I was ambivalent about the tax increase passed by the Syracuse Common Council and then vetoed by Mayor Stephanie Miner. In a system where 75% of the school district’s funding comes from state sources, increasing the school property tax rate is an ineffective way to deal with the enormous shortfall facing the Syracuse City School District. If the Council had overridden the Mayor’s veto of the tax increase, the district estimated that it could retain just 40-50 of the 300+ staff positions that had been eliminated in the school budget. Better that than nothing I suppose.

However, I have always been upset with the school district for fanning the flames of discontent amongst parents and teachers, accusing the city of not spending enough on education. The result is a parade of people at budget hearings accusing the city of shortchanging their kids and demanding that the city raise taxes “for the children.” However, the Mayor proposed the final approved school budget drafted by the school district and SCSD with no changes. In addition, the Council added an extra $230,000 (on top of the original $1 million) to the Say Yes To Education program, in order to retain pre-K classes.

These charades about city taxes and school funding reminds me of the arguments made by conservatives against cutting the defense budget at the height of the cold war. We had to spend ever increasing funds and tolerate the mismanagement, waste and inefficiency because to spend a penny less would symbolize a retreat from our mission to defeat our enemy. In the school wars, even advocates for financial oversight and alternative spending plans are deemed to “not care about the children.”

So, who shortchanged the students, parents and staff of the SCSD? Our elected officials in Albany that have defied court orders to make up for the chronic underfunding of poor and urban school districts, as well as for their refusal to extend the surcharge on the income taxes of the wealthiest New Yorkers–the so-called millionaire’s tax. The silence of local politicians about the perfidy of our state elected officials is deafening–either because the local pols consider their Albany brethren colleagues or they are afraid of losing what meager funding the increasingly stingy Albany decides to provide to localities. Local politicians are not anti-education, they are fearful, spineless wimps in confronting state power.

But what made me angry today was Councilor Tom Seals’ characterization of the people that protested at his home and deluged him with phone calls to try and flip his vote and override the Mayor’s veto.

There is a group who likes to jump up and down, go in front of people’s houses, scare their children and everything — all for education, for the younger kids. But there is a majority of people who are sitting back, and they are watching and they are listening and they are waiting for that one person to stand up for them.

As a big fan of direct action, non-violent protest (and a community organizer spending my days helping others get their protest on!) I am amazed at the change of heart that Councilor Seals has had about protest and fighting the good fight. As the Post-Standard editorial writers mentioned in a recent piece, in 2004 a newly elected Mr. Seals went to Albany and deliberately got himself arrested–all to fight for more funding for poor urban school districts. Back then it was about justice–now it’s about the silent majority?

I’ve always been amused by the phrase ‘silent majority.” It’s first modern political usage was by Richard Nixon, citing his support for millions of god-fearing, hard-working respectable folks, rather than the presumably unemployed, pot-smoking hippies who didn’t respect traditional values and were protesting his war policies by exercising their 1st amendment rights to free speech and assembly. However, it was Gore Vidal who pointed out that the phrase had been coined by Homer, referring to the dead, the silent majority of all humanity!