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Growing pains: Green Island’s Heatly school. Photo: Teri Currie

This Little Schoolhouse
As the student body outgrows its school, Green Island residents will vote on whether to send their high schoolers to another district

Green Island residents will head to the polls today (Thursday, Jan. 22), for the second time in the past seven years, to decide whether to send its high school students to another district.

As the school district’s population has steadily swelled over the past few years, Heatly—the district’s only school—has become obviously overcrowded. Parents, students, educators and village officials have wrestled with the idea of paying another school district to educate its high school students (“tutitioning”). Doing so would alleviate the school’s structural constraints. However, it would ultimately bring an era to an end: The Green Island Union Free School District is the only district in the Capital Region where all students in grades k-12 are educated in one building.

Approximately 316 students currently attend Heatly, and many extol the virtues of such a small school. With the exception of kindergarten and sixth grade, which take up two classrooms each, each grade is taught in a single classroom.

“From my perspective, the class sizes are ideal because I know all of the kids by the time they get to me,” said Mat Manning, the high school’s social studies teacher and a member of the committee that studied the tuitioning issue. “You lose less kids this way. It is much harder for them to slip through the cracks.”

But the school’s population continues to grow, and district officials worry that tight classrooms will soon become overcrowded ones. Population projections say that grades seven-12, which have typically totalled 130 to 140 students, will swell to 150 by 2005, and 173 by 2008. There are 33 kindergarteners this year. For the next 13 years, Heatly will have to accommodate a two-classroom-sized grade level snaking its way through the building.

There is no denying that Heatly cannot accommodate many more students. Over the summer, one of the school’s two front entrances was converted to a small kindergarten room for 11 students. A converted boy’s bathroom serves as a speech therapy room. A basement hallway has been morphed into a kindergarten annex.

District officials also lament the district’s lack of extracurricular activities such as football, choir, ski club or a student newspaper. The popular student drama club has to perform its theater productions in Cohoes Music Hall.

But despite the school’s structural inadequacies, Heatly plays a large role in the Green Island community. Generations of Green Islanders have received their educations in that one building. Heatly’s library doubles as the village library. The extracurricular activities it does have are shared with the community—the high school drama club regularly performs for the village’s senior citizen home.

Last year the district hired a consulting firm, Castallo & Silkey, to determine the feasibility of tuitioning out Heatly’s high school students to Cohoes, Watervliet, or Waterford-Halfmoon. (This is the second such study the district has commissioned, but the findings of the first one were dismissed for lacking depth.) The study, released in November, reported that the district’s students would indeed have access to more extracurricular activities, but the village’s taxes would increase. Village residents would face two-year tax increases of 16.92 percent by sending students to Cohoes, 2.42 percent to Waterford-Halfmoon, and 4.79 to Watervliet.

Green Island residents’ vote on the tuitioning issue is a referendum to the board of education, which will ultimately decide the matter on Feb. 5. Voters turned down a $10 million school expansion and renovation plan posed to them by the board of education in 2002-2003.

Herb Perkins, the school district’s superintendent, stressed that today’s vote is only on the issue of whether to send the high-school students to another district. The vote does not address the district merger proposal brought up last week by U.S. Rep. Mike McNulty (D-Green Island).

“That idea is too much of an unknown to even comment about at this point,” Perkins said.

—Travis Durfee

NYSDA’s Jonathan Gradess Photo: John Whipple

In Defense of the Defense
Should New York create a state agency to oversee public defense services?

Driving the New York State Thruway from New York City to Syracuse, you pass through approximately 11 counties. Should you get arrested on that drive and require a court-appointed attorney, you’ll receive 11 different standards of public defense depending on where you’re arrested.

You may be one of 20 files in your public defender’s caseload, or one of 60. Your public defender may or may not have ready access to an investigator, a research library or expert witnesses. Your public defender may be able to visit you in jail, or you might only see your attorney in court.

Currently there are no state-level laws or governing bodies to oversee public defense services in New York state. After Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1964 landmark Supreme Court case that established the individual’s right to counsel, New York’s state Legislature decided that each county would have the responsibility to fund and provide defense services for its indigent. Essentially, that means New York state has 62 different public-defense systems, funded 62 different ways. Some are hoping that this year things will change.

For the past three years, state legislators and advocates for the poor have been pushing the idea of creating an indigent defense commission to standardize and oversee public-defense services statewide. Such a commission could mandate a cap on the number of cases public defenders could handle per year, representation at arraignments or access to expert witnesses and investigators—all of which are currently at the discretion of the county.

A commission provides “a place to turn and say, ‘Help me do the right thing,’” said Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, a nonprofit lobby group for the public defenders and their clients. “Without those standards and specifications you have 62 counties out there on their own making it up as they go along.”

To keep it free from partisan politics, the commission would be set up as a public-benefit corporation, independent of the governor’s office, the Legislature and the courts system. The idea is not earth- shattering—26 states take responsibility for overseeing and funding public-defense services for the poor.

“It is clearly the trend throughout the country,” said Robert Spangenberg, who heads the Massachusetts-based research firm the Spangenberg Group, and has contracted with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Services to analyze public-defense services nationwide. “Generally speaking it is fair to say that, with some exceptions, the quality of representation is higher in state-funded systems.”

While New York state does pay for indigent defense, it only does so nominally. According to figures from a NYSDA study, approximately $217 million was spent on defense services throughout the state in 2001; $10 million of it was state funding. “A pittance,” according to Gradess.

“Right now we’re going through some difficult times with a lot of the state budget deficits nationwide,” Spangenberg said. To cope with these financial difficulties many states have pushed costs down to the counties, since counties can more easily increase their taxes, he added.

Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany) is co-sponsoring legislation to create an independent indigent defense commission, a bill that was first introduced in 2001. Similar legislation exists in the senate. McEneny says that disparities in people’s ability to attain legal representation, and in state funding of prosecution and defense services, show the need for a change.

“The scales of justice have to be equal,” McEneny said, “yet the way we fund defense is nowhere near the way we fund prosecution. . . . It is very important that justice be uniform throughout the state. The uniformity [a public defense commission] could provide is just one more thing that keeps the scales of justice even.”

McEneny believes that the bill has a good chance of passing this year considering that its cosponsors, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn) and Sen. Dale Volker (R-Depew), are both well-respected members of their caucuses. Lentol and Volker did not return calls in time to comment for this story.

But not everyone is sold on the idea. Albany County Public Defender Gus Devine says he agrees with the philosophy behind the commission—providing public defenders with the resources and time to better serve their clients—but he isn’t sold on a new state agency as the method for providing those reforms.

“What is needed is more funding for the delivery of services, not the creation of a whole new level of state bureaucracy,” Devine says. “We can create new offices, new secretaries and new overhead, but instead of spending those dollars on the bureaucracy, why not send those dollars to the public defenders offices that need it?”

—Travis Durfee

Deconstructing Harriman
Albany imagines its future, awaiting the redevelopment of the Harriman State Office Campus

The W. Averell Harriman State Office Campus, a huge, aging government office park, is slowly being emptied of state offices. To Lori Harris, the city’s development and planning commissioner, the sheer volume of potential development—more than 300 acres within the city limits—is “unprecedented” since the early 20th century. Virtually everyone agrees that changes at the campus could be a significant opportunity for the City of Albany, though it seems that many goals for its future have already been determined.

In this year’s State of the State Address, Gov. George Pataki certainly made the state’s intention clear when he heralded phase two of the state’s high-tech development initiative, which included establishing “a Harriman Campus Development Corporation to bring new high-tech companies to Albany and to provide space for Center [of Excellence in Nanoelectronics] spin-offs.” Pataki also announced that John C. Egan, president of the philanthropic Albany Renaissance Corp. and former CEO of Albany International Airport, will head the newly established corporation. The new corporation will direct transformation of the campus, by seeing it through construction phases and courting a diversity of businesses from biotech and pharmaceutical companies to software firms.

Harriman’s transition is the final chapter of the Albany Plan, a 1997 state initiative to modernize the Capital Region’s state offices. Many buildings on the campus need to be remodeled, so it wasn’t considered fiscally prudent to keep them as state offices. In response, the state’s Office of General Services hatched the Albany Plan, advocating that departments vacate the campus to offices in the tri-cities’ downtowns, making way for changes to the Harriman campus.

In 2000, OGS and its independent consultants found that linking the Harriman campus’ redevelopment with UAlbany’s technology development initiatives was advisable because of the connections between the university, which borders the campus, and the technology industry.

The state projected in 2002 that the campus’ makeover will take around 20 years, and will cost about $300 million, $64 million of which will come from the state for infrastructure improvements and site modifications. The city will offer incentives to help offset costs for new tenants.

There are still questions about the wisdom of those moves, which color some people’s view of the coming redevelopment. “I don’t get the sense that there was a lot of openness with this process,” said a Department of Transportation employee who has worked on the Harriman campus since 1988. DOT is slated to move off of the campus into a privately owned building on Wolf Road soon. He wonders who’s really benefiting and his instinct is that it’s real estate developers.

But at this point, most city officials are focusing on the future and how the details of the transformation can help the city. “We want to make sure [this] is completed in a way that leverages every opportunity, not only for new users of the campus but adjacent properties, both commercial as well as residential,” Harris said. She added that once the city has “a better sense of the timing of the authority actually being created, and what it is, then we’ll be able to begin our neighborhood process, integrating stakeholders, and bringing up those questions.”

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings was put on the board of the campus development corporation after requesting that he, and all future mayors of Albany, sit on it to make certain that “we don’t compromise the integrity of the adjacent neighborhoods and we grow in an intelligent way,” he said. He is particularly excited to see the new buildings added to the city’s tax rolls.

No specific businesses have announced a move to the campus, nor is the exact look of the campus set in stone, which has led some local imaginations to come up with some creative visions for the campus.

“There’s certainly a great opportunity for revitalization and for reuse of that site,” said Todd Fabozzi, program manager for the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, particularly because of the campus’ location, existing ties to utilities infrastructure, and proximity to the highway. Though he hasn’t seen the current conceptual drawings, Fabozzi senses this could be a valuable chance to integrate the now-insular campus into the surrounding neighborhoods. Options might include extending the street grid and adding sidewalks to make it more pedestrian-friendly. “If people were to buy houses, who worked [at the new Harriman], in Albany, they potentially could walk to work or hop on the bus line,” he said.

—Ashley Hahn

Signing up to be counted: Shanna Goldman (l) registers a resident of Lincoln Square Apartments to vote. Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Laying Groundwork
In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., volunteers hit the hallways of Lincoln Square Apartments to sign up new voters

It was almost a setup. The theme of the sixth Annual Labor Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., held Monday at Albany’s Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology, was “Your Vote is Your Hope.” Keynote speaker Wil Duncan, executive director of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, chastised Democrats in general for being “apathetic” and “taking the chicken way out,” and added a warning to the audience that just showing up to an event like this one was not enough to make a change.

As they headed to lunch with these words ringing in their ears, attendees found the Working Families Party and Citizen Action New York inviting them to join a voter registration drive that afternoon. The request was last-minute and a little daunting, but they collected a group of about 10, who carpooled down to the Lincoln Square Apartments at the southeastern corner of Lincoln Park and gathered in the blissfully warm lobby (it’s no coincidence they decided to work inside that day) to receive their marching orders.

Talk about the issues we represent, Working Families organizer Brian O’Malley emphasized, but make sure you don’t pressure anyone to sign up with any particular party. The volunteers picked a buddy, divided up who was going to what floor and jockeyed into the appropriate elevator (one for odd floors, one for even).

On floor 11, Ruth Senchyna, a social worker who last did voter registration with Nuclear Freeze in San Francisco “many years ago,” and John, new to voter registration but clearly steeped in the relevant issues, knocked on most of the doors along the tan cinder-block hall before finding someone who was home and not already registered. The young woman was initially skeptical. “My father’s not home, and I’m not into politics,” she said decidedly.

But John prodded gently. Were there no issues she was concerned about? Nothing that made her angry about the way the world was going?. At first she said no, but when he started listing issues important to the Working Families Party—such as raising the minimum wage—she thought of something. “You know, I am mad about something. The cuts in after-school programs,” she said. Did she know that the Bush administration might cut Head Start too? She hadn’t, and sounded none too pleased about it.

That’s the approach WFP and Citizen Action like to take, said Shanna Goldman, Capital District organizer for Citizen Action. “People have a lot of anger about what’s going on right now,” she said. “[We’re] trying to tie the election to issues [that people care about].”

The young woman speaking with John and Ruth still didn’t want to register on the spot, but she took a form and a flier, and they left feeling optimistic. By the end of an hour and a half, they and their fellow volunteers had covered two towers of the complex and registered approximately 15 new voters, a good number, said Goldman, for such a short stint during a work day.

This drive was only one in a series of forays these groups have made into the low-income areas of the Capital Region over the past couple years. “These are areas that have traditionally been ignored by the major parties,” said O’Malley. “We want to make sure these communities do have a voice and do feel paid attention to.” The WFP also believes that their platform—living wage, universal health care, quality public education, and public financing of campaigns—will resonate particularly well in these neighborhoods. They’ve been going out at least once a month, trying to build an established base and show that they’re not “the politician who shows up three weeks before [an election] and asks you to vote and are never heard from again,” said O’Malley.

During the McCall campaign, this kind of targeted voter registration and sustained follow-up increased voter turnout from 16 percent into 87 percent in one section of Arbor Hill. Citizen Action and WFP are trying to spread those kinds of numbers, hoping not only to increase voter turnout in the upcoming presidential race, but also to help these neighborhoods be taken more seriously by their local politicians, said O’Malley. “Politicians pay attention to who will be voting.”

“Martin Luther King was very much associated with the right to vote, registering to vote, getting out the vote,” he added. “It is important in celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday that that is remembered.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Trailmix: A Healthy Debate

Given the recent unexpected results in Iowa—first place for John Kerry, second for John Edwards, and third for Howard Dean—some analysts are speculating that bread-and-butter issues like health care and economics are on many Democratic voters’ minds more than war, though the candidates’ positions on those issues may be harder to tease out.

Dennis Kucinich may not be leading in any of the polls, but his emphasis on universal health care sure seems to have taken hold among his Democratic rivals. Though none have taken up his call for a national single-payer system, each one has worked the word “universal” into his plans as frequently as possible, even though in many cases it only applies to children, or translates to “universal theoretically affordable insurance if people can spend the money up front in order to get a tax credit.” All who had the opportunity to voted against the recent Medicare bill.

There are several common themes among the Dems’ health proposals. Dean, Kerry, and Joseph Lieberman want to raise eligibility for the states’ Child Health Insurance Programs to 300 percent of the poverty level. Clark and Lieberman want to raise adult eligibility for Medicaid to 150 percent of the poverty line.

Wesley Clark, Dean, and Kerry want adults to have the choice to buy into either the Federal Employees Health Care Benefits program, touted as a cost-saving measure. Clark would limit this to those who didn’t have access to job-based insurance. Lieberman proposes an insurance system modeled on the FEHBP that would be accessible to all who wanted it.

Clark, Edwards, and Kerry all want to use tax credits to make health insurance more affordable. Clark would offer them to parents between the current CHIP eligibility standards and 500 percent of the poverty line for use in insuring their kids, and to all adults under 275 percent of the poverty line for their own use. Edwards would offer refundable tax credits for use to buy into only CHIP or employer-based plans. Everyone would be eligible to buy into CHIP if they wanted to. Kerry promises tax incentives to both employers and individuals to make health insurance more affordable.

In an interesting take on the roots of the problem, Edwards and Clark add a personal responsibility item to their agendas, requiring parents to enroll their kids in some kind of health insurance, or face warnings and loss of tax benefits.

Making it easier to get more affordable prescription drugs on the market by closing patent loopholes, giving preference to generics, or allowing purchase of Canadian medicine, is also a common theme, taken up most strongly by Dean and Kerry.

There are some unique plans in the mix. Lieberman would enroll every child at birth or lapse of other coverage (unless the parents decline) in a new plan called MediKids. He would also create a program called MediChoice that all adults could buy into.

Clark would create an “independent commission to determine the value of health services and benefits,” which would investigate standards of care, opportunities for prevention, and “evidence-based medicine.”

Kerry would offer to have the federal government cover 75 percent of catastrophic claims over $50,000 provided the companies pass the savings on to policyholders. It is not clear how that provision would be enforced. He also, however, emphasizes reducing the cost of health insurance by reducing “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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