Monday, June 17, 2019

Small town schools and world class educations

Last week, my friends at Buffalo Business First released their annual rankings of the school districts across Western New York. School administrators and parents always wait with bated breath for the report, hoping to see that their district is highly-rated and, if it’s not, that it’s quickly climbing the charts.

Almost always, the suburban schools dominate the study while rural and small town districts languish in the shadows.

Here is how some of the rural districts from this paper’s readership ranked: Barker, 29; Newfane, 37; Warsaw, 54; Lyndonville, 85; Holley, 87. 

My school district, Niagara County’s Royalton-Hartland, came in at 55 out of 96 districts. Roy-Hart is up three places from last year’s study and its 10-year range saw it as high as 50th and as low as 79th.

I am a product of Roy-Hart. Does its ranking have me wishing I was educated elsewhere? Does it have me second-guessing sending my kids there?

The answer to both is, unequivocally, “no”. 

Back in 2016, I had the privilege and honor of delivering the commencement speech at Roy-Hart. The focus was on the super powers the graduates gained by being raised in a small town and educated in a small school. I prefaced the speech with this statement: “There’s a reason Clark Kent was raised on a farm. If he was raised in Metropolis he never would have become Superman.”

Those who send their children to or are themselves alumni of a rural district know where I’m coming from.   

Out here in the country we may not have some of the resources that the high-ranking suburban schools like East Aurora, Williamsville, Clarence, and Orchard Park might possess, but we offer our students so much more.

It comes down to being a name and not a number.

It all starts with having access to people.

In our district, there are less than 1,200 students in grades kindergarten through 12, an average of 92 per grade level.

Let’s compare that to Williamsville. They have approximately 10,000 students.

In larger districts like that the teachers can’t know all the students, the parents and pupils can’t know all the teachers and administrators, and the students can’t know all their peers. Having the very easy chance to get lost in the shuffle has to be overwhelming to middling students or young men and women lacking in confidence or support at home.

Contrast that to smaller schools like mine. We know one another. We look out for one another. We work together to make sure no one is left behind. In a small school, students and their families have access to the educators, staff and coaches that can’t be held in larger districts. Those educators know the kids and have watched and will watch their development every step of the way. A school becomes a family and a legacy.    

Coming with those smaller numbers and that veritable one-on-one attention is a similar and equally remarkable benefit to students: Having access to experience.

The larger schools’ sports teams, choruses, and bands could be considered havens for only the elite. Due to there being only so many available roster spots not everyone has a chance to glean the experiences of teamwork, self-discipline, self-betterment and sense of urgency that extracurricular activities provide.

That’s not the story at smaller schools. Everyone has a very real chance to acquire and strive for a place on the team or band. This gives every student the chance to become elite or put their very best effort into it – and that’s what education is all about. Similarly, smaller clubs -- be it robotics or Future Farmers of America -- give each participant a heightened chance to shine, lead and change the world.

Likewise, smaller peer groups lead to better access to labs, experiments, public speaking exercises and more in the classroom, all of which lead to more experience – and that’s what adds capability and productivity to the intended results of tests and standards that all schools have to master.     
I often say that the larger an organization gets – be it a business, church or government – the farther away it gets from the people within it, the people it is supposed to serve, and the core values that defined its foundation. There’s a reason why people don’t like Big Government or Big Business. The smaller the better.

That holds true for schools, too. So many people champion the “it takes a village to raise a child” mantra because there’s something to be had in that interpersonal, intercommunity connectedness -- the direct and universal ownership of individual outcomes -- that the village mentality entails.

So, I say to the parents who wonder if they are doing right by their kids for sending them to a small school, “fret not”. The rankings may not show it, but your kids are getting a world class education. They are receiving the access, attention and experience they deserve…all of which they will put to great use as tomorrow’s workers, volunteers, leaders and parents.

From the 17 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, June 7, 2019

New York’s cats will sink their claws into wildlife

Last week’s passage of a bill to make illegal the declawing of cats proved to be incredibly divisive. New Yorkers fell into one, if not a few, of numerous camps.

Many cat lovers praised the move, claiming declawing is akin to ripping off your fingers at the knuckles.

Other cat lovers believed that unintended consequences will come about from the law, from people not adopting cats to owners giving up on them completely due to, respectively, the potential and reality of extensive damage to their homes.

Disgruntled taxpayers wondered why this had been elevated to an issue of importance given the socioeconomic malaise of upstate.

And, then, there was the group of people with whom I identify with the most on this issue – my fellow naturalists and ornithologists who fret about the impact that this will have on local wildlife. Clawed cats are killers.

The reasoning behind the bill’s introduction and passage begs the question: Where does and should “animal advocacy” begin and end? We ask that questions because we wonder why, if they are so concerned about animal welfare, the advocates seem not to care about the wildlife of the region, which is arguably far more important than this invasive species.

Yes, felis catus is an invasive species.

Whether feral, living in a barn or garage, or fully domesticated and sharing time indoors and outdoors, cats are a scourge on the natural world that demolish the integrity of our environment, no different than other threats currently bearing down on Western New York that were also introduced to the area by Man – the emerald ash borer (the beetle that is destroying every ash tree in the area) and the Asian carp (the monstrous fish that will upset the Great Lakes ecosystem).

Those two creatures will have measurable and considerable impact on our economy so they are perceived as major dangers by the populace at large. Cats, on the other hand, are not popularly reviled because their economic impact is nil and they’re “cute.”  

Alas, no dollar value can be placed on the dangers cats pose to local wildlife. Yet, there’s nothing “cute” about what they do.

According to a 2010 study by the University of Nebraska Extension, there are 60 million stray and feral cats in the United States and another 88 million domestic cats which may spend time outside, all of which kill 1 billion of our feathered friends every year.

The American Bird Conservancy is less conservative in their numbers. They say predation by domestic cats is the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada. They estimate that in the United States alone, cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. The Conservancy says cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild.

Other well-respected organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have been outspoken on the environmental dangers posed by cats.

We naturalists despise free-roaming cats because the unnatural predators make easy meals out of low-nesting and ground-nesting birds. Familiar woodland and lawn birds like thrushes, cardinals and ovenbirds are easy prey for the cats. For example, every year I get multiple pairs of catbirds attempting to raise broods in my yard and every year the catbird’s babies are eaten by, ironically, the mammals they get their name from.  

Also consider the plight of rare and endangered sandpipers, plovers and nighthawks that call stony shorelines home. The local populations of these ground nesters have taken a massive beating along the Niagara River corridor and Great Lakes because so many people have championed and protected feral cat populations on Tonawanda Island and Goat Island and places like the lakeside hamlet of Olcott. The decimation of these birds was magnified by the well-intentioned Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs that never insisted on declawing the feral cats.

All of this assault on Mother Nature will be magnified as house cats, barn cats, and the like join their feral friends in retaining their claws. They will become more efficient hunters and the loss of precious birds will continue, unabated.

It will be interesting or, rather, depressing to see the impact.

In 2020, I will join hundreds of volunteers in conducting studies for the latest update of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. I guarantee when we work on the next edition 20 years later we will find most ground dwelling birds threatened if not endangered -- they’re already on that path.

Is this really what animal lovers want? 

You can’t love one species of animal so much that it is detrimental to all others.

If you really love all animals, and not just your cats, put protections in place. Cats with claws are efficient killing machines so you have to save those creatures they would prey on. Keep all of your cats indoors, always. Actively participate in or donate to TNR programs to control feral cat populations. Don’t get a cat if you can’t control it.  

I like cats – specifically true house cats – as I grew up with and enjoyed the company of felines. But I value the lives of our local wildlife well above the comfort of an invasive species. Getting rid of declawing is a portal to getting rid of so many beautiful birds…maybe even permanently.  

From the 10 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 31, 2019

Lawmakers look to make New York even more litigious

Ask entrepreneurs or non-profit executives what makes it so difficult to run a business or serve the community in New York State and you’ll hear the same things over and over. Taxes. Regulations. Mandates.

It’s not too often that you’ll hear mention of the state’s litigious environment even though it’s just as bad, if not worse, than all those other issues.

Maybe that’s because it’s a hidden cost.

You can’t really see the financial impact directly as you can with New York’s other burdens – not like you do when you run equipment at your facility or try to change your policies and procedures to meet new state laws.  

Instead, the upfront costs are buried in the liability insurances we all must carry. Then, there are the unanticipated costs that occur when a lawsuit is levied against an organization or an individual for alleged malpractice or injury, or potential harm. 

A 2017 study by the Empire Center found liability costs in New York exceed $20 billion a year. If those costs were passed on to every household in the state -- which really they are, in a way, because all affected organizations and insurers have to pass their costs on to their clients --- it would work out to be $2,700 annually.

Some of the examples cited for that extravagance: We are one of a dozen states that allow people to recover damages even when they are found primarily responsible for their own injuries; we encourage plaintiffs’ lawyers to target the defendant with the most money even if it is least to blame; and, we have unlimited noneconomic and punitive damage awards, fomenting a risk of high payouts.

It’s no wonder that New York City and Albany consistently rate near the top nationally in the American Tort Reform Association’s annual “Judicial Hellholes” report.

New York has become so attractive to those individuals who want to sue everyone that they have caused law to become a growth industry in the state, whether it’s for get-rich-quick lawyers or those across the courtroom from them who look to defend those being sued.

From 2008 to 2017, the number of lawyers practicing in New York climbed 20 percent which is 10 times the state’s rate of population growth. There are now more than 177,000 lawyers here. That’s one lawyer for every 112 residents -- twice the national average.

With skewed numbers like that we, of course, have too many lawyers in the statehouse. One-in-every-four state legislators has a law degree, placing New York among the top states in that regard. Many of them are decent folk intent on doing good for the people of New York State, but we know that not all of them are: We have lawyers serving as lawmakers who are making laws that serve lawyers.

For proof of that look no further than the disgraceful and disgraced Sheldon Silver, the former long-term Assembly leader who was defrocked for a number of things including misusing public office to drive people to a law firm he worked for, reaping a profit while doing so.    

So, if things are really that bad with tort law, what is the State Legislature to do?

Well, as is the modus operandi of the state’s leadership, they are certainly not in tune with making things better. They plan to make matters worse. 

Two bills have been making their way through committee in Albany that will expand the litigious nature of the state and make it even easier to sue and reap massive rewards.

S.2407B/A.679B would expand the consumer protection deceptive acts and practices section of general business law. It adds the simple yet nebulous word “unfair”, creating a broad and open-ended definition of excessive or unreasonable actions. If this were to pass, defendants would be liable if they, in the eyes of the court, could have known or reasonably should have known that a plaintiff was physically infirm, illiterate, or unable to understand an agreement. The bill also further promotes larger lawsuits by increasing the minimum damage to $2000 and awarding attorney fees.

S.4006/ A.561 amends the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law in relation to payment and distribution of damages in wrongful death actions. It greatly expands remedies for the family of a person who died as a result of negligence to obtain non-economic compensation, allowing for recovery of a decedent's pain and suffering. The Business Council of New York State believes this bill alone would drive up liability insurance costs by double digits.

If you’re sick of seeing businesses close or leave for greener pastures, if you’re equally sick of the incredible number of injury attorney ads on TV, write your legislators to oppose these bills. Businesses and non-profits are getting it handed to them every day with high costs and unconscionable risk -- we can’t subject them to more expensive insurances and even greater chances of getting sued for astronomical sums.

From the 03 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News