News & Opinion » Metro ink

News briefs 7.24.02

Looking at a perfect world

Debra Trione found 50 powerful and influential Americans and then asked them questions they weren't used to answering. "Name two things you hope will be true in 50 years. Tell me about an environment in which you personally thrive. Now paint a picture of your ideal world."

            The results make up the Rochester resident's new book, A Perfect World. Trione's findings may surprise some readers. Norman Schwarzkopf was loud and clear: "No more war!" Alan Dershowitz hopes for a world with no organized religion. Julian Bond painted a homey, quiet picture of himself, reading a book.

            Trione's intention with this five-year project was to understand in a new way the men and women who supposedly control our fates. "I wanted to find the real story behind what people say." She buttonholed James Carville on the DC subway, then finagled an interview. She spoke with the heads of NASA and NOW, right-wingers and traditional liberals, the CEOs of Kodak and PBS, politicians, writers, TV news people.

            She asked them to describe in words their perfect worlds, then at the end of the interview, pulled out paints and had them create a visual image. At first these high-paid, high-profile people were "surprised and a little embarrassed" to be dabbling like kindergarteners. But many of them found the experience oddly liberating. Even the way they spoke changed as they moved the paints around. "Their voices became more childlike," Trione says, "they became more spontaneous and human."

            She's convinced that her findings, both verbal and graphic, are important. "These people matter," she says. And their vision for a better world may help the rest of us see where we're heading. At least for her, the results were gratifying. "I came away less cynical."

            A Perfect World will be released in September by Andrews McMeel Publishing.

--- Th. Metzger

Schools uncut, somewhat

A Restoration drama was performed here last week, but it was no period piece. And it could play the same venue next summer, too.

            That's because the venue was 131 West Broad Street, and the theme was City School District finances.

            Last week, outgoing Superintendent Clifford Janey, the Rochester Board of Education, and the Rochester Teachers Association and its allies vied over restorations to the 2002-2003 budget. Through most of the 2001-2002 school year, the district struggled with budget shortfalls. In part, the shortfalls were self-inflicted, the result of miscalculated expenses and overestimated revenue. But those problems have been compounded by the district's inability to raise funds directly through tax increases, as well as Albany's disinclination to adopt a fair state-aid formula in line with the state constitution.

            Only months ago, when the projected shortfall approached $70 million, it was feared that 900 positions or more --- teachers, non-teaching classroom staff, counselors, librarians, and administrators --- would be axed. As it is, some key programs have been pared; the valued "SHAPE" program for troubled youth won't be a stand-alone program any longer, for example. But recently the state legislature stepped in, providing more than $20 million in aid --- actually an advance on money promised for next school year --- so some givebacks have been made possible.

            School Board members met July 18 and voted unanimously to adopt the superintendent's revised spending plan. The new budget total will be $530 million, up from the $497 million as approved by City Council last month. This, says the district, includes a dedicated $5.2 million grant for class-size reduction as well as the recent state advance. In all, the plan will "restore 305 teaching jobs, bringing the total number of teachers districtwide to 3,564, a 7 percent reduction" from last year, according to a district news release.

            Though all players are happy that many positions are being restored, there's some lingering controversy.

            Hours before the July 18 meeting, State Senator Jim Alesi and Assemblymember Susan John joined RTA president Adam Urbanski in condemning some details of the new plan. Alesi and John said the district wasn't following the legislative intent, which was to restore all teaching positions. Along with Urbankski, Alesi trained a spotlight on Central Office.

            "The primary intent was not to maintain or enlarge Central Administration... but to see there were no [teacher] layoffs, so children could get what they deserve," Alesi said. "It seems," he said, "that there isn't enough appreciation among those who received the money."

            An hour after the RTA news conference, district officials maintained that the numbers weren't as bad as opponents believed. Indeed, when the smoke cleared, both sides anticipated that there could be a net loss of around 100 teachers. There could be fewer than 100, in fact --- the numbers shift greatly during late summer, as teachers quit, transfer, retire, or otherwise add to routine "attrition."

            The restoration plan brings back elementary librarians, physical education instructors, and arts and music programs. It also adds 80 paraprofessional positions, most of them classroom aides. Does the latter mean deprofessionalizing the classroom, a classic anti-labor device of shifting work to lower-paid staff? Not at all, says Clifford Janey. The increase in "para's" is mandated, he said: As the number of teachers drops, average class size increases, and this, per the district's contract with the RTA, means more aides must be hired to fill the gap.

            But what about Central Office? Janey and other officials say Broad Street will see a 12 percent cut in positions. Urbanski, though, maintains that Central Office will lose only "phantom" positions, not positions that are actually filled.

            In any case, the district, even after the restorations, is still taking a big hit.

            And will all the confusion, additions, and subtractions compound another annual problem: middle-class flight from the district? "I've had a number of conversations with parents over the last six months," says Susan John, "and I'm happy that most of these parents said they'd decided to stay." Still, she says she understands that many parents "may feel exasperated."

Prohibition in the park

If you go to one of the free concerts in Manhattan Square Park, you can take in only one sealed water bottle. How come?

            According to Stephanie Gradinger, the city's director of cultural affairs, the policy protects the liquor license of the vendor who provides booze at the shows.

            "If you have an unsealed bottle, it could potentially contain anything," Gradinger says. Just as you can't take your own bottle of hooch into the neighborhood bar, you can't take it into the park. Gradinger says the city is also concerned about lawsuits stemming from accidents in an uncontrolled environment.

            Gradinger notes that even sealed water bottles were verboten in years past. And, she says, people "can bring in a large sealed bottle" if they're really thirsty.

            "People also need to remember that these events are free," Gradinger says.