Tag Archive | "New York State"

New York State Budget’s Education Reforms Draw Criticism

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Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

New York’s school districts have watched Albany intently since January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a $1.1 billion increase in education aid on the condition that the Republican-controlled State Senate and Democratic-led State Assembly agree to his series of education reforms.

Those reforms, called a “disgrace” by the state’s teachers’ unions and denied by a growing movement of parents who are “opting out” of state tests, include linking teacher evaluations more closely with student test scores, making it harder for teachers to be hired and easier for them to be fired, and allowing state takeovers of schools whose students perform poorly on tests.

Democrats in the Assembly, members of the governor’s own party, voiced their strong opposition to the reforms as they voted on the budget on Tuesday, March 31, but conceded that passing the budget and avoiding a government shutdown was of greater priority than preventing the education overhaul. An aide  to Senator Kenneth P. LaValle confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the budget’s final language was still being worked on before the formal adoption. By Wednesday, some concessions had been made, but not enough to quiet the worries of educators across the state and the growing opposition of parents and their children.

Although legislators, educators and teachers unions opposed the bulk of the reforms, the primary standout is teachers’ evaluations, which will be taken further out of the hands of the schools themselves. The governor wanted half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance on state tests, which educators and parents alike have decried, saying the system would put even more emphasis on “teaching to the test” and less on creative, engaging learning.

Administrators and school board members in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Southampton and Bridgehampton have publicly spoken out against the governor’s reforms.

“It is ridiculous,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the Sag Harbor School Board, at a meeting last month. “It just puts more pressure on that single test being the only measure of effectiveness…it’s very unhealthy—this increased anxiety-ridden testing environment that the governor’s creating and ratcheting up.”

The new budget removes teachers evaluation planning from the legislative process and places the power of determining the weight of the various components, primarily test scores and observations, into the hands of the State Education Department, which will have to come up with a plan by June. The department gained notoriety last year for its haphazard rollout of the Common Core standards  when it administered tests to students before providing teachers and parents with basic materials like lesson plans and textbooks.

Under the new evaluation system approved Tuesday, teachers will continue to be judged on the current scale as “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” or “highly effective.” Those who teach math and English to third through eighth graders will be judged on their students’ performance on state tests in those subjects and high school teachers will be judged on the Regents exams. Educators whose courses don’t end in state exams, such as art or kindergarten teachers, will be evaluated based on “student learning objectives” determined by the state.

Observations conducted by a principal or administrator within the school and an “independent” observer from a different school will also play a role in a teacher’s grade. Lesson plans, student portfolios, and student and parent feedback surveys may no longer be considered in determining whether or not a teacher is doing their job.

In addition to requiring that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on tests, the governor wanted 35 percent to come from an observer from outside the district, with the remaining 15 percent determined by the teacher’s school itself, numbers that education proponents are urging the state to abandon.

“The idea of a teacher evaluation system being related to 85 percent coming from outside local control is absolutely horrific,” said Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson Middle/High School and president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, who fears the Education Department is under the governor’s control and will end up implementing his desired weighting regardless of the input of legislators and educational experts.

“A lot of what this is, is the governor is unhappy with the teachers union on the state level because the teachers union didn’t endorse him…. a lot of this on his part is an eye for an eye kind of thing.”

Other components of the budget will make it harder to become a teacher in the state, which has been struggling to recruit new educators in recent years, and for teachers to keep their jobs. Every five years, teachers and administrators with lifetime certification will be required to register with the state again and complete 100 hours of continuing education or professional development under “rigorous standards” to be released by the Education Department. There is no funding mentioned to help school districts comply with the mandate. The state’s graduate schools of education will be required to “adopt rigorous selection criteria,” including a cumulative 3.0-grade-point average during an applicant’s undergraduate career. Teachers will not be able to qualify for tenure until they have taught for four years, as opposed to the current three.

“We’re reading articles about less and less people wanting to become teachers in New York State because we have a governor that’s creating a platform that seems to be…hostile to teachers and children, both,” said Ms. Tice.

In addition to the teachers union and state legislators, a grassroots movement of opposition has formed in the state and is swiftly growing on the East End. New York State United Teachers Union President Karen Magee encouraged parents to “opt-out,” or remove their children from standardized testing, saying it is the only effective method of resisting the governor’s changes, and a group of local parents is taking up the charge, opting their children out of the state exams, which begin on April 14.

“The goal for us parents and teachers is to get as many families to refuse the test as possible, because that’s where it gets noticed,” said a Pierson Middle School parent who wished to remain anonymous until the group comes out publicly. “I don’t really have a political bone in my body, but at this point it’s really hard to ignore…. the testing is ineffective and it’s not pro-student, it’s not pro-teacher, it’s not pro-school.”

Mr. Kinnier said he is generally in support of standardized testing because it helps teachers to serve their students and “the school can look at their program and make adjustments based on results. It allows you to compare where our students are compared to other students across Long Island and across New York and I think those are good things.”

On the state exams for third through eighth graders, however, teachers do not receive students’ results. They are given a numerical grade of one through four for each student, but no additional information on what a student struggled with or what areas were challenging, so they cannot diagnostically look at the right and wrong answers and adjust their program accordingly.

“The state exams on the seventh and eighth grade level are more challenging than the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam,” said Mr. Kinnier. “And the reason why the state makes the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam so easy is because it’s one of the requirements to graduate from high school, so they have these other tests which their only purpose is to judge teachers.”

Teachers across the state write the Regents exams, which are included on students’ high school transcripts, but Pearson, a for-profit testing company with strong lobbies in Albany, writes, administers, and grades the exams for younger students.

“That’s another thing that virtually all teachers are opposed to—these state exams ought to be written by teachers and not a for-profit test writing company,” said Mr. Kinnier.

The teachers union is “taking a close look” at how the state is spending money for testing purposes and links between leaders in Albany and profiteers at Pearson, he added.

Thiele Proposes Legislation to Eliminate GEA, Give State Aid Back to Schools

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By Tessa Raebeck 

In order to fill a shortfall in its budget, five years ago New York State began deducting aid money from its school districts through the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a formula loudly criticized by educators, school boards and districts across the state.

Now, state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor has introduced legislation to repeal the GEA. His bill is co-sponsored by State Senator Kenneth LaValle and supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Originally enacted to close a $10 billion state budget deficit in the worst years of the recession, the GEA has reduced education aid to New York’s schools by nearly $9 billion in the five school years since its inception in 2010. Schools in New York receive less state aid now than they did during the 2009-10 school year.

Although East End schools do not typically receive large amounts of state aid, the GEA has cost Sag Harbor more than $400,000 over the past two years.

The GEA was introduced by former Governor David Paterson when state legislators developing the budget realized New York’s anticipated revenue did not cover expenses, resulting in a “gap” between the money the state was taking in and the money it needed to operate. The GEA was created to fill that gap by essentially passing the financial burden onto the state’s school districts.

Assemblyman Thiele, who serves on the Assembly’s Education Committee and did not vote in favor of the reduced education aid when it was originally proposed five years ago, said on Tuesday that the financial issues used to promote the GEA are no longer facing the state, and thus its elimination this year is both incumbent and timely.

“I voted against it then because I didn’t think we should be taking money away from education, but now we’ve gone from a deficit to over a $5 billion surplus, so there really is no excuse for continuing the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a continuing cut in state aid for the local school districts,” he said.

“Continued state aid loss due to GEA reductions will continue to erode the quality of education school districts can provide. The state cannot continue to pass along its revenue shortfalls to local school districts,” the New York State School Boards Association said in a statement against the GEA, adding that the losses have resulted in “detrimental cuts to personnel, the educational program, services and extracurricular activities” as well as the depletion of reserve funding in districts across the state.

School district officials in both Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor regularly lament that the reduction in state aid has come at the same time as rising costs and the tax levy cap, a law enacted under Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2011 that limits school districts and other municipalities from raising property taxes by district-specific formulas that take into account variables like the Consumer Price Index.

“At a time when New York State has the dual goals of freezing property taxes and improving the quality of education, it is imperative that we provide a level of state funding that is equal to the task,” Assemblyman Thiele said in a press release on the bill.

In a statement taking a strong stance against the aid reduction, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services said, “Several years into the educational funding crisis, many school districts are finding that they have few options left to preserve programs and services that students and families count on.”

The amount taken from each school district is determined annually by a calculation that leans harder on wealthy districts, so suburban schools on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley are, in general, adversely affected by the reduction more than those in New York City.

Last year, Long Island enrolled 17 percent of New York’s students, but received only 12 percent of state aid for education.

“It’s more important to us than it is to the city school districts,” said Assemblyman Thiele. For suburban legislators from Long Island and the Hudson Valley, he said “the number-one priority for education for us is getting rid of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.”

In the 2013-14 school year, the Sag Harbor School District had some $241,000 in state aid taken away through the GEA, according School Business Administrator Jen Buscemi. This year, the district lost $171,395 in aid it otherwise would have received.

“The bottom line,” Assemblyman Thiele said, “is that this issue is going to get resolved one way or another as part of the school aid package that we do with the budget, that hopefully will be done  before April 1.”

In January, Governor Cuomo announced he would not release his school aid figures unless the legislature adopts his package of educational reforms. He agreed to grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in funding to New York’s schools if and only if the legislature passes his reforms, but threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent if they are not met.

State Aid for Sag Harbor Uncertain as Governor Cuomo Holds Education Budget Hostage

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By Tessa Raebeck

With Governor Andrew Cuomo holding school aid in limbo in hopes of forcing the New York State Legislature to adopt his educational reforms, next year’s school budgets—and educational mandates—remain a mystery to school boards and administrative teams trying to prepare for the 2015-16 school year.

“What the governor is doing is he wants to push his reform package,” Tommy John Schiavoni, legislative liaison to the Sag Harbor Board of Education, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

In January’s State of the State address, Governor Cuomo agreed to grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in state funding to New York’s schools if and only if the legislature passes his reforms. If the legislature—which, divided between a Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate, is often at a standstill—fails to do so, the governor threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent. In the meantime, those crafting school budgets must play a guessing game without direct information on how much state aid they’ll receive.

“He has publicly said that if he doesn’t get it, they’re going to hold back money from education,” Mr. Schiavoni said of the governor.

The reform package proposed by the governor includes teacher evaluations with 50 percent based on standardized tests, a proposal rebuked by the state’s teachers unions.

“I think that is certainly something that will affect us [and the annual Professional Performance Review] we’ve developed in Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Schiavoni.

Governor Cuomo is also requesting a five-year tenure plan to “make it easier to discipline teachers,” Mr. Schiavoni said. If enacted, the governor’s plan would make it easier for teachers to be fired and harder for them to be granted tenure.

Other reforms the governor is compelling the legislature to adopt include: raising the number of charter schools in the state by 100 and requiring those schools to accept less advantaged and lower-scoring students; starting a pilot pre-K program for 3-year-olds; sending specialists into schools that have been designated as “failing” for three years; and creating an education tax credit for private, public and charter school donations.

The governor’s office will not release the final financial numbers until the budget has passed, which could be as late as April 1. School districts, in turn, must tell the state comptroller’s office whether they plan to pierce the state tax cap, enacted in 2011, by March 1, at which point they could be missing information vital to understanding next year’s finances.

In other school board news, Superintendent Katy Graves said the district has accepted the i-Tri program, a self-empowerment group in which middle school girls focus on building confidence, mental health and physical stamina over six months, culminating with the girls racing in a triathlon in July.

The program was expected to be voted on by the board on Tuesday, but did not end up requiring a vote because there are no longer any transportation costs associated with it.

Theresa Roden, director and founder of i-tri, “has such a wealth of volunteers that are willing to come from the community into the school building that it’s become a facilities use agreement,” Ms. Graves said.

There are no costs for the district, but the program will use Pierson’s facilities and the administrative team, who will help i-tri with the selection process, which favors girls who are not involved in interscholastic sports.

Pierson Middle School Vice Principal Brittany Miaritis said the school is dispensing a survey for i-tri this week to “figure out girl selection for the program.”

The board’s next meeting is Monday, February 23, in the Pierson library. A budget workshop will be held at 6 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.

New York Ballots Will Include Proposal to Bond $2 Billion for Technology in Schools

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By Tessa Raebeck

At the polls November 4, New Yorkers will vote on whether or not to authorize the state to issue and sell $2 billion in bonds to support statewide technological improvements.

The proposal, the Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014, was brought up at the Sag Harbor School District’s Board of Education meeting on Monday, October 20, by board member Tommy John Schiavoni, the school board’s legislative liaison.

If approved, the money raised would be used for various projects related to purchasing educational technology equipment and facilities, such as laptop computers, tablets and high-speed internet; constructing and modernizing facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space; and installing high-tech security features in school buildings.

The measure was proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and backed by members of both parties in the State Legislature, including local representatives Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle.

Supporters of the proposition argue students belong in classrooms rather than trailers and children are better prepared for modern careers when they learn in a setting that is technologically up-to-date. Opponents, however, say the measure would add to New York’s already substantial debt and that it is impractical for the state to borrow money to fund technology that will soon become obsolete in a rapidly changing industry.

Sag Harbor voters will have the opportunity to answer yes or no to the $2 billion bond in Proposal 3 on the November 4 ballot.

 

Videotaping Pilot

Also at Monday’s meeting, the school board discussed the progress of the six-month pilot program to videotape its meetings for online access.

“I understand that the videotape of the board meeting from September 29 is unavailable,” Noyac resident Elena Loreto said to the board.

Board of Education President Theresa Samot said the video was unable to be posted “due to technical issues.”

“It was all garbled,” explained Superintendent Katy Graves.

“There was a problem with the display and the video itself,” added Chris Tice, vice president of the school board.

School board member Sandi Kruel noted there have been fewer people in the audience at meetings since taping began, which was a concern of the board when the initiative was first considered. She added the district does not have control over LTV, the East Hampton television studio that airs the recordings, and cannot direct when those recordings are posted.

“It’s just kind of out there like we’re trying to hide something and it’s very offensive,” Ms. Kruel said of the missing September 29 video.

“This is a new process for all of us and that’s why we set this up as a pilot and we were very clear about that when we set forth,” added Director of Technology Scott Fisher, who is in charge of the program. “So, we’re trying to work out some of the technical issues associated with it.”

Mr. Fisher said he currently delivers the memory card of the recordings to LTV in person, which can result in delays in how quickly they are available online.

“They do a lot with a really small crew of people,” added Mr. Fisher of the LTV staff.

“The meeting that didn’t go up was a result of the video camera just not focusing,” he said, adding that at the last workshop they filmed the meeting from a different angle.

“It was still a problem but not as obvious, that’s why tonight I’m not using that video camera anymore and we switched to an iPad to see if we’ll have better results…we’re working all this out so I appreciate your patience,” Mr. Fisher continued.

“We proactively ask for your continued positive support even if there are some technical errors…our staff is doing the best we can having these new added responsibilities on their plate,” added Ms. Tice.

Members of the Pierson High School Student Council attended Monday’s meeting to thank the board for its service before School Board Recognition Week, which is October 27 to 31. Council President Colleen Samot, board President Theresa Samot’s daughter, Vice President Zoe Diskin, who is the daughter of board member David Diskin, and Secretary Claire Oppenheimer thanked the board for its “unending commitment, dedication and countless hours [spent] supporting the students of Sag Harbor School District.”

Pierson Students Lobby for CPR to be Taught in New York Schools

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Pierson students Emma Romeo, Arlena Burns, Joseph Carlozzi and Alex Toscano and their health teacher Sue Denis met with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. in his Albany office June 3.

Pierson students Emma Romeo, Arlena Burns, Joseph Carlozzi and Alex Toscano and their health teacher Sue Denis met with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. in his Albany office June 3. Also pictured are Barbara and John Schmidt, who attended the event in memory of their 14-year-old grandson, Ronan Guyer, who tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack during a practice for a state cross country championship in November, 2012. Photo courtesy Assemblyman Thiele’s office.

By Tessa Raebeck

Madison McCarthy was just 5 years old when she went into sudden cardiac arrest in her kindergarten classroom in upstate New York. The principal of her school held Madison in his arms for 18 minutes waiting for help No one checked her breathing, no one performed CPR and Madison died waiting for help.

Pierson Middle-High School Health teacher Sue Denis and her student CPR instructors, backed by the American Heart Association and supporters like Madison’s mother, Suzy McCarthy, are now lobbying state politicians to ensure tragedies like Madison’s don’t happen again.

Having taught CPR at Pierson for 20 years this spring, Ms. Denis has instructed  hundreds of students—who have saved  16 to 18 lives—to be instructors, but at schools across the state, CPR programs are neither mandated nor funded.

Sue Denis's first CPR class at Pierson in the spring of 1994.

Sue Denis’s first CPR class at Pierson in the spring of 1994. Photo courtesy Sue Denis.

That could change very soon. After years of teachers, survivors and mourning relatives asking legislators to back a bill to require kids in New York to learn CPR before graduating high school, a bill passed the state Senate last week and the state Assembly on Tuesday, June 17. It is now waiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature. If the governor signs the bill, it will then go for final approval to Commissioner John King and the Board of Regents, who will be responsible for whether CPR training is actually implemented into educational curriculums statewide.

“One step at a time,” Ms. Denis said Wednesday, June 18.

The American Heart Association says the requirement could help to save thousands of lives across the state each year. Nationwide, according to the AHA, approximately 424,000 people have cardiac arrest outside of a hospital every year—and only about 10 percent survive.

The survival rate fluctuates between 2 and 10 percent across New York State, Ms. Denis said, adding that in the 16 states where CPR certification is mandated for high school students, that survival rate can be as high as 50 percent.

A cardiac arrest can be brought on by 14 different causes, including drowning, getting hit in the heart, smoke inhalation, loss of blood and heart attacks, the latter which occur about every 30 seconds in the United States.

“There’s just so much in our diet and the way Americans live these days is just so unhealthy, that it’s a common occurrence to have a heart attack,” Pierson senior Caleb Atkinson-Barnes  said while in Ms. Denis’s CPR instructor class Friday, June 13. “You could be anywhere and a person could go down—and knowing CPR will save that person’s life.”

Sue Denis's elective class of 10th, 11th and 12th grade CPR instructors at Pierson Friday, June 13.

Sue Denis and her elective class of 10th, 11th and 12th grade CPR instructors at Pierson Friday, June 13. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Ms. Denis and four of her Pierson students—Arlena Burns, Joe Carlozzi, Emma Romeo and Alex Toscano—traveled to Albany Tuesday, June 3, to ask for the bill’s passage. They heard from Ms. McCarthy, Madison’s mom, and other families who lost loved ones who could have been saved had someone started CPR earlier.

Alex Toscano, a senior at Pierson and a CPR instructor, told state lawmakers that Ms. Denis has been teaching CPR since before she was born and that she cannot understand why every school doesn’t teach the life-saving skill.

Teaching students to save lives seems like a political no-brainer, but legislators have stalled bills in the past because they are hesitant to put another unfunded state mandate on New York’s already fiscally tight school districts.

“You would rather not support the bill then—God forbid, you’re ever in that situation where you need someone’s help—there’s less people around that know what to do?” Pierson senior and CPR instructor Emma Romeo said of the politicians in class Friday, prior to the bill’s passage. “Because I know if I was in that situation, I would want as many people around to help as possible.”

“You’re going to feel safer in any situation,” added classmate Sheila Mackey. “The fact that most of the teachers in our school don’t know CPR or in other schools don’t know CPR—I’m just surprised the bill hasn’t been passed, it’s a chance to save lives, why wouldn’t they go for it?”

Ms. Denis started at Pierson in the fall of 1993 and had convinced the administration to let her teach CPR by the spring of that school year. Her first graduates in 1994 are now among hundreds of students she has taught, “thousands probably,” she said.

“I’ve been so lucky here at Pierson and fortunate that I’ve always had the support of the whole administration—the principals, the superintendent and the board,” said Ms. Denis.

To her knowledge, about 30 of her students have performed CPR and 16 to 18 lives have been saved.

While working at the Bridgehampton Club, Ms. Romeo saved a little boy who was choking on a Goldfish cracker by performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Ms. Denis’s former student, Rich Simmons, now a fireman in the village, years ago performed CPR on a 65-year-old man whose boat capsized in Sag Harbor. He saved his life.

In September, Erick Saldivar, another former student of Ms. Denis, saved his aunt’s life when she went into respiratory arrest.

“She started seizing and I thought back to Ms. Denis’s class about what to do,” Mr. Saldivar told the Sag Harbor Express last October.

“You obviously are going to feel more confident in that situation knowing that you’ve been taught by someone who knows it so well like Ms. Denis, so you know exactly what to do,” Ms. Toscano said.

“What we always tell the kids,” said Ms. Denis, “is you’re never going to do CPR when it’s a nice, comfortable, relaxed environment. You’re going to do it in a really stressful, critical situation.”

“It’s a scary thing,” added student-instructor Zach Depetris. “It’s not something that you’re going to be able to do no matter what; it’s a life or death situation.”

Speaking of those who have died from cardiac arrests who were not aided by CPR, Ms. Mackey said, “They were just normal kids. They just went into cardiac arrest, just no one knew how to help them or what to do.”

“Our kids,” Ms. Denis said, “have shown again and again that they’re willing to step up to the plate and do it.”

Hope for “Zone Pricing” Law to Lower East End Gas Prices

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By Stephen J. Kotz

The New York State Assembly Committee on Economic Development has approved legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. that strengthens New York State’s Gasoline Zone Pricing Law originally enacted in 2008.

“This legislation would end the unfair practice of ‘Big Oil’ companies establishing arbitrary prices for gasoline based upon geographical location without regard to cost,” Mr. Thiele said in a press release. Historically, big oil companies have charged higher prices on the South Fork as well as other areas such as Westchester County without regard to cost. The law passed in 2008 was a first step to reduce the differential in gas prices based on geography. However, the State Attorney General’s Office has requested amendments to permit him to more vigorously enforce the law.”

Mr. Thiele said he hoped for a vote on the legislation in the full Assembly by the end of June. The Assembly passed the bill in 2012, but it failed to pass the Senate. The bill is now sponsored in the Senate by State Senator Ken LaValle.

New York Legislators Call For Two-Year Delay on DEC Plan to Eradicate State’s Mute Swan Population

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Mute swans at the East Hampton Nature Trail on February 17. Michael Heller photo.

Mute swans at the East Hampton Nature Trail on February 17. Michael Heller photo.

By Tessa Raebeck

New York officials have introduced legislation that would impose a two-year delay on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s plan to eradicate the state’s mute swan population by 2025.

Co-sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor, the bill would halt the DEC plan, which was introduced in December, and require the DEC to illustrate the “actual damage” the mute swan population causes to the environment or other species before exterminating the birds altogether.

“Wildlife experts, rehabilitators and environmentalists do not unanimously agree that exterminating the mute swan population is justified,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement. “In addition, there is debate amongst such experts about whether the planned eradication of the mute swan population is even minimally beneficial to the ecosystem or to our environment. Therefore, it is incumbent on the [DEC] to illustrate the necessity of eradicating this non-native species by demonstrating the actual damage to the environment or other species caused by mute swans.”

Mute swans are a species of swan named “mute” because they are less vocal than other swans. Native to Europe and Asia, they were brought to North America in the late 1870s due largely to their aesthetic appeal. Initially introduced in New York as ornaments on the estates of the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island, mute swans were present in the wild by the turn of the 20th century.

According to the DEC, the mute swan population had increased to about 2,000 statewide by 1993, peaked around 2,800 in 2002 and is now estimated at about 2,200, most heavily concentrated on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley.

A mute swan in East Hampton. Zachary Persico photo.

A mute swan in East Hampton. Zachary Persico photo.

“On the East End of Long Island, the mute swan is often visible in local ponds and waterways,” stated Mr. Thiele. “My office has not received one report in all my years in office that the mute swan is a nuisance or an environmental problem.”

The DEC says the non-native species causes a variety of environmental problems, “including aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality and potential hazards to aviation.”

Although opposed to the DEC plan, local ecologist Tyler Armstrong said there are ecological benefits to reducing the population. “It would help rare native waterfowl, as mute swans defend large nesting territories and exclude other birds from nesting, as well as competing with native birds for aquatic vegetation, like eelgrass,” he said.

The DEC has conducted “mute swan control activities” since 1993, but not to the extent permitted by the new management plan, which will include shooting free-ranging swans on public lands and private lands (with owner consent) and live capture and euthanasia.

North Haven resident Richard Gambino, professor emeritus at Queens College, said the DEC’s reasons for exterminating the swans are scientifically flawed.

“Everything affects the environment. The question is, do we have a sufficient reason, a necessary reason to kill them off, to exterminate them—and I don’t think we have one here,” he said, calling the plan “extreme.” The aggression shown by swans is evident in all mammals when they feel threatened and it’s arbitrary to call a species “alien” when it has been present for over 130 years, he added.

“If you’ve got a system such as nature—which is the most extreme system, with countless variables changing just about every second—we’re very limited in our ability to predict it,” he said, referring to the chaos theory.

Comments can be sent to the DEC by email to fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us with “Swan Plan” in the subject line by February 21.

The Great Prom Debate Heats Up in Sag Harbor; School Board Considers Veterans Tax Exemptions

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Pierson Middle/High School

Pierson Middle/High School

By Tessa Raebeck

The Prom

The debate continues at Pierson High School, as students and administrators dispute the balance between autonomy and security at the prom.

At the Board of Education meeting February 10, Pierson Middle-High School Principal Jeff Nichols stood by a recommendation made by the school’s Shared Decision Making Committee to require students who want to attend the prom—predominantly 17 and 18-year-old seniors—to take school-sponsored coach buses to the event and be subjected to a search conducted by an outside security firm before being allowed on the bus, as a means of curbing drug and alcohol use at the event.

The details of the plan and the specific parameters of the search, which Mr. Nichols called “more thorough” than those conducted by himself and other school officials in the past, have not yet been determined.

Various groups from the school community form the shared decision committee: parents, staff members, administrators, community members and students. According to Mr. Nichols, the adult SDM members supported the recommendation, but the two student representatives “were not enamored with that process.”

Mr. Nichols said he discussed four options at an assembly with the entire senior class.

The first option is to leave everything it has been; students would be free to take limos, drive themselves or even get a ride from a parent and be subject to the administrators’ security protocol. The second is the proposed plan to put students on coaches after being searched by an outside firm. The third option would allow students to rent “party buses” (a chauffeured vehicle furnished like a limousine but larger in size, although not as large as a school bus) but require each of those party buses to have school-sponsored security on board.  Under the fourth and final option, students would be free to choose their own transportation to the prom, but prior to entering the actual dance (the school-sponsored portion of the event) they would be subjected to a search process administered by an outside firm.

A final decision has not been made, but Mr. Nichols, board vice president Chris Tice and Dr. Carl Bonuso, the district’s interim superintendent, expressed their agreement with the SDM recommendation.

“You can set a lot of trap doors, buses and that, but at the end of the day, my biggest concern is sometimes when you deny too much, the kids want to get over that fence even more,” David Diskin, a board member, said at the meeting.

The six members of the senior class in attendance asked whether they could get a party bus after the prom. Mr. Nichols replied, “Once you leave you can do anything you want.”

 

Veterans Tax Exemption

In December, Governor Cuomo signed a law authorizing school districts to provide veterans with as much as $40,000 in property tax exemptions.

The law leaves school boards with the decision of whether or not to offer the exemptions, which would increase the school taxes of non-veteran residents, who would need to absorb the loss in revenue.

For a house valued at $500,000 in Southampton the annual cost to non-veterans  would be $8.62; for a house valued at the same amount in East Hampton, the cost would be $10.84 annually, according to John O’Keefe, the school’s business administrator.

The exemptions include reductions in assessed value of 15 percent for veterans who served during wartime (an $8,000 cap), 10 percent for those who were in combat zones (a $12,000 cap) and an additional, variable reduction for those with disabilities connected to their service (a $40,000 cap).

School districts must decide whether to offer the exemptions by March 1. The district must first hold a public hearing on the base exemption, and then adopt the resolution by a simple majority vote. If the district wishes to change the caps, another public hearing and vote is required. If the district wishes to enact extensions, such as the “Gold Star Parents” provision to also include parents of a soldier who died in service, it must adopt a separate resolution, although a public hearing is not required.

At the February 10 meeting, the school board appeared unclear on the procedure, as it adopted a  resolution to approve the veterans tax exemption prior to holding a public hearing.

Four days later, the district announced it would hold the required public hearings on the base exemption and cap changes, as well as a hearing on the “Gold Star Parents” provision, on Thursday, February 27, starting at 7 p.m. in the Pierson library.

Southampton Rally Remembers Sandy Hook Victims, Protests Lack of Federal Legislation a Year After Tragedy

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Gun control advocates in front of Congressman Tim Bishop's Southampton office at Sandy Hook Remembrance Rally Saturday.

Gun control advocates in front of Congressman Tim Bishop’s Southampton office at Sandy Hook Remembrance Rally Saturday. (Tessa Raebeck photo).

By Tessa Raebeck

A year after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut took the lives of 20 first graders and six school employees, New York State has some of the toughest laws on gun control in the country.

But with no legislative action yet taken on the federal level, groups advocating for gun control are continuing their fight for safety laws.

Chanting “We will not forget!” members of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, States United Against Gun Violence and Organizing for Action, an advocacy group supporting President Obama’s legislative agenda, held a Sandy Hook Remembrance Rally outside Congressman Tim Bishop’s Southampton office Saturday afternoon.

Decked in hats, gloves and posters, a group of 17 advocates for gun control braved the snow to honor the victims, survivors and families of the Sandy Hook tragedy, commemorate the actions of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Bishop in the past year and call on legislators — particularly at the federal level — to do more.

Sue Hornik from States United Against Gun Violence and Sag Harbor’s Jackie Hilly, of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, spoke at the rally. They called for closing background check “loopholes,” banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, making schools safer and increasing access to mental health services.

“While sadness can be unbearable,” Hilly told the crowd, “it should also serve to embolden us to speak out against gun violence.”

The event marked the one-year anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook. After Hilly and Hornik spoke, those in attendance read the names of the 26 victims, along with personal anecdotes, and rang a bell after each reading.

Ann Howard from Cutchogue read the name of Dylan Hockley, a six-year-old killed in his classroom who had “beautiful eyes and a mischievous grin” and “a love of bouncing on trampolines.”

Hilly thanked Governor Cuomo for making New York the first state to take decisive action after Newtown. The AR-15, the assault weapon used at Sandy Hook, can no longer legally be purchased in New York. Banning such weapons was one of the provisions of the New York SAFE Act, which was proposed by Governor Cuomo and adopted by the state legislature in January, less than a month after the tragedy.

“Now with the new regulations that were adopted in New York State,” explained Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., “if we don’t have the most stringent gun control measures, we’re in the top two.”

State Senator Kenneth LaValle agreed New York has some of the strongest gun control laws in the nation.

“Right after Sandy Hook I think there was a sense of purpose, because young people were killed — senseless murder — in an elementary school by an individual who had mental health issues,” said LaValle, “ and indeed in every one of these mass shootings, the shooter has a mental health issue.”RaebeckSandyHookRally2

The SAFE Act established provisions to help identify individuals with mental illnesses and correlate reporting of such illnesses with reporting of firearm ownership. Under the new law, a gun owner living with someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness has a responsibility to make sure his or her guns are not available to that person.

“That’s kind of a good balancing, we believe, between rights and responsibilities,” said Hilly, “because you know, the other side is always talking about rights and rarely are they mentioning responsibilities.”

Additionally, mental health professionals are now required by law to alert police if they believe one of their patients is likely to hurt themselves or others — and that patient has a gun permit.

The SAFE Act also standardized the time period for renewal of permits across the state. Previously, Long Island and Westchester required gun owners to renew their permits every five years and New York City had a three-year requirement. Now, all of New York — including areas upstate that required renewal less frequently — has a maximum five-year permit renewal requirement (New York City can keep their three-year restriction). This sanction requires permit holders to reaffirm the facts of their permit, for example that they have not been convicted of a felony or diagnosed with a mental illness.

The SAFE Act enhanced the breadth and prevalence of background checks, limited the capacity of magazines from 10 rounds to seven and expanded the definition of assault weapons, such as the AR-15.

The law also aims to end the anonymous purchasing of large stocks of ammunition on the Internet. Rather than going online and having weapons delivered to your home with no regulation, ammunition must now be delivered to a gun dealer, who will then ask for identification (a permit is not required for ammunition).

Although the SAFE Act is a huge victory for gun control advocates, proponents say the state measures are limited by the lack of similar federal legislation. Although criminals are faced with these restrictions in New York, they can easily travel across state lines to purchase weapons and ammunition.

Since Sandy Hook, according to Congressman Bishop, on the federal level, “the short answer is nothing has happened.”

Of a number of bills introduced in the House of Representatives to help provide for gun safety, “none of them have moved at all,” said Bishop, who sponsored most of them.

In the Senate, an effort to bring up a bipartisan bill to expand background checks for people who wish to purchase firearms failed to garner the 60 votes necessary for it to be considered.

“You can still go on the Internet and buy firearms,” Bishop said Monday, “you can still go on the Internet and buy mass quantities of ammunition, you can still purchase a gun at a gun show without undergoing a background check, so basic things that ought to be put in place are not being put in place.”

“It pretty much breaks down on party lines,” added the Democratic congressman, “Democrats want to pass gun safety legislation, Republicans refuse to.”

Bishop said much of the proposed legislation has bipartisan support, “but the leadership of the House of Representatives refuses to move any of them.”

“I don’t want to say that there’s no hope,” he said, “but I do think that the track record of the house thus far does not give cause for optimism.”

John Jermain Memorial Library Accepts Vast Collection of Native American Research Books

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Mac Griswold, Richard Buckley and Catherine Creedon pose with books from Buckley's collection at the library's storage unit.

Sag Harbor Historian Mac Griswold, Collector Richard Buckley and JJML Director Catherine Creedon pose with books from Buckley’s collection at the library’s storage unit November 12.

By Tessa Raebeck

As a child growing up in Little Falls, New York, Richard Buckley was eager to learn about the Native American tribes that lived nearby, but the materials he could find were minimal, ill advised and uninformed.

“It didn’t seem right to me the way they were describing it,” explained Buckley, who, rather than settling for subpar information, spent the next 40 years compiling an extensive collection of books, journals and other research on — and by — Native Americans.

On November 13, Buckley and his wife, former United States Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, packed his entire collection of 23 boxes into the back of their pick-up truck and drove from their home in Northern Virginia to Despatch Self Storage in Bridgehampton, where Catherine Creedon excitedly awaited their arrival.Richard Buckley

After a deliberate screening process of potential libraries in New York State, Buckley decided to donate his collection to the John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML) in Sag Harbor, where Creedon is director, because he knew they would be appreciated, complemented and, most importantly, used.

Buckley, who worked as a lawyer before concentrating primarily on his research and academic lecturing, estimates his collection includes some 350 materials. The most historically significant part of the collection is the inclusion of four journals on Native American history, to which Buckley has subscribed since their respective inceptions.

He began subscribing to the American Indian Culture and Research Journal when it was first published in 1979, and the journals now fill four boxes.

The journals “give an incredible amount of new history,” said Buckley. “History that had never been written from the viewpoint of American Indians.”

“These journals,” he continued, “have covered everything from the history to the current preservation of Native American tribes throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s. If someone were to read those journals, they could write a thesis.”

The collection also includes 15 boxes of books on Native Americans, separated by topics such as women, Iroquois and “Excellent/General Overviews.”

In compiling his collection, Buckley first tackled the Native American history of New York State, moving on to the entire continental United States and eventually to Alaska and Latin America. The collection also includes extensive documentation of the present condition of Native Americans.

“That is probably the underlying value of the collection,” explained Buckley, “to have that approach of — both historically and currently — the ongoing evolution of American Indian history…. The collection’s value is to show that American Indians are not only here, but they’re living out their history, they’re living out their story.”

Once his collection was complete with an extensive variety of viewpoints from both men and women across different regions, tribes and cultures, Buckley faced the daunting task of deciding where his work belonged.

“What I did was,” he explained, “because I didn’t want these to go anywhere, I wanted them to be in a certain library — when I contacted [the libraries], I’d then know whether it was the right fit.”

Former Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, JJML Director Catherine Creedon and Richard Buckley in the midst of delivering the collection November 12.

Former Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, JJML Director Catherine Creedon and Richard Buckley in the midst of delivering the collection November 12.

At first, Buckley put a notice in the regional library system of central New York, where he grew up. Without any quick responses, he sent the notice to the statewide system.

Within a few days, he was on the phone with Cathy Creedon.

“By the initial interest,” he said, “I could see that she was really interested and they were looking for something to complement the new renovation and the newly restored old beautiful building.”

Since JJML opened in 1910, the History Room has been an integral part of the library. It started with rare materials from the personal library of William Wallace Tooker, a Sag Harbor pharmacist who was also an ethnographer with an interest in Algonquin history. Tooker’s collection in JJML includes the Eliot Indian Bible, a bible in the Algonquin language that was the first bible printed in the colonies.

After unloading the 23 boxes into a storage unit, Creedon gave Buckley a tour of the new building, including the history room, which once completed will be climate-controlled, humidity-controlled and temperature-controlled.

“The tour of the library was the final proof that my donation will ‘fit’ with the future use of the library — particularly the special research room,” said Buckley. “The primary reason for donating the collection to [JJML] is Cathy. She will ensure that the collection is used in the most effective manner.”

In a message to Creedon, Buckley envisioned his collection in Sag Harbor.

“I imagined,” he wrote, “that you would have at the opening of your beautiful library — a researcher would be reserving the special room and using the American Indian collection. She will complete a new powerful book about the contributions of Indian women.”

“I thought that was a real tribute to the role of a public library,” said Creedon.