Author Archive for Brendan Cox


CN Column 07/23/10: Pay much attention to the men behind the empty campaign slogans

A political narrative is a political narrative is a political narrative. And each one is, in the now-famous words of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, “a vapid and hollow charade.” Yes, Kagan was describing the SCOTUS nomination process and not political campaigns; then again, her nomination hearings have proven to be nothing more than venues for lawmakers to flex their rhetorical brawn even while they attempt, unsuccessfully, to dust off what might remain of their atrophied Ivy-League intellects.

Point being, those hearings—not to mention the languid committee interrogations of popular anti-heroes like BP CEO Tony Haywood and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein—are echo chambers and nothing more. Empty, meaningless stageplays, just like every political narrative that sweeps voters into an ideological tizzy each election cycle.

Petty abstractions about hope and change won voters’ hearts in 2008; many argue the prevalent anti-establishment, conservative popular mood, laced though it may be in some cases with ire, fear and disillusionment, will win out in 2010, and again, ultimately, in 2012—the reprisal of 1994’s “Gingrich Revolution,” and then some.

I’m not so sure, but we’ll see.

One thing is for sure: I’m quite dumbstruck, as election season heats up, by the inanity of some candidates’ campaign platforms—vague and insipid by necessity, perhaps, but vague and insipid nonetheless.

Last week, Tom Foley, prospective Republican gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut, sat in for an interview with WNPR’s John Dankosky on “Where We Live.” Dankosky took Foley to task, demanding specifics—getting none, of course—challenging the former ambassador’s often flimsy presumptions and presiding over a healthy public forum with callers.

Foley presumes the state’s budget crisis will be solved by slashing spending, not by coaxing more revenues into state coffers. He may be right when he contends Connecticut’s government is rife with “wasteful or duplicate spending’—though, of course, when asked, Foley could single out no concrete example of said wasteful or duplicate spending. What a surprise.

And I had to laugh out loud when a caller lamented the records of Connecticut’s recent GOP governors and started to say, “If I have to listen to one more Republican making the same stupid, vague …” before the host cut him off.

Foley also appears to nurture a bit of a selective memory about the John Rowland scandal, and seems quite content with the increasing trend toward wealthy candidates (like himself) spending their way onto party tickets—both stories for another day.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest Republicans are the only ones guilty of ambiguity on the campaign trail, or the only ones making vacuous suggestions along the way. In fact, if I may channel the aforementioned caller, I’ll put it bluntly: If I have to hear one more empty suit making the same stupid, vague appeals to that oh-so-subtle thing called “common sense”—arguably the scarcest commodity in the statehouse and Washington D.C.—and “efficiency,” I’m going to start banging my head against a wall and not stop until I’m the president.


Look at hopeful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont, who seems confident the best way to close a $4 billion state budget gap is to sit in a room and, uh, negotiate cordially with, you know, um, unspecified stakeholders.

Interesting theory, Ned. Maybe after you secure tough concessions from the Connecticut Education Association, one of your endorsers, simply by having a nice, friendly powwow, its leaders will buy you a banana split with rainbow sprinkles made from real rainbows (mmm!), it will start raining $1,000 bills and all the nebulous pillow-talk about “fundamentally reforming government” will actually mean something.

That will be the day, but I digress.

I’ll also point out, for the record, that Lamont seemingly lacks the fortitude to face his closest contender for the nomination, Dan Malloy—a candidate with superior experience who has been endorsed by the Democratic state convention—in a televised debate. Lamont claims he doesn’t want to get sidetracked from his avowed goal of meeting more people.


To be fair, he also decried the format of a moderated debate as one that results in “one-minute sound bites,” noting that such remarks are “not very revealing.” Maybe so, but I’d bet my last dollar they’d be more revealing than the platitudes Lamont and every other politician on God’s green earth spews relentlessly in their campaign ads.

It seems everyone has his or her own “plan” with a view to healing the economy, creating jobs and restoring the quality of life in Connecticut and, indeed, in America. The inconvenient truth each one seems to leave out is that it’s all a crapshoot anyway; none of them actually has a plan with any substance, and even if he did, he’d never get the chance to set it in motion because every force—every special interest, every crooked suit and every hopelessly bloated, bureaucratic committee and subcommittee and sub-subcommittee festering in a liminal state of inertia—is acting against him.

I spoke earlier about the disillusionment of the populist movement sweeping the nation, and I now realize I sound quite cynical myself. Lest I seem like a hypocrite, I’ll submit I’m not entirely disenchanted. Not quite yet.

I still have hope for our future; I just know something has to change, and in a big way—not just from left to right, but from backward and inside-out to forward and rightside-in.

And my gut—yes, my common sense, because down here on planet Earth we still have some of that left—tells me that “vapid and hollow” political narratives will never right our foundering ship.


VFTM: Every rose has its thorn

Yes, and every cheesy song lyric has its grain of truth. Okay, not every single one.

But if you’re not okay with a reference to a Poison song — I know I’m not — let’s just say every peach has its pit. Every cheeseburger has its calorie count? Hell, have some fun and make your own: “Every [joy in life] has its [requisite downside].”

We can even get crazy, move away from fluky catchphrases and put it more broadly: no good thing happens or exists without some related stumbling block. Or as Newton put it: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This maxim — which, as ever the intractable pessimist, I’ve always held to be self-evident — seemed to betray me when I attended Naugatuck’s Memorial Day parade Monday morning. The weather was beautiful, the parade was suitably exciting, our camera held up, the ceremony was moving and I was home early enough to enjoy my nominal day off. It seemed then that some things are simply good and pure according to their own nature, that sometimes the rose is, indeed, without thorns.

But alas, few and far between are such occasions, as comments at the following borough board meeting informed me (and, perhaps, helped me recall those annoyances my selective memory had buried in favor of patriotism, sunshine and fire trucks).

Not to detract from the parade — it was a truly memorable morning for me, as I hadn’t been to such a celebration for at least ten years prior — but there were a few things bugging the burgesses that I had failed to become adequately annoyed by that day.

First of all, Mindy Fragoso mentioned (and others echoed), why had the borough allowed a tattered flag to be flown at half-mast in front of Town Hall that day? Don’t our war dead deserve better? Did no one notice? Who is to blame?

“I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, but more importantly I think, there might have been people out there, especially the veterans, that might have been more devastated than the average person to see a tattered flag go up on such an important day in our country,” Fragoso said Tuesday.

“I was appalled by it,” added Burgess Bob Burns, a veteran. “I thought it was a real disgrace. I still think it’s a disgrace.”

Burns placed the blame at the feet of Naugatuck Veterans’ Council, but Mayor Bob Mezzo was quick to say Town Hall was responsible, noting “That’s our flag. That’s the borough’s flag. It’s outside my window every day, and I honestly didn’t notice it.”

Okay, that’s strike one, if you’re counting. Mark one against borough governance.

While you’re at it, count two against the general public and perhaps another against borough governance for the state of the green after the parade and the dissipation of the crowd before it was even over.

Burgess Mike Ciacciarella complained of those who left their litter on the green before leaving for the day — but I noticed upon leaving that the trash bins were all overflowing, so no one had any place to dispose of their garbage after a certain point. Tough call for me.

They also wondered why so many people appeared unwilling to wait for the parade’s fourth division, which largely comprised youth sports teams, to pass before packing it in and leaving. This I’ll admit I did notice with some annoyance, as I heard master of ceremonies Tony Marques, a Navy veteran, implore people to stop cutting across Church Street more than once before the procession had officially reached its end.

Obviously the Memorial Day parade is about honoring the men and women who fought and died to protect our freedoms over the course of our history. Accordingly, the veteran’s groups and military units are the main attraction to such an event. But I don’t think that should disqualify anyone else, especially the kids who just want to get a shot at marching.

Last but certainly not least, mark one against political campaigns in general. I heard from several reliable sources that one, if not two, candidates for election in November showed up early Monday morning asking if they could march and hand out literature — you know, campaign. I understand Fran Dambowsky of the Veteran’s Council turned them away. He rightly asserted, as Burgess Hank Kuczenski put it, that “politics have no place in [the] parade.” I couldn’t agree more.

Okay, okay. So what’s the takeaway lesson here? Don’t fly tattered flags on Memorial Day? Don’t litter? Let kids have their fun on occasion? Reject political campaigners every chance you get? Well, all of the above, I guess.

For me, it was a reminder that, yes, even the most virtuous occasions can be marred, however slightly, by infractions, oversights or missteps by the various parties involved.

Every rose has its thorn, even when, as in this case, those thorns are fairly small and insignificant when compared with the overarching beauty of the flower.


CN Column 05/21/10: Blumenthal’s ‘misplaced words’

Note: This week’s column is relatively short due to space constraints in the paper and the fact that I’m too lazy to add anything to it for the web.

Well, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has dug his own grave in the race for Chris Dodd’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

The New York Times nailed the coffin shut  Tuesday, when it reported that the popular Democrat had lied about, or at least exaggerated, his military service during the Vietnam conflict.

As the Times reports (and he has not contested), Blumenthal sought and obtained at least five military deferments between 1965 and 1970 and “took repeated steps to avoid going to war.” He eventually served in the Marine Corps Reserve, but his service there never took him beyond the East Coast.

Yet he told a Norwalk audience in 2008, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam. …” Speaking in Shelton, he directly implied he had toured the country and was dishonored upon his return: “I served during the Vietnam era. I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”

In the former, his words cannot be misinterpreted. “I served in Vietnam” means “I was in country during the conflict.” The latter is a little fuzzier; he did serve in the Vietnam era, and probably does remember the taunts, insults and abuse—from watching the news.
Of course the implication was that he was subject to that abuse when he returned to the U.S., after a tour of duty, which is more than likely patently untrue.

Blumenthal’s campaign responded that he’d always been “consistent, honest and clear” about his military service, citing a March debate in which he was, indeed, honest and clear about it.

But his official statements matter little in the face of what appears to be widespread and intentional misrepresentation to voters at speaking engagements.

Still more disturbing, and more telling to what I deem his intentional deception, is the ubiquity of press reports—among them, stories in the Connecticut Post, the New Haven Register and Slate—erroneously referring to Blumenthal as a “Vietnam veteran,” and his apparent unwillingness to correct them.

His defense, of course, is that he’s not responsible for newspapers’ errors and that he doesn’t read everything that’s written about him, so how can he be expected to correct all of the mistakes?

While it’s true that no one is responsible for newspapers’ errors except the papers themselves, I have a hard time believing that he didn’t read the press coverage of his public engagements from two papers that are among the largest in the state, nevermind the feature in Slate, a national magazine. Simple phone calls to the editors of those publications would have resulted in quick corrections.

You see, most publishers, like most Americans, and unlike Blumenthal,  understand that military service is hallowed ground. They don’t take it lightly.

I respect and honor the time Blumenthal did serve as a reservist. At the same time, I am offended by his “misplaced words,” though not entirely suprised that another slick politician has been trying to pull the wool over our eyes. And the last thing we need is another ambiguous dealer of snake oil and dishonesty in our Congress.


View from the Middle: Giddy under my sleeve

“Fifteen more minutes,” Al Pistarelli assures me as he passes for the fourth time in 10 minutes. He’s been huffing back and forth between a group of emergency services workers, who are assembled on the small street between our office and Beacon Brook Health Center, and the center itself, where he works as a community outreach representative, for the better part of the last half hour.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Hey, did’ya hear the one about the EMT, the news reporter and the nursing home? No?

Rest assured, though. I’m not here to tell you about some mass calamity that’s stricken our elderly neighbors to the south. Indeed, my notepad is in my pocket, and our not-so-trusty Nikon D1 is slung around my neck, but I’m outside to snap some photos of a much more positive event that, when Al had mentioned it a week before during one of his regular visits to our office, drove me into a giddy state of excitement: a helicopter landing.

No, I’m neither too old nor too mature to still get excited about such displays—especially ones that involve big, loud gas engines, aeronautics and free hot dogs afterwards.

I have also learned to wear my excitement under my sleeve, rather than on it. Call it what you will.

The LifeStar chopper, which is landing in the Beacon Brook parking lot as part of National Nurse’s Week, is delayed in Seymour. It was supposed to be here at 10:30. It’s 11.

Al keeps imploring me to wait it out, hang around, don’t go anywhere, as if it’s somehow an inconvenience to be granted reprieve from updating this year’s Town Guide to stand in the sun 200 feet from the front door, in anticipation of something so fundamentally awesome.

“They’re taking off from Seymour now,” he says. I’m trying to do the math. Helicopters go how fast? How far are we from Seymour?

A line of Beacon Brook residents, many of them in wheelchairs, are lined up on one end of the parking lot, their patience standing in sharp contrast to the eagerness of the several children whose parents have brought them here to witness this miracle of aeronautical engineering—and of Igor Sikorsky’s genius—in action.

Parents attempt to placate their children’s impatience. “It’ll be here soon,” they say. The Beacon Brook folks appear wholly unconcerned, by comparison.

Finally the whir of propeller rotors becomes faintly discernible as the helicopter draws near.

“Here it comes!” relieved parents tell their children. Young and old alike shield their eyes as they turn them skyward, and before long espy the chopper, at first but a speck on the edge of vision, beating its path toward the borough from the south.

The bird orbits the landing zone several times, in ever-tightening concentric circles, the buzz of its propellers turning to an ear-splitting throb as it hones in on its target.

The chopper hovers over the parking lot for a moment before beginning its slow descent, when the raw power of its propulsion system becomes immediately apparent.

The machine’s thrust bends not only the lean branches of surrounding trees but also tests the strength of their very trunks. They are each one bent at the waist, leaves waving helplessly in the ferocious current of air.

The great gale sweeps an intrusive plume of dry dirt and debris into the faces of onlookers, most of whom immediately turn away, throwing their arms across their eyes.

I do so at first, as well, but turn back before long, knowing it’s a great photo-op and, as long as I keep one eye closed and the other shielded behind the camera’s body, it should be fine.

Mostly, it is. I’m snapping away, hoping the lens will withstand the grating sandblast a little better than my eyes—I can feel that one contact lens is now ajar—as the helicopter settles on its landing skids and the propellers slow, abating the windstorm and dust cloud.

In the interim, as the propellers slow to a stop and the engine changes from a roar to a whine and finally to a whisper, people turn back and look on.

The experience was clearly too much for a few of the children, who are crying, faces buried in parents’ shoulders, pained in either body or spirit after the violent landing.

Moans and sobs turn to cries of delight, though, as the noise fades and the dust settles. Once the propeller stops for good, the pilot welcomes onlookers to come closer and examine the rotorcraft in more detail.

Elderly Beacon Brook tenants and young children alike—and everyone in between—variously walk, run and wheel closer to the sleek, blue-and-white aircraft, which transports and services critically ill or injured patients who require immediate attention in an emergency room. There’s something to be said about the service, which renders a technology so well-suited to warfare a medical lifeline and conduit of welfare.

I, for one, am glad to see the chopper land in an exhibitory capacity, rather than under more dire circumstances.

The 50 or so people who watched the bird touch down crowd around, posing for photos and questioning the pilot about the rotorcraft, the service and aeronautics. Children proudly don flight helmets, which I expect is infinitely more fun than enduring a sandblast to the face.

Some sit or stand at a distance and simply admire the machine quietly.

They all trickle away, slowly, and turn toward the free hot dogs and chips provided by Beacon Brook. Before heading back to the office to reapply my contact lens—and after enjoying said free hot dog, of course—I encounter Al once more.

“That was pretty neat, huh?”

“Yeah, that was something else.”

“Well, thanks for sticking around,” he says before moving on.

My pleasure, I’m thinking, I would have waited all day for that.


View from the Middle: Never as simple as it seems

Note: In lieu of a regular opinion column this week (too many letters to the editor), I’m posting “View from the Middle,” my new, semi-weekly news column, which will be of more interest to Citizen’s News readers than to friends or family. But hey, friends and family: read it anyway.

When the Board of Education held its public budget hearing last month, most taxpayers who turned out worried about the impact of increased class sizes, spoke out against the closing of Salem School—a decision the school board has since reversed—and even implored borough officials to increase their tax bills to support the ballooning cost of education without necessitating drastic cuts.

I was sufficiently surprised, given the political atmosphere on the national stage, that those three of four residents willingly asked for a tax increase. All the talk about Salem and class sizes was old hat at that point—though I mean to imply neither that residents’ concerns were proffered with levity, nor that those issues are without significance.

In any case, a few other specific concerns caught my ear. Among them was trepidation over the textbooks line item, which is currently funded—underfunded, some asserted— at $60,000. I hope to examine this issue in detail in coming weeks.

But Charley Marenghi, the vice president and spokesman of the Naugatuck Teacher’s League, raised another point that caught my attention. Why, he wondered, are teachers leaving their computers on at night?

“District-wide, staff members are told, ‘Do not turn off your computers’ … Now at my house, we don’t do that. At my house, we turn the computer off. Because when a computer is plugged in, let alone left on, it consumes a massive amount of electricity. And we’re doing that in every single classroom, in every single building, including in our computer labs.”

That one, at least, seemed to be a no-brainer. I try not to leave my computer running at home, either, for the same reason I turn off the lights and television when I go out.

Surely there must be an explanation, I reasoned, or change would already have been implemented, and that savings—which I, like Marenghi, assumed would be substantial—would have already been realized.

So I spoke with the school board’s Director of Information Technology Alan Merly, and did a bit of research on my own in order to approximate the potential cost-impact of shutting computers off at night, as opposed to leaving them in a power-saving standby mode.

As a disclaimer, I must submit that my research is based on speculation and, thus, yielded highly approximate results (I will explain in more detail as we go). But it turns out not only are there a few good reasons the machines are left on, but turning them off every evening would save very little money, speaking in terms relative to a $57 million district budget: somewhere in the range of $2,000 per year.

First, let’s talk about the math. As I noted, this whole process was an exercise in approximation, so take these figures and the final calculations with a grain of salt.

First of all, Merley said, there are “somewhere on the order of 1,200 to 1,400 machines probably deployed throughout the district.”

I used his low figure, 1,200, as a benchmark, assuming the actual figure is somewhere in between 1,200 and 1,400 and that some are unutilized on any given day.

To determine how much power each machine would be drawing, I took the average of seven common Dell computers powered by Pentium 4 chips that were manufactured over the last 5-10 years: the Dimension B110, Optiplex GX620, Dimension E310, Optiplex 170L, Dimension E510, Dimension XPS 600 and Dimension XPS 400.

I’m being somewhat generous here, as I can’t imagine any Naugatuck classrooms or computer labs utilize high-powered XPS-series machines, which are typically used for gaming.

When these computers are off, on average, they are consuming, or “leaking,” two watts of power. Their monitors, depending on whether they are the older vacuum-tube CRT displays or the newer LCDs, can leak a watt or two of power when powered down. Merley said both the old CRTs and newer, flat-screen LCDs are used in the district. LCDs, predictably, leak virtually no power; CRTs can leak a couple watts.

But here’s the rub: when those seven common models are in power-saving standby mode, they consume an average of—hold on to your butts—only three watts. Sleeping monitors draw anywhere between 0 and 15 watts. I used six as a benchmark, assuming there are at least as many LCDs as CRTs in the district, and that many teachers powered at least their monitors off at night. This was, admittedly, the most speculative estimate.

I came up with 2,880 as the number of hours district computers go unutilized: I multiplied 180 (the number of school days in the 2010-11 school year) by 16, which assumes they are in use—thus, out of the scope of this discussion—for eight hours out of the day.

So we now have the baseline figures for kilowatt-hour (kwh) estimates: when 1200 computers are fully powered down for those 16 hours, they’re still consuming about 6,900 kW h. When hibernating, they’re sucking down about 10,400 kwh.

The school board will pay 9.4 cents per kwh in 2010-11 for electricity, to TransCanada. Multiplying our kwh estimates by .094 yields an annual cost of approximately $650 for computers district-wide that are plugged in but powered down, and approximately $975 for computers left in standby during off-hours.

When I factored in the average power draw of the machines’ respective monitors, I came up with an overall, estimated $1,000 yearly cost for machines to remain plugged in overnight, and approximately $3,000 for them to remain in standby.

So if teachers powered off at night, they’d be saving the district somewhere in the range of $2,000 a year. If they unplugged their machines entirely, or switched off a surge protector, they’d help save about $3,000 annually. I’m not a statistician, but I’m going to suggest a 50 percent margin of error, given the speculative nature of my number-crunching. So let’s say the school system would save between $1,000 and $3,000 annually by shutting down, and between $1,500 and $4,500 by unplugging.

Would that prospective savings be little more than a drop in the bucket? Sure; $2,000 is only a quarter of a percent of an $831,100 line item (the projected cost of electricity district-wide in 2010-11) and less than four-thousandths of a percent of the overall, $56 million school budget.

I remember talking to Mayor Bob Mezzo some time ago about the money awarded to Naugatuck by the CRRA, its waste authority, for the tonnage it produces in recyclables. In 2008-09, that revenue amounted to about $7,600, which only offset the $742,000 in tipping fees, which the borough pays the authority to process its trash, by about one percent.

But, as Mezzo said at the time, “Every dollar in a tight budget is important … it’s still money coming into the borough and not going out.”

So why not instruct faculty in the school system to power down at night? $2,000 might not pay anyone’s salary, but it sure could buy quite a few Bic pens.

According to Merley, there are a few reasons teachers are instructed to leave their computers on in the off-hours (it is important to distinguish between a running machine and one in standby mode: depending on the task being performed, a running, Pentium 4-powered machine draws 100-250 watts, as opposed to the three pulled down by one in standby).

First of all, he said, it’s a simple problem of logistics.

“We can turn the computers off, but who’s actually going to do it?” he asked. “We have a bunch of very capable, wonderful teachers, but they’re not all tech-savvy. So if we say, ‘Could you power those off?’ and they’d be like, “Sure, I did it,’ but that really means they disconnected the network cable [as opposed to the power cable] out of the back … either way you go, it’s a challenge.”

There is a way for the network administrators to implement a system, known as Wake-on-LAN, which would allow them to remotely power machines on and off as needed, Merley said. But implementing that protocol would require the purchase of some expensive network hardware.

“For every benefit, for every technological leap forward, there’s usually a capitalization investment that has to happen in order to get there,” he said. “And we’re not in a position to make that leap quite yet. So we’re trying to go after some of that low-hanging fruit, where we can realize some immediate, real savings.”

Merley said the IT department has contracted with Siemens for a power savings solution called Verdiem, which cuts the power consumption of hibernating computers even further than the three-watt average I assessed earlier, by using smarter features than the basic power-management tools provided by Windows.

And some of the fundamental tasks performed by network administrators can only be carried out when in-network machines are powered on. The most commonplace task is updating software; though the Windows operating system is only updated about once per month, Merley said, updates to applications and anti-virus software are applied more frequently.

In the case of anti-virus updates, oftentimes new strains of malicious code and software will surface unexpectedly, at strange hours, and require immediate—or at least prompt— attention.

Further, IT administrators may need to perform network maintenance remotely, which, again, requires the machines to be standing by.

“Oftentimes, if there’s a teacher having a problem with, say, a SMART Board, or a program having a conflict, [a network administrator] can go in at seven or eight o’clock at night, remotely fix the issue, and when the teacher comes in the next morning, the machine has already gone back to sleep and the problem has been taken care of,” Merley said.

So the school board’s IT department would need to overcome the logistical challenge of getting teachers to power down—not to mention of updating software and fixing routine, individual problems—in order to realize a relatively insignificant savings.

The final piece of the puzzle is the impact of physically booting up a computer, both in terms of education and power consumption. Power draw spikes for a minute or two at startup, so if multiplied times 1,200 computers times 180 days, there would be a definite negative impact on savings. And Merley said some of the machines take five minutes or more to power up.

“There is a time factor involved in booting them up,” he said. “[Teachers] have 40 minutes for a class. They bring their students in, and now the first class of the day, they have to have the students power them on, and they’re sitting there waiting five to seven minutes for the machines to start up. And then if there’s a login issue, they have to troubleshoot that. It could eat quite a bit of time out of their first-period classes.”

Would the potential savings be worth the potential logistical and technical trouble to students, teachers and network administrators? I don’t know. I’m not in the business of making value judgments.

All I can say is things are rarely as simple as they seem.


CN Column 05/07/10: Union bears some responsibility for deficit

Several months ago, my girlfriend came home from her classes—she is working toward a master’s degree in elementary education—with a survey she was charged with administering to a few people nominally unattached to the public education system.

I don’t remember precisely what the questions were, but they were mostly about people’s perceptions of public school teachers.

My initial, emotional response, after a long couple weeks covering the school system here in Naugatuck, back when the Board of Education was struggling to adopt an operating budget for the current fiscal year, largely reflected my generic opinion of unionized public employees in general—and mirrored the sentiments I’ve long heard purveyed by my father, a staunch conservative.

“Yeah, I should have been a teacher,” I remember saying (those exact words I’ve heard my father say at least a dozen times). “I’d like to be guaranteed a raise every year, work seven hours a day for 40 weeks out of the year and lock in a tenure-track position with an all-but-assured—and potentially juicy—taxpayer-funded pension waiting for me at the end of the line.”

Yes, I’m paraphrasing, and yes, my understanding of the issue has become somewhat more nuanced since then. I also imagine Stephanie, my girlfriend, got out of me exactly what her instructor was looking for, and he or she probably went on to tell her how and why I was completely wrong.

And wrong I may have been, but certainly the attitude I exhibited at the time is one I’ve seen echoed among residents and town officials as budget season draws to (I hope) its close. I also will submit I said all that before the teachers’ union agreed to a concessions package amounting to more than $500,000 in savings in the middle of a school year, which I deemed a generous move, though it wasn’t worth every dime the school board had hoped for.

At any rate, take, for example, Burgess Bob Neth’s comments at a budget review Monday (see story here). He asserted the teachers in Naugatuck haven’t taken a pay freeze in any of the 20 years he’s been involved in town politics, and issued an irate screed wondering why the school board hadn’t asked them to do just that for the coming fiscal year.

To my understanding, the school board agreed, as part of this year’s concessions deal, to make a “good-faith effort” to avoid asking for concessions until the teachers’ contract expires in 2012. Certainly, I’d like to see that agreement honored.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that while 14 percent of teaching positions are being eliminated in 2010-11 (through early retirements, attrition and layoffs), the other 86 percent of teachers, who received a 3.25 percent pay increase this year, will get a 2.25 percent bump in 2010-11 and enjoy another 2.5 percent in 2011-12.

Seems to me the union would have agreed to a pay freeze, had its members truly wanted to save positions and preserve education—and if they really “don’t do it for the money.”

Hey, I work for my money to. I like my job, just the same as most local educators seem to. But we all work for a paycheck above all else, and to fulfill the ideals of a profession is to enjoy a personal and moral benefit.

So don’t kick and scream about possible cuts to teaching positions, if you won’t negotiate a zero-percent pay increase—especially when you know the borough is trying to freeze its budget for the third consecutive year, in the face of rising insurance and utility costs. No one wants to see cuts, especially cuts that will affect the educational program, but the general sentiment seems to be taxpayers can’t afford to keep pace with the ballooning cost of education in town.

It’s easy to demonize the school board, the superintendent and the borough financiers of the school system as the roots of the problem here in Naugatuck (while lionizing borough teachers, who do a fine job, as far as I can tell), but I’m inclined to look at the whole picture. Was there a lack of oversight on the school board’s and the superintendent’s part? Probably. Should the borough cease taking such a hard line on a zero-percent budget? I think there are arguments to be made that it could and should, just as there are valid arguments that it needs to hold the line. But organized labor is one big factor that is too-often overlooked.

And while I don’t have as strong an opinion of unionized employees as the editorial board at the Waterbury Republican-American, our parent paper, which recently referred to borough teachers as “The Confederacy of Greed”—a charge to which Charley Marenghi, the Naugatuck Teachers’ League Vice President and spokesman, responded thoughtfully and fairly—I am inclined to believe that organized labor bears as much blame as town officials for the school system’s financial woes.

To be clear, I applaud the teachers for making concessions to help the school board through this year’s budget. I think, as Marenghi wrote, they took a “proactive, progressive and cooperative” approach.

But to claim they have nothing to do with crippling budget deficits—which are, basically, the results of rising costs and frozen revenues—when educators’ union-bargained raises are a chief cause of said rising costs, is fairly ridiculous. The only ones who have nothing to do with budget deficits are the students.

I claim neither that all unionized workers are greedy, nor that all teachers personally agree with their union’s stance. I also have come to understand that a teacher’s life is far from an easy life.

But I do claim that teachers could save some of their colleagues’ jobs, if they were to sacrifice their raises in 2010-11, which will cost between $700,000 and $800,000. I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about a $200,000 savings, which could potentially be realized through a school closing, saving jobs.

I’m just saying, taking a zero-percent would save jobs too—and more of them.


CN Column 04/30/10: In politics, it’s all about context

Over the course of the last year, I’ve learned that the context of a political action is often more important than the action itself. I’ve observed this at the local level, covering municipal politics, and have repeatedly seen how reading between the lines pays dividends when weighing matters of political significance at the state or federal levels.

Well, it’s not so much about reading between the lines as it is consciously choosing to read the writing on the wall. It’s not really my job to evaluate subtext.

It’s all about context.

Take, for instance, the Naugatuck school board and the ongoing drama about its budget. I have been on top of that story for months and have worked many late nights in the last few weeks, as officials have hacked and chopped the budget, which has dropped from a possible $7 million increase to one just less than $1 million.

Board of Ed. members have appeared to me in my dreams, and that’s not a joke. A week ago, I spent at least two hours lying awake in bed, mulling numbers and trying to reconcile savings estimates. A year ago at that time, my eyes would have been glazing over amid an all-night video game binge. My, oh my, how life does change.

But that’s not the point. The school board presented its budget to the joint boards last week, and two Finance Board members alleged it had used “scare tactics” and dumped an unpopular decision at the Finance Board’s feet.

They were interpreting the subtext: The Board of Ed. got parents “all riled up,” Diane Scinto said, by voting to close Salem School; it then reversed the decision in the midst of much public outcry and implied it would revisit the issue, if the joint boards didn’t award an adequate budget increase. The school board essentially said, “We’re putting the ball in your court. Salem School is on you.”

To be clear, this is not my opinion, rather the one I heard and partially inferred from Scinto’s and Matt Katra’s public statements. This is the subtext of a month’s events, as interpreted by a minority of the Finance Board. And school board Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan denied that the board had in any way employed “scare tactics,” saying, “We’re doing what’s educationally right within what the budget allocation is.”

But here’s the context, from which you can draw your own opinion: The school board voted March 30 to close Salem in an attempt to save some $400,000. At its regular meeting about a week later, it was publicly chastised by dozens of residents. A week after that, at a public hearing, it was put on the stand again and urged to reconsider the decision. The next week, only three days before its presentation to the joint boards, it reversed the vote by a narrow margin but acknowledged the decision may merit revisiting, pending the joint board’s allocation. You can decide whether the school board intended to scapegoat the joint boards, or simply responded to residents’ concerns and acted in the interests of an educationally sound school system.

It’s all about context.

On the national stage, take the GOP’s latest obstructionist ploy against President Obama’s agenda. All 41 Senate Republicans (and one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska) voted against bringing a financial reform bill to the floor for debate.

As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out, this latest filibuster isn’t preventing a vote on anything, but, “Rather, it’s standing in the way of debate and amendment … That is to say that Republicans who want to see the bill debated and changed are filibustering the process in which the bill can be debated and changed. They’re not filibustering legislation so much as the legislative process itself. … But Republicans have gotten so used to filibustering everything that they filibuster whether it makes sense or not.”

More interesting to me than this nonsensical approach—and an example of why context matters most—is a comparison of Republicans’ opposition to health care reform and their opposition to financial regulation.

At the crossroads of health care legislation, conservatives decried the Democrats for “shoving [the bill] down Americans’ throats” and “ramming it through,” and they called for the administration to heed popular opinion and the will of the people. Fair enough. The bill wasn’t polling well.

But compare that to public opinion of financial reform legislation: According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, about two-thirds of Americans support “stricter regulations on the way financial institutions conduct their business.”

Yet it’s an attempt to impose those very restrictions that has again drawn Republicans into staunch, rank-and-file opposition. Read the writing on the wall: Republicans apparently demand unequivocal acquiescence to public opinion—that is, when it’s convenient for them.

Are both parties hypocritical in their own manner? Yes. Do I think the public opinion point is moot, anyway? Yes; I believe we elect leaders to make executive decisions, even when they wind up being unpopular. There’s a reason why we don’t send every issue to public referendum.

But here we see that considering issues in context can illuminate hypocrisy, indecisiveness and political inaction disguised as principled opposition (the Republican Party’s MO of late, were you to ask me).

We can infer from subtextual clues what bearing these developments will have in November, or we can opine about either party’s disregard for the other or for the American people. But let’s stick to the facts.

At every level, it’s all about context.

Note: In last week’s column, I implied a reader who had phoned in to complain I am a “bleeding-heart” was referring broadly to my personal politics. The caller wrote me to say he was not casting broad assumptions about my belief system but simply responding to a specific opinion (a Feb. 19 column opposing a prison’s decision to take away privileges that had previously been granted to inmates). The caller wrote: “This accusation was not about political views, but you didn’t say that” and felt I had spun his statement. I’d like to publicly apologize for unintentionally misrepresenting his call.