Monday, December 10, 2018

There are better ways for schools to deal with "snow days"

This winter has had its moments and we aren’t even to the halfway point of December. It looks like it will be a long and eventful winter – there are three-and-a-half maybe even four months of snowstorms and biting arctic temperatures ahead of us. This looks like it will be the kind of winter in which school districts will burn through their allotted snow days. If you believe the forecast in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it’s a certainty.  

The hand-wringing that goes into deciding whether or not to close schools weighs heavily on superintendents when hearing forecasts or waking up to an impressive snowfall, especially when those days are many: Do you shortchange kids on the full education that they deserve? Do you risk their safety on sloppy roads? Do you roll the dice when it comes to state funding?

Unfortunately, too often the third question carries more weight than the first two because antiquated and inflexible state laws can tie the purse strings for school districts. 

New York requires that schools have 180 days of session, which can include Regents exams and up to 4 days of Superintendent’s Conferences. The state allows for some extraordinary circumstances (like winter’s fury) and permits 5 days off. But, if a district ends up having 175 days or less, for every day missed the State Education Department will cut back on funding to that district at a 1/180th of its total aid allotment.

1/180th doesn’t seem like some great amount until you put it into perspective. My district, Roy-Hart, received $10.37 million in state aid last year. Just one day of lost aid is nearly $57,700. That’s a lot, but the much larger Lockport schools received $39.7 million and one day too many lost there is almost $220,600.

How do you make that funding loss up? You can’t. And, that’s just one day. What would happen if a real honest-to-goodness blizzard on the scale of ‘77’s socked everyone in? You can see why administrators fret about snow days and why, later in the winter, they end up playing Russian roulette with students’ safety.

It shouldn’t be that way. But it is, and it’s compounded by state law that doesn’t allow Saturday instruction or classes on holidays (does anybody really need President’s Day or Columbus Day off?) to count towards the 180 days.

Why not change that and give districts the power to make up snow days so our kids get the education coming to them (the school year is already too short as it is if you want to compete in the global economy) while satisfying the state’s 180 day requirement?

New York lawmakers need only look south for a little inspiration. Often feeling the same winter blues we do and battling similarly-arcane laws, Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee has routinely passed legislation that would allow school districts to have classes on Saturdays. Pennsylvania’s full House never had any interest in passing that endeavor, though. Too bad.

We could try, though. It’s simple. Change the rules. Allow for Saturday classes. Children will learn what they would have missed from the snow day and property owners won’t feel a pinch when the next tax bill comes around.

It will be a good lesson learned for the kids, too: Out in the Real World, you have to occasionally – if not regularly – work Saturdays. Give them a taste of that.

The Saturday idea isn’t the only way that the Commonwealth has looked to squash norms and ensure their customers get what’s coming to them. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Education launched a pilot program at its 500 districts that’s definitely something out of this century.

For up to 5 days a year districts can use "non-traditional educational delivery methods" like distance learning or cyber-school to teach students. So, on the days that the campus is closed to students due to snow, their teachers would deliver their lessons to their students as if it were a normal day.

There are a lot of infrastructure issues to address with this: not all families have high-speed internet access (although they do have smartphones) and most schools aren’t prepared to administer this (although even the most rudimentary laptops can handle such tasks). But, it is something to consider for the future and develop in baby steps. 

Saturdays? Distance learning? It’s 2018, not 1968 -- we need to think outside the box, especially if the tried-and-true methods regulating our educational system put the health and safety of kids (and their taxpaying parents’ pocketbooks) at risk. 

From the 10 December 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Make it Daylight Saving Time all the time

I don’t like this time of year.

It’s not because of the cold temperatures or the slow, snowy commutes.

It’s because of the darkness.

Nighttime’s early onset toys with my body. No sooner does the evening news come to a close and I feel like a waste. It’s dark outside, so, like some diurnal animal, lethargy overtakes me, my thinking dulls, and I feel like I could doze off with ease. I still do my evening things as a parent and volunteer but it’s tough to bring my “A Game” all the time.

Mind you, I’m chock full of energy and effort during the day, just as I am very late into the evenings during our longer summer brightness. I like light. I thank genetics and biology for the aversion to darkness. My dad is the same way. My grandfather was, too.

Some people get it far worse than the Confer boys. They get overcome by something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which, because of that same lack of sunlight leads to an abundance of melatonin which creates depression, hopelessness, malaise, and even suicidal thoughts.

Doctors will tell you that you can fight those winter blues with pills and lamp -- vitamin D and light therapy. That’s all well and good, but nothing is better than the natural source of that -- daylight.

But, getting it is easier said than done.

Most working people can’t get outdoors until the weekend because the government took away what precious sunlight we had during the week. Well, more accurately, Uncle Sam didn’t take away the sunlight, he just moved Mankind’s movements around it.

The recent “fall back” routine associated with the end of Daylight Saving Time robbed us of an hour of daylight every evening. That in conjunction with the shortening days as we close in on the winter solstice makes for early nightfall and not much time – if any – to get outdoors after work.

Daylight Saving Time’s (DST) later sunsets were a blessing, something to appreciate, but oddly, a lot of elected officials want nothing to do with it. When we changed the clocks numerous news reports were quick to point out that many bureaucrats, at the federal and state levels, want to do away with DST and leave everything as Standard Time, which means what we’re seeing now (an hour earlier end to the day) even in the summer months.

Why would they want that?

The lawmakers always cite, beyond the inconvenience of having to change the little hand on their watches, alleged increases in car accidents and heart attacks on or around the day the clocks change.

If health and safety is the reason to call for the end of DST, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to ditch Standard Time and make Daylight Saving Time the standard? You’d allow the working class to go outside and bask in the sunshine and get some much-needed exercise on winter evenings. That would help beat SAD as well as North America’s obesity epidemic.

But enough about us adults. What about the children?   

We relentlessly harangue today’s kids about physical activity. We want them to ditch the phones, computers, and televisions and get their butts outdoors to play sports, enjoy nature, and run around like youngsters are supposed to.

Even the National Football League and public schools across the country work together to promote something called Play 60 which encourages kids to have 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

How can they when we just took away a full hour of potential playtime?

For the next few months, a child who gets off the bus close to if not after the four o’clock hour in Western New York has almost no time to change clothes and get muddy, snowy, or sweaty.

They certainly can’t get in 60 minutes of vigorous play before the sun sets. But, were we to have Daylight Saving Time, they would.

So, doesn’t that, in a way, make the push to end DST a form of child abuse?

We need to let kids be kids. Heck, we need to let us old folks play, too. So, the next time you hear an elected official push for the end of Daylight Saving Time, ask that misguided soul, “Do you like living in the Dark Ages?” The world would be a better place if it was Daylight Saving Time all the time.  

From the 03 December 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

The State Legislature doesn’t deserve a raise

When working in the private sector pay raises are contingent on one of or a combination of 3 things: The merit and successes of the individual, the current and projected health of the organization, and the health of the overall economy.

Because of the final factor (and its contributions to the second), annual raises of any measurable size have become something of a rarity since the days of the Great Recession. Nationally, wages are expected to rise by 3.1% in 2019, the highest rate since 2008.
Despite the working class consistently struggling to secure wage growth, the political class thinks they are free of such encumbrances. It has been the buzz in Albany, yet again, that state legislators are looking for a raise. They currently make a base salary of $79,500 and want to take it up to as much $100,000 -- never mind that their real wage is already well above that mark after taking into consideration committee bonuses and the $174 per diem benefit for when they are in Albany. And, on top of that, they can retire with mighty fine pensions.

When you consider the 3 factors behind raises, our senators and assemblyman aren’t deserving of a $20,500 raise, let alone one of $2,465 (which is what it would be were they to see just 3.1% like their constituents).
Let’s first consider the merits of in the individual. $79,500 is a rather exorbitant sum to be paying a part-timer. These positions were devised to offer regular people a chance to contribute to the social, economic, and legal development of the Empire State by having sessions for 6 calendar months per year and during those sessions mandating 0 to 4 days per week in the state capital (the legislative calendar showed only 61 in-session/budget days for the year). When the 6 months were up or when the legislature wasn’t in session during the week, the legislators could go back to their “real jobs” on the farm, in their offices and plants, or at home raising their families.
Sadly, the system been mutilated so much that people are led to believe that being a legislator is a full-time, year-round job equipped with regional offices and full-time staffs. Realistically, under such circumstances, one could look at the second half of the year as being nothing more than politics, rather than policy, a means to perpetuate incumbency through alleged necessity and importance. Really, what does attendance at parades and dinners contribute to the overall welfare of our state?
So, we need to look at the seats for what they are and what they should be – part-time, supplementary gigs - and realize that we cannot permit their income growth.
Now, let’s look at the organization through which they are employed. The state government headed into a budget gap of $4.4 billion this year, which the Governor and Legislature filled at the last minute by adding a bevy of revenue generators (taxes). This gap which followed a budget year with a deficit that was projected to be $3.5 billion but was actually closer to twice that. Deficits are the normal way of business in Albany. If the fiscal health of the state is directly attributable to their budgets, the laws that they introduce, and the tough-but-necessary cuts they are afraid to make, then how do the legislators deem themselves worthy of reward? If anyone ran a company like they run a state, that individual would be among the ranks of the unemployed, either through termination or the likely total collapse of their firm.

And, it’s that factor that leads to the last: the overall health of the economy. Every bill among the hundreds passed every year by the legislature either steals rights and freedoms or adds to the cost of living and doing business in New York State. Because of that, existing businesses (not the new ones which are granted special favor and public charity like Amazon or Solar City) face incomprehensible government-created financial burdens when compared against their competitors from other states. That has forced businesses to stagnate/downsize/close/leave, which in turn has caused the same to happen to our residents, young and old alike: In the period from 2011 to 2016, another 850,000 people left New York State for greener pastures.

It’s that final factor of assessing job performance that is the most damning to our legislators. They are complicit in the destruction of the once accurately-named “Empire State”. They’ve driven our government to ruin, which has done the same to our economy and to each and every one of trying to work and live in it.

Only politicians would think they deserve bigger paychecks for that.

From the 26 November 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News