Author: Griffin-Nolan, Ed
Date published: May 25, 2011
Last year in her State of the City address, Mayor Stephanie Miner took a pre-emptive measure to beef up public confidence in Say Yes to Education. To my mind, Say Yes is hands down the single most important policy initiative aimed at revitalizing the city of Syracuse.
Alarmed that some colleges participating in Say Yes were restricting their offer of free tuition to families earning less than $75,000, the mayor stepped up to assure the public that the city would find the means to fulfill the Say Yes promise for all. She didn't wait to see where the money was coming from-she just promised us it would be there.
It was an important and laudable step by a mayor who recognized long ago what Say Yes has to offer. In support of that initiative, we asked our readers to contribute $10 apiece to Say Yes, and hundreds of you were more than happy to pony up. Why? Because thinking people realize that Say Yes offers this city something that no other city in the United States can claim. It is a comprehensive program to improve our schools by offering the support that students need to succeed, and promising families who send their kids to the city schools a free college education.
When I tell friends elsewhere in the country that if they come to live in Syracuse they can buy a house for $70,000 and their kids can go to college for free, their eyes cross. They think they misunderstood. Seriously, I tell them. If your kids go to the Syracuse city schools they are promised a free ride to any State University or City University of New York college, and some pretty good private schools as well. That's like winning the lottery, only better.
Then the question comes around: So how are the city schools? And that's where it gets real. No honest person can give an answer that doesn't begin with a pause, then "Well...," followed by another pause. Without going into particulars on either the negatives or the positives of our city schools, let's just cut to the chase: If we are asking families to move to the city (or stay in the city) and send their kids to the city schools, there are risks involved.
Families have choices, and many families vote with their feet once their kids reach school age (or in many cases, middle school age) and leave the city. Say Yes can reverse that migration, and in the process help Syracuse do what few, if any, Rust Belt cities have been able to do-stop losing people and start to grow again.
This will happen only if those families believe in the schools, and that brings us to the current drama at City Hall. The mayor has opted to veto a Common Council plan that would restore $2.4 million to the Syracuse School District, which is already taking a major hit in state aid this year. The councilors who proposed the increase argue that it would cost the average homeowner $48 per year, equal to a reduction in county taxes, resulting in no new net taxes. It remains to be seen whether the Council can override the mayor's veto.
While Miner may be right that the additional expenditure will not solve all of what is wrong with the city's schools, she misses the larger point. With the Say Yes initiative, we are asking people around the county, and indeed around the country, to take a leap of faith and enroll their children in our schools.
Those people have to know that in order to improve and maintain the quality of education this community will need to be willing to invest in the schools. By her veto the mayor has said that the people of Syracuse are not willing to spend $4 more per month on our schools. Bad move. Bad message.
The Common Council failed to muster the gumption to override Miner's veto, so, New Times readers, it's up to you again. The mayor says you can't afford $4 a month. That's the price of a Big Mac meal, a six-pack of Bud Light, or one of those frothy sugary things people buy instead of real coffee.
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of Say Yes to this city and this region's future. How about it? Send your check for $48 to Central New York Community Foundation, 431 E. Fayette St., Suite 100, Syracuse 13202. Put "Say Yes Syracuse" on the memo line, and your contribution will be matched dollar for dollar, thanks to the Community Foundation, SRC and the Say Yes national organization. Or do this online at www.sayyessyracuse.org/donate.
Ed Griffin-Nolan's award-winning commentary appears weekly in the Syracuse New Times.