Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A conversation the city ought to have


Maybe this isn't the best time to talk about privatizing government services.

It's been a long-standing conservative view that government at any level is wasteful, bloated and corrupt. Partly because that's often true, it helped lead to a lot of Republican electoral success. "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," or so said Ronald Reagan.

But the country got an eight-year look at what the privatization and outsourcing of core government functions did for us. Highlighted by the disgrace that was the response to Hurricane Katrina, where we sat back and watched a city drown, many decided we really do need government for some things.

Barack Obama was elected last year for any number of reasons. On that list was the repudiation of the anti-government mantra the country labored under for the past few decades. Voters knew he supported expanded governmental authority in areas like health care and the environment, and he won anyway.

He won big in Connecticut, and he won huge in Bridgeport. Now, that same public-vs.-private-sector debate may come here.

The discussion is around a thoroughly laudable move spearheaded by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council to improve financial accountability in the city school system. Regardless of its outcome, it's an unqualified good idea to get a clearer picture of where the millions of dollars spent on education in this city go, and how they can be better used.

In other systems where such an audit has been successful -- St. Louis, for example -- millions of dollars in savings was unearthed, and that money went back into the classroom, where it belongs. Better equipment, newer textbooks, help for teachers -- these are what people expect their tax money to go toward.

Some fixes are as easy as clearing up inefficiencies. But other proposals go to the heart of a controversial question about what exactly we expect from our city schools.

As outlined by Paul Timpanelli, the head of the BRBC who has for years worked doggedly on this project, some of the savings are likely to include moving jobs out of the school board's direct control and into the private sector. Crossing guards, cafeteria workers and anyone not directly involved in student instruction could, the thinking goes, come cheaper if they were not paid with public funds. The savings could total in the millions.

The question, then, is what are the core functions of a school system: We're asking whether jobs not directly related to teaching should be performed by for-profit businesses, which, whatever else they do, exist to make money, not to serve the public.

If profit is the underlying goal, people fear, sometimes other goals suffer. In this case, that could mean safety, or nutrition.

It wouldn't have to work that way, of course. Private operators are no more certain to do a bad job than public workers are guaranteed to have nothing but the best interests of the children at heart. It's all shades of gray. But given the country's experience with privatization's negative effects, it's no wonder some people are leery.

Then there's the matter of Bridgeport as compared with its neighbors. Maybe providing meals is not a core educational function in the suburbs. In the city, where 84 percent of students in the public system qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch programs (as of 2005), the calculus is different.

No one, of course, is favoring doing away with school lunch or crossing guards or anything else. And there's no question the audit is a good idea; taxpayers need to know where money is going.
But if some of the possible recommendations give people pause, they should. This is a conversation the city ought to have.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

A step ahead at city schools


This is part of what it means to live in a poor city.

It's not just more crime, aging infrastructure and fewer opportunities. Living in a place like Bridgeport also means your kids are more likely to get sick.

A laudable program from the federal Environmental Protection Agency aims to improve that situation. It's a good idea and deserves support.

The problem in this case involves what are called "asthma triggers" in schools, which cause mold and other air-quality issues, which in turn account for many cases of childhood asthma. A leaky roof is a prime example -- rainwater soaks into the building rather than running off to the ground; the nooks and crannies the water seeps into provide a home for mold to build up, and those spores bring about asthma. That means clogged airways and difficulty breathing.

It's not that the suburbs are immune from such maladies. But in a city where schools are in use for 100 years or more, the chances of problems like this developing are many times higher. The numbers show Connecticut's largest cities, including Bridgeport, send more than three times the number of children to the hospital for asthma attacks as the rest of the state. That's a lot of lost instruction time, and one more reason why poor schools struggle with test scores compared to those in richer towns.

The EPA program looks to root out such asthma triggers before they do damage. And it has shown success elsewhere, with a 21.2 percent drop in asthma outbreaks in Hartford the year after the program started, and larger gains elsewhere. With more than 40 percent of cases centered in the state's five largest cities, it's clear where the most help is needed.

There's more to asthma than just leaky roofs. Studies have shown the closer a school sits to a major highway, with the accompanying heavy load of particulate matter in the air from all those vehicles passing through, the higher the asthma rate. In Bridgeport and places like it, schools historically aren't built all that often, and in some cases the buildings that were there before the interstates came through are still in use. In other towns, those facilities might have been replaced with something that's not a magnet for truck exhaust, and the sicknesses that can bring.

When broken down piece by piece, the challenges faced every day by students at struggling schools can seem overwhelming. But the only way to take them on is one at a time. Though it won't change the world, a program that could cut down on asthma attacks brought on by substandard facilities is worth supporting.

And we need many more like it.

The wrong choice for city commission


In depressingly typical Bridgeport fashion, an appointment that should have been a sure thing has gone sour. Mayor Bill Finch's choice to fill a vacancy on the Planning and Zoning Commission has city officials trading barbs and raising accusations of bad faith.

It was easy to see coming. Jose Tiago, owner of Tiago Construction on Seaview Avenue, has fought with zoning officials over his business, which authorities say was illegally established. Choosing him to help make decisions about other city residents and how they can use their land was bound to spark controversy.

Complicating matters further are allegations Tiago was less than forthcoming with the city's Ethics Commission, which in January approved the mayor's appointment. One commissioner later said he felt deceived because Tiago falsely told the panel his zoning issues had been resolved. Others say he may have misunderstood the question.

Ethics Commission hearings by law are held behind closed doors; there's no way to tell for certain what anyone said. It well could be a simple misunderstanding.

That's not the issue. A member of a city commission should be free of conflicts regarding the public's business. Fighting a years-long battle over what the city says was an illegal business does not clear that hurdle.
Tiago was issued a cease-and-desist order by the city several years ago for his failure to obtain a special permit or coastal site plan approval for a construction yard on the Seaview Avenue site, which borders the Yellow Mill Channel. In 2007, Tiago went before the PZC seeking to legalize the use of the property, but was denied.

It can be hard to find qualified, available people to serve on boards and commissions who don't present some sort of conflict. Realtors, builders, developers -- these are people who understand city planning, and would do well to serve on a panel like the PZC. Almost anyone who has done business in the area could potentially present a conflict, but that shouldn't preclude everyone with experience from public service.

This goes too far. Zoning rules exist for a reason, and someone who flagrantly flouted the rules over a period of years does not belong in a position to enforce those same rules, even if it does not legally disqualify him.

The city could have found someone with experience and a good working relationship with zoners. Instead, we get one more example of how progress in Bridgeport will always be a long, hard slog.

Stuck paying for bad decisions of old


No one gains if the Bluefish fold. Bridgeport doesn't need another high-profile failure, and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard is, no matter its history, a nice place to see a game.

But the bigger question is this: What is Bridgeport doing with a baseball team? As the team struggles at the gate and faces questions about its future, that's the real issue. No one wants to lose the team, because its benefit to the reputation and development of Connecticut's largest city, though limited, is legitimate. It has never been easy to lure people off I-95 from the suburbs to explore around here, and the team has helped change that.

And though there's been some success here recently -- new residents in the Citytrust building, a host of restaurant openings -- the failures loom large. Steel Point is what it's always been -- empty, with little hope for a rebirth. Luxury condo towers planned down Main Street have been drastically scaled back. And the Magic Johnson-backed entertainment complex slated for the lot across from Harbor Yard vanished in a puff of smoke.

Another highly public failure here would be, maybe not disastrous, but certainly disheartening. In a part of town beset with decay and missed opportunities, no one wants to see the Ballpark, Bridgeport's best new attraction of the last few decades, sit vacant.

We're paying for the original mistake, and that was bringing the team here in the first place. There's no good way out of it now.

The story that marked their arrival is one of the largest misbegotten notions in urban America -- the idea that a stadium and its home games will spur an economic revival and raise a city's fortunes. For every success story, there are 20 failures. But people keep trying it, and they keep succeeding.

Sometimes it takes the form of blackmail -- build us a stadium or we bolt. This is how professional teams across the country with perfectly adequate facilities find a way for their hometowns to shell out tax money for fancy new buildings. There was nothing wrong with Shea Stadium; the Mets just wanted a nicer park with more luxury suites, and therefore more revenue.

One report last year said the city and state of New York invested as much as $850 million in cash and tax breaks in the new Yankee Stadium. (Making matters worse, the team grabbed more than 20 acres of contiguous parkland for the new building, promising to replace it with an equal amount once the old stadium is knocked down. But it will be on separate lots -- some across highways and even atop a parking garage).

If anything should put lie to the notion that stadiums bring neighborhood booms, it's the story of the Yankees. This isn't just any team, it's the most successful major professional franchise in U.S. history. And the Bronx neighborhood where it sits isn't just downtrodden, it was for years shorthand for the worst kind of urban blight. The area has improved, but that's followed an overall uptick across the city, not from anything the stadium has done.

At its worst, this system is akin to taking money away from the public and putting it directly into the hands of some of the richest people in America. For misguided notions of civic pride, it keeps happening.

Economist and professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College has done as much research as anyone in the country on the effect of sports teams and stadiums on their cities. He's succinct in his conclusions, telling The New York Times recently: "All of the independent, scholarly research on the issue of whether sports teams and facilities have a positive economic impact has come to the same conclusion: One should not anticipate that a team or a facility by itself will either increase employment or raise per-capita income in a metropolitan area."

When people talk about what a project will do for a city, isn't that what we're looking for? More jobs, better pay? City morale and good feelings are nice, but if they don't correlate with improved quality of life, there's not much point. And spending public money on sports facilities doesn't reach that standard.

That doesn't mean they're worthless. But comparing the amount of public cash in this country used on sports arenas with their economic impact, it's clear there are better ways to spend that money.

Bridgeport, then, is stuck. The Bluefish have for years had trouble paying the rent, and the Atlantic League owner had to step in last year to save the team from possibly going under. Their long-term viability is highly questionable, and their overall value only slightly less so.

We don't want to lose them. But they shouldn't have been asked here to begin with.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

One number can't tell the whole story


Another failure for UConn and Jim Calhoun.

Junior center Hasheem Thabeet announced last week that he will forego his final year of college eligibility and make himself available for the NBA draft. A 7-foot-3-inch behemoth, he's projected to be among the first few players chosen. Given the NBA's salary structure, he will be guaranteed a two-year contract worth at least $2.5 million per season.

He will not, though, earn his college degree, at least not yet. If he or any player does not earn a diploma within six years of enrolling in school, he becomes a detriment to the reputation of the coach and the school. At last count, UConn's graduation rate for the men's basketball team was a sickly looking 33 percent.

These numbers are released every year just in time to give everyone excited about the sport a knock on the head. Around the start of the NCAA tournament, each school's graduation rate is held up for discussion as if all that is good or bad about a team can be boiled down to one statistic. The rates are good every year for a few outraged opinions from people who say the athletes are being treated as commodities. As soon as they have outlived their use, this thinking goes, they will be tossed aside -- and without a degree, most will have few options.

Except, as someone like Thabeet shows, it's not that simple. For one thing, it's a small sample size; a school has 13 scholarships, and most years only a handful of new players suits up. There's also the fact that nearly everyone who puts in four years on the team has a chance to make money playing basketball somewhere, college degree or no. The European leagues are packed with ex-college players not good enough for the NBA but who make a solid living -- often in the six-figure range. It's far from home and not the easiest road, but it's a living, and one that those players might not have had without four years to grow and develop at a place like UConn.

As marginal a player as Danbury native E.J. Harrison, who was backup to the backups on the 1999 national championship team, played for a decade in England. Others play in Ukraine or Australia or Israel. It's not always glamorous, but there are worse ways to spend your life.

A lot of UConn players, too, are in the NBA (13 at last count). Every one of them is a millionaire many times over, but most of them count against the school's graduation rate. If the point of the college experience is to help young people mature and expand their opportunities, it's hard to count a story like theirs as a negative.

The graduation rate is an attempt to find a shorthand look at how well or poorly a school is serving its students. And there is nothing pretty about 33 percent; it would be easy to extrapolate from that data that the focus during a player's UConn years is on everything but academic achievement. As long as the team wins and the dollars flow into the coffers, all is well.

But the reality doesn't support that view. A degree itself is no guarantee of future success, and a solid financial foundation earned by playing basketball for a living can be just as valuable, if not more.

It's partly a rationalization on the part of fans -- like me -- to play down the importance of stories that make their team and their school look bad. It's also tempting to argue the entire system is corrupt from top to bottom. There's a lot of truth in that view.

There is a lot wrong with big-time college athletics, and it's a fair argument that universities shouldn't be in the business of serving as de facto minor leagues. No one argues the coaches are pure and the system flawless.

But it would be wrong to assume you can boil down a school's morals and priorities into a simple number, no matter what it measures. Anyone who wants to rage against the system as it exists should aim a lot higher than UConn.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.