Archive for January, 2012

One of the issues that most people agree on when discussing Amsterdam’s weaknesses is our school system. The lagging performance of the school district (ranked 80th out of 85th in last year’s Business Review School Report) has been cited as one of the major reasons that families with children pass on Amsterdam.

It’s clear that Amsterdam has a bigger challenge than most communities due to it’s percentage of students coming from impoverished families. A graph of school district ranking vs percentage of students eligible for reduced lunch, shows a clear correlation.

However, the graph also makes it clear that there are exceptions to the trend, which provides at least a glimmer of hope that with improvements to our districts programs and strategies, it may be possible to climb 10 or 20 ranking points higher. A jump in rankings would send a huge message to families in the region that something good is happening here. It’s difficult, however, to hold much hope when we hear so little indication from the Board of Education that they know how to accomplish this.

The last major change to our school system was the implementation of the magnet school concept. The idea behind creating a magnet school, as I gather, was to encourage voluntary de-segregation of minority students and to promote academic achievement. Under the magnet school program, parents are now allowed to pick which school they would prefer their child attend, subject to lottery system. Also, each school now has a themed curriculum.

With my children attending two different elementary schools, I’ve been able to get a glimpse at how the theme works into the schools’ curriculums. In my own estimation, the themes provide a nice form of enrichment to the student’s experience. But it’s hard to see how these themes affect performance on the cores subjects of math, reading and science.

Indeed, if you look at the test scores over the time period when the four elementary schools started the program (McNulty in 2006, Curie in 2007, followed by Tecler and Barkley in 2008) there appears to be no correlation in improvement for any school other than Curie. McNulty’s scores have consistently decreased. Both Tecler and Barkley showed upward trends which began before the magnet program was started. (Note: all schools showed a drop in scores between 2009 and 2010, which I believe was due to a change in NY standards.)

As far as the goal of equalizing the percentage of minorities in each school, this chart shows the relative percentages of Hispanic students registered at each school before and after the magnet program was started.

While implementing the magnet program brought in large amounts of grant money from the state, the data suggests that it has done very little to improve our school performance or diversity.

So what to do next? I see two questions that concerned residents need to answer. First, what new educational strategies are out there that could work for Amsterdam, and secondly, should we expect our existing officials and governing body to take the lead in studying and implementing new ideas, or does an external approach need to be taken?

One possible route which has been tried before, but may be worth taking another look at is to create a charter school. No doubt, the idea is controversial. The past two attempts to form a charter school in the Amsterdam area have failed.  But I think the idea that Flippin presents as part of his Big A initiative is worth considering. His idea is to create a charter middle school that focuses on digital arts, engineering and alternative energy. I believe that having one charter school, which would have the freedom to develop and innovate its own systems of teaching, would introduce an element of competition which could spur the school district to become more proactive.

Reading through the news archives on what happened with the last charter school effort, it seems the difficulty with creating a charter school in Amsterdam lies in the fact that NY State looks at the financial impact of the new school on the district. Adding a new school was judged detrimental to the district back in 2004. No doubt, an additional middle school, one that would take students away from Lynch, would face a similar challenge. Flippin suggests funding the school at first through bonding as part of a more comprehensive economic revitalization program. This method may reduce the financial impact of the new school on the district. Another idea might be to convert the existing middle school or one of the existing elementary schools to a charter school, instead of creating a new one.

Another idea that has been in the news recently is the “Flipped” classroom concept which is based on the growing evidence that the amount of  individualized attention that a student gets from the teacher is what makes the most difference in his or her academic performance. Basically the idea is for teachers to put all instructional teaching on video which the student would view at home. This frees up more time for the teacher to work individually with students in small groups during school time. In other words, the idea of what constitutes school work and homework is “flipped.” There are valid concerns about this method,  and it’s difficult to tell whether it would be effective here in Amsterdam or not. But it’s ideas like these that need to be considered.

I’ve said more than once that I believe that my children will receive a good education in the Amsterdam School District. I am confident of that because I am committed to being involved in my children’s education. But in order for our education system to be seen by the wider region as a strength and not a weakness, we are going to have to introduce further changes to our system to increase our overall performance. Those of us who care enough about this issue are either going to have to press hard on our school board and officials to come up with and implement new strategies, or we’re going to have to find ways to go around them.

Grumpy Old Man on Internet News

Posted: January 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’m oooooold! And I’m not happy! And I don’t like things now compared to the way they used to be. All this progress — phooey! In my day, we didn’t have these blogs and facebooks and twitters. We got all our local news from the newspaper. You’d have to wait a whole day, or sometimes two, just to find out what happened a block away. And you had ten year old kids throwin’ your paper in your trees and through your windows and you still had to pay ‘em every week. And that’s the way it was and we liked it!

Life was simpler then. There wasn’t all this concern about memes and editorial slants and stuff. It my days, if the paper made a mistake, we didn’t care. They’d run a correction two weeks later, stuck way back on page 10 in small type, and that made everything OK. Back in 1943 we thought Dewey was president for at least a month. When we learnt it wasn’t so, we just said, “Flobble-de-flee!” ’cause we were idiots and we didn’t know what else to say! And that’s the way it was and we liked it!

Life was a carnival! We didn’t need internet web sites for information. In my day, if there was snow outside, you tuned into WGY and listened to Don Weeks read the school closings for a half an hour. If you got distracted and weren’t listening when they got to your county, well too bad! You had to wait through an hour of cheesy 70’s music and then listen to it all over again. And that’s the way it was and we liked it that way!

Word-Press???  Flobble-de-flee! In my day, we believed everything Dan Rather said and never thought for a second he might be biased. We just believed whatever we were told because we were illiterate and ignorant and we didn’t know any better! Just a bunch o’ Cro-Magnons, gettin’ our news two days late, not knowin’ who’s president, listening to the school closings for hours, believin’ everything without question and that’s the way it was and we liked it! Weeeeeeee LOVED IT!

Please note, this was not written to offend any of my friends working in the “old media” industry :  )

Voters in the Village of Corinth voted 338-209 last Tuesday against dissolving the village and being absorbed by the town. Doing some reading on the subject, I’ve found some very interesting points to share which should help us better understand the complexity of the dissolution/consolidation process and how it could possibly play out in our own region.

Studies of dissolution options showed that while village residents may have realized an annual tax savings of between $145 to $242 (per $100,000 assessed value), town residents could have seen anywhere from a $48 decrease to a $137 increase. The amount of savings depended on whether a resident utilized municipal sewer and water services, and also on the availability of funds from NY State’s Aid and Incentives to Municipalities (AIM) program. AIM was designed to help communities who decide to dissolve/consolidate with additional funding. However it seems that the actual availability of these funds was so questionable, that scenarios with and without this funding had to be considered.

A key issue in this situation was whether Epcor Power LP, which is part of a large transnational corporation and operates the Curtis-Palmer Hydro plant, would discontinue certain funding that they had been providing for the village or possibly challenge their tax assessment. It appears that this was a serious concern, based on past attempts by the company and the failure of Epcor to assure the panel that it would not seek to decrease their funding. The possibility was deemed great enough to include the scenario in the study (although the language in the study seems to downplay the risk), which showed that village residents could see an annual $445  increase in taxes (per $100,000 assessed value) if Epcor was successful in reducing their funding after the dissolution.

Given all these factors, the village panel charged with studying the idea actually recommended against dissolution  in November 2010. Village officials, including the mayor, also recommended against dissolution. Nevertheless, village officials were not opposed to holding a referendum on the proposal, but they also indicated they didn’t want to rush to a vote either. However, it appears that a well-organized citizen’s group gained the necessary number of signatures to petition for a vote in January anyway.

It’s interesting to note here, that there are two types of actions that citizens can petition for – dissolution or consolidation. Since the citizen’s group petitioned for dissolution of the village, only the village was required to vote, even though it was clear that the town would be affected considerably by this action. If the referendum had passed, the town would have been forced to accept a de-facto consolidation.

So one has to wonder, what was driving this “citizen’s group” to push through this referendum given the very real possibility that dissolution would have raised taxes for both village and town residents, and the very real possibility that the greatest tax savings could end up going to a large transnational corporation?

Thanks to everyone who submitted responses to the S.W.O.T. analysis thread. I’ve tried to look for some common ground among these posts, and I see a couple of areas where people’s comments overlap. One of the issues that came up in both the strengths and weaknesses category was our housing stock. I’ve always agreed with the idea that our neighborhoods are our most important asset, and it seems that most people do too. I also think that most would also agree that the average condition of our city’s homes is declining. I think the disagreements emerge when we start talking about what to do about it.

For a change of pace, I’ve decided to boil down some of the various strategies that I’ve picked up on through past blog discussions and put them into a  few polls. Feel free to comment on the various strategies and suggest new ones if you wish.

Here’s some stats on the housing situation in Amsterdam from the Comprehensive Plan. They are from 2000, but I think they can at least give us a little perspective on the situation.

Total residential parcels: 5,310
Single family residential parcels: 2,777
Multiple family residential parcels: 2,533
Total housing units: 9,277
Owner occupied housing units: 4,107
Renter occupied housing units: 3,876
Vacant: 1,294

Also,  a lot has written recently on the issue of buying a home vs renting a home. Here’s a good article (with good counter-points in the comments) which shows how home ownership rates and consumer sentiment toward home ownership have both been falling. I think it’s worth considering that even if the economy begins to improve, we may be seeing a cultural shift away from settling down permanently, and more toward remaining mobile. However, we’ve also discussed that owner occupied, single family homes are needed to stabilize our neighborhoods.  This new trend may have to be factored in as we discuss the best strategy for Amsterdam’s housing situation.

It seems that the Montgomery and Fulton County Chambers of Commerce are giving serious consideration to merging. I have mixed feelings on the idea, depending on how I look at the role of the COC in the business community.

On one hand, I think a merger could very well benefit some types of businesses. My own experience of being a member of the COC from 2008 through 2010 was positive and beneficial experience. By attending  a small fraction of the available networking events (such as mixers, grand opening events, business expo), I gained five new clients, with an additional two clients gained directly from COC referrals. The amount of business I gained from those seven clients far exceeded the cost of membership. In addition, having the opportunity to participate in COC sponsored mentoring workshops at the middle school and high school were highly rewarding for me personally. Being that my service (web site design) was in demand by many businesses, the COC was a great “marketplace” for my business. Access to a larger market, for the same price, would certainly benefit a business such as my own.

However, the perception that the COC is oriented toward and primarily benefits larger businesses is one that continues to persist. I remember one  event I attended. There was a small sub shop opening up on Market St in Amsterdam. The grand opening event was promoted by the COC just the same as any other event. When I showed up, however, it was only me, COC President Deborah Auspelmyer (who I give credit for consistently having a genuinely positive and welcoming attitude), and maybe 1 or 2 other COC officers. The storefront was very neat and the quality of food was really good. But the business community just didn’t show up for this. I ordered from the shop several times after that, but unfortunately the quality seemed to decrease each time and eventually the shop went out of business months later.

Such is life, obviously some business plans just don’t work out. Perhaps the business struggled to attract traffic and rather than increasing their efforts to market their good product, they opted to skimp on their ingredients, thus creating a death spiral for the business (which is a lesson for Amsterdam in itself). But either way, this appears to be a case where this particular business owner’s COC membership did not help much at all. Perhaps a larger turnout at their grand opening would have given them the jumpstart they needed to remain a viable business.

So I think with a merged Fulton/Montgomery County Chamber, we will see a benefit to well-established, larger, regionally oriented businesses and organizations, as well as for smaller “business to business” vendors looking to market their products or services to other businesses. However, I don’t see the merger as being at all beneficial to newer, smaller, restaurants, retailers, or other local services (ie exactly the types of businesses that we need to revitalize our downtown area, Market Hill area, or other neighborhoods.) In fact, I think these types of small businesses will find it even harder to see a return on an investment in a COC membership as grand openings for these are going to get increasingly lost in an even larger events calendar.

Perhaps a more locally oriented organization is needed to supplement the Chamber in promoting and helping smaller businesses in the city of Amsterdam? I know such organizations have existed before and haven’t continued, but maybe it’s time to try again? I’d be glad to hear other viewpoints in the comments section!