To understand what the upcoming school year will bring, one needs to take a brief history lesson about 2013-14 regarding the Common Core learning standards and tests that are associated with them.
Teachers and students marched on Albany to voice their displeasure, and the head of the state's major teachers union was ousted — in part over the tests. State Education Commissioner John King was pilloried by audience members at public hearings, and later in the year lawmakers basically scared off a Bill Gates-backed effort to use Big Data techniques in tracking students' progress, citing concerns about privacy.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo weighed in, saying in one commercial that the testing "creates anxiety and is unfair."
The governor also appointed a panel to investigate the Common Core/testing mess.
Parents were unhappy, too. A Times Union/Siena College poll earlier this summer revealed that upstate residents by a six-to-one margin believed that Common Core and the testing regimen have been rushed, even though it started in 2010.
"Over the last year, year-and-a-half, the political temperature through (school) districts, it's been very hot," Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch conceded during a recent phone conference. "We have anxiety from teachers and school leaders and superintendents and that all trickles down."
As a result, this year will bring a pause — not in the Common Core or exams, but in the consequences of test results.
Teachers now have a two-year reprieve from possible firings due to their students' low test scores, and high school students have until 2022 before the passing score for mandatory Regents exams goes to 75.
So not until this year's fifth-graders graduate from high school will the full testing program, aligned with Common Core, be in place.
"There is this breathing room," said David Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association.
"The big difference you'll see is more of a comfort level with the teachers," said Rose Barra, academic administrator for elementary math and science at the Shenendehowa school district.
"We're through the compliance stage and we're digging deep into what works," said Lori Caplan, superintendent at the Watervliet district, which like Shenendehowa has been recognized by the state for successfully starting Common Core. This year, Caplan added, will be one of fine-tuning the approach to Common Core. Up until now, there has been a rush to get up and running, Caplan said, saying it was "like building the plane while it was in the air."
Common Core is a set of English and math standards that aims to increase U.S. educational competitiveness, which has fallen behind many Asian and European countries. The idea is that students should be ready for a skilled job or for college level work when they graduate high school. It's also a reaction to long-standing complaints by colleges that they spend too much time teaching their incoming students skills they should have acquired in high school.
Common Core is not a specific curriculum, nor is it mandated by the federal government.
But more than 40 states have adopted the idea as way to improve their schools.
The tests students take are not explicitly a part of Common Core. But in order to get federal grants under the White House's Race to the Top program, which started a few years ago, states must agree to regular teacher evaluations. Those tests are part of the evaluation and they are based on Common Core standards.
"The American education system tends to teach a broad amount of material but not very deeply. Common Core attempts to reverse that by teaching less material in much more in depth," explained Kelly DeFeciani, Shenendehowa school district spokeswoman.
For math, the standards aim to instill more understanding and problem-solving skills, with less memorizing of formulas.
In English, there's a renewed emphasis on comprehension, vocabulary and careful reading, looking for nuances and the information that is contained in a piece of writing.
There's a bit less literature and more nonfiction reading. Rather than asking a student how he or she feels about a written passage, teachers now want to know what the student has learned from a story or article.
Speaking and listening skills are important, too.
A basic math lesson on fractions and division, for instance, might call for a drawing of a pizza in which kids have to figure out how many slices they should cut for their classmate — compared to simply putting numbers on a blackboard.
In teaching right-angled triangles, a teacher might go outside and put a tape on the shadow cast by the school building at certain times of day, said Bob Mackey, superintendent at the Unadilla Valley school district. His school system was recognized for early Common Core success.
To Mackey, Common Core means using vivid real-life examples to drive home a concept.
When he was a social studies teacher, Mackey would sometimes bury an old typewriter ribbon and a new (at the time) cartridge in the sand at his school's long jump pit. Then he would have his students act like archaeologists and infer what the two items said about the times in which they were made.
That may seem like common sense, interesting teaching but there's another reason that his school has done well with Common Core.
They started making changes as soon as the program started back in 2010.
Lots of schools, though, were slower to adjust. Moreover, in 2010, many were preoccupied with financial issues stemming from budget cuts that came in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. "We were cutting at a time when we supposed to be implementing something new," Laura Sakala, a Galway school board member, said of the situation.
Whether Common Core continues to be a political lightning rod remains to be seen. Several politicians, including GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino, are running on a Stop Common Core ballot line. And Zephyr Teachout, who is running against Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, believes Common Core has led to too much teaching to the test.
Whether the opposition stays in place after November isn't yet known.
In the meantime, teachers and administrators will plug ahead. Administrators also realize that teaching methods, testing schedules and other standards have been changing for years. The 1990s brought the standards movement in New York in which students were supposed to pass Regents tests to graduate. The federal No Child Left Behind law required year-to-year progress on test scores. For educators like Caplan, the best approach is to simply push ahead.
"My message (to staff) last year, and really it's going to be the same this year, is 'just teach,' " Caplan said.
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The state is investigating equine fatalities during the Saratoga Race Course meet this year — 11 thoroughbred deaths compared with eight last year, the Gaming Commission said Friday.
In a statement prompted by the cluster of breakdowns of horses preparing or racing, the commission said it is examining each case while developing strategies aimed at curbing the tragedies.
"Although New York state has made significant progress in reducing injuries and preventing the inappropriate use of medication in racehorses, the job of equine safety is never done," said Medical Director Scott E. Palmer. "A thorough investigation of all of the racing fatalities during the 2014 Saratoga meet is being conducted."
After eight equine fatalities during the 2013 Saratoga meet, five in racing and three in training, the number rose this year to 11, six while racing and five in training (including one horse prepping for Saratoga at the Belmont track in Nassau County).
The breakdowns occurred among 2,659 starts through Aug. 24, the day after the Travers Stakes when a horse named Ludicrous was euthanized after injuring its leg.
The deaths occur as the racing industry nationwide has been on heightened alert about such breakdowns and concerns about medicating animals in the sport. The concerns became acute in New York after 21 horses broke down at the Aqueduct meet in Queens in 2012.
The Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont tracks are operated by New York Racing Association. On Friday, spokesman John Durso said NYRA takes "the health and well-being of its equine athletes very seriously. The safety of our thoroughbreds will always be a top priority for the New York Racing Association. We will continue to work closely with the New York state Gaming Commission to promote the safety, integrity and transparency of our racing."
Of the 11 deaths this summer at Saratoga, two at racing events and three in training involved musculoskeletal fractures of a lower limb, two were cervical fractures, one was a lumbar spinal injury and three were episodes of sudden death.
In the cases of cervical fracture, one involved a horse in a steeplechase race, and the other a horse that collapsed and broke its neck while walking back from the track after being scratched from a race.
The lumbar spinal injury happened to a training horse that ran loose on the track and struck a rail.
In the three episodes of sudden death: M B and Tee collapsed right after a race; Regretless collapsed in a race; Sir William Bruce collapsed in front of the grandstand immediately after a race.
Palmer said all the incidents are being investigated but suggested that tracking down the root causes may be challenging, given that several of the deaths could not be prevented with techniques developed to tackle musculoskeletal fractures.
He said steps under consideration or implementation include designing new entry and exit ramps at the gap on the backstretch of the racetrack that will improve the ability of outriders and horsemen to catch loose horses and minimize the chance for injury of horses leaving the track without a rider. He called for modifications to fencing that controls access from the paddock to the racetrack to minimize the chance of injury.
The state is setting up a new investigative system to measure cardiac enzymes associated with heart muscle damage. This protocol, created with Katie Kelly, a Cornell University veterinary cardiologist, will include electron microscopy of the pacemakers and transmission pathways in the heart.
Another tool being developed, Palmer said, would help veterinarians detect cardiac arrhythmias on the track at the time of a horse collapse.
Drug testing protocols are already in place to detect use of drugs that might induce cardiac arrhythmias.
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The Sept. 11 memorial plaza will be open on the night of the attacks' anniversary this year, the first time the public will be able to visit ground zero on the commemoration date.
The plaza will be closed to the public during the remembrance ceremony and much of the rest of the day, but it will open from 6 p.m. to midnight for those who want to pay respects and view the twin beams called the Tribute in Light from an especially "meaningful vantage point," memorial President Joe Daniels said in an email Thursday to victims' families.
A symbolic shift for a site that was inaccessible to the public for years after the attacks, the plan reflects its increasing openness as more gets rebuilt.
The memorial plaza, with its massive reflecting pools etched with the names of the dead, opened in 2011. But to control crowds amid construction on the World Trade Center property, tickets and security screening were required until this spring. Since the underground museum opened in May, open access has been allowed during days and evenings at the plaza, which joins the streetscape of lower Manhattan even as it serves as a place of remembrance protected by police and security guards. Museum officials said security measures would be in place for the public hours Sept. 11.
State Police provided air transport from Virginia to Albany for the family of an injured Albany County firefighter after a call from his boss, Homeland Security Commissioner Jerome Hauer, two weeks ago, according to State Police officials.
The extraordinary pickup by a state air crew allowed the wife and two teenaged children of volunteer firefighter Jason Wheatley, 45, of Latham, to get to his bedside after he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Wheatley, a 29-year veteran of the Verdoy Fire Department, joined the Department of Homeland Security and Office of Emergency Services in February as a communications specialist, working in the bunker of Building 22 at the Harriman State Office Campus.
The injury happened at the Latham station when he was responding to a fire call, State Police said. Wheatley sustained a head injury at the station around 7:40 a.m. on Aug. 16.
Later that Saturday, Hauer called Superintendent Joseph D'Amico to notify State Police of the incident. Someone then asked D'Amico to fly Wheatley's family up from Virginia, said Darcy Wells, a State Police spokeswoman.
Wheatley remains hospitalized at Albany Medical Center Hospital, said Greg Serio, a family spokesman and former Verdoy fire chief who served with Wheatley.
"While his condition has stabilized, he and his family foresee a prolonged period of recovery," Serio said, declining to offer specifics of the injury. "The continuing support of the community, which Chief Wheatley has selflessly served for 29 years, is greatly appreciated."
Two teens — a boy and a girl -— and their mother, Karin Wheatley, arrived at the hospital the same day as the injury occurred thanks to the state flight, Wells said. She said D'Amico's decision to use state aircraft for the family of a public servant was not unprecedented.
She said D'Amico arranged a State Police plane to pick up children of New York City Police Officer Peter Figoski after he was shot in New York City in 2011 when responding to a robbery. Figoski, 47, a 22-year veteran of the NYPD, died.
"In this case, it was a volunteer fireman who suffered traumatic brain injury," Wells said. "We were asked to bring his wife and two small children in from Virginia. Doctors said it could go either way. It was an emergency situation." She said State Police had pilots on duty and available aircraft.
Wells said Wheatley's family was given the benefit of a state flight because he is a first responder who risked his life for the community.
"We did this, to be clear, because he was on duty as a volunteer firefighter in Colonie. These are police officers and firefighters who sacrifice their lives every day and we believe they deserve this common courtesy," Wells said. She said each situation is evaluated. She said Gov. Andrew Cuomo was not involved in the decision.
"At the time it was life and death," Wells said. "If this same thing happened in Jamestown, we would have done the same."
Wheatley, a former chief of the volunteer force, began serving the fire department as a teenager. He has also worked in the state Senate and for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
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New York State United Teachers is seeking to intervene in an anti-tenure lawsuit filed against the state.
In papers filed earlier in the week the teachers union contends that the legal action spearheaded by former CNN anchorwoman-turned-activist Campbell Brown would "eviscerate" teacher protections and turn back the clock on a system that has evolved over the last 100 years.
"Tenure is a safeguard that ensures good teachers can speak up for what their students need," NYSUT President Karen Magee said in a statement released Friday.
"Because of tenure, teachers can and do speak out against over-testing, outdated textbooks and cuts to academic programs. Teachers can — and do — join parents in advocating for students without the fear they can be unfairly fired for doing so," Magee said.
Brown's organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, filed a suit on behalf of a group of seven families challenging New York's tenure system, which they say provides jobs for life.
The suit, Wright vs. New York State, was filed in state Supreme Court in Albany.
It contends that the seniority-based system in which junior teachers are laid off first in times of financial distress, the lengthy due process given teachers and the three-year probationary period all conspire to protect sub-par educators, which in turn hurts students.
NYSUT's filing names seven tenured public school teachers including Troy teachers union official Seth Cohen. The filing says that the state Legislature over the years has created and refined tenure laws. It also contends that tenure protects teachers from "arbitrary dismissal."
Three of the teachers in the filing have been "Teachers of the Year.''
Brown's organization in June won a similar suit contesting tenure in California. But that's being appealed. Observers note that New York laws differ from California's.
For instance, where tenure in New York can't be granted until three years, the period is 18 months in California.
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If you were driving near Route 23 outside of Catskill recently you might have noticed something odd near a bridge maintenance site — a mechanized flag person.
Also know as a remote control flagger, the device could be considered a robotic flag man or flag woman.
The idea is to free up that worker to spend his or her time repairing potholes or helping put down new asphalt rather than standing out in the sun or rain all day, stopping cars and then waving them on.
The state Department of Transportation has 10 of the wheeled devices with most being deployed in the Southern Tier. In Region 1, which includes the Capital Region and runs up into Essex and Warren County as well as Greene County, they've had one for about seven years, agency spokesman Beau Duffy said in an e-mail.
They were also using one recently near the Schoharie/Albany county line.
The devices are only supposed to be used where there aren't side roads and little pedestrian traffic and where the operator, who uses a remote control device, has a clear view of traffic coming from both sides.
In addition to freeing up workers, the machines also allow the operators to say out of the line of traffic, which can be a danger for flag people.
Similar machines have actually been around for decades. Newspaper accounts from the late 1960s referenced a mannequin with a constantly moving arm to help slow traffic and such objects are popular in Japan, according to several reports.
In 1999 the Ohio Department of Transportation studied the machines' value and found that the approximately $10,000 devices were easy to set up, cost less per-hour than a human — $18.57 compared to $24.07.
Road workers even named the robots — Sylvia and Mildred — but the report doesn't say why they chose those names.
Ohio surveyors even asked motorists what they thought of the machines. Some said they liked the idea since they allowing workers to do more important jobs but others said they worried the machines could mean fewer jobs.
Unions don't appear overly concerned, though.
Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association noted that a person is still required to set the devices up and run them. He stressed that flaggers, real or mechanical, have an important role when it comes to safety.
"People tend to think of the flaggers as someone standing out there, getting in the way but, in fact, it's a very important job," he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, his signature proposal suddenly taking unexpected criticism from an ally, strongly defended the city's readiness to launch its massive pre-kindergarten program and stressed the unprecedented speed of expansion has not compromised safety.
De Blasio announced Thursday that 50,000 students have enrolled to begin pre-K for the first day of school on Sept. 4, just 3,000 shy of maximum capacity. But he quickly pivoted from leading the cheers to providing a vigorous rebuttal to the scathing report issued the day before by Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Sparking a back-and-forth rarely seen, Stringer said that the Department of Education had not provided more than 70 percent of the city's contracts with pre-K providers to his office, preventing his staff from doing what he said are crucial safety checks.
De Blasio said he didn't know what to make of that. "If the question is health and safety," he said, "I think it's quite evident we're focused and we've got a lot of serious professionals on it."
He added curtly: "I don't know why any public official would want to leave parents with a misimpression that there's a danger when there isn't any."
De Blasio said city agencies such as the Department of Health and the Administration for Children's Services, were thoroughly vetting classrooms and pre-K staff. All pre-K classrooms will open Sept. 4 even if contracts haven't been submitted to the comptroller.
Lennon's killer expresses remorse but points to elaborate plans he made
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign promised to pay for his excursion to Israel this month.
But the well-stocked re-election fund won't cover the thousands of dollars associated with the State Police detail that provided round-the-clock security for the candidate.
Darcy Wells, a spokeswoman for the State Police, said her agency's budget is picking up the cost of the governor's "24/7" security team. She would not disclose how many officers were on the detail in Israel, but confirmed some went. She said the state funds will pay for their airfare, hotels, meals and other expenses from the assignment abroad.
Campaign spokesman Peter Kauffmann would not reveal what the campaign bills for the governor and four Executive Chamber staffers who went on the two-day trip even though the expenses will likely appear in the pre-primary report due Friday to the state Board of Elections.
Before the delegation took off from John F. Kennedy Airport Aug. 12 bound for Tel Aviv, Cuomo's campaign issued a statement: "The trip to Israel is an official government trip; however, to spare any expense to taxpayers the campaign will be covering the cost for the governor and his staff." It is unclear if the governor's campaign will pay for vehicles hired for the trip.
Kauffmann said he could not even offer estimates.
People familiar with New York gubernatorial trips say it is likely that five State Police officers accompanied the governor, and perhaps more. One probably left a day early to run through the itinerary and speak with Israeli security personnel, these people said. The governor's staff told reporters proposing to participate in the trip to anticipate $2,000 fares on El Al, the airline that the campaign directed journalists to use, plus $360 for one night's stay at the at the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem. Ground transportation for journalists was to cost about $180 to join the motorcade of Cuomo and Senate and Assembly officials.
An El Al agent would not disclose the cost of fares for the officials who traveled on the governor's flight or state costs of flights during that period.
If they flew economy, the estimated cost for the State Police to be part of the trip would be appear to be about $13,000 if five officers were assigned, including meals. If any flew business class or first class, the price would be many times greater.
Cuomo's campaign fund held $32.5 million in cash through mid-July, according to its last report to the Board of Elections. Since then, the campaign has incurred legal costs in its failed effort to remove Zephyr Teachout from the Democratic primary ballot.
The governor's entourage in Israel included Communications Director Melissa DeRosa, Press Secretary Matt Wing, Director of Global New York Aaron Kaplowitz and Special Assistant for Jewish Affairs David Lobl. In the unusual out-of-country trip for the governor, Cuomo was joined by the leaders of the Legislature, who reportedly used their own campaign funds to pay for their costs. Cuomo met Israeli military and political officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and toured one site with former Israeli President Shimon Peres.
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The accidental shooting death of a firing-range instructor by a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi has set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.
Instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was standing next to the girl Monday at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Ariz., when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head.
Prosecutors say they will not file charges.
Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, a group seeking to reduce gun violence, said that it was reckless to let the girl handle such a powerful weapon and that tighter regulations regarding children and guns are needed.
"We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park," Hills said. Referring to the girl's parents, Hills said: "I just don't see any reason in the world why you would allow a 9-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi."
Sam Scarmardo, who runs the range, said Wednesday parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording.
Investigators released 27 seconds of the footage showing the girl from behind as she fires at a black-silhouette target. The footage, which does not show the instructor actually being shot, helped feed the furor on social media and beyond.
"I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that Charlie was killed in the incident," Scarmardo said. He said he doesn't know what went wrong, pointing out that Vacca was an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jace Zack, of the Mohave County Attorney's Office, said the instructor was probably the most criminally negligent person involved for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training.
Suspect wounded in shootout with marshals
NEW YORK — An armed fugitive wanted for nearly two decades on drug charges in the South was wounded during a shootout with deputy U.S. marshals who tracked him down in New York City, federal authorities said Wednesday.
It was the second time in less than a month that a hunt for a fugitive ended in gunfire in the city. On July 28, a California sex-assault suspect was killed in a shootout with authorities in Greenwich Village.
The latest shooting occurred when a team of deputy marshals and New York Police Department officers tried to arrest Oswald Lewis at about 11 p.m. Tuesday at an apartment in a Queens neighborhood near John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Lewis, armed with two semiautomatic handguns and wearing a bulletproof vest, fired several rounds at the officers moments after they entered the apartment, authorities said. The team returned fire, hitting Lewis in the arm before he surrendered, authorities said.
Lewis, 44, was wanted on federal and state cocaine trafficking charges in Virginia from the 1990s, authorities said. The Guyana native allegedly used a false name to evade authorities after his last arrest in North Carolina in 1995, they said.
— Associated Press
Student found dead in lake on campus
PAUL SMITHS — State Police say 19-year-old student found dead near a lakeshore on an Adirondack college campus had a seizure that led to his drowning.
An autopsy Wednesday determined that Nicolas Pendl died of accidental drowning due to a pre-existing seizure disorder.
His body was found on the shoreline of Lower St. Regis Lake around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Paul Smith's College in Franklin County. Troopers say he was face-down in the water a short distance behind a dormitory. Pendl was from the town of Allegany in Cattaraugus County.
— Associated Press
Gov. Andrew Cuomo says regulators will investigate what caused Time Warner Cable's nationwide Internet outage as the state reviews the company's merger with Comcast Corp.
Cuomo says Wednesday that dependable Internet service is "vital" and that providers have a responsibility to deliver reliable service. He says he has directed the state's Department of Public Service to review the outage as part of its examination of the merger.
New York City-based Time Warner Cable said Wednesday that service was largely restored after a problem during routine maintenance caused a nationwide outage of its Internet service for hours.
The company said it is still investigating the cause of the problem, which occurred with its Internet backbone — the paths that local or regional networks connect to in order to carry data long distances.
The problem affected all of Time Warner Cable's markets and started at 4:30 a.m. Eastern, sparking widespread complaints on social networks. Service was largely restored by 6 a.m. The company is working to bring all customers back online.
Time Warner Cable, which is in the process of being bought by rival Comcast Corp. for $45 billion, has about 11.4 million high-speed data subscribers in 29 states. The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the deal.
The New York State Department of Public Service will investigate the outage as part of its review of Comcast's proposed merger with New York-based Time Warner Cable, said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a Wednesday statement.
There are major outages of at least one telecom provider every year, although typically they aren't national, said Tim Farrar, an analyst at TMF Associates.
"AT&T had a major outage back in April, Comcast had one last October. Verizon Wireless had several national outages on its 4G network back in 2012," he said. "Usually it is related to bugs in new technology, and occasionally to routine maintenance where someone did something wrong."
Separately, on Tuesday, the FCC said Time Warner Cable would pay $1.1 million to resolve outage reporting violations. The FCC found that Time Warner Cable did not report disruptions in service to its networks to the FCC in a timely manner. In addition to the payment, the company is submitting a three-year plan to make sure it will comply with the reporting rules.
Time Warner Cable shares rose 64 cents to $147.23 during midday trading.
Employees at state agencies are headed for another year of earning record overtime pay, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said.
They are also working more hours to earn the money.
The debate surrounding overtime continues, with unions saying they are understaffed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo pointing to savings from downsizing state government during the past few years.
State agencies have spent more than $316 million on overtime so far this year, which is $22 million more than was spent in the same period in 2013, DiNapoli said Tuesday.
State workers put in more than 7.8 million overtime hours, up 7.6 percent for the same period in 2013.
If the pace continues, overtime expenditures could exceed $640 million this year, compared with the 2013 record of $611 million.
DiNapoli noted the increase could partially reflect pay raises, which also drive up costs.
Members of the Civil Service Employees Association and Public Employees Federation got 2 percent increases last spring — the first since they settled their contracts in 2011.
Correction officers also got 2 percent raises. The prison guards received the largest chunk of overtime since January, with nearly $80 million, up $7 million for the same period.
They logged approximately 1.5 million hours since January, a nearly 9 percent increase.
All told, prisons as well as psychiatric hospitals and residential centers for disabled people took up nearly 63 percent of overtime. Those operations require thousands of staffers, including guards, aides and health care workers, to run their facilities 24/7.
Also jumping for the second year in a row was the state Department of Taxation and Finance, which saw a $2.5 million or 125 percent increase from January to June.
Taxation and Finance also saw a big jump in overtime in 2013 because of problems with a contractor that handled paper returns, New York Industries for the Disabled, which partnered with a Texas firm, SourceHOV.
Department spokesman Geoffrey Gloak said that as a result of those "significant'' delays last year, the agency has gone back to processing returns in-house.
But changing back has also led to overtime.
"The move required overtime this year to get this operation up and running, and as a result paper refunds were issued faster this year than in the previous two," Gloak said. "While the outside contractor has processed some paper returns for the state this year, its services will not be utilized next tax season."
DiNapoli urged state agencies to examine their staffing practices in order to limit overtime, which pays time-and-a-half and in some instances can boost pension costs down the road.
"Our state agencies need to examine their practices, get to the root of what is driving high overtime and better manage these costs," DiNapoli stated.
Union members say they are feeling the strain. While some workers may welcome the extra money, too much mandated overtime takes its toll.
"A little bit of overtime is good, but the way the state does it it's counterproductive," said CSEA spokesman Stephen Madarasz.
He added that the state would rather pay overtime than hire more employees.
Hiring more people would raise the overall cost because of fringe benefits such as pension and health care costs.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said more hiring would simply expand the state bureaucracy.
"This year, we are spending $588 million less in personnel costs — including overtime — than the last year of the previous administration and all state agencies are within their current budget, which has remained flat for the past three years," Azzopardi said in an email.
"Overtime is used carefully and only when needed. The alternative would be a larger, more expensive, state bureaucracy that New York taxpayers can no longer afford."
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Army Sgt. Henry Johnson is closer to being awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recommended the African-American World War I hero from Albany for the award, according to Sen. Chuck Schumer.
A lengthy campaign to award Johnson the nation's highest military honor has been waged by relatives, black veterans, an online petition and an aggressive push by Schumer.
Final approval would be made by President Barack Obama. However, the Senate must first pass legislation allowing Johnson's case to be considered.
Current law only allows Medals of Honor to be awarded within five years of the date of the act of heroism.
Schumer said he will introduce legislation exempting Johnson's case from the limitation.
On May 15, 1918, Johnson, then a private, was serving as a sentry when he helped repel a 20-soldier German unit, despite being seriously wounded and armed only with a knife and a jammed rifle he swung as a club.
Historians have taken to referring to it as the "Battle of Henry Johnson."
He overcame discrimination and died destitute, his battlefield valor long forgotten, on July 5, 1929, at the Veterans Hospital in New Lenox, Ill. He was estranged from his family and was buried years later at Arlington National Cemetery.
Johnson previously received the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm, one of the French military's highest honors.
In 2003, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second-highest award.
Johnson was a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem.
The unit, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was one of the only black combat units in World War I and it fought with distinction under French command in an era of racial segregation in the U.S. Army.
Veterans of the 369th joined local black Army veterans in a drive to win Johnson the Medal of Honor.
The effort was led for many years by John Howe, of Albany, a black Vietnam War veteran who died in 2005.
To date, 3,487 Medals of Honor have been awarded since the Civil War, including 621 posthumously.
A New York City man who was high on marijuana and speeding at over 100 mph when he crashed his brand-new sports car into a tree on a Long Island highway, killing four of his friends, has been sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison.
Joseph Beer, now 19, apologized to the victims' families in a two-page statement he read Tuesday prior to being sentenced by Nassau County Court Judge David Sullivan. The judge rejected a defense motion to give Beer a four-year sentence as a youthful offender; he was 17 at the time of the crash.
"There isn't a day when I don't beg God for his forgiveness," Beer said as his hands trembled at the defense table describing the deaths of his friends, whom he called brothers. "I don't think I will ever be able to forgive myself."
Beer pleaded guilty in July to the top count of aggravated vehicular homicide in the fiery crash on the Southern State Parkway. He was driving faster than 100 mph, prosecutors said, when he smashed into a tree on a stretch of highway dubbed Dead Man's Curve because of a treacherous hill that leads to a sharp curve.
All four passengers — 18-year-olds Christopher Khan, Peter Kanhai and Darian Ramnarine, and 17-year-old Neal Rajapa, all of Richmond Hill, Queens, were killed instantly in the fiery crash.
The wreck at about 4 a.m. on Columbus Day in October 2012 cut the high-performance Subaru in half. Glass, debris and car parts were strewn along a wooded area near a neighborhood street, where neighbors said they were awakened by a loud explosion.
Beer was the lone survivor and had only minor injuries.
It's debate season — or make that debate challenge season.
Democratic gubernatorial challenger Zephyr Teachout has been pounding Gov. Andrew Cuomo on his apparent reluctance to commit to a debate with her before the Sept. 9 primary.
And now the GOP candidate for comptroller, Bob Antonacci, is saying he wants to debate incumbent Democrat Tom DiNapoli.
"It's important for Mr. DiNapoli and I to debate our visions for New York state," Antonacci said during a brief stop at the Capitol on Tuesday.'
"It's going to give the people of the state of New York a sharp contrast in our candidacies," said Antonacci, who is the Onondaga County comptroller as well as a lawyer and certified public accountant.
The DiNapoli campaign wasn't ruling out a debate. "We are reviewing all debate requests in accordance with the comptroller's schedule, and decision will be made at a later date," campaign spokesman Russell Murphy said in an email.
Antonacci noted that he is required to participate in a debate if asked, due to his participation in the new public financing program.
Considered something of a pilot program enacted by lawmakers and the governor last session, public financing is reserved for comptroller candidates only. It allows candidates to opt in to a 6-to-1 public financing match if they hit certain targets, including getting 2,000 donors who give between $10 and $175 and raising $200,000.
If he achieves that, Antonacci said that would generate $1.2 million in public money, which would come from the state's $13.2 billion cache of unclaimed funds.
As of the July filings, DiNapoli had $2.7 million while Antonacci reported just under $30,700.
Antonacci said he didn't know offhand how much he has now but felt confident about hitting the $200,000 needed for a match.
While he's long called for public financing, DiNapoli opted out of the match program, saying it was hastily written. Good government groups agreed,
Like other non-incumbents, Antonacci says he's running against the system in general and he believes DiNapoli should start auditing lawmakers and speak out on the Moreland Commission scandal that seems to have some lawmakers lying low during what should be the start of campaign season.
"This is where the billions are being stolen," Antonacci said, gesturing to the Capitol building behind him.
Antonacci conceded he has an uphill fight — polls show that relatively few New Yorkers even know who DiNapoli is, let alone his challenger.
Moreover among those who do know, DiNapoli leads by more than 2 to 1, according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll.
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Cuomo cuts ribbon on upstate firehouse
ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo opened a new firehouse in the Adirondacks and announced funding to repair a local scenic highway in the Lake Placid region.
The governor cut the ribbon in the Essex County hamlet of Upper Jay on Tuesday morning. Last summer, the state kicked in more than $800,000 to build a new fire station in nearby Keene to replace the facility that was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Cuomo then headed to the nearby Whiteface Veterans' Memorial Highway to receive an update on work to repair the eight-mile roadway.
The state is spending millions of dollars to improve the highway on the mountain, home to a ski resort and a popular scenic tourist destination outside Lake Placid.
— Associated Press
Subway train treated for bedbug infestation
NEW YORK — Another New York City subway train has been pulled out of service to be fumigated for bedbugs.
NBC New York reports that the N train was taken out of service Monday after a conductor reported being bitten by bedbugs in Brooklyn.
Bedbug sightings have been reported on at least five subway trains this month.
— Associated Press
Study to look at effects of eating fish from lake
SYRACUSE — New York's Health Department plans to study Burmese and Bhutanese refugees who eat a lot of fish from Onondaga Lake to determine their exposure to mercury, pesticides, PCBs and other toxins.
The study is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's part of a federal program launched in 2009 to study human exposure to toxins in the Great Lakes region.
The health department has advisories cautioning people to limit consumption of fish from Onondaga Lake.
— Associated Press
One of New York City's police unions announced its opposition to the city's bid for Brooklyn to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention, saying that crime is on the rise and criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio's public safety policies.
The Sergeants Benevolent Association, which has 13,000 members, took out a full-page ad in Tuesday's The New York Times saying that the city was "lurching backwards to the bad old days of high crime, danger-infested public spaces, and families that walk our streets worried for their safety."
"Mayor de Blasio has not earned the right to play host to such an important event," read the ad, which was an open letter from union president Edward Mullins to the Democratic National Committee.
The ad denounced de Blasio, a Democrat who took office in January, for providing "a public platform to the loudest of the city's anti-safety agitators." The line was a clear reference to the Rev. Al Sharpton, the fiery civil rights leader who was invited to speak at City Hall after a black Staten Island man was placed in a fatal chokehold by a white New York Police Department officer.
"The NYPD is understaffed, overworked and underpaid," the ad read. "Morale among police officers is low, and there are few signs that it will get better any time soon. Our Mayor cannot be a leader in the fight against crime without supporting his police force."
De Blasio dismissed the ad.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers said no to a proposal that would have permitted prison inmates to get a free college education while behind bars. But for more than two decades, New York state has been paying to show feature films to prison inmates.
This month, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli signed off on the latest contract with St. Louis-based Swank Motion Pictures for approximately $894,000. The contract through March 31, 2019 lets the prison system license feature films that can be viewed by eligible prison inmates.
The previous contract, for approximately $1 million, ran from 2009 to this year.
The renewal was free of comment by lawmakers, many of whom are busy running for re-election in their home districts.
But barely six months ago, a plan proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allocate $1 million a year to let inmates earn college degrees sparked a political firestorm.
While the idea was to reduce rates of recidivism among convicts after their release, lawmakers said they didn't want taxpayer dollars being used to educate inmates. Some said their constituents were struggling to pay tuition for their kids and they were loath to offer free schooling for prisoners.
"I understand the sentiment," Cuomo said when he dropped the proposal from the 2014-15 state budget.
"I don't agree with it, but I understand it, and I understand the appearance of it," he added.
The backlash included online petitions such as one dubbed "Hell No to Attica University'' from Hudson Valley Republican Sen. Greg Ball, and "Say 'No' to Free College for Prisoners" by fellow GOP Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo.
Grisanti and Ball did not return calls for comment on the prison movies.
The contract with Swank, which is the name of the family that started the service, is for licensing rights to show feature films in venues like prisons.
Swank also licenses films that are shown in SUNY campuses, including New Paltz and Potsdam.
State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesman Tom Mailey said in an email that the licensing costs are approximately $4.10 per inmate per year.
Eligible inmates then pay a fee on their own to watch the movies, which are shown in communal spaces.
The idea, said Mailey, is "reduce idleness and decrease the opportunities for unrest.''
"It's an accepted industry practice to fight idleness," said GOP Sen. Pat Gallivan, a former Erie County sheriff who chairs the Senate Corrections Committee. "Is that an acceptable cost to combat idleness and restlessness? I would accept that it is."
Lawmakers have likewise supported the limited use of cable TV in some prisons to help fight the boredom that prison guards say could, if ignored, lead to disruptions and violence.
Last year almost 43,000 inmates in 52 facilities viewed the movies. Film titles include "War Horse," "Sherlock Holmes," "Mission Impossible," and "The Muppets."
No "X-rated" films are allowed, and films that are shown must be approved by the superintendent of each facility.
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With no Democratic primary debate lined up, gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout and her running mate for lieutenant governor, Tim Wu, are turning their attention to Democrat Andrew Cuomo's running mate, Kathy Hochul, and their Republican opponent, Rob Astorino.
On Monday, Teachout and Wu released the first part of a series of dossiers on Hochul's record as a congresswoman and Erie County clerk in an effort to prove to Democrats why she doesn't fit with the party's values. It also was announced earlier in the day that Astorino and Teachout will debate Sept. 4 on WNYC radio's "Brian Lehrer Show."
With Cuomo and Hochul continuing to stick to the "there are no debates currently scheduled" line, Teachout and Wu, both of whom are New York City law professors, took it upon themselves to release information about Hochul's record as an elected official. The first part of their Hochul Dossier focuses on 10 stances Hochul took while a member of the House of Representatives that the Democrats say points to her alignment with Republicans. For example, they pointed to her backing of holding U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over the Fast and Furious investigation into weapons that wound up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels and repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Prevention Fund.
"Kathy Hochul's views and her votes should be considered disqualifying for someone who is seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party in this state," Wu said in a conference call with reporters.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel responded for state Democrats, saying, "I don't know where this professor was when the New York delegation was facing relentless attacks from the Tea Party in Washington, but I do know where Kathy Hochul was — standing and fighting right alongside us. New Yorkers deserve a lieutenant governor who has shown she can deliver for them, not someone just looking to fill time during his summer vacation."
Hochul represented the 26th Congressional District in western New York between June 2011 and January 2013, and while perhaps she was voting based on her constituents' views, Teachout refuted that as a defense for Hochul now trying to represent Democrats as lieutenant governor.
"The question in a Democratic primary and the question in a general election is whether the candidate represents the views and values of the state or, in this case, the Democratic values of the state," she said. "Andrew Cuomo picked her to run statewide, and in picking her to run statewide, she may have had her reasons, but that is not the question for Democratic primary voters. The question for Democratic primary voters is why did Andrew Cuomo pick someone with such a conservative voting record to run as his running mate?"
Teachout denied that focus on Hochul is because Wu has a greater chance to win his primary than Teachout does hers. She leaned on recent polling that shows that while her name recognition is dismal, enough voters may know her to get her through the primary. Last week's Quinnipiac poll showed that 15 percent of Democratic voters have an opinion of Teachout. Teachout said she expects 500,000 to 750,000 voters to come out for the primary and even the small slice of the electorate that knows her may bring enough votes for a victory.
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