Saturday, June 26, 2004

The best news so far today!

This is sweet.
Green Party Refuses to Back Nader for President
MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Reuters) - The Green Party on Saturday refused to back Ralph Nader in his independent run for the White House, a move that could reduce his chances of being a factor in this year's election.

Delegates to the half-million-member party's presidential convention voted to nominate party activist David Cobb, a California lawyer who led the delegate count going into the meeting.

No fat, plenty of beef

South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education member David Frazer, in response to an off-the-cuff and ill-informed comment on Maplewood Online, wrote the following comments about the school district's budget and the strong upward pressure on tax rates. It describes where the cost increases are coming from and the limited ability we have to ameliorate them. If you have complaints about the size of your property tax bill (and who in SO/M, after all, does not?) , be sure to read it carefully before you start pointing fingers.
Our comparative per pupil spending rate is $578 below the State average [$9464 vs. $10,042]. See http://education.state.nj.us/rc/rc03/dataselect.php?datasection%5B4%5D=financial &c=13&d=4900&s=030 Given an enrollment of 6400, this means we are spending about $3.7 mil. less than the average district would be.

We have enormous budget detail posted on the website; I challenge you to find the fat. See http://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/finance/financehome.htm. In the past four years we have cut over 36 full time equivalent positions [exclusive of the custodial outsourcing] plus program, service and supply cuts representing over $8 mil in resources. This figure is more than 10% of our current operational budget of $79.2 mil. With the 2.5% CAP being imposed by the State, we are looking at additional cuts of $3.5-4.4 mil., depending on certain cost factors. To put this in perspective, $3.5 mil. represents 47 teachers.

Take a look at the Budget 101 presentations on the District website. See http://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/finance/budget101home.htm. The 6-8% increases are the organic rate of increase, almost all from cost drivers outside our control. A few examples:

Health Insurance: Last year health insurance increased 29%; this year it is down to a reasonable 15% increase; next year promises more of the same. Health insurance is now 10% of our budget. We are in a double-bind on health insurance. It is subject to collective bargaining and we are in the State Health Plan, which severely restricts cost saving measures [e.g., we cannot do "spousal opt out" or employee co-pay, even if we could get SOMEA to go along with them]. If we opt out of the plan [a decision subject to bargaining], we are at the mercy of the insurance market place. We have done this twice since the late 80's and both times we got clobbered on rates because we are a relatively small group [about 855] with a terrible experience rating. So, after sucking us in with an attractive rate for the first year, we get whacked the second year, with no guarantee that the State Health Plan will let us back in.

Wage Rates: Based upon a painstakingly detailed market analysis done at the time of the last SOMEA negotiation, we were at about the 66th percentile of wage rates in Essex County after the contract settled. This is just about where you want to be: high enough to attract and retain good teachers, but not out of the ballpark. Since then, market rates for teachers have continued to climb. Millburn settled for a 24% increase over three years. Just a few weeks ago the State settled the Newark contract for 5% increases in each of the next three years with no give backs on health care. Newark represents 50% of the teacher market in the county. And this contract was settled by the State ñ the very same entity that is now telling us we must live with a 2.5% increase. If we pay less then market we will stop attracting good teachers and we will lose the ones we have.

Energy. In each of the last two years, energy costs have increased by double digits. Next year, we have projected a 15% increase. Are we supposed to stop heating the schools? Should we turn off the lights?

General Insurance. Our liability insurance rates have more than doubled in the last two years. Thank you Osama.

Special Ed. This expense is out of control. Tuition for out of district special ed placements ñ kids whose needs cannot be met in district ñ is increasing by 23% for next year. For the about 120 kids we place out of district, we are spending almost $5 mil. out of a $79 mil. budget. Costs for in-district services, which require us to contract out for many specialists, are also rapidly increasing. In the last ten years, special ed has gone from about 13% of the budget to 20%. It is taking money away from other kids. But, itís a federal mandate; we have no choice. Itís also the right thing to do; itís just that no one gives us the money to do it. We have tried to increase the number of kids kept in district, but we have limited space and it costs a lot of money to retrofit the space we do have to accommodate their special needs.

Finally, I note that central administration ñ commonly cited as the biggest source of waste ñ is not excessive. We cut four central administrators this year. We are well under the Stateís new maximum administrative cost threshold. The total salaries and benefits for central office [support staff included] is $2.42 mil. This includes two positions [super & bus. adm.] that by law we cannot cut and two positions that are self-funding from program revenue [food service & tech center]. Removing these positions leaves about $1.9 mil. Thus, we could eliminate all non-mandated central office positions [e.g., assist supers; network manager; in-house counsel; planning director; communications coordinator; custodial director; facilities manager; payroll manager; confidential secretaries] and still have $1.6 mil to cut under the best-case scenario for next year. Of course, we would have a district in chaos because there is no way you can run a 6400-student, 13-building, 850-employee district with only a super and a business administrator.

So, exactly what and how are we mismanaging? Inquiring minds want to know. If you could tell me, it would make my job ñ and life ñ a hell of a lot easier.

David E. Frazer
Member, SO/M BoE

Muddled thinking and Family Values

Jack Ryan is, it's true, out of the race for Illinois' US Senate seat ... but what it says on his campaign website re: same-sex marriage is so typical of the Republican position that it's worth noting:
I believe that marriage can only be defined as that union between one man and one woman. I am opposed to same-sex marriages, civil unions, and registries.

I believe that we are all equal before God and should be before the law. Homosexuals deserve the same constitutional protections, safeguards, and human dignity as every American, but they should not be entitled to special rights based on their sexual behavior.
The self-contradiction here is stunning. Aren't the criteria - 1) marriage can only be defined as that union between one man and one woman, and 2) we are all equal before God and should be before the law - mutually exclusive? Isn't marriage, with its many associated legal privileges, reserved exclusively for a union of "one man and one woman?" I.e., a special right based on sexual behavior???

When opponents of same-sex marriage talk about preserving the "sanctity" of marriage, they are couching it in religious terms (what is "sancitity," after all, but a religious concept). Since this is an explicitly civil legal issue, in a country defined by the rule of law - not individuals, not God, but law - there's no civil legal reason to preclude this. Sanctity is entirely beside the point.

Of course Ryan's web page also has one of the funnier paragraphs I've seen lately:
The breakdown of the family over the past 35 years is one of the root causes of some of our society’s most intractable social problems-criminal activity, illegitimacy, and the cyclical nature of poverty.
This from a guy who got divorced because his wife wouldn't, as he requested, have sex with strangers, in public, while he and other people watched. Good solid Republican Heartland family values...

Don't let the screen door hit your ass on the way out

Solicitor General Ted Olson has resigned.

Good riddance.

Dennis Prager on the John Kerry Dick Cheney F-bomb
As for the liberals who think that using the f-word in public is no big deal, it is good to have them say so. Anything that clarifies the massive values-differences between the Left and the Right is helpful. We who are not on the Left think public cursing is a big deal, because we believe that people can pollute their soul, their character, and, yes, their society, just as they can pollute their rivers and their air and their lungs.
But that was then...I wonder what he'd say today?

Friday, June 25, 2004

Mr. 7-of-9 dropping out

Jack Ryan, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Illinois, is dropping out of the race. He's spent the past 4 days trying to ignore the growing sex scandal that was prompted by the release of court records from his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan (character '7-of-9' on Star Trek - Voyager).

Ryan's Democratic opponent Barack Obama was already so far in the lead that Ryan essentially had no chance, so it's a little dismaying that he'll now have to face someone else. On the other hand, Obama is a very compelling candidate regardless of who he's running against.

Maplewood Township Committee: The AMT vs The Iraq War

A week or so ago, in a post on Maplewood Online, Sbenois tries to draw a distinction between the TC's Iraq resolution and its similar resolution re: the Alternative Minimum Tax. Sbenois claims that the AMT affects local taxes and as such is fair game, while the war doesn't affect local taxes and thus is NOT a topic for the TC. He's certainly entitled to his opinion - though it is more self-aggrandizing than it is true.

A recent study from The Institute for Policy Studies entitled "Paying the Price: The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War" shows that the Iraq war will, by the end of 2004, have cost the average US household over $3400. If that amount of money had NOT been spent in Iraq, it just MIGHT have been available to pay for the things that our local property taxes are paying for now. I don't know about Sbenois, but I would much rather have that $3400 going into the South Orange/Maplewood schools than into the pockets of Halliburton's (current AND former) executives.

So - Was the TC wrong to pass a resolution asking for action on the AMT? Not at all; it IS a problem for many Maplewood residents. Should they have passed their Iraq resolution? By Sbenois' own standards, absolutely - the tax implications adversely affect not just some but ALL residents of Maplewood.

Is the end near for batteries?

"Batteries not included" may soon be a thing of the past. Toshiba, not previously a player in the battery biz, has announced a new methanol fuel cell that is much smaller than any previous. At only 2.2 x 0.9 x 0.2 inches and 0.3 ounces, it should fit in PDAs, cellphones, personal electronic tchotchkes, toys, etc. Refill with a little alchohol and you're good to go. Link

Cheney Drops the "F" Bomb

You know, who doesn't from time to time. But the backstory is what makes it a worthwhile demonstration of the Bushistas hypocrisy.

Here's the Cheney story, from WFAA-TV in Dallas-Ft. Worth(registration required):
Sources: Cheney used 'f-word' on Senate floor

07:57 AM CDT on Friday, June 25, 2004
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Vice President Cheney cursed at Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy during a confrontation on the Senate floor while members were having their annual group picture taken earlier this week, Leahy and Senate sources said Thursday.

Senate aides with knowledge of the encounter Tuesday said the vice president confronted Leahy about some of the Democrat's criticism about alleged improprieties in Iraq military contracts awarded to Halliburton Co. Cheney, who as vice president is president of the Senate, is a former CEO of Halliburton.

Leahy responded by criticizing the White House for standing by allies who had accused Democrats of being anti-Catholic last year in opposing one of President Bush's judicial nominees, said one Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cheney then responded, "F--- off" or "F--- you," the aide said.

That account was backed by another aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Leahy, D-Vt., confirmed that the confrontation took place but would not provide details.

"I think he was just having a bad day," Leahy said. "I was kind of shocked to hear that kind of language on the floor."

Cheney's office also wouldn't go into detail, but confirmed the two men traded remarks.

"That doesn't sound like language that the vice president would use, but there was a frank exchange of views," said Kevin Kellems, a spokesman for Cheney.

Okay - things got a little testy - though one would hope that, when things get testy, one of the folks who make war-and-peace decisions wouldn't fly off the handle quite so easily. But anyway, people DO talk that way. No biggie.

That is, unless, you've drunk the Bush Kool-Ade. A NewsMax story from December, 2003, recounts a John Kerry use of the same word, though in a different context.
In an interview in this month's issue of Rolling Stone, the Massachusetts Democrat complains about Bush's Iraq war policy. "When I voted for the war, I voted for what I thought was best for the country," Kerry said. "Did I expect George Bush to f--- it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did."

On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said the candidate's gutter language was "beneath John Kerry."

"I'm very disappointed that he would use that kind of language," Card told CNN's "Late Edition." "I'm hoping that he's apologizing at least to himself, because that's not the John Kerry that I know."

It's worth noting that Kerry used the word to describe an action - Cheney used it as verbal violence. But of course anything emerging from the Bush White House has a natural aroma of sanctity. Bush and Cheney have the moral high ground, while Kerry and, by extension, ALL Democrats (and the RINOs who no longer support Bush) are immoral and unpatriotic. Everybody knows that, right?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Our Supreme Court: Open Government too hard and scary for the likes of us

From Reuters:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court set aside on Thursday a ruling that Vice President Dick Cheney must produce records of the energy task force he headed in 2001 or give a detailed explanation of what was withheld and why.

The justices sided with the government. They ruled a U.S. appeals court was wrong in concluding it lacked authority to give relief to the government because the government could protect its rights by asserting executive privilege to keep the documents secrets when the case went back to the judge.

© Reuters 2004. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

A hopeful picture

As I mentioned yesterday, Bush's approval ratings have been declining nearly linearly since 9/11. Here's a more graphic depiction of Bush's declining poll numbers from The Washington Post.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

They really are idiots - they just expect us not to notice

George W Bush's latest nominee for a seat on the Federal Appeals bench, Thomas B. Griffith, has been practicing law in Utah for the past four years - without a license. Before that, he'd been practicing law in D.C., where, for his last 3 years there, he also did not have a license to practice law. Dubya must love the guy, though - he was the lead attorney for the Senate Republicans in the Clinton impeachment - impeccable credentials for a Bush appointee.

When it comes to the rule of law, the Bushistas want only to prescribe, not follow, the law.

More at The Washington Post.

So much for the Reagan Bounce

It looks like the Reagan funerary extravaganza didn't do anything to help the beleaguered Dubya - The latest ABC/Washington Post poll has Bush's numbers dropping again. It doesn't surprise me too much - the Bush Administration is so incompetent on so many levels that it's become impossible for even the most willfully ignorant not to notice.

Via The Daily Kos:
ABC/WaPo poll. 6/17-20. MoE 3%. (5/20-23 results)

Kerry 48 (46)
Bush 44 (46)
Nader 6 (4)

Kerry 53 (49)
Bush 45 (47)

Bush's approval ratings

Approve 47 (47)
Disapprove 51 (50)

The most encouraging number out of this poll is on who voters trust to deal with terrorism - it's now Kerry 48%, Bush 47%. That's a dead heat - but 2 months ago Bush led by 21%.

It's interesting to look at the graph of Bush approval polling over the course of his administration. There are three significant bounces. The biggest, of around 50%, followed 9/11. Next largest is during the Iraq war, of about 15%. The most recent one was the capture of Saddam, when there was a short-lived 5% bump. Reagan week doesn't appear to have added much of anything. The clear pattern in this picture is a steady, linear decline in Bush's approval ratings, to the point where they're now as low or lower than they were before 9/11.

The numbers are encouraging, but I still worry that the Bushies will pull it out, by hook or by crook. The election is still 4 1/2 months away, and an awful lot can happen between now and then. Let's keep the pressure on.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Update on A99/S1701

The Senate today passed S1701, 29-6.

As far as I can tell, the Assembly has not yet brought A99 to a floor vote. It seems pretty likely, though, that this legislation will become law. Our schools, and consequently our communities, are already in deep financial shit - and it's just going to get deeper.

Board of Education meeting

I went primarily for Mark Miller's swearing in as a member of the BoE, filling the seat vacated by Jerry Clifford. Congratulations, and good luck, Mark. We all owe you a debt for taking on this onerous, usually thankless, and often vilified, position.

The Language Arts advisory committee was presenting their findings this evening. While I couldn't stay for the report, I did hear a number of comments from community members, from both sides of the Phonics/Whole-Language divide. There's an awful lot of anger around the issue - mostly, it seems to me, from the programmed-instruction fans who have coalesced around the ACE organization.

I suppose that much of that anger comes from parents who feel that their children are being ill-served by the current curriculum. I can certainly appreciate that and, were my child having similar difficulties, I might feel a bit peevish myself. On the other hand, I don't think that the problem is really in the curriculum itself nor that the programmed-instruction approach they advocate will, on its own, do what they want. Children are all different. Within a even single classroom, children are at different developmental levels, have diverse skill sets, learning styles, etc. Differentiated instruction, not scripted programs, are called for.

One thing I do NOT understand is SOMEA's support of programmed reading instruction. It implies a distrust of teachers' abilities - an unseemly position for their own union to be taking. There certainly ARE problems with elementary reading instruction in the SO/M district, as is obvious from the committee's survey results, as well as from various standardized measures. BUT - I believe the teachers AND their students would be much better served if, instead of purchasing an expensive, all-encompassing program like Open Court, the district spent that money, and more, on what is REALLY needed - adequate staff development and training. I understand that part of SOMEA's displeasure with the Language Arts curriculum is that teachers don't get sufficient support, or guidance in how to implement it. More professional training is the way to go - make our teachers better teachers, of better, more thoughtful, more insightful students - not followers of scripts ministering to rote learners.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

This bill SUCKS! Write to your NJ State Representatives TODAY!!!

NJ Assembly A99 / Senate S1701 will place a hard cap on scholl budget increases of 2.5% per year. This sounds, on its face, a reasonable idea ... but in reality it will deal a death blow to education in NJ. New Jersey, despite its antediluvian methods of school-funding, has one of the best education systems in the US. A99/S1701 aims to hobble the system even further than it is now.

Salary increases ALONE will drive up the budget by about 2.5%. When you consider the 40% increase in energy costs this year (affecting both heating and transportation), the 40% increase in health insurance these past 2 years, ever increasing federal mandates like "No Child Left Behind" and Special Education, the only certain result of this legislation will be the slow dismemberment and gutting of our schools.

The property tax is onerous and only getting worse, but this bill could be considered a solution to the problem only by people who see suicide as a viable solution to a painful hangnail.

Let your state representatives and the leadership in Trenton know that this is simply unacceptable - that they need to bite the bullet, do some real tax reform, and stop using our kids and our communities as pawns in their game to stay in office, sucking at the taxpayer teat.

The easiest way to contact all the players at once is at the website of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Don't wait, the bills come up for a vote tomorrow, June 21! Send those emails and faxes RIGHT NOW!!!

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