Notes from Meeting with Andrea Stewart-Cousins

| August 5, 2011

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Thank you to State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins (AS-C) for meeting with us for more than an hour today. These are the highlights of my notes from the meeting, comments in brackets are my own thoughts, everything else is paraphrased attributed by initials. If I got something wrong, or make a misstatement below, please correct me in the comments.

1) AS-C graduated from, taught in, and parented children through YPS.

2) Desegregation ruling and CFE lawsuit settlement resulted in hundreds of millions of time-limited state educational aid to Yonkers distributed over the last several years. None of these payments were indefinite, each carried expiration dates. City budgets were written assuming these payments would be recurring. Yonkers was expected to adhere to a “maintenance of effort,” continuing to contribute city revenue to the schools as it had before these settlements, but as this state money came in, the city reduced it’s own contributions to YPS. We are now past those expiration dates, and there is a huge hole in the YPS budget. Not a coincidence.

3) Yonkers Raceway contributes $19.6 million each year to YPS, spent at the discretion of the superintendent.

4) Superintendent is selected by BOE, BOE members are appointed by mayor. BOE, superintendent, and mayor have all made public requests for citizens to put pressure on the governor and state lawmakers, and to change the state funding formula. [There’s a reason the BOE and Superintendent have not called for changes in the Mayor’s budget proposals year after year, their jobs are dependent on the Mayor’s discretion. This makes it easier to answer every question about what to do next with an answer that points towards Albany rather than the Mayor’s office.]

5) References were made to “Bullet Aid” one-shots of the past 2 years, and I should have asked what “Bullet Aid” is. I’m not really sure.

6) Yonkers is in a different place economically than are Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse (RBS). We have economic foundations they don’t have, like it or not. Local games played with the money here have hurt us in Yonkers and in Albany.

7) When asked, “Can we separate the BOE or it’s financing from mayoral control?” AS-C told us, “It’s possible. It would not be easy, but I’m not going to dismiss anything out of hand until I’ve had a closer look at it. I could do my homework and find out what it would take.” Michelle S. mentioned that someone had asked Chuck Lesnick about this and was told it had been tried in the past and was a non-starter. Also, had asked Mr. Murtagh about it after the press conference announcing the final budget compromise and was told that couldn’t happen, that it would be impossible. [What failed in the past under very different conditions might be received differently under current conditions.]

8) As we wrapped up, we asked what the State Senator felt we should be paying attention to, and the questions we should be asking of mayoral candidates going forward this season. She told us to look at their records, voting decisions and public statements, especially. A reasonableness in admitting what has happened [Yonkers has an economic base and has misused it] and what needs to happen. We could also be looking for similarly positioned communities and what they have tried, and how those decisions are working out for them.

My summary: There may be no other city in NY comparable to Yonkers. Recent reports show Yonkers and NYC as the only two municipalities in the state that have increased in population since the last census, while millions have left the state during the same time frame. We have high property values, but the same low income per capita threshold as RBS. My question about that is, if our higher property values are the core variable in the state funding formula, then shouldn’t we also have the per capita income to live up to the assessment based on them? Instead, our per capita income is as low as RBS, which receive 90% of their school funding from NYS. If our economic base is so much stronger than RBS, then why is our per capita income as low as theirs? With Ridge Hill, massive construction, well paid police force, and fire (at least those with overtime), and our sandwiched-geography between Westchester to the north and NYC to the south, why is it our per capita income is the same as RBS, which have none of those advantages? How can they be in such a worse place than we are when the per capita income of all 4 cities is nearly identical?

Also, some consistencies between our meetings with Mr. Spano and Ms. Stewart-Cousins. Both have reported the Racetrack money does go directly to YPS each year. Now I’m wondering why skepticism of that claim was so widespread in the crowds at the open hearing rallies? Both argue the funding formula is not the root of the problem, and that there has been enough state aid that we should at least be in a better position in YPS, with fewer programs cut, than is the case. Both have been open to the exploration of the idea of disrupting mayoral control of YPS budgets and BOE appointments, even thought both said this would be a difficult and multi-year effort.

In person, I was impressed with her candor and sincerity. But, again, as we have seen amongst ourselves, the road to long term solutions seems to run through this year’s mayoral and city council elections.

And I really found Ms. Stewart-Cousins analogy of Yonkers to a family that has 3 children, one of which is well fed by its parents, and 2 of which go hungry every night insightful. If the mayor sets the budget, and some of the city departments are well taken care of each year, and some are not, it should be easy to see who the favored children are. But, I would say 2 (public unions other than YFT, and city admin/development) are eating well and one is not (YPS).

Thank you to the other members of our group who attended the meeting, and to those who would have liked to but were unable for some reason, to Ms. Stewart-Cousins’ staff, and, thank you for reading this far and trying to stay informed.

Please share your thoughts/questions in the comments.