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.

“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.  

A Modest Proposal

        “I have been assured that a young healthy child is a most

        delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food.”

Jonathan Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal for ending the problem of poor children was for their parents to eat them. Today too many young and poor children, both American and foreign, fall into the grip of human traffickers. Now a Modest Proposal has been sponsored, initially by three Republicans and one Democrat, to further address the crisis. It provides an opportunity in our often divisive legislature for members of both parties to join together to pass a bill with little cost but a huge impact on those affected.

Senate Bill S-535 directs the Attorney General to publicize information about human trafficking hotlines and mandates law enforcement training on responding to the needs of victims of this crime. The 3-page bill just passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been sent to the Budget Committee. There is a companion House bill A1795.

As Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31) says, “For the victims of human trafficking, life can be a nightmare of abuse, forced servitude and ever-constant fear and intimidation. We need to give them the tools to break the cycle of servitude, and give the law enforcement community the training to meet the unique needs of these people. This affects runaways and at-risk kids who think that they have nowhere else to turn and fall in with the wrong crowd, and it affects individuals who’ve become dependent on illegal drugs and are forced into prostitution to get their next fix, among many others.”

We shall see if Democrats and Republicans work together to enact this Modest Proposal. The statewide hotline to report trafficking is 877-986-7534.

Thank the Giver and Implement Wisely

We have to await more information to understand the potential impact of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s generous donation of $100 million to Newark for education. Money alone will not solve Newark’s long-standing school woes, but in this “once in a lifetime opportunity,” if used wisely it can certainly help. The total amount of money to be received is unclear. The “too many cooks spoil the broth” could present serious problems. However, it is likely that the award is open-ended enough to provide latitude for the creativity needed to strengthen Newark’s education system.

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Democratic Senate and Fight Club (Continued)

     Fight Club Rule #7: Fights will go on as long as they have to.

Sen. Barbara Buono’s effort to get to the truth of what happened with the RTTT application has been undercut by both Governor Christie and Sen. President Sweeney who negotiated an agreement on Tuesday. The result of the negotiations represented a pyrrhic victory for Democrats – the governor’s agreement to release some OPRA requested documents but to maintain his right of executive privilege. Sen. Buono can proceed to examine the documents she will receive, but she will ultimately need subpoenas or other court intervention to get the complete story.

One of the outcomes of the negotiations was the governor’s agreement to turn over certain documents by Wednesday. As reported in yesterday’s diary Democratic Senate and Fight Club Rules, “receiving documents on Wednesday does not provide Sen. Buono’s committee enough time to prepare for a Thursday hearing or to verify whether all pertinent documents were supplied.” As a result, Sen. Buono’s Legislative Oversight Committee RTTT Hearing scheduled for Thursday, September 23, has been cancelled.

Another result of the negotiations as mentioned in the above diary was that “Sen. Sweeney gave away the right to receive documents from the Executive Office and to question the governor’s immediate staff.” As reported in today’s Star Ledger, Christie reaffirmed on Tuesday “he reserved the right to invoke executive privilege, which shields the governor from open records laws.”… “We’re going to turn over those documents which we believe are appropriate to turn over. If there are areas that we believe are covered by executive privilege, we’ll assert them and we’ll go from there.” In the most prominent case involving executive privelege then President Nixon initially refused to turn over Watergate tapes. He  finally did so but portions of them had been erased.

A matter left unclear is who will be available to testify at a rescheduled RTTT hearing. Some of the Governor’s staff members could appear, but on certain issues the governor has made clear they will invoke executive privilege. Both former Education Commissioner Schundler and the contractor Wireless Generation declined to appear before the earlier RTTT Assembly hearing. Sen. Buono has her work cut out for her, but she should follow Fight Club Rule #7: “Fights will go on as long as they have to.”

Democratic Senate and Fight Club Rules

Fight Club Rule #1 and 2: You do not talk about Fight Club

Fight Club Rule # 3: If someone says stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over

Fight Club Rule #7: Fights will go on as long as they have to

Following a slow start the Senate Democrats are now showing signs of fight. Thanks to Sen. Weinberg and others they displayed gumption in their failed veto override effort, but they promise  to continue their struggle with two new women’s health care bills. Their effort with regard to Sen. Buono’s investigation into RTTT was a phyrric victory. In a negotiation between Sen. President Sweeney and Governor Christie, they gained the acquiescence of the Governor to provide requested OPRA documents from the Education Department but gave away the right to receive documents from the Executive Office and to question the Governor’s immediate staff. As in the movie of the same name, they don’t have to talk about Fight Club (Rule #1 and 2); they just have to follow Rule #7. Governor Christie, Senate Republicans, and The Treasurer covered themselves with shame in the process.

Stalking horse Sen. Diane Allen (R-7th), an erstwhile supporter of the women’s health bill, brought news to the Senate chambers.

read about it below the fold….

Adler: Maybe Better Than You Think

Is John Adler’s voting record what we want? No it is not. But as Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) data demonstrates, his record is that of an average Democratic Representative and far better than that of the most liberal or moderate Republicans.

Among the 20 bills in 2009 most important to ADA, Adler’s score was 85%. That score happens to match exactly (85%) the average score of all Democrats in the House of Representatives. Not so terrible. Truly conservative Democrats scored below 50%.  Although his score was the lowest of NJ Democrats, it was only slightly below that of Pascrell (90%) and  Pallone (95%).  We are fortunate that our other Democratic Representatives scored 100%.

His voting record is noticeably different from that of Republicans. The average score of all Republican Representatives was 7%. The four most liberal Republicans scored 45%. 75 Representatives scored 0.  In comparison with Adler’s score of 85%, the highest NJ Republican Representative’s score was Lance (40% which almost makes him a “liberal” Republican), followed by LoBiondo (35%), Smith (30%), Frelinghuysen (15%), and you can guess at Garrett’s score, but any guess above 0 is wrong.    

A strong Democratic turnout in support of Adler will avert a buffoon from taking office and one whose ADA score will be closer to 0 than Adler’s 85%. It will also help maintain the Democratic leadership in congress. Strong Democratic turn-out and pre-election support might even encourage Adler’s more liberal tendencies within this GOP stronghold. Let’s keep Democrats in office and plan to be more choosy when we return to a period when there are genuine liberal or moderate Republicans and more electable liberal Democrats from whom to select.

OPRA’s Unanswered Questions

Three OPRA requests, by Sen. Weinberg, Sen Buono, and Asbury Park Press, have not yet elicited a response. Each might answer a fundamental question regarding actions of the governor and his  staff.

Sen. Buono’s request deals with the cause of a flubbed response to a question that might have made the difference in the RTTT grant between being funded and not funded. Former Education Commissioner Schundler said he made a mistake in requesting that data for 2010 be substituted for the requested data for an earlier period. It also appears that the contractor Wireless Generation was aware of the error.  An unanswered question is whether the Executive Office played a role in  the matter. Sen. Buono said she plans to seek authority to issue subpoenas on Monday, and she has an RTTT hearing scheduled for Thursday.

Sen. Weinberg’s request deals with reconciling whether there are extra funds  in an apparently overfunded line item paying for the prescription program for public employees that could be used to replace $7.5 million for women’s health. The Office of Legislative Services said there are, whereas, Treasurer Sidamon-Eristoff said that there are not, and he refused to testify before the legislature on the matter. The key unanswered question is whether OLS is indeed accurate, which would further bolster Sen. Weinberg’s efforts to override the governor’s veto. The override vote is scheduled for Monday as well a rally in Trenton to support the effort.

The Asbury Park Press’ request deals with documents on the firing of Schundler. The governor stated that Schundler had told him he had offered to provide improper revised information to the RTTT reviewers. Schundler said he had not done so and warned the governor verbally and in emails  not to make this claim. Nonetheless, the governor later said he was lied to by Schundler, and he fired Schundler. An unanwered question is whether the governor told the truth in this matter. This issue might also be explored during Thursday’s RTTT hearings.  

Christie’s Pension Overhaul Off to a Bad Start

Yes we have a huge problem. As a Star Ledger editorial pointed out , “The settlement with the Security and Exchange Commission makes it official: For years, New Jersey had been cooking its books and neglecting to tell investors it was grossly underfunding pension plans. The state has been using one accounting method. Corporations use another, and academics embrace a third – and the latter two would place New Jersey in a much deeper hole, closer to $60 billion.” And this hole does not include a similar one: the State Employee Health Care Benefits System.

However, it appears that Governor Christie’s overhaul plan suffers from the same lack of transparency we have witnessed in the past.

(read about it below the fold)