Author Archive: Bill Orr

About Bill Orr

University of Virginia Masters in English. Have lived in Argentina, Panama, Delaware, Virginia, California, NYC, and New Jersey for the last 25 years. Former editor and manager at McGraw-Hill, former President of Gay Activist Alliance of NJ, founder of NJ ActUp, and North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) in Newark.

“They Can’t Change Me, I Got A Dream”

“They can change their minds but they can’t change me,

I got a dream, I got a dream;

Oh, I know I could share it if you’d want me to.

Movin’ me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway.”


                                          Jim Croce: I Got A Name

Transportation Commissioner Simpson’s halt of state-funded road construction projects announced on Friday was ended yesterday. The Star Ledger reported, “Construction workers, engineers and planners will return to work Tuesday.” This followed Simpson’s appearance before an emergency meeting of the Legislative Joint Budget Oversight Committee.

Democrats have been concerned over the failure of the governor to provide a plan to replenish the almost broke Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) – one bound to be controversial. The Record reported that Treasurer Andrew Eristoff said at the hearing, “the governor has ruled out raising the gas tax as part of his plan.” Nonetheless, Commissioner Simpson said the administration would have a solution by the end of the year. With that promise the budget committee voted to approve new financing for current transportation projects.

But does Chrisie really have a plan and is it broadly based enough to garner support? And will he hold hostage the important Hudson River Tunnel project until he presents his plan? Perhaps he seeks to end the tunnel project and transfer monies to the TTF. As suggested in Hopeful’s diary and reported in the NY Times there appears to be a movement toward some states putting a brake on rail service projects because of high costs. The governor has been promising a long-term solution for the TTF ever since he has been in office.

Sounding like Christie, Jim Croce sings, “They can’t change me, I got a dream… I could share it if you’d want me to.”  But Croce does not reveal his dream. Our governor changes only rarely, and we are still waiting for him to tell us his dream.  

Is This Land Still Made for You and Me?

How do you solve a problem like Chris Christie?

Many a thing you know you’d like to tell him

Many a thing he ought to understand

But how do you make him stay

And listen to all you say

When he’s so busy traveling the land?

This land is our land, but especially it’s his land

From Pennsylvania to California

From New Mexico to Illinois.

No time for home, he likes to roam.

It is for him an egoistic free ride

With lobbyist Bodman at his side.

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me.”

(With revisions, but credit to Rodgers and Hammerstein: Sound of Music and Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land)  

Assembly Speaker Oliver Please Show More Oomph

With a hyperactive, demanding, impatient governor in the opposing party, it’s time for you to display more  energy, confidence, dispatch, strength, and oomph. This week you released the following statement on the Assembly’s reform agenda:

“We laid out a timeframe quite some time ago that would allow us to take a thoughtful and deliberative approach. We have been working diligently to advance thorough and substantive reforms that will have a real impact on helping local governments meet the new two-percent cap and make a real difference in people’s lives… We have already considered a number of bills and we approved two property tax reforms today.”

“Thoughtful, deliberative, and diligent” are OK, but not much oomph there.  

On September 12 after the summer recess, several Assembly panels met to discuss how the recently enacted state budget is affecting residents and businesses. At the conclusion of the meetings you released the following statement, “This budget will have many deep impacts on the lives of New Jerseyans, and we plan to monitor it closely to see what might be done to ease the pain.” “Monitoring closely” is OK, but not much oomph there.

In February after marriage equality was voted down in the Senate, you spoke at a rally in Montclair about three key priorities: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ENDA, and school bullying. The first two matters you have little control over, but you evinced strong passion over the harm of bullying and the need for legislation.  I understand that work on the bill is underway and that Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth) plan to introduce such a bill shortly. In your speech in Montclair you displayed some oomph.  It is time for more.  

Rolling Me Down the Highway

“Moving me down the highway

Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by.

And I’m gonna go there free,

Like the fool I am and I’ll always be.”

                 Jim Croce: I Got a Name

Ah… the romance of the highway. But it really never was free, and its costs are catching up on us. NJ over many years has been burning through principal, and according to the Regional Plan Association by mid 2011 the NJ Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) will have enough monies to pay only its interest costs. Governor Christie, never one to do things with a light touch, on September 10 called a 30-day halt to the multi-billion Hudson River train tunnel, and on Friday his Transportation Commissioner James Simpson announced all state-funded transportation construction projects will be stopped on Monday. The problems are real but they call not for petulant, sudden halts but a comprehensive, long-term transportation plan from the Governor – one which the legislature can support and implement.  

The halt to state-funded projects was precipitated after the state sought legislative approval for selling over $1 billion in bonds and refinancing up to $500 million in existing debt. Commissioner Simpson on Friday said in a press release “In January the Corzine Administration issued $857 million in bonds to pay the ongoing cost of these important construction projects with the understanding that the Christie Administration would need to issue bonds in the fall to finish the work. Today, only $50 million remains in the TTF, all of which is needed to cover the next debt service payment in December.” Having provided the legislature with very short notice, the administration is now upset that the legislature did not immediately approve its request.

Sen. Paul A. Sarlo and Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald on Friday said the Joint Budget Oversight Committee will hold an emergency meeting on Monday to consider the financing proposal. Sen. Sarlo added, “The Commissioner’s decision to level a threat to lay off workers through a late-day press release rather than by picking up a telephone to discuss this vital matter directly is enough of a signal that the administration has no plan.”

Christie recently downplayed talk of replenishing the TTF with Hudson tunnel project money, but there is ongoing concern that he may seek to end this huge, important project with its long-term benefits to NJ. It is appears, as reported by the Star Ledger, “that the transit agency didn’t properly outline how it would it go about combating fraud, waste and abuse, on this project, and auditors also took issue with the Federal Transit Administration’s early handling of the program.” Nonetheless, the project is in its infancy, and the administration must generate a better plan to oversee its costs.  

The ball is in Christie’s court. The time is now. Short-term tinkering is no solution for long-standing, long-term problems. No more instant demands for legislative action and work stoppage, particularly in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Show us a plan to replenish the trust fund. (The Regional Plan Association and many other groups have recommended elements of such a plan.) And  create an enforceable system to better control expenses in the tunnel project so that its benefits can be available to future New Jerseyans.  

Senator Buono Issues RTTT Subpoenas

The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee yesterday was granted the power through a Senate vote (21-14) to subpoena two key individuals in the state’s failed Race to the Top (RTT) federal education grant application. The committee met following the Senate session and formally issued subpoenas to former state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, the vendor chosen by the state to compile its application.

Senate Majority Leader and the committee chair Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) called the action “extraordinary but necessary,” because of the administrative roadblocks that have allowed officials to keep vital documents out of lawmakers’ hands, despite an extensive request for information under the state’s Open Public Records Act. Sen. Buono added, “As people hide behind OPRA, the more it raises the question of what they are hiding. Residents deserve answers, plain and simple.”

There had been an earlier agreement brokered between Governor Christie and Sen. President Sweeney that permitted release of partial OPRA material. However, to her credit, Sen. Buono has been persistent. Now with two key participants in the grant process under subpoena, more useful information should become available.

The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee will convene its RTTT hearing on Thursday, October 7. The committee’s subpoenas will seek testimony from the two individuals and demand they release all correspondence and documents related to the application. According to PolitickerNJ Sen. Buono told the Senate, “If the testimony taken and the documents produced at this hearing open an area of inquiry that suggests that we need broader subpoena power I’ll be back.”

NJ Education: Yes We Can!

“New Jersey’s commitment to implement its Abbott plan and ensure equitable resources to all students proves that it can be done at the state level – as New Jersey is the only state with a significant Black male population with a greater than 65% high school graduation rate.” John H. Jackson, J.D., Ed.D, President & CEO, Schott Foundation for Public Education

YES WE CAN: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010 presents positive news about education in NJ. The study demonstrates that whereas the US White Male Graduation Rate is 78%, in NJ the Black Male Graduation Rate (BMGR) is 69% and in Newark it is a high 75%. NJ overall ranks 9th among the 50 states in BMGR, but it is Newark’s record for which we can be most proud. As the report points out, “The increased resources from Abbott v. Burke funding in NJ, which became effective about 2003, have allowed the much-maligned Newark school district to nearly close the gap for Black males with national White male graduation rates.” Newark is ranked #1 in the Ten Best-Peforming Large Districts for Black Males.

The report also looks at the data by the percentage of Black male students scoring at or above proficiency, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2009, Grade 8 reading percentages.  This reveals that NJ and Kentucky Black male students rank at the top, with 15% at or above proficiency. As a point of comparison the highest ranking for White male students was 45% (MD) with NJ a close second at 44%, and the lowest score was 18% (WVA).

The report indicates that within NJ there continues to be significant gaps between Black male students and White male students.  As indicated above, the gap between 8th grade reading scores between Blacks (15%) and Whites (44%) is a significant 29%. Likewise, although the graduation rate of Black male students in NJ (69%) is not far below the national White male rate, 78%, it is considerably below the rate of NJ White male students, 90% which is 3rd highest in the country.

Decreasing the gaps is an important goal, but we have every reason to be extremely proud of NJ’s and Newark’s record. And we have cause for concern in how our record has been recently portrayed. As Bob Braun comments in today’s Star Ledger, “Christie, of course, refers to urban education in New Jersey as “obscene.” So, it’s little surprise he didn’t cite the Schott report, or other indicia of success. That wouldn’t fit the narrative he is trying to make us all believe, a narrative that somehow justifies cutting back on the very programs that were succeeding and replacing them with the sort of things in Washington, DC, that were not succeeding but do meet an ideological test.” Washington’s low male graduation rate was Black: 41% and White 57%.    

NJ Education: Yes We Can!

“NJ’s commitment to implement its Abbott plan and ensure equitable resources to all students proves that it can be done at the state level – as NJ is the only state with a significant Black male population with a greater than 65% high school graduation rate.” John H. Jackson, Schott Foundation for Public Ed.

YES WE CAN: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010 presents positive news about education in NJ. The study demonstrates that whereas the US White Male Graduation Rate is 78%, in NJ the Black Male Graduation Rate (BMGR) is a high 69% and in Newark it is an even higher 75%. NJ overall ranks 9th among the 50 states in BMGR, but it is Newark’s record for which we can be most proud. As the report points out, “The increased resources from Abbott v. Burke funding in NJ, which became effective about 2003, have allowed the much-maligned Newark school district to nearly close the gap for Black males with national White male graduation rates.” Newark is ranked #1 in the Ten Best-Peforming Large Districts for Black Males.

The report also looks at the data by the percentage of Black male students scoring at or above proficiency, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2009, Grade 8 reading percentages.  

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“Glory Days Glory Days”

“The problem was not that Americans lived beyond their means but that their means had not kept up with what the larger economy could and should have been able to provide. The American economy had been growing briskly … but a larger portion of the economy’s winnings had gone to people at the top…. The central challenge is to rebalance the American economy so that its benefits are shared more widely.” –  Robert Reich: AFTERSHOCK (Alfred A. Knopf – 2010)

Brescia:The Cost of Inequality substantiates this lack of balance. Inequality in NJ can be viewed in terms of 1) our poverty rate: 8.7%; 2) differences in our median household income: Whites: $47,036, Black: $29,293 and Latino: $35,744; and 3) the difference between the median income of the three above groups and the State median income of $64,470, suggesting a number of individuals with a disproportionately high income. In comparison with other states NJ fares worse, but not significantly so because these disparities have become widespread throughout the U.S.

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Dear Mayor Booker and Miss OPRA

             “I have very determined educational views,” Booker said. “Let’s trust Newarkers to be able to make the common commitment to… what that education should be.”

Mayor Booker has done a superb job of obtaining one of America’s largest grants for a school district. Mark Zuckerberg has been exceedingly generous. Governor Christie and the State Education Department, while maintaining veto authority, have indicated they will provide Booker with substantial authority. The reality is, however, that the individual who is successful in obtaining any large grant can not implement it alone but must rely on a variety of stake holders to carry out the effort, and it is these stake holders who ultimately generate the successful or unsuccessful outcomes.

Mayor Booker in the above quote reveals his conflicted nature.  As the charismatic visionary who motivated Mr. Zuckerberg to contribute, Booker says he has “determined educational views,” an important attribute to obtain the award. But he goes on to say, “Let’s trust Newarkers,” an even more important attribute needed to assure success.

Let’s hope he follows through by displaying leadership, by listening, and by seeking consensus.  His first step should be to be make public the terms and conditions of Zuckerberg’s grant, which provides the initial basis for future actions. So far he has not done so, but such action would show he “trusts Newarkers.” To encourage openness of discussion an OPRA request to the State Department of Education, which has legal authority over the Newark schools, has been issued. A second step for Booker is to make public with some specificity the intended use of the matching funds he is soliciting. Booker’s future and more important that of Newark school kids hang in the balance.  

What Is This Bridge and To Where Does It Lead?

Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant is a wonderful opportunity for Newark schools, but so far its contents have been wrapped in secrecy. In a grant there are terms and conditions upon which the donor and recipient agree. This grant is public information and its full contents must be made available.  So far there has been a TV show announcement, telephone conference call, numerous press releases, newspaper articles, and a press conference scheduled for 2:30 this afternoon at the Robert Treat Hotel. We have heard a lot of enthusiasm and platitudes, but little about what the grant specifies. I have twice emailed the city of Newark requesting a link to the grant, but have received no response.  Rather than hearing spin we need to see the award itself.

It appears that it will be paid out over a period of five years, that it may be in the form of Facebook stock, and that it requires matching. Does it include an advance payment available before matching funds are received and if so how much and when is it payable?  What is the payment schedule and required terms for ongoing payment? What are the matching requirements?

Does the grant specify goals and objectives and require certain tasks such as closing unsuccessful schools, creating vouchers, or investing in charter schools? Does it support enhanced nutrition, counseling and other indirect, but important, needs for Newark students? Does it have time frames to complete objectives? Does it require certain outcomes for ongoing funding? Does it require outside monitoring of activities and auditing of expenditures? Does it address the relationship between the city, state and Newark Board of Education?  

These are just a few questions the public has a right to know. There should also be information on the use of monies to be received by the foundation set up to solicit matching funds. Soon there should be a clear, written school reform plan from Newark officials, but in the meantime to bolster trust and support the full grant should be available for all to read.