Thursday, June 01, 2006

This is a first for my blog

Now that I'm writing op-ed columns on a regular basis for both The Suffolk Times and The News-Review, I suppose this is going to happen. I have two different columns I'd like to post this week. I'll post each of them separately below: "Fighting cancer one step at a time" and "Riverhead's budget vote failure." (Please scroll down to read — and comment!)

This was a grueling week at the papers — a grueling couple of weeks, actually. Last week was our Memorial Day issue. It's a big holiday issue, and that means lots of pages to fill and produce. We have an incredible crew at Times/Review (and that most definitely includes the folks at our "outposts" on Shelter Island and in Wading River). It was a herculean task, and they did it, did it well and did it gracefully — and more or less on time, too.

Then, following the big holiday editions, we have a three-day weekend, which in this business simply means you have one less day to get the papers out. You come back from the weekend and — bam — it's Tuesday. The community section has to go to press, and the bulk of the stories in the main section are filed and must be edited and proofed — not to mention ad production! This is what we call "a short week," i.e. cramming five days into four — 14-hour days become 18 hour days.

And in the middle of everything in the past two weeks, two different network servers had unrelated hard drive failures, putting just a teeny glitch into the production process. Thank God for mirror drives and tech people, who manage to keep it all running, somehow. Rubber bands?

One staff member has a great bumper sticker posted at his workstation: "Another deadline, another miracle."

So if you see any of us around town this weekend and we've got a glazed-over look on our faces, now you know why. We just need a little R&R and we'll be fine.

Actually, I'll be capping off this week with a one-day trip to Hershey Park, Penn. with the Riverhead Middle School 8th Grade class. As if I need any more roller-coaster rides! And somehow, a bunch of Suffolk Times staffers are going to find the energy to stay up all night tomorrow night for Southold's Relay for Life!

Fighting cancer one step at a time

One in three. Those are my odds of developing invasive cancer at some point during my lifetime. Men are a bit worse off. Their odds are one in two. 50-50. At age 48, I have about a one in 11 chance of developing invasive cancer before I reach my 60th birthday.

Kind of helps you put in perspective those one in three gazillion odds of winning Lotto, doesn’t it?

These sobering statistics are from an American Cancer Society publication, “Cancer Facts & Figures: 2006,” I don’t know about you, but I really had no idea that the odds were that high. I should have.

All I need to do is look around at my own family and circle of friends. My mother, both of my grandmothers and two uncles have died of cancer. The number of friends and acquaintances who’ve been diagnosed blows my mind whenever I stop to think of it.

You can relate, I’m sure. Statistically, Southold should see 103 new cancer cases in 2006, and 42 Southolders will die of cancer this year. Of the 22,000 people or so who call Southold home, more than 9,100 will develop cancer at some point, and 4,640 will eventually die of the disease. With odds like those, there isn’t anyone whose life hasn’t been touched in some way by this disease.

That will be nowhere more evident than at Jean Cochrane Park tomorrow night, where hundreds of people will gather to take a stand — or, more accurately, a walk — against cancer, in Southold’s first Relay for Life.

“It’s about communities taking up the fight against cancer ... Relay brings communities together to make a difference,” says an American Cancer Society’s brochure about Relay for Life. Funds raised by Relay participants support American Cancer Society research efforts and programs that support and educate people battling the disease.

Relay is a fun overnight event, a giant community camp-out with barbecues, music, contests and, of course, plenty of walking. Participants form teams and raise money in all kinds of ways, ranging from individual solicitation to car washes to some very odd and creative efforts — like populating a front lawn with cardboard gnomes under cover of darkness and making the homeowner pay to get the gnomes removed. Each team has to try to keep one team member on the track all night long. (This is one time when being the parent of teenagers, who love to stay up all night, is actually a convenience.)

Most Relay team members will have a real personal reason for being there because — well, who doesn’t? Some will be cancer survivors themselves, and they will proudly wear their purple survivor T-shirts and take the track for the first lap of the evening, known as the survivor lap. There can be no doubt that a cancer diagnosis changes your whole life, from the way you spend your time to the way you look at the world. One survivor friend of mine told me, “I don’t have any patience or tolerance for superficial BS any more.” A face-to-face with one’s own mortality tends to have that effect on people.

Increasingly, thanks to improved screening, earlier detection and innovative new treatments, there are people more around who’ve had that confrontation and lived to talk about it. Cancer death are going down; survival rates are increasing.

The Suffolk Times will have a team on the track tomorrow night. If you’re not on a team yourself, come down and cheer our team — and all the other Relay teams — on. Don’t miss the lighting of the luminaria as night falls. Candles placed inside white paper bags around the track are lit to honor our survivors and remember loved ones lost to cancer. It’s a moving sight you won’t soon forget.

Riverhead's budget vote failure

Did the Riverhead school budget fail because voters don’t trust the school board or the administration? Some people, including the teachers union, are banging this drum. I think it’s both oversimplification and, quite frankly, spin.
We seem to get a pretty consistent “no” vote on Riverhead school budgets, in the 1,400 to 1,700 vote range, according to vote results for the past six years. The one exception during this period was the year 2004, when the proposed budget represented a 12.99% spending increase over the previous year; the budget failed with a whopping 2,255 “no” votes.

This year, there were 1,667 “no” votes. That’s right in line with the number of “no” votes in each election in the preceding five years.

The difference this year was the number of “yes” votes. This year, there were 1,576 “yes” votes. When the budget passes, we see around 2,000 “yes” votes.

This year’s vote had the lowest total voter turnout over the past six years. And the low turnout was among the “yes” voters.
So I don’t think the budget defeat represents a vote of no confidence for the school board or the district administration, the way some people spin it to serve their own agendas.

If there are any conclusions to be drawn looking at these numbers, it’s that the parents of school age children didn’t bother to turn out to vote (as they typically do) “yes” on the school budget this year. Maybe they were busy doing other things or maybe they figured with a 2% tax rate hike, the budget simply couldn’t fail.

I looked at the voting results from 2001 through this year — votes, proposed budget amounts, percentage increases and total voter turnout. One thing that hits you over the head when you look at these numbers is the cumulative spending increase over the past five years.

The district budget increased from $65.2 million in 2001 to $93.3 million in 2006, an average increase of about 8% per year. That’s almost $30 million, and that’s a heck of a lot of money. The question is: Why? What does that $30 million represent?
Another drum people are banging is that we have exorbitant administrative costs in our district. What percentage of that $30 million is attributable to increased administrative expenses?

And what percentage of that $30 million is attributable to increased expenses for salaries and benefits for teachers and staff? Public employee collective bargaining agreements have built-in cost of living increases and “step” adjustments. Teachers move up in steps and earn higher wages by earning credits toward advanced degrees. And then there’s health insurance. Health insurance costs have increased astronomically for all of us. Public sector employees, including teachers, have a better deal than most of the rest of us when it comes to health insurance coverage. Government employers pays a higher percentage of an employee’s health insurance premium than most private sector employers. The school district picks up 85% of the tab for active teachers and 50% of the premium for retired teachers, according to the district superintendent. The teachers union seeks to increase the percentage paid by the district for retired teachers’ health insurance. That’s the heart of the current contract dispute between the district and its teachers. But the private sector is trending in the opposite direction. Most companies have decreased or eliminated health benefits for retirees.

Another major hit for district taxpayers has been pension costs. Because the stock market tanked, investments held by the state pension fund have shriveled. Local governments, including the school district, have had to make huge, budget-busting contributions to the pension fund to make up the difference — hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the private sector, pensions are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Private sector workers today are lucky if their employers provide matching contributions to their 401k plans.

And then, of course, there are the various state and federal mandates that come with price tags both big and small, but without state and federal funding to pay for them. Not to mention the higher proportional costs of educating special needs and limited English proficiency students, both of which Riverhead has in significant numbers.

To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirkson: A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

The bottom line is that the bottom line isn’t looking very good for many district residents. People genuinely want to provide a sound education for our community’s children, but they want assurances that costs are kept in check — and they want to see results. There may be 1,600 people who turn out to vote “no” every year no matter what. But the rest of us need to believe that every dollar being spent is being spent wisely and that the education our kids are getting is worth every penny of our hard-earned tax dollars. That will get the “yes” voters out to the polls.