, and I’m going to do that. I know many of the players, as you know, I’ve been around a long time. My dad was in politics, and there are people who were in their positions that I knew when I was a kid. I’m going to speak very strongly, be very clear with them about my mission and the direction I’m going to go in, and if they can’t go there, I’m going to ask that they leave. And, if they choose not to, then you know what, then they won’t. Then they just won’t be reappointed when the time comes. But I really believe that most of the people in these positions will welcome the opportunity to work with the mayor.