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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Getting to know Chicago better with each visit: this time, zoo and lakefront

My husband and I enjoyed a whirlwind weekend earlier this month in the so-called Windy City, where it wasn’t particularly windy and where our son Joe is in a computational neuroscience graduate program at the University of Chicago. 

This time we didn’t get to the school or his neighborhood in Hyde Park, which is about eight miles south of the heart of downtown. But we did walk for miles, hoofing it from the zoo – where admission is free, imagine that – south through downtown and past the Navy Pier to our hotel in the financial district called The Loop, where elevated trains traverse.

Joe, Summer and Jim on Chicago River boat cruise
on May 11 with Navy Pier in the background.
Gorilla at the Chicago Zoo,
which has free admission.
Chicago is my kind of town: extremely walkable, with plenty to see and do, a cool mix of old and new architecture, a concentrated downtown core, lots of museums, skyscrapers that aren’t overwhelmingly imposing, and a massive lake along which people can walk, run, beach, boat or just relax. Yeah, the per capita murders are way up there, but that just means don’t go where you shouldn’t. We’ve never had a problem. Glad Joe is a direct flight away in such a great place to visit.

I always like to check out new places to eat, and enjoyed rack of lamb at The Gage near Millennium Park and lobster bisque and scallops at Devon. We lucked out with the weather, and on Saturday we checked out the farmers’ market, the zoo, and the beaches and walkways along Lake Michigan.

I call it the Wilco buildings they're on
of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album cover.
I had just finished reading “Devil in the White City,” Erik Larsen’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (and a serial killer preying on young women), which really made me appreciate architect Daniel Burnham. He was the main man behind construction of the fair and later the person responsible for, among many wonderful things, the parks and trails that let people enjoy Chicago’s miles of lakefront.

For my third consecutive year I rode along the river on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat cruise. Last May we shivered in hats and gloves. This time I ended up with a sunburned nose. Each time, though, it was a fun way to see the city’s lively riverfront and the wide variety of offices, residences and hotels, from the Wrigley Building to Trump’s tower.

My husband and I ride the El like pros now, taking the orange line to and from Midway, where our Sunday night flight was a bit delayed. We didn’t have as long a layover, however, as the Duke women’slacrosse team

We watched the young women dancing and laughing and videotaping themselves over and over, having a jolly time. We realized a few days later that they used their hours in the terminal to create an imaginative music video based on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

School budget priority: Kids or contracts?

People who serve on school boards deserve a public thank you for taking on this time-consuming, largely thankless, all-volunteer responsibility. Their enthusiasm, dedication to education and desire to make a positive difference should be encouraged.
Pride in their district, useful areas of expertise, familiarity with programs and a desire to make their schools even better are evident in virtually all the candidates’ thoughtful responses to questions in the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County’s voter guide at
What’s missing across the board is any reference to the most expensive, complicated challenge facing public schools (and governments): employee benefits.
Benefits — for staffers past and present — eat up an ever-increasing percentage of public institutions’ budgets. Yet instead of focusing on contracts, school boards and administrators poke at programs. It’s as if the terms of contracts — the major expense to districts — are untouchable, not even open for discussion.
Whether teachers and administrators deserve these benefits is not the issue. Taxpayers can’t afford to continue to carry them. Changes to the retirement system have not gone far enough.
Look at the Saratoga Springs school budget as an example. (An informative budget package can be seen in full at
Total benefits account for almost 30 percent of the district’s $116.4 million budget. The dollar amount was $27.6 million in 2011-12, increasing in successive years to $30.6 million, $34.3 million, and now, in the proposed budget, almost $34.5 million. And that’s with a reduction of more than 95 positions in the district since 2009.
The biggest part of benefits is health insurance, projected at $19.5 million, which is a reduction of more than a million dollars from the current year. That’s progress.
In contrast, retirement costs are evidence of an out-of-control trend: $6.9 million in the 2011-12 school year, $7.5 million the next year, $9 million in the school year and $10.1 million for the upcoming year. As teachers and other employees retire and live for decades, the percentage of the budget going toward nothing that has to do with teaching and programs will keep rising.
District spending in Saratoga Springs will increase 3.4 percent. About 65 percent of the revenue comes from property taxes, and that is expected to increase a bit over 2.2 percent. What does that mean to you? The district budget overview anticipates a “modest tax increase for most district residents” — actual tax base figures won’t be available to the district until the summer.
This doesn’t mean voters should reject their school budgets Tuesday.
After all, what you’re voting on is a budget in which most of the spending is locked in by employee contracts that have already been approved. Rejected budgets merely result in minor cuts to things like sports programs and other extra-curricular activities that can be as valuable to the educational experience as mandated classroom fare.
No significant budget reductions will occur until school boards in districts everywhere step up to say, “Enough.” And if contractual changes apply only to future hires, it will take decades to crawl out of the benefits budget hole.

Everyone says their priority is what’s best for the students. Contracts say otherwise.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Good lord: dispute over prayers at suburban Rochester town meeting makes it to the Supreme Court

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Good lord.
A dispute over prayers at a town meeting in a Rochester suburb made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It shouldn’t have had to go that far. If only people treated others as they’d like to be treated, as Jesus used to say.
But that’s not what happened. So the dispute went all the way to the Supremes, who this week decided 5-4 that religious prayers at the start of municipal meetings in Greece, N.Y., do not violate the First Amendment.
I’m not a lawyer, Constitutional or otherwise. But I remember as a reporter sitting in a local town hall and feeling “excluded and disrespected” — words used by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion — when Jesus Christ was invoked at the start of what was supposed to be a secular, municipal, public meeting.
And I believe today what I thought back then: Town officials should know better.
The line separating church and state is casually blurred in this Christian nation, and a quick prayer to open a meeting may seem like a small thing. But not everyone believes in God. Not everyone who believes in a God believes in Jesus.
And what is Jesus doing in a town meeting, anyway? As a Jewish woman sitting in a government meeting, the prayer stung. It reminded me that I’m a member of a religious minority and that well-meaning people are oblivious to how that might feel. But the case isn’t about feelings. It’s about the First Amendment.
Justice Kennedy wrote that the town of Greece did not violate the First Amend­ment “by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”
Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan, as reported in the New York Times, could not reconcile the town’s practices “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” Her thought was to require ‘that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”
It is common for a chaplain to bless government proceedings, from Congress on down. Politicians routinely rally listeners at the close of a speech with “God Bless America,” a mini-prayer offered without reference to any god in particular. And prayers find a place in secular arenas in time of tragedy. It seems to be human nature to appeal to a higher power for things out of our control. We need all the help we can get.
However, it shouldn’t be necessary for courts and lawmakers to get involved in how a town board opens its meetings. A perfect ceremonial opening is the Pledge of Allegiance (written in 1892, with “under God” added by Congress in 1954).
Tradition aside, there’s no reason for prayers at municipal gatherings. But town board member compelled to include a prayer should be mindful that not everyone shares the same views about religion, and citizens should not feel uncomfortable in their town hall. It’s not about faith or the First Amendment. It’s about feelings, after all.
Barbara Lombardo is executive editor of The Saratogian and The Record. Her blog is Fresh Ink.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Saratogian parking lot a money-maker for local nonprofits

The warm weather’s here, sort of, and once again The Saratogian is making its parking lot available to local nonprofits for fundraising.
Last year organizations raised more than $46,000 total by collecting fees for parking in The Saratogian’s lot off Lake Avenue. It’s a great way for a group that benefits the community to raise hundreds of dollars in a single day. And for visitors, a ten dollar contribution helps a local cause and buys you a parking space in the heart of downtown for the entire evening. All the money collected goes directly to the organization working that day.
Most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and some holidays are booked by one group or another through August, and many dates are booked through October. There are still some openings. People interested in securing a date for their nonprofit should call Rhoda Pickus at 583-8702.
The lot is private property and people parked on non-fundraising days risk being towed at their expense. Sorry, I can’t change that. But I can credit Publisher Mike O’Sullivan for creating The Saratogian Parking Lot/Community Fundraising Partnership, and I do encourage those of you enjoying downtown to support local groups on the evenings that they are charging for parking.