“Because Democracy” Ain’t Enough Of An Argument

An opinion piece originally run in the April 8 Ithaca Times.
School teachers are overpaid! Governor Cuomo is a scumbag! Stop attacking our kids! Let the teachers teach! We have got to stop graduating idiots!
Do I have everybody’s attention now? And if so, have any of these bold statements convinced you of a new belief over how public education should be?
While talking with and listening to many public educators in the course of writing last week’s
cover story (“Fight Still On,” April 1), there were some very fair points made by administrative types that Cuomo’s tactic of withholding school funding numbers till the budget was agreed on wreaks havoc on local schools’ planning. Albany politicking making life no fun for New Yorkers is an old story, and the order of operations that applies to the school funding formula is an obvious symptom of dysfunctional governance. That sort of mess is the newsman’s job to report and interpret until his readers’ eyes droop shut of statistic and acronym fatigue.
Headline­worthy quotes, though, do not come from administrators patiently explaining the effects
of the GEA on their district. They come from a place of real anger at Cuomo’s education agenda – believed by many to be driven by Wall Street hedge fund billionaires that want to privatize schools nationwide – and what one hears from the incensed at rallies and the like is a lot of “stops.” Stop cutting our funding. Stop balancing the budget at the expense of our kids. Stop requiring all these standardized tests that take away our teaching time. Stop funding privately­-run charter schools at the expense of public schools. Leave us alone!
The “leave us alone to teach, we know the kids better, just fund us!” argument hasn’t changed much in at least the past 15 years or so this observer has read the news. It needs updating, because if the crisis is as dire as the public school advocates say, they have some powerful opponents who have already claimed plenty of rhetorical high ground.
Those who argue, with Cuomo, that teachers need to be held to a higher, more measurable standard have some deeply ingrained public beliefs on their side: In short, that education can be measured in results, and so a completed college degree should lead in a straight line to worldly success. If society agrees that the aims of education are to turn out students who go to the best colleges [measured by U.S. News rankings]; then go on to get the best jobs [measured by salary]; and then contribute the most to society [measured by charitable giving] then test, test, and test some more.
The student should be prepared for the hardships of the Global Marketplace, which has ever-
increasing requirements for the “hard” intellectual, STEM skills. Can you build a bridge? asks the Marketplace. Can you code a program that lets teenagers send each other inappropriate photos? Will you provide value to our shareholders? This is the apparent aim of New York City’s Success Academies, if one believes the April 6 report in the New York Times on those schools’ philosophy: Test a lot; everyone sit up straight all the time; somewhat regular peeing-­of­-pants during tests.
Starting with “we do not encourage pants­wetting” might be a good start for public schools advocates to refresh their rhetoric, if creating a class of technical adepts who can beat the Commies to Uranus or best the Chinese in smartphone design is not granted as the only social good. To shape society’s beliefs about what education should be, though, without a reliance on “stops” and “nots,” will require first some reflection on the part of educators. Why do we need public education? [Hint: The answer is not “because democracy,” go deeper]. Then, convince me of your answer.

What’s Wrong With The Silent Pro-Dog Minority

An opinion piece, originally published in the March 11 Ithaca Times

If the Internet is to be believed, a large majority of Ithacans would love to take their dogs for a walk on the Commons whenever the downtown pedestrian mall gets to looking fresh again.

Mayor Svante Myrick asked his Facebook followers their opinion both last September and in late February: should the 40-year-old ban on Commons canines should be lifted? Over the course of a couple hundred comments between the two strings, the Yays outnumbered the Nays about three to one.
“Why not Fido?” asked the online dog lovers. “S/he goes with me everywhere,” they said. “Dogs are everywhere in Europe, and Paris/Rome/Berlin is beautiful.” “Whenever we visit City X (Burlington, Asheville, Portland, any weird little city, really), no one there has any problem with dogs downtown.” Mostly, the affirmatives said “yes,” “yeah,” or “YES YESS YES.”

If one asked a selection of Commons merchants their opinion, several said they welcome in four-legged patrons. If not they seemed unconcerned, even blasé about the issue. One found it “very interesting” that a ban existed, then complained about smoking on the Commons. Some thought allowing dogs might help business, as tourists tend to bring along their pets – especially that yearly tourists-and-their-greyhounds bus. One merchant of 26 years said that dogs have been on the Commons “since Day One” and there’s no way to keep them off, “legally or illegally.”

Economic impact and certainty in enforcement were the two driving reasons why the Commons Advisory Board recommended dogs be legalized. Economic, because merchants have been hard-hit by reconstruction and will take all the business they can get, drool or no. Enforcement is difficult for police because it’s very easy for someone who’s caught with a poodle on the Commons to say “Oh, no, my Fifi is a service dog.” Those papers are easier to acquire than your Wednesday Ithaca Times.

Sniff those winds of prevailing opinion. Stop into a Lake Street tavern where a pit bull has claimed a stool. Watch passing strangers, man or woman, young or old, having an oh-you’re-soooo-cute squeal over one another’s poodle or pit bull. It seemed concluded that Ithaca and its Commons was gone to the dogs.

The only obstacle was a vote of Common Council at their March 4 meeting, where they were to consider a whole package of Commons law rewrites on everything from outdoor dining boundaries to a move-along rule for buskers. This was when Fido’s foes showed up in force. A force of a half-dozen or so, but they were there.

The no-dogs minority had stated their opposition on the Internet strings. They said they were either allergic, or afraid – of doggie disputes, of scaring the kids, of the few ruining it for the many, of poop smeared upon the shiny new Commons pavers. Besides one Ithacan arguing for a statue of Odysseus’ hound, these were the people Council heard talk. And Council said, “Well, dogs can wait,” because councils give more weight to people who show up than those who do not.

Council is not required to read Facebook comments – though 50 or so old-fashioned emails to one alderperson or another, which do go on record, might have changed the debate’s tone. There wasn’t one. And a lively Facebook presence might make national reporters drool, but it doesn’t give Mayor Myrick the power to tell Council to roll over.

Perhaps it’s true that all this means is that “people in Ithaca know the law is soft,” as the one, dog-opposed, Commons merchant who showed up March 4 said. Maybe Ithacans do “laugh at the signs.”
Until Ithacans start telling their government what to put on the signs, though, no one should be whining when on a trip with Toto to the pretty new Commons, an officer says “Get off there! I said, GET OFF!”

Time To Buy Some Frying Pans

Originally published in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 11, 2013.
Another local family-owned restaurant succumbed to the pressures of the market this past week.
Patrons and long-time employees of Fox’s Family Restaurant, in Halls, hugged and laughed and cried and told each other they’d becomes friends on Facebook on Saturday evening, as the last night of meals were served at a restaurant that began in the early ’50s as a grocery store and ice cream shop on the corner of Jordan Avenue and Montour Street in Montoursville.
“You don’t know where we’re going to pop up,” waitress Kenna Snyder told a long-time customer as she was leaving. “You’ll find us working in a restaurant and you’ll see us around.”
“I’m really upset about this,” said Betty Jo Soohy, of Hughesville. “They’re family. I’ve been going to a Fox’s since I was 16. It’s just like home cooking, and I got to know all the waitresses’ life stories. Every time I think about it I cry. I never thought there’d be a time when I was going to be alive when there wouldn’t be a Fox’s.”
Long-time regulars don’t know where they’ll eat out now.
“I knew the Foxs since I was a little kid, I was 10 or 11. I went to Canada with Jack and Mary,” said Bill Boyles, of Pennsdale. “We’ve gone here every week — we like to support the hometown people versus the chain.”
“I’ll miss the jokes,” his wife Christine said. “You got to be in on the in-crowd here.”
“These people are like family. They sent flowers to my aunt when she was in the hospital last December,” said Linda Kibbe, of Williamsport. “When my mother was living we’d come two or three times a week. The chains are nice for a change now and then, but it’s so unfortunate to see family businesses struggle.”
Fox’s baked goods and bread were highly regarded in the area. On Saturday some half-price loaves of their Italian, raisin and English muffin breads were all that was left, with only crumbs remaining on trays where their last batches of delicacies were displayed, and their home-style menu bore headings like Serious Salads, Gram’s Cupboard, and I Want a Burger.
Tim Fox, who co-owned the restaurant with his brother Dennis and sister Susie, said that competitive pressure from chain restaurants was one of the reasons they decided to close.
“When Mr. Gleason, who owned the property we have now, decided to sell off some of his farm, the agreement was there would never be an off-ramp to the mall other than this one.”
The last Fox’s opened on June 23, 1976, after time spent in the current Johnson’s Cafe and a location in Muncy opened in 1972 that flooded three times in four years.
“Gleason came over to the restaurant one day, and we were mudding out,” Fox said. “Mom asked, ‘Mr. Gleason, do you have some land for sale?’ He said yes, and Mom put down her shovel and said ‘We’re moving.”
“Our employees, other than a few hostesses and dishwashers, were the same employees for 30-plus years,” Fox continued. “I grew up around these people and now I’m their boss. It’s bittersweet … though Dad built the building himself, it’s just a building. The memories we take forever.”
Holly Baker waited tables at Fox’s for 30 years.
“I’ve been with the family now through thick and thin. The people are so wonderful. Mrs. Fox, when she was alive, everyone got the gospel preached to them. To have to leave and walk out is so hard. I’ll spend a lot of time with my grandchildren this summer, and hopefully by fall find myself another job.”
For the last 23 years, Glen Zarr bussed tables at Fox’s.
“The girls in the bakery made me everything,” he said. “I’ve got to cook myself now. I’ll have to buy myself some frying pans.”