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Song and dance: Students perform at Wednesday's advocacy day.

Running Out of Time

Facing an unexpected loss of funding, after-school programs ask for a small share of the $575 million that can be added to the state budget

Yesterday (Wednesday), hundreds of students, parents, educators, and after-school program advocates from across the state converged at the Capitol as part of an annual after-school advocacy day. This year’s convention came with additional urgency, however, as more than 200 after-school programs across the state soon may be forced to either significantly scale back services or shut down entirely due to a decision by the state Education Department not to release any federal money to after-school programs whose funding is up for renewal this year.

“At a time when the state is trying to really improve student achievement and achieve educational excellence, it’s a particularly huge problem to be shutting down programs that are having a really strong impact on kids’ success in school,” said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York and chairwoman of the Coalition for After-School Funding. CASF is one of several organizations lobbying the Legislature and governor to save the 207 affected programs by adding $30 million to the state budget.

Locally, a program enabled by a partnership between the Albany School District and Capital District YMCA stands to lose the $543,000 it uses to operate extended-day programs in five of the city’s elementary schools. In total, the five sites serve 320 students and employ 60 staff members.

“I know there’s money out there,” said Lynn Siebert, chair of the Albany YMCA board of managers and school-age education coordinator at the Capital District Childcare Council. Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Legislature agree there is about $575 million in additional money that could be added to the originally proposed state budget. “We’re just asking for $30 million [of that] to keep 34,000 children off the streets, not just our 320, but 34,000 across the state of New York.”

The Assembly and Senate had their first opportunity to add to Gov. Spitzer’s proposed state budget earlier this week, when they passed their individual budget bills. Neither house responded to the pleas of after-school advocates.

“How this is not resonating with our legislators at this point, and our governor, is a little perplexing to me,” Seibert said.

The state Education Department’s decision affects after-school programs funded through the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, a No Child Left Behind program. The federal money is distributed to the Education Department, which, in turn, distributes five-year grants through a competitive process. The first funding round was offered in 2002, with additional rounds beginning during the following two years.

The first round of funding expires in June, but officials from the Education Department decided there isn’t enough CCLC money to allow for new or renewal applications.

The problem isn’t just that the state isn’t financially supporting the expansion of after-school programs, Scharff said, but also the programs that would lose funding are the most established programs that have had made the largest investments in terms of time and resources.

“We believe these are very worthwhile programs, and we would like to see them continue uninterrupted,” said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state Education Department. However, he explained that federal funding grants have been “severely cut back,” so much as to necessitate a suspension of the competitive process until next year.

According to Siebert, that decision came abruptly and without warning to the programs that rely on these funds. As recently as the fall and winter, she said, the Education Department was indicating that information about the new round of competitive funding would become available in the near future.

“Then all of a sudden, on a Friday, we got the e-mail,” Siebert said. “We’ve been in crisis mode ever since.”

The $30 million figure would support the continuation of all 207 programs for one more year until the state education department, Legislature, and governor can “look forward and think about how we’re going to deal with after-school funding long-term,” Scharff said.

If an alternative source of funding cannot be secured, the most obvious effect will be on the 34,000 students who currently attend CCLC-funded after-school programs, Siebert acknowledged, but it’s far from the only impact.

“These aren’t communities that can necessarily sustain these programs through fee-base,” Siebert said of Albany’s five program centers. “We have plenty of fee-base programs that are doing well and are vibrant and they are in communities that can sustain them. These five communities cannot.”

The Albany School District and YMCA have spent five years investing in the professional development of people who staff the extended-day programs, Seibert said, and they may suddenly have to do away with 60 employees.

“To be honest with you, in the Capital District, in our YMCA, we have folks now who are already putting in their notice,” Seibert said. “They’re not waiting. They can’t wait until June. We are already beginning to see staff leaving us, which is not good for the children. They’ve built relationships with these staff, not only this program year, but for years because some of the staff has been with these programs for the duration.”

—Nicole Klaas

What a Week

Let’s Make a Deal

Talk about thinking outside the box: In an attempt to boost organ and tissue donation, South Carolina state Sen. Ralph Anderson is sponsoring legislation that would give inmates a “get out of jail early” card in exchange for bone marrow or one of their kidneys. The volunteer program would allow prisoners to cut their sentence by as much as 180 days. The incentive policy would be the only one of its kind in this country, and begs questions of legality, based on a federal law that prohibits giving organ donors “valuable consideration.”

Living La Vida Loco

Isreal’s Foreign Ministry announced this week that it had recalled its ambassador to El Salvador. The reason? Two weeks ago, police found the ambassador, Tsuriel Raphael, naked, drunk, and wrapped in bondage gear in front of his home. The police reported that they had to remove the ball gag from Raphael’s mouth in order to identify him. In announcing the replacement of Rapheal, the Israeli ministry referred to his behavior as “unbecoming of a diplomat.”

Following the Oil

Halliburton, the largest military contractor in Iraq, announced Sunday that it will move its corporate headquarters from Texas to Dubai. The company, which was led by Vice President Dick Cheney from 1995 to 2000, currently holds a five-year, $16 billion contract with the military. It is estimated that the move to this tiny, West-friendly member of the United Arab Emirates will save the company hundred of millions of dollars in taxes. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has voiced suspicion over the move, noting that Halliburton currently is being investigated for questionable business practices and has been accused of overbilling on government contracts.

Welcome to the Machine

This past week, the Albany County Legislature voted to fill the seat left vacant by recently deceased Republican legislator Ann Comella. Comella’s husband, Joe, had requested that he be allowed to serve out her term as representative for the 25th District, but the Democratic majority apparently had other plans. Democrat Ryan Horstmyer, a 24-year-old student at Albany Law School—and an intern to Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine—was confirmed as Comella’s replacement by a 27-9 vote.

Showing their support: Advocates for Hossain and Aref gather outside the U.S. Courthouse

It’s Time to Leave

Activists “occupy” lawmakers’ offices to demand that their elected representatives get America out of Iraq

Peace activist and Vietnam veteran Elliot Adams knew before arriving at the Albany office of U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) March 12 that his visit likely would end with his arrest, or at least some sort of run-in with the law. And despite that, Adams said that he and the 15 other local activists engaged in a very pleasant, albeit disappointing, meeting with Clinton’s staff. According to activist Bob Alft, the meeting was cordial even though they were informed that the senator would not take the action they had requested and vote against funding for the Iraq War. After the meeting, instead of leaving the Leo O’Brien federal building, four of the activists, including Adams, refused to vacate the premises and read the names of Americans and Iraqis who have been killed during the war that is now approaching its fourth anniversary.

The four protesters who were ticketed took their action as part of the Occupation Project, a campaign sponsored by Voices for Creative Non-Violence. VCNV was founded by Kathy Kelly, a nationally recognized activist and cofounder of the defunct peace group Voices From the Wilderness. Protests in lawmakers’ offices resulting in the arrests or ticketing of protesters have been taking place all over the country, thanks to the efforts of VCNV, who want to keep the pressure on officials to end the Iraq war. Protesters also have performed “occupations” in the offices of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

Kelly said that it is important to remind officials that the Democratic majority was elected on a mandate to end the Iraq War, and that they need to deliver.

“For the first time in my life,” said Kelly, who waged a campaign to heighten awareness of the suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people during the trade embargos of the ’90s, “the public is on my side. It’s like trying on a different pair of shoes. Seventy percent of the public now disapproves of how President Bush has conducted this war. When we first started, we couldn’t get the word ‘Iraq’ into the newspapers. There was zero mention of the economic war waged. . . . Now the public knows very clearly there is tremendous suffering going on in Iraq. I think that one of the reasons elected representatives are trying to figure out what to do is they know we are not representing an eccentric, offbeat, fringe perception.”

Alft said he appreciated speaking with a Clinton representative about the senator’s decision to not vote against funding the Iraq War. And, he said, he appreciates her promise to end the war in 2009 if elected president. But he wants action now. “Her position is something that is being molded, as far as I can tell, and she will vote for the supplemental spending bill,” he said. Alft also said that Clinton’s representative told him that Clinton will not vote against the spending because if President George Bush sends troops to Iraq, they would be left without funding. Alft countered that he thinks the Pentagon would not send troops anywhere without funding.

Adams said that he is not sure whether his protest has been effective, but regardless, he felt bound to take action against an unjust war. “My war was Vietnam, when 20,000 of us were dead KIAs [killed in action]; the White House was talking about an unwinnable war and looking for a way out. Thirty thousand more of us died while they were trying to find an exit strategy.”

According to Adams, if politicians don’t start to stand on principle rather than politics, the Iraq War will not end. “I am tired of seeing these exit strategies. There are only two exit strategies, and those are ships and planes.”

—David King

Feeling the Sting

Albany Muslims receive 15-year sentences for terror-conspiracy conviction, and announce their intention to appeal

Mohammed Hossain stood before U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy March 8 to plead on his own behalf. Yassin Aref, the imam of the Albany Central Avenue mosque that Hossain helped found, had earlier that morning received his sentence: 15 years in federal prison. The U.S. courthouse, inside and out, was teeming with supporters of the two men. It was the first time Hossain would speak to the court during the long trial that convicted he and Aref of conspiracy to lend material comfort to terrorists. He was facing a possible sentence of 30 years to life, and was overcome with emotion.

“Like any person who stands here,” Hossain said, his voice breaking, “I want to get back to my life. I want to get back to my wife and children.”

Hossain was arrested, along with Aref, in 2004, in a terrorism bust that grabbed national headlines. Top government officials heralded the covert FBI operation—a sting—that netted the two men as a success in post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. They were found guilty last year after a monthlong trial.

Hossain’s lawyer, Kevin Luibrand, said they intend to appeal the court’s decision.

“The government has been using sting operations for 100 years,” Luibrand said. “There is no recorded case of a sting operation where the target . . . had never committed a crime, was not committing a crime, was not thinking about committing a crime, and was living an average American life. And that is the core of the appeal.”

For now, however, Hossain, who also received 15 years, and Aref will be moved to a federal prison to begin serving their sentences. Luibrand said that he has no idea what kind of prison the government will choose to incarcerate his client. Aref has been held in near-solitary confinement at the Rensselaer County Jail since 2005. Hossain, who was out on bail during the trial, was taken to the Rensselaer jail after his conviction, and, until three weeks ago, was being held in 23-hour lockdown as well. Luibrand said that he has no idea if his client will be sent to a maximum-security prison, or even where in the country he will be sent.

“I have not been able to even guess where he will go or how he will be treated,” Luibrand said. “Will he be treated as a convicted terrorist or is he going to be treated as a fairly run-of-the-mill federal inmate? I don’t know.”

The difference in treatment, Luibrand said, is drastic.

“If they had gotten the 30-to-life, I have no doubt they were heading out to Colorado for Supermax or a comparable prison,” Luibrand said. The Federal Supermax Prison, located in Florence, Colo., represents the highest-level security facilities in the country. It houses such notable criminals as Ted Kaczynski and Zacarias Moussouai. Prisoners are typically kept isolated for 23 hours a day in 7-by-11 foot cells. “It is basically solitary confinement.”

But Luibrand has hope, he said, based on how the sentence was read and comments made by the judge during sentencing, that Hossain will not be treated with such intensity.

“The judge made a specific recommendation that Hossain be sent to a location as near to Albany as possible,” Luibrand said. The decision is made by the Bureau of Prisons, however, and no one will know until Hossain has been moved.

“We have no inside information. And neither does the judge,” Luibrand said. “I’ll know where he is when he calls me up and tells me where.”

Aref’s attorneys were unavailable to comment for this article.

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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