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More Alleged Mob-Tied School Bus Union Officials Booted

Three officials with alleged mob ties got the boot today from the union representing the city’s 15,000 school bus drivers and escorts. Union delegates Paul Maddalone, his brother Nick Maddalone, and Gary Gugliaro were told they were personnae non grata by union trustee Tommy Mullins, who has been running Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transport Union since the local was exposed as a nest of mob corruption by a federal investigation.

The officials’ removal comes one month after The Voice reported that former union bigs had named the Maddalones and others of having ties to mobsters.

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All three men were closely associated with ex-local president Sal Battaglia, a Genovese crime family associate who pleaded guilty in January to federal bribery and conspiracy charges.

An attorney representing the local’s trustees said the internal probe is continuing.

“This action was taken based on published accounts including The Voice, as well as an indpedendent investigation conducted by the trustee,” said Bruce Maffeo, a former federal prosecutor brought in to help clean up the local. “We believe it was an appropriate response. The investigation is continuing and we remain prepared to take additional action.”

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Lawsuit: Columbia Expansion Poses ‘Biohazard’ Risk

The largest landowner threatened by Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion has filed a suit against the school and city, alleging that the environmental review process for the expansion was insufficient. The process may have even ignored the risk for potential biohazard threats to the West Harlem community, the plaintiff’s lawyer said.

“I think it’s selfish for Columbia, it shows a level of uncaring for the people of West Harlem” said Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, the lead petitioner in the suit, which was filed Wednesday afternoon.

At issue is the construction of a massive underground “bathtub” structure that would extend about seven stories below ground throughout the development, a planned expansion that would include a research facility that the university calls a “biosafety” center, while the plaintiff calls it a “biohazard” center . According to the plaintiffs, the placement of such a structure on a geological fault in a flood zone poses a risk to the surrounding community. But according to Columbia, the research facilities will be built above grade and pose no risk.

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“The rim of the bathtub is barely above the Hudson river, we believe it poses a risk of catastrophic failure” said Norman Siegel, Sprayregen’s lawyer. He cited global warming and its connected risks as an issue of serious concern.

“There exists a likelihood of a storm surge that would come over the bulkhead and flood the bathtub” and “hazardous materials from these facilities could be washed out into the West Harlem community” he said.

The suit challenges whether the City Planning Commission took the required “hard look” at environmental hazards for the site. The suit claims that the planning commission “provided that the engineering issues raised during the environmental review process would be resolved at some later unspecified date.”

However, “Neither the engineering consultants… nor Columbia University consultants outline in any detail what those solutions are, what the impact of carrying out those approaches might be” the suit claims in a quote from Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9.

Columbia declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said in a statement: “We are confident that the extended public land use and environmental review processes were rigorous and comprehensive. They underscored that thriving universities are essential for New York City to remain a leader in attracting the talent that pursues new knowledge and creating the good, middle-income jobs for people who seek to improve their lives here.”

A Columbia spokeswoman clarified the nature of the research facility, taking issue with the plaintiff’s use of “biohazard. ” “There are no plans to put biosafety facilities below grade,” said the spokeswoman La-Verna J. Fountain.

Sprayregen’s concerns extend beyond the bathtub to the facility itself.

“It just boggles the mind why Columbia, supposedly an altruistic institution, would but a biohazard research center in Manhattan” he said. “I question the wisdom of placing, particularly after 9/11, a biohazard facility that sticks out like a sore thumb for any potential terrorists” in the city center.

“These are bio-safety rooms” Fountain said. “These are not whole buildings, just rooms.”

No matter the result of this current suit, litigation about the Columbia expansion seems bound to continue. The suit filed yesterday is the fifth which Siegel has been involved in, and he sees the potential for at least one other suit. “If eminent domain is used, transferring private property to a private university, we will litigate that issue” he said.

The activist group Coalition to Preserve Community announced a protest for Monday at Columbia. Continued community resistance to the Manhattanville plans has been a driving force for the ongoing legal battle between landowners and the school, and both Sprayregen and Siegel cited community activists as a key factor in their decision to file suit.

“You need the community behind you on this” Siegel said. “Property owners have standing, but the community members were the heart and soul of this lawsuit.”

More from around the web:

[Mom and Pop NYC]

[NY Sun]

[Columbia Spectator]

[Crain’s New York Business]

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Hunter Students Turn Away FBI-Sponsored Corporate Meetup

The New York Post ran a little fast and loose with a story last week on the cancellation of a meeting of an FBI-affiliated business group at the Hunter College School of Social Work, and we here at Runnin’ Scared thought it would be nice to fill in the backstory.

According to the Post, the New York Metro chapter of InfraGard, a public-private venture of the FBI partnering with infrastructure businesses, canceled their meeting because of fears of public controversy resulting from planned student protests.

Scrutiny of InfraGard has heated up after the publication of an article in The Progressive claiming that members of the group had secret authorization to ‘shoot to kill’ threats “when — not if — martial law is declared.” Since then, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! has covered the group, and the FBI has been forced to issue an official public response to the magazine’s claims. The story also got coverage in a few blogs, both left and right.

The Hunter School of Social Work students organized against InfraGard after hearing about their upcoming meeting through Democracy Now!, and thought that hosting an FBI-affiliated group violated the basic principles of an education in social work.

“We felt that InfraGard was expanding government and corporate surveillance on individuals, and that was a violation of our civil liberties, and the FBI has a history of undermining social justice, which is a part of our history at the school of social work” said Lauren Mariotti, an organizer with the students objecting to the event. Despite the Post’s claims that the students were motivated by the Progressive’s (admittedly sensational) story, Mariotti said that they were driven by the FBI’s “long history of undermining social justice movements.”

InfraGard and Hunter gave conflicting stories about the reasons for the event’s cancellation, but the students seem pleased with what looks like a win for the organizers.

“Everything’s not so clear right now, all that we know is that we came together to prevent them from coming specifically to the School of Social Work. We’re happy that our democratic efforts were successful” Mariotti said.

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New DoE School Choice Rules Increase Parental Anxiety

Photo by urbanshoregirl via Flickr

The city’s long-awaited changes to the school variance procedure — for non-parents, that’s code for “who gets to pick which school their kids go to, and who has to go to whatever’s the closest” — are out, and parents are already starting to buzz about what it means for the increasingly fraught world of public school admissions. While the new system was first announced last week, two subsequent community info sessions in Manhattan and Brooklyn (the other three boroughs take their turn the next two weeks), as well as conversations with the Department of Education, have begun to fill in the details:

  • Principals will no longer have discretion to decide which kids to let in from outside their designated school zone. Instead, all parents will fill out a single form to apply to different programs, listing their five top choices.
  • Those listing a program first on their form will get first dibs, starting with kids who in a school’s designated zone, followed by those in the district, then those out of district. Only then will those who listed that school second get considered. As a result, notes InsideSchools.org, “If your zoned school has a popular pre-K program, you’ll probably want to list it first, because if you list it second, all the seats could be taken by other zoned children before you’re even considered.”
  • Siblings of pupils already at the school will get priority, but only within each grouping — so that any spots left over after taking zoned kids will go to siblings of out-of-zone students first, but if there aren’t enough left, little brother and sister are out of luck.
  • Getting a seat in a pre-K program will no longer guarantee you a slot in that school’s kindergarten. (This has never been city policy, but was de facto at many schools.) All kids will go back in the application pool for kindergarten, and start fresh with new preference forms.
  • The changes are set to go into effect for pre-K this year, and kindergarten applications for fall 2009. In announcing the new policy last week, schools chancellor Joel Klein said he hoped it would put an end to admissions processes that vary from school to school, “too often adding to the understandable anxiety of sending a child to school for the first time.”
  • If he was trying to allay parental anxiety, he doesn’t know New York City parents very well. Replacing a simple if haphazard procedure (“go talk to the principal”) with complex centralized paperwork may level the playing field, as the DoE says is the goal, but is only likely to throw parents into a tizzy of figuring out how to job the new system.
  • While the stated goal of the new rules is that “we don’t want schools to be choosing students, we want parents to be choosing schools,” as DoE spokesperson Andy Jacob puts it, the overall effect is likely to be to push kids into staying at their zoned school — especially the sibling rules, which could spook parents afraid that they’ll get one kid into an out-of-zone school, then be forced to shlep their younger kid to a different program every morning. (How this is supposed to mesh with the city’s new gifted and talented admissions policy, where eligible students will increasingly have to travel to programs elsewhere in their home district, is anyone’s guess.)
  • Likewise, forcing all parents to reapply for kindergarten may be more equitable — “if there’s a student who is attending a private pre-K program where there’s not an automatic path into a public school, it’s making sure that everyone has the same opportunity,” says Jacob — but making parents less anxious hardly seems a likely outcome.
  • Ultimately, the new variance rules reflect a tension between two city goals: The DoE wants to emphasize school choice, with a vision of parents as consumers shopping around for the best deal, but it has seen all too clearly that too much of a free market can lead to footloose parents making a mockery of the neighborhood school system.
  • “On the one hand, it’s a good thing” that the city wants to standardize policy, says Insideschools.org director Pamela Wheaton. “On the other, they say they want principals to be CEOs in charge of their own schools, but this is taking that away from them. Some principals really love having the opportunity to take kids from outside the zone — it might bring them more ethnic or economic diversity, and that’s a good thing, I think. But were people abusing that? I don’t know.”
  • The fallout from the new system is still far from clear, but if there’s one given about New York City parents, it’s that they’re endlessly resourceful — there are probably parents who are game-theory experts already hard at work somewhere figuring out what the optimal strategy is for ranking your five choices based on where you most want your kids to go and how hard it is to get in. There could also be increased demand for Individualized Education Plans, which are guaranteed to all kids with special needs, and which will allow parents to evade the new application process, at least at the pre-K level.
  • And then there’s the one playing field that the DoE can do nothing to level: Parents really desperate to get their kids into a school can always just pick up and move into the zone — if they can afford it. If you thought Park Slope was expensive now, just you wait.
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Stuyvesant, Bard Just Missed Mediocrity

Stuyvesant High School was almost given a C in the news public school grading system announced this week, according to sources.
Photo by Wallyg via flickr

By John DeSio

Were the reputations of two of the City’s top public high schools nearly destroyed by the Department of Education? According to reports making their way around top education circles in the City, yes indeed. But city Department of Education spokesman denies the charge.

On Tuesday the Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced with great fanfare the first-ever “school progress reports” for public schools. The reports measure school progress based on a variety of factors, with an especially heavy emphasis on overall student improvement. Many have already complained that the formula puts high-performing schools at a great disadvantage, since they are unlikely to see real improvement from year to year.

Stuyvesant High School, considered possibly the best public high school in the world, and Bard High School Early College, a school highly sought after by City parents, almost found out first-hand just how that lack of year-to-year improvement can damage a school within the new “progress report” system. According to multiple reports from insiders within the education community both schools were initially given a “C” grade under the new system, a mark that by no means reflects their actual academic achievement.

An aggressive reworking of the grades over the weekend changed Stuyvesant’s “C” to an “A,” said two high-level education officials. Sources even report that Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, made a personal appeal to Klein, urging him to reconsider the grade for his college’s namesake high school. The Department of Education’s website indicates that Bard High School Early College’s progress report is still “undergoing review.”

A Department of Education spokesman denied that Stuyvesant had its grades changed and said Bard was simply late in filing the necessary paperwork.

“Any suggestion that Stuyvesant or Bard were given preferential treatment is entirely mistaken,” said DOE spokesman David Cantor.” Stuyvesant never scored below an A in any version of its progress report. Anyone can look at the data online and see that it scores just where you’d think: among the very best schools in the city. Bard, like nearly two dozen other high schools, does not yet have a grade because it did not make data available in a timely way.”

Bronx City Council Member G. Oliver Koppell has already come out swinging against the Department of Education, calling for the department to withdraw and revise the progress reports for every school. “Although I believe that schools who have improved the performance of traditionally low performing students should be acknowledged, I do not believe this should be done at the expense of outstanding schools,” said Koppell. “If schools already have high student scores, it’s almost impossible for these schools to get an ‘A.’”

Koppell pointed out that several schools in his district where fewer than half of their students have passed their standardized reading and math tests were given “A’s,” while other schools where 80 percent of their students passed the same tests got lower grades.

“I believe the report cards should be revised to differentiate between schools who are doing well with struggling students and those who have high levels of student achievement, so as not to cause parents to lose confidence in neighborhood schools that have traditionally had excellent academic results,” said Koppell.

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Six Students Go On Hunger Strike at Columbia

Six Columbia University undergrads went on hunger strike Wednesday to protest the university’s expansion into Manhattanville, the lack of a resources for ethnic studies, and the administration’s response to recent hate crimes on campus.

The student won’t reveal their names but have launched a blog to publicize their cause and explain why they’ve taken such strong measures.

Part of their manifesto states:

We strike because we have inherited a world in which racist, gendered, and sexualized hierarchies dominate the way power flows. We strike because the administration consistently resists implementing structural changes that will allow us to challenge these hierarchies. We strike because the university does not recognize that the lack of space for the critical study of race through Ethnic Studies, the lack of administrative support for minority students and their concerns, the lack of engagement with the community in West Harlem, and the lack of true reform of the Core Curriculum are harmful to the intellectual life of its students. We strike because we want the administration to understand that these needs are as fundamental to students’ intellectual lives as food is to the human body.

University health officials will be checking on the hunger strikers each day, according to the Columbia Spectator. The strikers told the Spectator that they see the recent hate crimes as not isolated incidents but the byproduct of a “pervasive climate of racism and insensitivity on campus.”

The Spectator reports:

The announcement follows a string of bias incidents that have occurred on campus this semester, including the hanging of a noose on the door of a black Teacher’s College professor, the spray-painting of a swastika on a Jewish TC professor’s door, and the discovery of anti-Semitic, racist, and Islamophobic graffiti in Columbia restrooms.

“I think that the fact that all of these things happened so quickly in succession is kind of shocking to the student body at large and so it’s impossible to ignore,” Desiree Carver-Thomas, CC ’09 and a member of the coalition’s negotiation team, said. “It’s kind of forced the student body to take a long hard look at the way the University allows these things to happen.

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‘Superbug’ Hits NYU

An NYU student has been diagnosed with the kind of “superbug” staph infection that felled a Brooklyn middle-schooler last month but NYU health officials say freshman has made a full recovery and poses no threats to fellow students.

NYU officials say they thoroughly cleaned the student’s dorm, Third North Residence Hall, on Third Avenue and 10th Street, and the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, has not spread, the Washington Square News reported Monday.

Last month, Omar Rivera, a 12-year-old from Brooklyn, died after contracting MRSA. A Centers For Disease Control report issued last month said that more than 90,000 Americans contract the infection each year. A Westchester elementary school student, three students in Long Island and 10 members of an Iona College athletic team have also been recently diagnosed with the infection, Newsday reports. But the CDC report said that fatalities from the infection are not likely if the patient is otherwise healthy. The CDC published answers to frequently asked questions here.

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Another Teacher Busted for Sleeping with Students

Another day, another teacher gets caught sleeping with a student.

This time around, according to authorities, Mario Quinones, a 58-year-old teacher at Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology (“RWSSAT”) in Long Island City, slept with students, both male and female, and current and former.

Quinones cannot be prosecuted for his actions but Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard J. Condon, who conducted the probe, recommended that the social studies teacher be terminated.

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From Condon’s report:

The investigation substantiated that Quinones engaged in sexual intercourse and other sexual activities with a female RWSSAT student which continued after the girl had graduated from the school. In addition, Quinones engaged in sexual acts with a male former RWSSAT student after the boy had graduated from the school. We also found that Quinones, the girl and the boy engaged in sexual acts together.

These sexual encounters, which occurred at Quinones’s Manhattan apartment, began when the girl was 17-years-old and continued for several years after the girl had graduated from RWSSAT.

Quinones admitted to engaging in sexual acts with the girl and also to participating in sexual activity with the girl and the boy together.

The Special Commissioner has recommended that Quinones’s employment be terminated and that he be made ineligible for work in the New York City school system. Although Quinones cannot be prosecuted for the aforementioned actions, the matter has been forwarded to the Queens County District Attorney’s Office and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for their information.

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Cops Investigate Second Columbia Bias Incident

Two days after a Columbia University professor found a noose hanging from her office door, the NYPD is investigating anti-Semitic graffiti found in a bathroom stall.

From the NYPD:

ON THURSDAY 10/11/07 AT APPROX. 1130 HRS IN THE FOURTH FLOOR MEN’S BATHROOM OF 2970 BROADWAY, (LEWISOHN HALL, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY), IN THE CONFINES OF THE 26 PRECINCT, A CARICATURE OF A MALE WEARING A YARMULKE ABOVE A SWASTIKA WAS FOUND DRAWN IN BLACK INK ON A BATHROOM STALL DOOR. THE INVESTIGATION IS ONGOING BY THE HATE CRIMES TASK FORCE.

Earlier Thursday, Columbia University officials handed over surveillance tapes of the Teacher’s College building where Professor Madonna Constantine’s discovered the noose.

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Pride and Prejudice

Nationally infamous Holocaust denier Bradley R. Smith has found another Long Island newspaper willing to publish his views: the student-run Stony Brook Press.

In its Dec. 8 edition, the college paper ran a half-page advertisement in which Smith attacks the integrity of Holocaust authorities like Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. “The unspoken ethical and intellectual scandal in Holocaust Studies is that key materials used in these programs are soaked through with fraud and falsehood,” Smith writes in the ad, “led by the use of false and ignoble eyewitness testimony.”

Smith, who maintains a website (www.codoh.com) dedicated to casting doubt on the Holocaust, asks student newspapers around the country to publish his ads. In recent years they’ve been accepted by schools ranging from Brandeis and Georgetown to Notre Dame and Northwestern.

In October, Smith placed a 27-page insert in Hofstra University’s Chronicle that questioned whether millions of Jews had actually been slaughtered in Europe during World War II. Smith’s revisionist writings, which included a chapter called “Gas Chamber Skepticism,” prompted harsh criticism on the Hofstra campus. Now, they’ve also met with protest at SUNY Stony Brook.

After hearing from Jewish leaders and irate students, the Press business manager, senior Daniel Yohannes, says the paper regrets publishing the ad. Yohannes says the decision to run “Holocaust Studies: Appointment with Hate?” was made by the paper’s executive board—a group that includes both editors and advertising staff—but insists most of the blame should be his. “As business manager, I take responsibility,” he says. “I was the one who accepted the advertising.”

The Press‘ response is a far cry from the entrenched position of Hofstra Chronicle editor Shawna Van Ness, who defended Smith’s insert as an exercise of free speech and refused to apologize. It’s also a far cry from an unsigned Press editorial that accompanied the ad. “[W]e didn’t find the contents of Mr. Smith’s ad horribly offensive,” the Stony Brook editors wrote, “and we thought it might be a good opportunity to hammer home our favorite tenet: freedom of speech.”

After a campus outcry Yohannes describes as “very rapid” and “very calm,” that favorite tenet was apparently thrown out of the window. Yohannes says the paper’s staff researched Smith before accepting his ad, but not enough to discover he was anti-Semitic. Once the staff figured out he was a bigot, they no longer backed their earlier declaration of Smith’s right to express his views “in an open forum.”

“The ad appears in support of a hate group, and we do regret that,” Yohannes says. “We didn’t know who Bradley Smith is.”

Yohannes says the paper now intends to pursue a story next semester about people who front for hate groups—a strategy the paper could have pursued in the first place while still running the ad.

Smith’s ads usually appear in clusters, says Holocaust scholar Richard Levy, a professor of German history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and host of a cyber discussion group on prejudice against Jews, H-Antisemitism. Levy says that when a wave of the ads crops up, there’s little that offended readers can do except publish their own opinions, since cracking down on public funding for student papers usually just gives ammunition to hate-mongers like Smith. “He can’t be stopped,” says Levy. “When we succeed it doesn’t do us any good, and when we fail it doesn’t do us any good.