By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
like Betsy Gotbaum.
year, in a wonderfully contested six-way Democratic Primary, the people
selected Betsy over an incredibly impressive field of talented,
qualified and concerned people to be their candidate for Public
Advocate. Not that any of the other candidates — and we really like
them all — would have been a bad choice, but Betsy was a marvelous
not here to applaud her first four months in office. I can’t possibly
evaluate her performance yet. I am here to declare that here is a
wonderful person, driven to help the people and the city and her heart
is in the right place.
Betsy, what you see and hear is what you get. There are no ulterior
motives. Betsy is not running for Mayor in eight years. She’s not
building a personal political powerbase for the future, she’s not
laying the groundwork for a future lucrative career in the private
sector. Her commitment to our City is not clouded by all those terrible
distractions that take well-meaning elected officials and negatively
impact their performance.
Publisher Michael Schenkler and Betsy Gotbaum late last year.
Gotbaum is pure. Now she didn’t get to where she is by being pure —
you can’t make it in politics or New York by purity alone. But on the
measurement of politicos, Betsy is a rare individual motivated only by
doing her job right — the best way she can.
lots of elected officials say that. With Betsy, I believe it.
if I was a man of prayer, I would go home at night and pray for more
single-minded public servants like her and then give a bigger prayer —
assuming they have size — that a system
so corrupted with power and money not impact on her purity of purpose.
Gotbaum can make a difference.
Public Advocate is empowered by section 24 of the City Charter to, among
other things: cut through government red tape; serve as an ombudsperson,
answer complaints about people’s problems with City government,
investigate ineffective agencies and programs; propose solutions that
make government more efficient, and help communities gain better access
to government; and be responsible for reporting the failure of any City
agency or official to comply with the New York City Charter.
came to the office last week for early morning bagels and . . . She came
with Stewart Desmond, her press hoohah, and new press staffer Anat
Jacobson, who has worked previously for my friends Carol Gresser and
Brian Pu-Folkes. (As an aside, watch Anat . . . she’ll be around
molding the city decision makers long after the present ones are gone.)
and crew stopped by because a Trib article was responsible
for their present crusade. Now Betsy would deny she’s on a
“crusade” — and current world political correctness would dictate
that we avoid that word. But without saying it, the Public Advocate has
set her sights on the School Construction Authority.
article, written by Trib reporter Angela Montefinise in
the issue of March 28, 2002, “P.S. 214 Repairs Approved, But Still
Waiting,” reports that the Board of Education approved and funded the
replacement of P.S. 214’s “out-dated and non-functioning windows.”
it explained: “Even though some of the windows are stuck open four to
six inches and others are nailed shut, it will still take between eight
months and a year to open up the bid process, choose a construction
company, measure all of the windows, make new ones, and install them.”
efforts to replace the 50-year-old windows have been going on for three
years. According to the Trib March account, the school
principal said, “that the windows were not only a hazard, but in the
summer, classrooms are stifling because teachers cannot open the
School Construction Authority (SCA), which reported the windows were a
“critical repair” is in charge of the process.
read the article, called the principal, visited the school and began her
crusade. She is determined to get the windows fixed without delay —
this summer. From our office, she placed a follow-up call to the
executive director of the SCA — he wasn’t in.
after our meeting headed to District 29 to visit some school
construction sites and expand her knowledge base. Although she wasn’t
declaring war yet, it seemed pretty clear that our new Public Advocate
has set her sight on the SCA. She is gathering information and we
can’t wait for the next shoe to drop.
the past, all of our encounters with the SCA have been negative. You
remember the Chancellor’s announcement last year of
$2.8 billion of cost overruns — yes billions — of projects
under School Construction Authority supervision. And friends, these guys
are still in business handling our money and our schools.
don’t be gentle.
looked up the SCA on their website. Their mission statement read: The
NYC School Construction Authority (SCA) will construct the best
educational facilities possible for the children of the city of New York
by consistently maintaining the highest standards of safety, quality and
performance of each SCA employee, consultant, contractor and
sub-contractor. We will design and construct durable, functional and
attractive new school buildings and additions to existing school
facilities safely, on schedule, and within budget. We will modernize and
repair existing school facilities with equal commitment. The SCA will
strive to become the premier public construction agency in the nation.
fairly large web site further explains their mission to encourage the
participation of minority, women-owned and locally based enterprises.
couldn’t find the web page or section that addressed cost
effectiveness or speed of construction. Perhaps they are not high on the
Although Betsy and I didn’t review her entire agenda, we
did share thoughts about the SCA, the Board of Ed. and the failures of
our system of City government. She is acutely aware and committed to
1990 Charter revision established the Independent Budget Office (IBO) to
provide non-partisan budgetary, economic, and policy analysis for the
residents of New York City and their elected officials, and to increase
New Yorkers’ understanding of and participation in the budget process.
February of this year, the IBO issued a report titled: “School
Construction Costs Soar More Than 70 Percent Since 1999.”
staggering report presented numbers revealing the utter incompetence of
the SCA. It compared the New School Project Cost of New York City to the
cost in New York State (including the City) and New Jersey. Although NYC
schools are generally larger and therefore should produce economies of
scale bringing down costs,
the numbers were staggering.
Construction Cost Comparison
Median Cost per seat
Median cost per square
billions in cost overruns and these cost numbers alone are, to this
writer, enough for total indictment of the SCA.
the bums out!
the present watch is not entirely responsible, but when we have such
complete and utter failure, it is time to throw out the entire system.
the Mayor, Chancellor or me to appoint someone to replace the SCA until
a new and more accountable system is assured.
SCA, by the way, according to Gottbaum, has not cut a single person from
their staff in spite of the severe budgetary cutbacks it has received
from the City. If it has substantially fewer bucks to spend on school
construction and repair, why does it need the same size staff and
doesn’t that leave fewer bucks for the schools?
if that’s not enough, a report last month of a commission appointed by
Chancellor Harold Levy found that the city could save 25 percent to 35
percent by scrapping outdated guidelines and spending money more
carefully. It found that it costs $425 to $450 per square foot to build
a new school — far more than the $300 to $325 per square foot it takes
to put up office towers, luxury condos and hospitals. It pointed the
finger at both the Board of Education and the School Construction
Authority. The city could
build schools at those lower rates, in part, by making bureaucrats more
accountable for reining-in spending, the report said.
shared with you, my readers and friends, nothing new. I’ve uncovered
no great news scoop. The saddest commentary about the whole situation is
that everyone knows that the present system of school construction has
failed. The Chancellor, the Board of Education and mostly the SCA have
failed our City and kids.
knows that our schools are way overcrowded — and Queens bears the
brunt of the seat shortage and yet incompetence rules the day.
SCA’s track record is one of complete and total failure. This writer
needs no more information.
time for change. No, it was time for change years ago. Perhaps Gotbaum
will be able to move the system to fix one or maybe several school
problems. But it will take more than our crusading Public Advocate to
change the system. And sadly around here, change comes slowly . . .very
Public Advocate is out to fix the system, the Chancellor has his
commission’s report, the Mayor wants to control the schools, the IBO
report shouts failure, the State legislature is negotiating governance
change. But sadly, P.S. 214’s windows are nailed shut and it’s going
to get awfully hot while the politicians continue to play.
News - Bad News
My Mother-In-Law Is Back From Florida
it’s not just another mother-in-law joke. It’s a story about
Queens’ residual reaction to the terrorism of September 11.
mother-in-law, a Queens resident for the past half century, now spends
half her time in her Florida condo and half in North Shore towers. Her
schedule is typical of many Queens snowbirds seeking refuge from the New
York cold. But when New York turns warm, they’re baaaack!
so it was this weekend past. Phyllis returned from early bird specials
to spend weekends eating out with us. Now, I wouldn’t even dream of
implying that it is some kind of hardship for me. My mother-in-law is
wonderful . . . and my wife and mother-in-law both read the paper.
she returned Saturday and Lil and Allison picked her up at LaGuardia.
Her car comes several days later so she can torture me extra until it
arrives. So, Saturday evening, I drive over to North Shore Towers to
pick Lil, Allison and Phyllis up for dinner. . . and lo and behold they
are checking car trunks at the gate.
remember following September 11, when North Shore Towers started
checking car trunks to make their residents feel better. Maybe it was
the word Towers, maybe it was a budget surplus, but they immediately —
post 9-11 — began a trunk security inspection for every visiting
it still goes on. Eight months after the terrorist attacks, the folks at
North Shore Towers are keeping their three lovely buildings safe from
if Phyllis didn’t come back from Florida, I never would have had these
275 words to fill the column.
cloud has a silver lining.
Column contributor: Angela Montefinise
by Dom Nunziato