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Charter to the Top

Next week, the state could scramble to change its relationship with charter schools, for $700 million from the White House

In anticipation of the state Legislature’s upcoming fight over legislation to remove the cap on charter schools in New York, Albany Common Councilwoman Cathy Fahey brought forth her own nonbinding resolution at Monday night’s Democratic caucus.

On Jan. 19, the state will hit the deadline for seeking up to $700 million in federal funding as part of President Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. This initiative is a considerable carrot, designed to bring cash-strapped states into line with the White House’s education agenda. Along with other regulations, states must demonstrate a positive approach to charter schools. Currently, New York has a cap on charter schools, which limits their number to 200—roughly half of what the cap would need to be for the state to qualify for the funds.

This past fall, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (D-Buffalo) and Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) introduced legislation designed to curry favor with the Obama administration. The proposed legislation would lift the cap on charter schools in the state, as well as allow charter schools to run prekindergarten programs, increase the school year by a month and consider student test scores in teacher tenure decisions, among other effects.

Fahey said that she doesn’t want to see the state lose money, but she doesn’t believe that allowing more charter schools into Albany is what her constituents want.

“Albany has more than its fair share of charter schools,” said Fahey. “So, the idea was to get a message to the state Legislature that Albany is in kind of a unique situation. If they lift the cap on charter schools, there really needs to be something put in place so that there aren’t any more charters approved in the city of Albany.”

“We have 12 charter schools, and it is more than any other school district in New York state, percentage-wise, given the number of students,” she said.

Charter schools are costly for the district, as there is a set cost per student that the district must pay, and the taxpayer must provide additional monies for social workers, nursing services and transportation, said Fahey. “They are really expensive.”

Assemblyman Jack McEneny and state Sen. Neil Breslin have each introduced legislation in an attempt to ease costs of the charter schools, which Fahey said will reach $30 million next year. “We have gone from a school district of 12 schools to a district of 30 in nine years,” she added.

“I asked for funding relief,” said Fahey, as well as greater accountability and transparency into the operations of charter schools.

McEneny said that he shares Fahey’s concerns over how charter schools are funded and their lack of transparency. He has been “vehemently opposed,” he said, to the expansion of charter schools, especially in the city of Albany. He has put forward multiple pieces of legislation designed to reign in charter schools.

“There are a number of people, including the president of the United States and the governor of New York, as well as a number of legislators who are in favor of raising the cap so that there can be more charter schools. If the force is so great that it is going to happen, my job is to try to make an exemption of those districts that have been saturated. And Albany has been saturated.”

“Was this experimental system supposed to be the majority instead of the minority?” McEneny asked.

The Legislature is expected to resume debate over Hoyt’s legislation next week, in an effort by some to secure the federal money. Gov. David Paterson has said that he now supports lifting the ban, after initially rejecting the notion. State Senate Majority Conference Leader John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) has voiced his support for more charter schools.

—Chet Hardin

Doors Open

Hundreds of Albany residents turn out to show their support for the Washington Avenue YMCA

More than 400 people poured into the large auditorium at the main branch of the Albany Public Library on Tuesday evening to attend a town-hall meeting regarding the uncertain future of the downtown branch of the YMCA. The large crowd stretched out into the hall and out to the bookshelves. The facility, located at 274 Washington Ave., which has been an integral part of the community for more than 50 years, is presently in danger of closing down due to low membership and a deteriorating building. Made public only a couple of weeks ago, news of the prospective closure has already caused widespread reaction among concerned community members and local nonprofit groups for whom the facility provides invaluable services and space. J. David Brown, CEO and president of the Capital District YMCA, attempted to address the concerns and issues, which have become rampant in the last two weeks, while introducing his plan to save the Washington Avenue branch.

The meeting was moderated by Corey Ellis, recent Albany mayoral candidate and former common councilman, and the roster of speakers included community members, Y members, advocates from other organizations in Albany with whom the Y has relationships, and even a brief cameo by Mayor Jerry Jennings.

While the topic was obviously an emotional one for many, the meeting became notably rowdy only on one or two occasions, when unsatisfied attendees demanded clarification or asked questions out of turn. There were some conspicuous omissions on the part of the CDYMCA, namely Brown’s reluctance to comment on the lack of communication within the community over these last crucial years. Communication, community members said, that could have led to action and resolution much sooner.

The meeting ended with several tentative plans and strengthened community support. Brown agreed to meet with the YMCA Joint Strategic Task Force that has recently been set up with the goal of saving the downtown facility.

“So many members and downtown residents value the Y so deeply that organizing last night’s meeting and the task force have been pretty effortless,” said Chris Mercogliano, task force member and community activist. “Everything has come together despite the Y’s blatant attempts to use the holidays as a shield. The bottom line is that there is a wealth of energy, expertise and creative thinking within the membership and the surrounding community—more than enough, we are convinced, to figure out how to make the Y sufficiently sustainable. Unfortunately, until now the Y’s response has been primarily defensive. They say they have already tried all of the ideas the task force is proposing and nothing has ever worked. From where I stand, the negative mindset is the biggest problem of all.”

Mercogliano and his wife, Betsy, have been key forces in the flurry of organization and effort that has taken place over the last two weeks.

Enlisting the support of Jennings, who has agreed to renew his lapsed membership, the task force is looking into the possibility of gaining access to three nearby parking lots as a way to solve the pressing parking issue. They also plan to move forward on a membership drive that they call “much more comprehensive than the one the Y has announced,” launching a citywide campaign in an effort to draw in the membership numbers that Brown has said will be necessary for the facility to remain open.

Brown’s plan focused solely on increasing membership, something that he clearly looked to the community to help to achieve. In order to keep its doors open, the downtown YMCA would need a membership of 2,550 households by April of this year and 3,550 by December. If those numbers are attained, Brown said, they will begin to look at the options of renovation or rebuilding. Failure to attain these goals, he said, will “result in immediate closing.”

Brown said that the facility was currently running at a deficit of $400,000 a year, and the CDYMCA would be able to absorb only up to $100,000 in annual losses, numbers that have been confirmed by other members of the CDYMCA board.

Brown stressed the Y’s commitment to the community, pointing to statistics that certainly seem to underscore his point. Ninety percent of the 468 children that use a downtown YMCA facility every day do so for free. The CDYMCA provided $400,000 in financial assistance to youth and families, hosted 330 kids in summer camps this year alone, and runs numerous programs in local schools. Plus, Brown added, 90 percent of the downtown Y’s activities actually take place outside of the Washington Avenue facility.

Those numbers quickly lost any emotional significance for the community, who heard speaker after speaker extol the virtues and necessity of the facility itself.

Marsha Penrose, executive director for Next Step, a treatment program for women, said that to close the building would be “a tremendous loss to [her] agency and the women who use it on a daily basis,” adding that Next Step would have nowhere else to go.

Khaliq Harrison, a 19-year-old representative for the Albany Gang Prevention Program, spoke strongly about the impact of the teen program.

“Without teen night, that’s another body on the streets,” he said. “We’re not dealing with an ordinary generation. If we shut down the Y, the crime rate is going to increase and you can guarantee that.”

Citing the extensive use that his organization makes of the building, Scott Velie, from Hospitality House, literally pled for the facility’s survival. “Please, we’ve got to do whatever we can.”

Representatives from Parsons Center for Children and Families, and St. Catherine’s Center for Women and Girls Inc. joined the public outcry. There was even a letter from a 6-year-old child, who said that the Y makes her “feel safe” and that she would “feel bad” if it closed.

“I’m not here to fight,” said Brown. “I know some of you are upset, and you should be. And you should defend your neighborhood. We’re asking for your help. We’re not saying we’re going to slam doors.”

—Ali Hibbs

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings delivered his 16th State of the City Address on Monday night. It was a brief, somber event, with the mayor rehashing much of the doomsaying that shaped his budget message months earlier. Albany is faced with decreasing revenues and ballooning expenses, the mayor said, and stands to lose millions in state aid in 2011, including $8 million in PILOT payments on the Empire State Plaza. He said he will be convening a task force of city employees and elected officials to help plan for the financial shocks that 2011 has in store for the city. He will also be seeking help from an outside firm to perform a management audit, which will be used “as a blueprint” during the difficult budgeting process for 2011.



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