BHB: You believe that you can create significant improvements in the 52nd Assembly District though efforts in Albany.
PS: I would work very energetically both on local issues and state issues. To me it’s not an either or; they both feed off each other. What I’ve done in the past on education funding is lobby as part of the Alliance for Quality Education against cuts in schools. I was part of the campaign that temporarily changed the tax structure in this state. The top 1% who make over $600,000 per year, used to pay marginal tax rates at the state income tax level that were almost double what they are today. If you restored those tax rates, that’s another 8 billion dollars in state revenue.
In addition to that there’s 7 billion [dollars] a year in state tax giveaways to developers and to special interests: that are a huge waste of money [on] hand-outs. There’s almost no conditions on them.
We need to change the funding formulas; not to cut funding for the suburban schools but to raise up funding so that schools that have great needs in districts that have a low income population can receive the kind of funding that makes for great schools.
BHB: You’re starting to sound like Doug [Biviano]!
PS: The difference between Doug and me on this issue is that I’ve lobbied on it and have actually worked on it. I was talking about this before Doug was in the race so his message has not affected anything I’ve said.
So there’s 7 billion dollars worth of tax breaks [in NYS]. The one that I’ve worked on most, besides working on the IDA [Industrial Development Authorities] issue and the Economic Development Corporation, because that’s how this money is funneled to corporations, it’s through IDAs and EDCs. The most egregious tax break, and one that I’m very familiar with because I’ve worked on closing it for the last two years, is the MSG tax break. This is the Garden’s tax break where they pay no property taxes: the home of the Knicks and the Rangers. That’s in state law, the only state law of its kind that’s written to benefit one specific company. It’s also unique in that it never expires. Among 7 billion dollars worth of tax breaks [this one] never expires! It’s a huge gift to James Dolan—$54 million a year—that the city loses in funding.
Think if we started closing those kinds of tax breaks, the kind of resources that we could put into communities like this one to provide arts and music education, bring down class sizes, build new schools in existing structures or new areas across the city.
The other thing about New York state that is a crying shame is that low-income school districts do not receive the funding they need. We have a funding formula that advantages suburban school districts relative to low-income urban school districts. We need to change the funding formulas; not to cut funding for the suburban schools but to raise up funding so that schools that have great needs in districts that have a low income population can receive the kind of funding that makes for great schools.
BHB: Hasn’t this inequity already been addressed by the NYS courts?
PS: The Campaign for Fiscal Equity sued the state and won. Rob Jackson is the guy who was the main plaintiff. The ruling from the courts was that they [NYS] need to provide funding [for] a sound basic education [as defined by] the constitution. They have not provided that funding. And the courts have continued to say “You have to provide this funding.”
Under Spitzer they did a big down payment to get there, but Paterson and Cuomo did not follow through. [NYC] is below the levels that the state’s constitution and the courts are mandating schools be funded at.
BHB: How will your efforts as an assembly member in Albany change a complex situation like this?
PS: This kind of macro level change reverberates across every district in the state. My purpose is to affect the 52nd Assembly District. [If we] put more funds into the schools here we would get better teacher training… and professional development. Those are the things we need to improve the schools….
I want to stress that I don’t view working in Albany and at the local level as an either / or proposition. I’ll bring the same level of energy and focus to local issues and as I will to Albany. I’ve worked very long hours for 20 years. I’m ready to do this.
On the local level we have overcrowding. We have very good schools in this district. To bring down class sizes and provide the services in the current structure we have to get new spaces. This isn’t just a problem in Brooklyn Heights, it’s a problem in other parts of the district as well. What we have to do is get the City to look at where can we put new schools in Brooklyn Heights. [T]he most realistic locations… are not to build new buildings but to locate in existing buildings on Court Street and on Montague Street. I would call for a feasibility study from the City to figure out where can we put a new school in Brooklyn Heights.
BHB: How do you initiate concrete change in Albany that affects the 52nd Assembly District in a timely manner?
PS: You have to organize and pull together a coalition of people, institutions and elected officials. It takes an organizer’s mentality, and that’s what I bring: the ability to put together coalitions, see tactical and strategic opportunities to make change. I’ve done that repeatedly throughout my career.
As an assembly person, I’d be in an even stronger position to put those kinds of coalitions together, [to] be able to push institutions whether it’s the School Construction Authority of the Department of Education, or other entities to actually do programs that the neighborhoods need. The [SCA] and the [DOE] will come back with “We don’t have the money.” So it takes both the macro level push and pushing locally for the district’s fair share—a more efficient and effective use of resources than [currently] exists.