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Restoring a building in the heart of a community: St. Anthony’s Church in Albany. Photo by Chris Shields

A Landmark Reborn
A neighborhood activist leads an effort to transform a historic church into a community arts center
By Shawn Stone

The idea, Gabrielle Becker says, came from a place most people don’t have much interest in or awareness of. “It came from the imagination,” she explained. Becker is talking about her dream—about to become one step closer to reality—of turning the vacant St. Anthony’s Church, located at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Grand Street in Albany’s Mansion neighborhood, into a community-oriented arts center. Becker has signed the agreement papers with the church’s owner, the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, and is waiting for the diocese to finalize the agreement.

The recent Bard graduate explained that the idea of a community arts center really took hold when she was a freshman in college. Unlike most students who have no interest in returning to the place they grew up to live and work—it’s viewed as “dorky,” she laughed—Becker wanted to live in, and give something back to, the inner-city community she grew up in.

The summer before her senior year at Bard, Becker started to take action. First, she went to neighborhood artists and asked if they would be interested in volunteering in this effort; all said yes, Becker noted. Then, she went around the neighborhood with a petition, collecting more than 200 signatures of residents supporting the idea of an arts center.

The church has been empty since the early ’70s, when a declining population forced its closure. The Roman Catholic Diocese was attracted, Becker said, by her vision of making the building once again a central part of the community.

It won’t be an easy task. While the roof is in good shape, much work will need to be done on the structure’s heating system.

“It’s a great building, St. Anthony’s,” said Elizabeth Griffin, executive director of Historic Albany Foundation, adding that “of all the churches, it is by far the easiest to reuse.” St. Anthony’s, Griffin continued, has a distinct advantage over many other abandoned church buildings in Albany, including St. Joseph’s in Arbor Hill: It isn’t just one large, European-style cathedral space.

“What’s nice about St. Anthony’s,” Griffin said, “is that on the Madison side, you have a door that goes into a full basement that probably has 8-, 8-and-a-half-foot ceilings. You really have two full levels of useful space.”

Becker said she hopes to rent out the basement to a nonprofit agency that will share the community-oriented spirit of the proposed arts center. At first, she resisted the idea of renting out any of the space, but was persuaded by the economic realities of the situation—and some sharp advice from her advisors.

“I said, ‘God will provide,’ and they said, ‘Well, no, he won’t,’” Becker laughed.

Becker said she is getting help and support from many people in the neighborhood, including architect Christine Frombgen and the Mansion Neighborhood Association’s Tom McPheeters.

The first meeting of the board of directors of the nonprofit corporation being formed to own the church was held at the Free School last Thursday (June 26). (The Free School building, just around the corner from St. Anthony’s at 8 Elm St., has a connection to the church—it was the parish’s former school.) The first thing on the agenda is raising the full $10,000 to pay for the church in the next six months. Then, the harder task of raising a minimum of $150,000 to fully renovate the structure begins.

Becker is enthusiastic, and looking forward to a summer of writing grant proposals. And she extended an invitation to anyone interested in getting involved the effort: “If you’re 15 or 45 or whatever and want to be involved, you’re welcome.”

Learn to Pay More
SUNY hits students with 28-percent tuition hike
By Jennifer Schulkind

Much to the dismay of students, the State University of New York Board of Trustees voted on Monday to approve the tuition increase proposed by Chancellor Robert L. King. The vote means a $950, or 28-percent, increase for in-state students; and a $2,000 hike for out-of-state students.

Led by Chairman Thomas Egan, the board voted 11-1 for the increase, making tuition $4,350 a year for in-state undergraduates, $10,300 for out-of-staters. The lone dissenter was Stephanie Gross, a junior at SUNY Oneonta. As the president of the State University Student Assembly, she is the only elected member of the board of trustees. The vote came less then a month after her election.

“I represent the students, and they cannot handle this tuition increase,” said Gross. “Students today are paying for the students of yesterday.”

Gross said she would prefer a more “rational” approach that increases tuition gradually over several years. She said that the amount of the increase is more than families can plan ahead for, and charged the board with not trying to find other ways of getting revenue while simply shifting the burden completely onto students.

Chancellor King’s recommendation, which is less than the increase recommended by Gov. George Pataki, reflects SUNY’s fear of losing students. If too many students, especially out-of-state students, are driven out by the increase, it could leave SUNY with a large deficit, acknowledged SUNY spokesman David Henahan.

However, prospective students continue to show strong interest in the SUNY schools. The number of applications for fall 2003 is ahead of the previous year, as is the number of accepted students who have sent in deposits to hold their places, indicating a possible increase in enrollment. However, the official number of students enrolled cannot be calculated until the fall.

“I think SUNY is a great system, but it’s a public college,” said Miriam Kramer, higher-education coordinator with the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The burden to fund the colleges should fall on the state, not the students and their families.”

NYPIRG thinks that $950 is an enormous increase and is concerned with students and their families’ ability to pay, said Kramer, who attended Monday’s vote.

After the 1995 SUNY tuition increase of $750, enrollment decreased by 8,000 students over three years, but rebounded quickly after that.

SUNY officials blame the national recession and Sept. 11 for its budget deficit. The trustees followed the direction of the New York State Legislature, whose budget deficit left little for higher education, according to Henahan, who added that SUNY needs a stable year-to-year operating budget, which is funded by tax dollars and tuition. Cost controls on personnel, travel, and purchasing have been initiated to curb spending.

“New York state was presented with a fiscal crisis not seen since World War II,” said Henahan. “All state agencies including SUNY received less state tax support.”

Gov. Pataki, who took office in 1995, the same year the last SUNY tuition increase was enacted, proposed a $1,200 increase, but settled for the Legislature’s $950. Originally, he had also wanted to cut the Tuition Assistance Program by a third. These proposals met with student protests at the Capitol last January. (Ultimately, TAP’s budget was not cut.)

The increase in tuition does not affect campus fees, which cover technology and health services, student activities, etc. Tuition pays for the instructional budget, which is mostly professors’ salaries. Henahan emphasized that SUNY is raising tuition to maintain educational quality.

The board of trustees has been considering this issue for the last six months in a serious of public and private sessions. This included a trip to the New York State Legislature joint fiscal committees and public-comment sessions, which were thought by many critics to be inadequate.

Twenty-nine state-operated campuses will be affected. This excludes the 30 community colleges and the statutory colleges at Alfred University and Cornell University.

“SUNY was dealt a difficult card by the governor,” said Kramer. “[The issue] should have been advocated more by students to find ways to fund it.” Students will have to work more, take out more loans, or leave school, Kramer said.

“It’s already too expensive,” said Robert Rawlins, a sophomore at SUNY Stony Brook. “It should be made more affordable to those whose parents can’t afford to pay.”

State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi alluded to possible budget deficits for the coming fiscal year, which Kramer speculates will mean further tuition increases next year as well.

Only God Can Give You a Head Start
Bush-backed bill would dismantle federal program for disadvantaged youth, shifting it to the states—and opening it up to faith-based discrimination
By Glenn Weiser

‘Ms. Goldberg, I’m very sorry, but because you’re not a born-again Christian, Fire and Brimstone Ministries is terminating you as a teacher in the Head Start program. However, if you receive Jesus Christ into your life as your personal lord and savior, I’m sure we could reinstate you.”

Situations like this hypothetical one could become reality in several states if a bill before the House of Representatives, the School Readiness Act of 2003 (HR 2210), becomes law. The measure, which is backed by the Bush administration, would dismantle Head Start as a federal program providing disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds with educational and health-care services and shift it to the states in the form of block grants. The states could then combine their own preschool funding with the federal money. The White House contends the move will enable Head Start to better coordinate with state programs, but critics say provisions in the bill strip it of crucial civil-rights protections. As a result, participating religious organizations could fire teachers not belonging to their faith, and also forbid parents of children in the program from becoming volunteers on the same grounds. Current law bans hiring on the basis of religion in the program.

Responding by e-mail to a request for comment, Shin Inouye, legislative media liaison for the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “Head Start was created to ensure that teachers were put in classrooms; it was not about permitting government-funded religion. If this bill passes, we will see qualified teachers get fired, simply because they cannot pass federally sanctioned religious tests. Our elected representatives need to . . . dismiss this misguided attempt at government-funded religion.”

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, echoed Inouye in an e-mail, saying, “There is absolutely no reason for this administration to encourage religious discrimination in Head Start. Although Head Start is sometimes located at churches and sponsored by religious groups, it is not a religious program. It contains no religious content and is designed to serve children from various religious and philosophical backgrounds. Head Start does contain an income test—that is, it is designed for low-income families—but, as a government-funded program, it is not permitted to contain a religious test. The only qualifications Head Start teachers should be required to meet are related to education and professional ability. A qualified teacher should not be excluded from the program on the basis of an irrelevant point like religion. Allowing groups to discriminate in this manner does a disservice to children in need. It amounts to taxpayer-supported religious discrimination. It is simply wrong.”

Head Start has benefited approximately 20 million children since its inception in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Last year, its paid staff of 190,000 plus 145,000 volunteer teachers’ aides and chaperones served 900,000 children at 2,500 locations. In addition to its preschool programs, Head Start offers job training and opportunities to needy families. All this has made it a target for conservatives opposed to such federally managed programs.

The bill to overhaul Head Start, which is up for reauthorization, was sponsored by Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee. The Bush administration originally had wanted “religious hiring rights” for Head Start programs in all 50 states, but the subcommittee settled on a pilot program involving eight states. On June 19, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed it by a 27-20 vote along party lines. It now awaits a vote by the full House. Although Rep. Castle did not return calls requesting comment, CNN quoted him as saying, “Faith-based organizations cannot be expected to sustain their religious mission without the ability to employ individuals who . . . practice their faith, because it’s that faith that motivates them to serve.”

The National Head Start Association (NHSA), a private not-for-profit organization representing the program’s staff, volunteers, and the children it serves, also opposes the bill and has accused the White House of attempting to silence it with legal intimidation. According to the NSHA’s Web site (, the group received a letter in early May “from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official warning all local Head Start staff and parents/volunteers of possible civil and criminal penalties” if they spoke out against the bill. In response, the NHSA filed a lawsuit on June 11 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charging that the First Amendment rights of the parties threatened by the HHS letter had been violated. The suit says, in part, “Such a threat necessarily has a chilling impact on the non-profit Head Start community. Because of this, the Hill letter has made parents and staffs of non-profit Head Start grantees afraid to communicate their opinions concerning the proposed legislation, to Congress or elsewhere.”

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