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Where Will the Record State Aid for Schools Go?

If you paid attention to the news three weeks ago, you heard about the historic increases in state aid to school districts on Long Island. If you read Newsday, then you might have seen a quote from yours truly: “It offers educators a historic opportunity to do things they could never do before to help all students succeed,” said Michael Cohen, a former Long Island school superintendent and academic analyst. “The question is, will the accountability be strict, and will they use the opportunity to do the right thing?”

First off, that’s the first time anyone referred to me as an “academic analyst.” My wife and kids found the description to be hysterical. I do not know why, but they did. One time, News 12 referred to me as an “education expert.” That was hilarious enough! My family ordered a coffee mug with my picture and the words “Education Expert” under my mug shot. (Bad joke) I do not consider myself to be much of an expert on anything, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

On the serious side, the question I keep hearing is, “How will they spend all that money?” In Bay Shore, where we live, the district will receive an additional $11 million over last year’s state aid allocations hefty sum even by the standards of education spending on Long Island. A Bay Shore board of education member told me that the district’s proposed budget will include a 0% increase in taxes, which seems like proof positive that hell froze over. We all know about the inflation that we see every time we fill our gas tank, which makes us feel smart (or lucky) for buying a Tesla last year!

Now, the $11 million will more than cover the inflationary costs built into the budget, so what about the remainder? Great question! People ask me all the time how they can find the answer. Simple: Ask your board of education members and superintendents for a forensic accounting of the new spending. If you ask them for a “forensic accounting” they will get nervous, but who cares? The stated purpose of these increases in aid is help schools rebound from the instructional difficulties they confronted over the past two years.

The answer that you should receive is simple: The money is going into the classrooms. That means things like smaller class sizes, innovative programs, extended class time, classes after school, and classes during recesses. It should not mean generous increases in salary and benefits for central office administrators. It should not mean more administrative layers (positions). It should not mean jobs for family and friends of board of education members and central office administrators. Every study of educational improvement shows that the more time students spend in classrooms, the better they perform. Simple, right? That is the answer to the question that I keep hearing.

Start sending those emails and making those phone calls to your board of education members and your superintendents. Remember: They work for you…not the other way around.

judge signing on the papers

Want a More Just Long Island? Choose Better Judges! No More Hacks!

We hear a steady stream of political grandstanding about how the recent attempt at bail reform in New York State caused an uptick in crime—mostly from conservative politicians looking to make political hay at the expense of an issue that cries for closer examination.

The impetus for the change in bail laws came from cases like that of Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, after his arrest in 2010, at the age of 16 for stealing a backpack, which he insisted that he did not do. Not being able to post $3,000 bail, he waited on Rikers for more than a thousand days to go to trial. The trial never happened. 

During his time on Rikers, he spent two years in solitary confinement and attempted suicide on several occasions. Prison videos showed him being assaulted by inmates and he recounted incidents of abuse at the hands of officers.

Released after three years without a trial, he returned home to the Bronx where he suffered from depression and other mental health issues. In 2015, he hung himself at his parents’ home. 

This is not an isolated case. About two-thirds of America’s jail population — 450,000 people — are behind bars awaiting trial. And five out of six of those people are in jail because they could not afford bail or because a bail agent declined to post a bond.

Against this backdrop, New York and other states passed bail reform legislation. Now, because of a surge in crime in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, politicians, including a large number of Nassau and Suffolk’s not-so-finest, want to turn back the clock to the bad old days that Kalief Browder lived through.

Instead of repealing the bail reform laws, I would suggest a different path—ban the cross-endorsement of judges. Did you ever notice that when you get to the part of your ballot that lists the candidates for judgeships, the same candidate’s name appears for each of the political parties? That happens because political bosses get together and trade judgeships like Pokémon cards. Does the cream rise to the top? Rarely. Instead, political leaders trade one of their hacks for a hack from another party. How do get chosen for these positions? You schmooze the leaders and make donations to their leaders and favored candidates. An attorney friend of mine told me about a judge who asked his court clerk what to do every time he needed to make a ruling…a stellar jurist.

By banning cross-endorsements, politicians will show their faith in democracy and give us more qualified and able judges. Even under the current reform law, a judge can remand a suspect to prison without bail. Why don’t they? Maybe it’s because they are incompetent and don’t even know their own authority. If we want a more just Long Island, maybe we should start by electing better judges. Makes sense to me.

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