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March 12, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

March 12 , 2006

Throwing Our Kids In The Dump

“Charter” schools, corporate government and efficient robbery

*UPDATE* Tom Carroll replies to this article, and boy is he miffed! He says I make racist statements! He refuses to take responsibility for his own comments! He claims that his mother never disowned him! And, most important of all, he forgets to mention the most damning statements in this article! Read about it here!

Tom Carroll believes in big government. He believes that the State government should impose its will upon local governments in order to promote social programs. He believes that taxpayers should not have a voice in how their taxes are spent. And, he believes that the right sort of politically connected people should be allowed to pocket tax money and run with it.

This may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers Carroll, who resides in the suburb of Clifton Park, as founder and president of the corporate advocate organization CHANGE-NY. Back in the 1990’s, the local corporate media was full of reports on how members of CHANGE-NY were warbling “Get big government off our backs!” Carroll’s associates were constantly crying about oppresive taxes, calling for more accountability and less corruption in government.

How time reveals the true nature of things. Today, Carroll is the lord and master of Brighter Choice, the biggest and most predatory so-called “charter” school corporation that has become attached to the City of Albany. He holds an array of titles, such as founder, chairman and project director of Brighter Choice, founder and chair of A Better Choice (ABC) and president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability. But the titles are not important, he is the guy in control of the operation.

Carroll has a plan, a dream that is fast becoming reality. He has attached himself to the taxpayers as a sort of useless middleman. In this position, he can collect a large portion of the taxpayer’s money for himself and his organizations. The popular term for this is "privatization." Any way you look at it, his money making plan is clever and elegant.

But the best part of all is that it is technically legal. Carroll, with his close connections to the failed Pataki administration, has fixed things so that no one in the City of Albany has a choice, brighter or otherwise. Thanks to Carroll, State law takes away our right to decide whether or not we want his "charter" schools. If he wants to force his schools down our throats, we have to swallow. And we are required to pay for them and smile.

We have to pay for his schools with our own money, and we have no right to object. State law requires that tax money from the City of Albany school district be diverted from the public schools to Carroll's scam operation. We can’t vote for or against it, we can’t hold a referendum, nor can our elected representatives in the Common Council decide for us. Not even an executive order from The Mayor is allowed.

Does this sound like simple robbery? Is this a classic example of “taxation without representation?” That, you may recall, was historically one of the prime justifications for the commencement of patriotic violent revolution. Remember that pack of domestic terrorists known as The Founding Fathers?

Faced with this obvious objection to his pet scheme at a Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) meeting this last September, Carroll looked royally irritated and pointed out that our elected representatives in the State did indeed roll over like obedient doggies and give Carroll the power to receive our local taxes. Thus, he airily intoned, we are certainly being represented while we are having new taxes imposed upon us. So then, what’s the problem?

These are local taxes that Carroll and his operation are collecting. These are not State taxes. The State has no business managing City of Albany revenues. Yet, lo and behold, that is exactly what the State is imposing on us. We are forced to pay a City tax that the city did not authorize.

This doesn’t trouble Carroll, who is a top down hard core corporatist. He doesn’t believe in democracy. “It’s a nice idea,” he told CANA last September, “but it’s very overrated.” Of course, he detests unions, saying that they get in the way of “flexibility.”

He believes that corporate boards operating in secret can make better decisions than elected school boards. Really. That’s what he says. He thinks that corporate-style fiats imposed from on high are more efficient than community consensus.

Corporate Efficiency Illustrated

Let’s take a look at one of Tom Carroll’s efficient corporate decisions. This may serve as one of his examples of how corporatism is superior to democracy, how arbitrary decrees without oversight do a better job of serving the community than do elected officials and public hearings.

On one side of my neighborhood is an empty field in back of and to one side of Bishop Maginn Catholic school. Once, a long time ago, this field was a ravine that served as the border of the City. Later, it was used as the City dump. Eventually, this ravine got filled to the top with trash and got capped off with dirt.

You can tell that’s it’s an old capped dump because trees and shrubs won’t grow there. Normally, if you leave an empty lot in Albany alone for a few years, it quickly becomes overgrown. At the end of five years tall, slender trees rise to the second stories and come to dominate the lot. To keep an empty lot clear in Albany you have to remove the brush at least once a year.

No one has to remove brush from this capped dump behind Bishop Maginn. Certain kinds of grasses grow fairly thickly, but the grass doesn't grow very high. Occasionally somebody will try to cultivate trees on this empty field, carefully tending them for a while, encouraging them to survive. These miserable "engineer trees," supported by wires and spindly sticks, struggle to survive for a few years but eventually die. Maybe, just maybe, there is something inherently unhealthy about land that kills trees.

The land is unstable, and parts of the dump are known to leak explosive gasses. Back in 1987, on another part of the dump along Frisbie Avenue, the Whalen administration allowed Charlie Touhey to build some of his (in my opinion) ticky tacky crappy houses. One of the houses filled with methane gas and exploded, causing the hapless owner burns over forty percent of his body. The City of Albany, which gave approval for the project, was held responsible and moved the rest of the houses off the unstable cap to the edge of the old dump. At taxpayer expense, of course.

The house on Frisbie Avenue filled with methane gas due to the recommendations of Dan Hershberg, the engineer for the project. Hershberg was supposed to provide a method for keeping methane out of the houses, but instead designed what Albany attorney Lew Oliver called a “methane bomb.” But this begs the question, what sort of idiots would consider and approve of placing human habitations over land filled with explosive gasses?

How about placing a “charter” school full of small children over land that may be filled with methane?

Tom Carroll has made an efficient corporate decision and is building one of his “charter” schools on this dump. Never mind that the site is forty percent water. Really, no kidding. It’s more like soupy mush than land. That’s according to his own hydrology report. But not to worry. Carroll’s minions told the Albany Board of Zoning Appeals (ZBA) that the school will be built on a slab that is designed to float on the mush.

His minions pooh-poohed all questions about the presence of toxics that are commonly found in unregulated city dumps. You see, some tests were done and nothing hazardous was found. Of course, these tests were very selective and were commissioned by Brighter Choice. None of the testing was independent. That should reassure everybody.

As for methane, and the possibility that a building full of children may fill with odorless gas and explode, there’s no chance of that happening. That bit of reassurance comes from the project engineer... Dan Hershberg!

Now, that’s what I call corporate efficiency. Can you imagine a locally elected school board getting away with such dangerous nonsense? Angry parents would storm the school board meetings, politicians would declaim against such folly. A row of federal and state regulations would bring the whole thing to a halt.

And the corporate media would have a field day. The Hearst-owned Times Union would denounce the idiots in the school district who would allow such a thing. We’d never hear the end of it.

But Tom Carroll’s corporate efficiency avoids all these pitfalls. There are no angry parents to contend with, no angry voters and taxpayers, and no need to even acknowledge the neighbors. He only has to answer to his high-placed buddies in the Pataki administration, and they couldn’t give a rat’s rear end about Albany and its citizens.

As for the corporate media, they are corporate above all things. They approve of anything that advances the corporate political agenda, and they absolutely adore “charter” schools. If building on an unstable and dangerous dump means privatizing the public school system at unwilling taxpayer expense, then some speed bumps have to be expected.

So far, we haven’t heard one peep of objection about this potentially deadly travesty from the Hearst Rag. What we hear about from them is “the charter school movement,” as if there was some sort of grass roots demand for privatized schools. You will never hear the Times Union complain about privatization imposed from the top of the political dung heap.

Guess Who Gets Exploited. Again.

Carroll is not delaying construction of his project in the dump. The floating slab is being laid out right at this moment, as can be seen here. Time is money, and this is first and foremost a conduit for public funds. Carroll can’t start collecting that taxpayer money until he can start packing those bodies into his finished building.

What sort of bodies? Judging by the constant stream of mailed advertisements - paid for by taxpayers, by the way - the idea is to snag those members of society who are the most dissatisfied with the public school system, lower class African Americans. Poor black kids.

Poor black people are much easier to exploit than white people of any economic variety. That’s probably why Carroll runs his operation in the South End and Arbor Hill, and not, in say, Clifton Park where he lives. Apparently, he knows better than to defecate in his own back yard. Rich white suburbanites would never send THEIR precious offspring to a for-profit school floating on a dump. And they certainly wouldn’t pay for it with their own local taxes.

To hear Carroll tell it, he is not exploiting poor black folks. At the CANA meeting, he had the incredible nerve to compare himself to the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and to compare his for-profit operation to the civil rights movement itself. And he justified the imposition of big government, forcing Albany taxpayers to fund his operation against their will, by comparing charter schools to federal intervention to enforce desegregation.

I wish I could say that I was making this up. He really said these things to a room full of people.

The Secret Supporter

“Charter” schools have been imposed upon many upstate New York cities, but Albany has been particularly hard hit. We have more of these shameless revenue conduits masquerading as schools than any other municipality. Why? How did we get hit the hardest?

Like most things in Albany, it comes down to one guy, the unitary executive himself, Jerry Jennings. Back in February, I asked The Mayor if he would openly work to stop the infestation of “charter” schools, and he inadvertently revealed The Sad Truth. He has no intention of fighting them. He wants them. In fact, he is promoting them.

You see, everybody knows that the board of the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) is packed with The Mayor’s people. He gives the orders, they do what he says. And the IDA has been giving a lot of loans to Carroll and Brighter Choice, basically for anything they want. The Mayor wants “charter” schools.

Now, some folks may ask, shouldn’t the Industrial Development Agency be an agency that gives loans to promote industrial development? Isn’t the purpose of the IDA to boost the economy and create jobs? How exactly does duplicating already existing schools promote these goals?

The Mayor does not seem to concern himself with these niceties. “I think we should concentrate on making our public schools competitive with ‘charter’ schools,” he said. In other words, he intends to roll over and let the public schools languish and starve under his back room assault.

The Mayor is trying to have it both ways. Faced with a crowd of angry residents, he allowed the Albany ZBA to turn down Brighter Choice's application for a school in the dump. But the decision was dragged into court, and the City made what could only be called a disinterested and feeble case for itself. Brighter Choice got the decision reversed, and the City didn't appeal. This way, The Mayor can claim to be looking out for the taxpayers, while quietly shafting us in private.

Meanwhile, the existing “charter” schools continue to furnish a substandard education. That’s according to test scores, which are consistently lower than even the poorest performing public schools. But that may very well change in the long run because of another little advantage that Carroll’s operation has obtained from the Pataki administration.

Public schools have to accept every student, no matter how poorly they perform or how unruly. Even convicted felons must be provided for. Not so “charter” schools. Even though “charter” schools receive public funds just like the public schools, they can pick and choose their students. If they don’t like a kid, if he/she is a poor student or acts up, they can kick him/her out. That kid has to go to public school.

Eventually, the most compliant kids will serve as money generators for the “charter” school operators, and the hard to handle kids will be confined to public schools. After a while, public schools will resemble prisons, a punishment for not measuring up to the corporate standards of the privatized operation. This is Tom Carroll’s vision, and apparently it is also Jerry Jenning’s.

Those of us who care about Albany and our kids have been hoping that the plague of school privatization had come to an end. Under the original set of “rules” imposed by the State, there could only be one hundred of these “charter” schools in the State, and that number has been reached.

But as far as Pataki and the rest of the State politicians are concerned, rules are made to be broken and taxpayers must be milked like cows. Last week, the State Senate passed a bill authorizing another one hundred “charter” schools. In all probability the silly asses in the Assembly will happily agree with their Senate comrades, like they did the last time. And Pataki, who has systematically run the State economy into the ground, will jump to approve more economic degradation.

It’s easy to imagine Tom Carroll’s reaction to this news, rubbing his hands together, a ghastly grin across his face, emitting high-pitched hee hee hees. That’s how I imagine him in private. In public, no doubt he is more solemn, repeating his call for even more “charter” schools, even more revenue conduits.

Like it or not, we are all here to support Tom Carroll and his operation. In return, we get kids floating in the dump.

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