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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Who's at the other end of that pipe?

Water: Private asset or public good?

On Tuesday, Buffalo’s Common Council approved a 10-year agreement between the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo water Board, and Veolia Water America-Northeast which pays Veolia $5.07 million annually to manage the city’s water system. The contract was previously held by American Water Systems, which took over when Mayor Anthony Masiello saw fit to privatize the function—though not the ownership—of the city’s water system. Prior to that privatization, Buffalo’s water delivery had been a function of government since 1868, when the City of Buffalo purchased the Buffalo & Black Rock Jubilee Water Works and the Buffalo Water Works Co., the two private compaines that provided service to residents. (Some argued at the time that the city paid too much—that the cost of buying the two companies’ assets exceeded the cost of building an entirely new and better sytem of intakes, pumps, filters, and pipes.) It took 132 years for control of the city’s water system to revert to a private company.

Under one of its former names, Vivendi, Veolia became one of the top 10 for-profit water companies in the world. (The structure has become somewhat labyrinthine since Vivendi changed names and Veolia spun off earlier this decade. The dissolution of Vivendi is described in a report by Public Citizen as “a maelstrom of corporate chaos.”) They were abetted in their search for public systems to privatize by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have made a policy of offering incentives and strong-arming developing countries to privatize. The results of privatization have been, at best, mixed: The company’s environmental record in the US and abroad is spotty. Throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa, governments that sold infrastructure or entered into management contracts with Vivendi complained of inadequate maintenance of infrastructure and price-gouging.

But here comes Veolia, with a contract that gives it control of intakes on the world’s greatest supply of fresh water. Only Lovejoy Councilman Rich Fontana voted against the deal, arguing that cIty government ought to manage its own water system.

Children of the revolution

Tuesday night at the Market Arcade, the New York Charter Schools Association and Buffalo ReformED sponsored a screening of The Lottery. The film—according to the New York Daily News—is “designed to knock ambivalent people off the fence when it comes to the benefits of charter schools.” It was shown in 52 cities in 24 states across the country Tuesday night, wherever the charter school debate is simmering.

In Buffalo, the email invite from Assemblyman Sam Hoyt’s office promised a “panel discussion (with a very balanced panel consisting of charter-skeptics and anti-charter teachers, as well as a charter school leader)” immediately following the film. The promise was to “create a constructive dialogue about education reform.”

Instead, here’s what it was: a lopsided “documentary” starring Eva Moskowitz (founder and CEO of Success Charter Network), Joel Klein (Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education), Corey Booker (Mayor of Newark, New Jersey), and Geoffrey Canada (president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone), among other bright lights in the charter school movement in and around New York. In a nutshell, the movie follows four families around Harlem, capturing their elation or heartbreak at the big lottery where families gather to hear whether their children will be accepted into a charter school (heaven) or cast out to a public school (hell).

The audience was receptive. Then came the balanced discussion. The panel consisted of Carrie Dzierba, head of South Buffalo Charter School; Anne Marie Tryjankowski, assistant professor and coordinator, Institute for Transformational Leadership in Education at Canisius College; Kinzer Pointer, coordinator of Parent and Community Services at Enterprise Charter School; and Geoff Schutte, English teacher at Tapestry Charter High School.

In the other corner, BPS superintendent James Williams and school board president Ralph Hernandez were apparently invited but did not attend. Fresh off his loss in the school board election where he was sponsored by national pro-charter group Education Reform Now, Pointer got a laugh by acting surprised and wondering aloud why they were not in attendance.

The moderator for all this was Robert Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation. Gioia started things off by telling everyone how the Oishei Foundation has been “supporting education reform,” and has “been a catalyst for change” in the community under his tenure. Just to translate for the uninitiated: When someone says he is a reformer, he means he’s pro-charter. When someone says he’s for change, he means he’s pro-charter. When someone says he believes in innovation, he means he’s pro-charter.

Question cards were handed out to the audience, while Gioia lobbed softball after softball in the direction of the pro-charter panel, and they passed a microphone back and forth down the line, batting answers filled with buzzwords into the crowd as their colleagues nodded in agreement.

Meanwhile, I handed my question across the aisle to Katie Campos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, who happened to be sitting next to me, and was collecting the cards and sharing their contents with a jury of cohorts. I was told one of the editors was Blythe Merrill, senior program officer at Oishei.

As the audience thinned, Gioia said it was time for him to ask his final question. After which—he magnanimously informed those in attendance—he would read one question from the audience. I waited anxiously, like a parent in that Harlem auditorium, to see if my little question would be the lucky one to be picked.

It was not picked. Instead, the panelists were asked about the issue of charters cherry-picking the best students. They all said that wasn’t the case, and the show was over.

On my little question card, I had asked how they could call this thing a forum, when the panel and the moderator all shared the same point of view, and the evening itself was being sponsored by two groups devoted to that cause as well.

In a way, Campos sort of answered my question when she said that they’d really hoped that Williams and Hernandez would have been there. And she said she’d post responses to all the question cards on the Web site over the next few days. And I’ve got to believe she’ll do it, even though it was a big stack of cards. After all, in a phone conversation earlier that day, Campos told me that she personally pays for the website. The Buffalo ReformED address, at 605 Niagara Street, is part of Gateway-Longview, and they let her have things mailed there, she said.

Hernandez claims that after doing a little research on the Buffalo ReformED Web site, both he and Williams felt the anti-public school rhetoric used there would not be in the best interest of producing an honest debate about the real issues facing Buffalo’s schools. So they decided not to attend.

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