Friday, October 24, 2014

A look at Proposal 3 – Smart Schools funding

In his State of the State Address this past January, Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a concept called “Smart Schools”, a program through which school districts could improve their technologies and communication infrastructure in order to meet the ever-changing demands of education and job preparedness when it comes to twenty-first century gadgetry.

It was his most specific reference in regard to education as all other educational matters discussed during the speech were nebulous both in terms of scale and funding. At the time, he earmarked $2 billion in funding to be distributed to the schools. His steadfast focus on this idea continued through the year, as he had a commission created and empowered by spring which reached out to administrators in the ensuing months and then held symposiums throughout the state this fall.

In the final development of the Smart Schools program it was determined that this money would be specifically expended on capital projects related to the design, planning, site acquisition, demolition, construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, or acquisition or installation of equipment for the following types of projects: To acquire learning technology equipment or facilities including, but not limited to, interactive whiteboards, computer servers, and desktop, laptop, and tablet computers; To install high-speed broadband or wireless internet connectivity for schools and communities; To construct, enhance, and modernize educational facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and provide instructional space to replace transportable classroom units; and To install high-tech security features in school buildings and on school campuses.

Such a major undertaking will cost every bit of that $2 billion and, as many have said, likely more in the years that follow. The initial amount has already been apportioned and here is what Niagara County’s school districts will be receiving if the proposal were to be passed:

Barker: $596,160
Lewiston-Porter: $1,354,745
Lockport: $4,274,931
Newfane: $1,670,935
Niagara Falls: $8,865,240
Niagara-Wheatfield: $2,707,858
North Tonawanda: $3,332,873
Royalton-Hartland: $1,197,557
Starpoint: $1,591,338
Wilson: $1,158,784

As zealous as Cuomo’s agenda is, it’s using money that New York State doesn’t have. In order to make it work, the state would have to borrow the $2 billion. Under the State Constitution, general obligation bonds must be approved by the voters.

So, that is how we’ve come to Proposal 3 on the November ballot, which reads as follows:

“The SMART SCHOOLS BOND ACT OF 2014, as set forth in section one of part B of chapter 56 of the laws of 2014, authorizes the sale of state bonds of up to two billion dollars ($2,000,000,000) to provide access to classroom technology and high-speed internet connectivity to equalize opportunities for children to learn, to add classroom space to expand high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, to replace classroom trailers with permanent instructional space, and to install high-tech smart security features in schools. Shall the SMART SCHOOLS BOND ACT OF 2014 be approved?"

The last time a bond came before voters was 9 years ago when 55% of New Yorkers approved the $2.9 billion Renew and Rebuild Transportation Bond Act, half of which went to NYS Department of Transportation projects across the state and the other half which went to Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects in the New York City metro area.

If an almost $3 billion bond that pitted upstate against downstate in 2005 passed, there’s a considerable likelihood that a mostly non-controversial matter such as schoolroom technology will garner two-thirds favor. But, at the same time, the vote for the Smart Schools bond could see a vote as close as 2005’s – in either direction, though – since many New Yorkers are becoming debt-averse as an outcome of the Great Recession.

The decision is entirely up to you. Do you want to improve the schoolroom technologies of our youth in hopes of turning around an underperforming educational system or do you want to forgo that potential gamble knowing that once they become adults they will have to pay the debt we undertake now?            

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Pine siskins – the invasion is coming

In the winter of 2012-2013 pine siskins, little birds from the Far North, invaded the United States by the hundreds of thousands. During most winters they are just casual visitors to the States and could be considered uncommon. But, something happened to the pine cone crop in Canada during 2012, right at the same time that the siskin population exploded. It was the perfect storm. The hungry birds were driven south to fill their bellies.

For many bird watchers, it was a once-in-a-lifetime irruption (which is really the more appropriate word for “invasion”). That winter at my bird feeder I had them by the dozens. Reports from around the country had them at many feeders by the hundreds.

Last year, amidst one of the most brutal winters in memory, I counted just one siskin in my yard all season. It was kind of a letdown, as I had grown to enjoy their company the year prior.

Pine siskins have patches of yellow of their wings and tails. (PHOTO
This year is shaping up – and quickly at that – to be a repeat of 2012. In irruptions of years past, my first encounters with siskins in Niagara County would usually occur around Thanksgiving. But, here it is the third week of October and they are already here. Last weekend, my parents’ feeder was first visited by a dozen of the cheerful birds who have stuck around.

If you are wondering if you might have siskins in your hard, look skyward to the tree tops for flocks of six to 30 tiny birds. Their manner of flight quickly identifies them. Whenever travelling in flocks, they quickly bunch up when taking off, then just as quickly separate into undulating single entities.

Siskins are finches that sort of look like sparrows. They are much smaller than your typical sparrow (the house or English sparrow) and are closer in size to the diminutive chipping sparrows you have in your yard in the summer. To most, they would seem almost non-descript, with a dark wing and a brown and white streaked body. What gives them away is the small patches of yellow on their wings and at the base of their tails.

Siskins have a unique call, quite unlike other members of the finch family. Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds describes it as “a buzzy shreeee” – it’s an upwardly-inflected high-pitched sound that often competitively devolves into a coarse version of the same.

To bring siskins to your yard and keep them there this winter you need to feed them seeds. Black oil sunflower seeds won’t do it. Their small, pointy breaks cannot crack such larges seeds. Instead, they need little ones like nyjer/Niger seed (often called thistle although it is not a thistle). Those seeds are best offered through a standard tube feeder or better yet a special thistle feeder that is a tubular mesh wall through which the siskins pull the nyjer seeds.

The birds are very social. Bring one to your feeder and he’ll bring his friends, who will bring his. In an irruption such as the one underway, you should have at least a dozen at your feeder every day most all day.

You won’t regret it once you do. Siskins are ridiculously tame. In the winter of 2012-2013 I would routinely walk right up to the feeder to visit them and the birds would continue to eat with my face just inches from theirs. You can quickly train them, too, to eat out of your hand. They will even be accustomed to your habits of when you feed them. They will wait for feed time and scold you if you are off schedule.

This all makes the pine siskin a great “gateway bird” for kids. Introduce them to the wonders of these birds – let them see them up close and personal and feed them out of their hands – and you can get a child more interested in nature and less interested in video games and TV. A love of the outdoors starts somewhere, and siskins actually make for a good starting point. Who knows – these friendly cherubs might even rekindle your love affair with nature.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he sometimes finds birds like siskins to be more approachable than human beings. You can follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 23 October 2014 East Niagara Post

Friday, October 17, 2014

The importance of voting on proposals & a look at Proposal 2

Editor’s note: This is the first of a 3-part series looking at the statewide proposals on New York ballots

This November voters across the region will take to the polls in great numbers to select a successor to Senator George Maziarz. For the first time in 20 years, it’s a real contest. That race in combination with a variety of statewide campaigns (Governor, Attorney-General, Controller) certainly ensures that November 4th has the attention of the electorate.    

But, despite that action at the polls, will they take the time to properly study the other items on the ballot – Proposals 1, 2, and 3 – so they can make an educated decision on this important matters? Or, will they do as they have so often in the past and ignore those items completely? 
It all comes down to this: Americans love their politics, but they hate policy.

Politics is sexier. They can see candidates battle mano a mano at the debate podium and in dirty television advertisements. Voters dig that conflict, and they also relish the fresh ideas that come from incumbents and challengers this time of year (although those concepts are rarely acted upon in the earnestness promised). 

For reasons antithetical to the above, voters don’t involve themselves with the nuances of public policy. It can be really dry, a boring collection of legalese and regulations. People don’t care about that.

Look no further than 2013’s general election. With the heavily-contested casino proposition on New York ballots you would have thought turnout would be phenomenal. It wasn’t. Of almost 11.8 million voters in the Empire State, only 2.8 million – or 24% - cast their “yea” or “nay” for casinos.     

I, on the other hand, find policy more attractive than politics. It is policy that really affects our day-to-day lives. The way an elected official looks or behaves? That sort of stuff is meaningless when it comes to our economy and personal rights.      

So, I am trying once again to get people to look at their ballots in that fashion. This year, as with last, I will be spending the next few weeks breaking down each ballot item so you can turn your attention to these important matters and attend to your civic responsibilities dutifully.

This year’s series will look at the proposals not in numerical order but rather in increasing level of controversy, so the deepest and most important matters are saved for last and fresher in your head on Election Day.

There’s really no controversy to be had when it comes to Proposal 2 which reads as follows:

The proposed amendment to section 14 of Article 3 of the State Constitution would allow electronic distribution of a state legislative bill to satisfy the constitutional requirement that a bill be printed and on the desks of state legislators at least three days before the Legislature votes on it. It would establish the following requirements for electronic distribution: first, legislators must be able to review the electronically-sent bill at their desks; second, legislators must be able to print the bill if they choose; and third, the bill cannot be changed electronically without leaving a record of the changes. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?

This is the twenty-first century. Going electronic on state bills is a logical step in so many ways, a modern day upgrade of the print-only language of the 1938 iteration.

In 2012, both houses of the state legislature introduced a combined 16,102 bills. The Senate and Assembly would print up their version of the bill and issue a copy to the office of each legislator – 150 assemblymen and 63 senators. Only 571 bills passed both houses that year which means all other proposed bills were moot and thousands upon thousands of multi-page documents were thrown out (realize that the state budget alone is almost 3,000 pages). That’s a lot of wasted paper, toner, staffing and money. The total cost to taxpayers for printing these bills is $53 million per year according to Assemblyman Jim Tedisco.         

It should be noted that when looking at the language of the full text of the proposal, the amendment does not scratch the requirement that the legislators should have access to the bills for 3 days prior to the vote.

This Constitutional amendment -- albeit for something simple -- is necessary and wise. It streamlines government and saves money and, in process, the environment. 1,700 tons of bills went to the recycle bin last year which, as some cynics would say, is right where they belong.   

From the 20 October 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Niagara County’s strangest wildflowers

In elementary school everyone is taught that all plants are photosynthetic and get their sustenance from the sun and that in itself is what distinguishes plants from fungi and other organisms.

That’s not really correct.

Most all plants do contain chlorophyll — but, not all of them. There is a very small minority of plants that don’t; of the 315,000 species of plants worldwide, 3,000 fall in that category.

These plants, called saprophytes, are incapable of getting their energy from the sun and must get it elsewhere, either from other plants or some sort of symbiotic relationship with another organism.

Often strange looking and lacking the green hues that go hand-in-hand with chlorophyll, they are quite interesting.

Eastern Niagara County is home to 3 woodland saprophytes. We will briefly discuss each of them.

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe (Photo by Bob Confer)
The Indian pipe can be found growing in dark, rich-soiled woods of the area during the months of August and September.

Almost ghost-white, it is an eerie looking plant with translucent stems and scaly leaves and a solitary flower. As the plant matures and reaches about four to six inches in height, the flower nods, hence the name Indian pipe — it looks just like a smoking pipe!

These plants get their nutrition from a fungus that grows on or around its roots. These fungi conduct their own nutrition of getting food from tree roots. The Indian pipe’s roots ingest that energy directly from the fungus. Since the fungus must make up from the energy lost to the Indian pipe, that makes Indian pipe a parasite.

Indian Pipes are very sensitive and fragile. If you touch them or bruise the plant, the damaged areas will turn black and rot away. So, admire them with your eyes and not your hands – you won’t hurt them that way. They also blacken naturally as the plant matures and dies.


Squawroot (Photo by Bob Confer)
The squawroot is a member of the disturbingly-named family of wildflowers called broomrapes. This plant can be also be found in dark woodlots in the area, always around older oak trees.

Squawroots appear as yellow/tan plants that look almost like upturned pine cones, three to six inches in height.

They typically appear in small clusters of two to as many as 10 plants.

It blooms in July in Niagara County and dies after two or three weeks. The ugly brown remnants will remain in the woods for up to two more months. The plant is a perennial – so don’t pick them. They will come up again next year.

Squawroots get their nourishment from the root systems of oak trees.


Beechdrop (Wikipedia
The beechdrop comes from the same family as squawroots. It can be found in the same dark forests during the months of August, September and October.

Most people would consider their appearance to be unremarkable and won’t notice them in the woods.

They look like very thin brown sticks sticking straight up from the ground and can grow from a half-foot to a foot-and-a-half in height.

If you have a magnifying glass handy while hiking you will see that the small flowers are actually quite exquisite.

Beechdrops, just as their name implies, get their nourishment from the roots of beech trees (they do not harm them in the process). Because of that, you should appreciate them while you can. In 15 years there might never be another beechdrop in Niagara County because, as was mentioned in an earlier installment of Exploring the Niagara Frontier, beech trees are battling a deadly disease that is wiping out whole stands of these beautiful trees across the county.

If you are out in the woods and encounter any of these three plants, take the time to appreciate them. They are interesting in appearance and their very method of existence defies everything you’ve ever thought you knew about flowering plants.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he has to get nutrients from other living organisms because he, too, is not photosynthetic. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 02 October 2014 East Niagara Post

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: Squirrels taking flight in Niagara County

It used to be, even going back to the early 1990s, that flying squirrels were considered rare visitors to
Niagara County. Well, the times have changed and so has the flying squirrel population.

I went almost 30 years having never seen these any of these interesting creatures. Then, starting about 10 years ago, I began to see them in good numbers.

On all occasions I saw them at dawn or dusk while up in a deer stand.

The first time, I was perched up in a tree on a dark windy morning and leaves were flying through the air at me. One leaf came in at a slow speed that defied the laws of physics and I thought to myself “what was that about?” Soon enough, the leaf showed that it wasn’t a leaf. A curious flying squirrel climbed the trunk just inches from my face to investigate. He would glide to the ground, climb back up to look eye-to-eye, then glide back to the ground. He did this about 6six times.

Two years later, I encountered a family of them at dusk from a different tree stand. They were equally playful and inquisitive ... and cute. It was a good half hour of playtime between them and me that I’ll never forget.

Numbers on the rise

Flying squirrels are increasing in number in Niagara County. (PHOTOS
Flying squirrels are nocturnal, which is why most people have never seen them. But, that doesn’t account for their past invisibility to active outdoorsmen like me. They actually weren’t here in any real numbers.

But, flying squirrels are seeing their numbers change because of the changing economy and lifestyle (and therefore environment) in Niagara County.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, small family farms were extremely abundant across the County. But, in the late-1950s things changed. The small farms began to be sold off or those families left agriculture as manufacturing grew in Niagara Falls and Lockport and blue-collar jobs popped up in Buffalo’s northtowns.

Those abandoned farms went back to what they were before the colonists set foot on American soil – forests. Those expanding woodlands and the aging oak and hickory trees in them make for great habitats for flying squirrels. They now have sprawling woodlots that they can populate.

They don’t really fly

Despite their name, flying squirrels don’t fly like bats do. They actually glide.

There is a loose membrane of skin that runs from the front legs to the rear legs. When they leap from a branch, they spread their legs. That membrane then becomes a parachute and sail (some folks would say glider wing). They can “float” for up to 80 yards — yes, not 80 feet, but 80 yards!

Where to find them

Technically, they're "gliding squirrels."
The species that you’ll encounter in Niagara County is the southern flying squirrel. Its cousin the northern flying squirrel prefers coniferous and mixed woods. You will find our flying squirrels in most any woodlot that’s over 5 acres in size and has numerous trees 40-feet or taller in height. They make their nests in tree cavities made by woodpeckers at heights between 20 and 30 feet.

Make sure that forest has good numbers of nut-bearing trees like beeches, hickories, and oaks. Like any squirrel, that’s what they eat. But, it should be noted that flying squirrels are also more carnivorous than other squirrels, eating insects like katydids, cicadas, and moths in huge numbers.

What they look like

Flying squirrels really can’t be confused with gray & red squirrels or chipmunks. They are unique.

They are very small, somewhere between the size of a chipmunk and red squirrel and have a very silky fur that is tan or cinnamon above and white below. If you see one resting during the day (which is not very likely) you will really notice the membrane folded and hanging loosely between the legs.

Their eyes are ridiculously large which helps them to see at night and really adds to their cuteness. Those eyes glow bright red when a flashlight is shined upon them.

How to see them 

To see flying squirrels, do as I did. Get up in a tree stand before the sun comes up or stick around a few minutes after it sets. It puts you in their airborne territory during the times when they like to be out and about.

Even if you are not a deer hunter and count yourself as a nature lover, spend some time in a deer stand. You will be amazed at the amount of wildlife you will see — flying squirrels are just a little bit of that experience.

You can also attract these critters to your bird feeder. They absolutely love peanut butter. They might come to it with your yard light on at night, but they will be more likely to eat there if the light is off.

How would you see them then? Many naturalists swear by putting a red light next to the feeder. That light won’t bother them and you’ll still be able to see them.

Flying squirrels are really taking off on the Niagara Frontier. One could almost say they are becoming common. If you’ve never seen one, there’s a very good chance you will someday soon.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he wishes he could fly like a squirrel. But, then again, he’d probably look goofy with a membrane of skin between his arms and legs. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 16 October 2014 East Niagara Post