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Local AFP Activist Behind Anti-School Tax Direct Mail in Clarence

A spokesman for the New York branch of the right-wing group “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP) confirms that a local AFP organizer is responsible for sending slick mailings to households in Clarence under the pseudonym “Citizens for Sustainable Schools“.  No such group exists on the New York State Board of Elections website, nor is the actual entity responsible for the mailers identified on any of its materials online, or on the mailers themselves.  The AFP is a well-known fake grassroots (astroturf) advocacy group funded by Koch Industries, which advocates for conservative policies.  It is a well-funded special-interest front group based in Northern Virginia. 

Clarence voters will go to the polls on May 21st to vote on a 9.8% school tax increase to ensure that the Clarence Schools can maintain elective courses, art, and music programs in the face of financial hardships from decreased state funding, years of small increases, and legacy costs.  The school’s superintendent produced the following video, and had the courage to put his – and the district’s – name on it. 

The vote in Clarence is critical because the proposed increase exceeds Cuomo’s property tax cap, and must be approved by a supermajority (60% of votes cast). 

Chris Trimarchi of AFP New York denied that his group had any responsibility for producing or paying for the mailers, which hit Clarence homes a few weeks ago, and again on Friday May 10th. He directed me to Lisa Thrun, whom he identified as an “activist” working in the WNY area, and gave me her number. I placed a phone call to Ms. Thrun, and will update this post when I receive a reply. 

Ms. Thrun and her husband are quite active with AFP and other local tea party organizations.  They organized an Amherst anti-Obamacare teach-in with health reform opponent Betsy McCaughey in 2011, anti-Obama phone banks for AFP in 2012, and one of her LinkedIn profiles lists her as the local “Grassroots Chair” for the Koch Brothers’ decidedly astroturf AFP.  Ms. Thrun, as local chair of the AFP, is the named plaintiff in an AFP-backed lawsuit filed against Governor Cuomo over New York’s participation in a northeastern compact to reduce greenhouse emissions. Here is the first mailer that arrived in Clarence homes: 

 

Today’s version is very senior-centric, and contains great language about “open checkbooks”. Hope those seniors don’t have grandkids who might want an education!

How did I find the AFP connection? Simple. 

The mailers sent to Clarence homes, and the associated website are completely devoid of identifying information. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” simply doesn’t exist, and the website’s Whois information is locked behind an anonymous registrant. 

Instead, I Googled the phrase “Respect the Taxpayers” and school+tax+new+york, which revealed phrases that were contained on the mailer: 

The thing is, the proposed increase is not outrageous, especially if it helps to protect the excellent quality of Clarence schools. A free and excellent public education is – or, at least, should be – every American child’s birthright. These things cost money – a good education costs money. No one doubts that an increase will be a hardship for some, but Clarence enjoys an overall property tax rate that is significantly lower than that of its Erie County neighbors, and part of the reason why Clarence has grown while other communities have not has to do with the excellence of our schools. 

If the budget doesn’t pass, it is likely that all bands and orchestras at Clarence schools will be eliminated, and all musical instrument instruction will cease. Those 13 educators will be out of work, having negative economic consequences. This includes the concert orchestra, symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, concert band, symphonic band, wind ensemble, 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Band & Orchestra will be eliminated. Without passage, all vocal music classes will be cut from the middle and high school. All that will be left is the K-8 general music class – the bare minimum the state mandates. will receive ONLY a General Music class; the basic requirements mandated by the State.

On April 2nd, the Clarence Central School District has been recognized as one of its Best Communities for Music Education. Only 307 school districts in the country received this recognition.  9 of the Top 10 Seniors are music students. If the budget passes, the increase in monthly taxes would rise by approximately $11 per $100,000 of assessed value. If you own a house worth $200,000, that’s an extra $22 – the cost of a large pizza with a couple of toppings. Even with the 9.8% increase, Clarence will have the 2nd lowest taxes in Erie County.

For what kind of America is AFP advocating if it recommends effectively ending music and art education in schools? What kind of America does AFP seek if it demands that already financially burdened schools cut – with a hacksaw – to a barebones budget? At what point do we stand up and recognize that we invest in our children, and our families and our society derive a palpable, lifelong return on that investment? 

Vote yes on May 21st at the Clarence High School gymnasium from 7am – 9pm. The quality of our kids’ education, the quality of life in the town, and the town’s desirability are at stake. 


  • Jesse Griffis

    Lame lame lame.

    * Invoking the scary spoooooooky Koch Brothers and multiple uses of dismissive “astroturf” terminology: Lame.

    * Claiming that rejecting a 10% tax increase means you think kids don’t need an education: Lame.

    * Claiming that rejecting a 10% tax increase means no kids in Clarence will ever learn about art, music or other subjects critical to the citizenry: Lame.

    * Claiming that Clarence tax rates are so low any rejection of increasing them would be crazy! Lame.

    * Alan Bedenko claims he’s different and enlightened over the rest of us rubes out here, yet sounding just like a shill for the school district… LAME.

    Clarence proposed budget is over $73 million bucks.
    Clarence school district enrollment: 4778 (http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130208/CITYANDREGION/130209200/1020)

    Simple math: $15,300 per student. Hardly Barebones. Using “barebones” to describe well over $10k per student: LAME LAME LAME.

    • ckg1

      Your entire take: TOTALLY REEKING OF LAMENESS.

    • Repeating the same word, over and over again, with no evidence or facts to support a stupid, knee-jerk Libertarian “Taxes is bad!” position: [insert adjective here]

    • The silly, repetitive overuse of “lame” notwithstanding, you clearly didn’t take a look at (or ignored) the Superintendent’s presentation. Without a tax increase as proposed, the district has a $6.5 million deficit next year. That’s a fact, not advocacy. The district also has no ability to dip into reserves next year – it’s depleted. That’s a fact, not advocacy. The school tax increases over the past few years have been kept artificially low due to the use of reserves. State aid has decreased.

      The 2013-2014 budget features a reduction of $1.8 million over the prior year, and $5.8 million across the last three. To assume or state that there’s just wild spending and going back to the taxpayer well is false and disingenuous. Over the last 3 years, 80 employees – 40 of them teachers – have been cut.

      You note per-pupil spending. It’s the 5th lowest in WNY, and the 2nd highest rate of advanced placements in WNY. It is 1st in WNY in cost-effectiveness.

      Without this increase, the curriculum would have to be reduced.

      That’s not advocacy or “shilling”. That’s simply fact. The nice thing about being a taxpayer and having the ability to vote in a referendum on a school budget is that I can make an informed choice to ensure that the schools are well-funded, so that my kids – and the other kids in my community – continue to enjoy one of the best – and most cost-effective – educations offered in WNY.

      My issue isn’t with people who disagree in an honest and transparent way. My issue is with people who are affiliated with extraordinarily well-funded astroturfing anti-school advocacy groups who fill people’s mailboxes with non-transparent lies and propaganda. My problem is that somehow our laws permit these organizations to operate without any information given to the people about how they’re funded, and that they can do so without disclosing the actual sourcing of the materials. There is no such group as the “Citizens for Sustainable Schools”. It’s made up, and it was done deliberately in an effort to cloak the real source of the information. (Here’s where we can speculate as to how hilarious it is that the AFP, of all things, feels the need to stay invisible in a town with a 2:1 Republican enrollment advantage, packed with people who likely agree with its mission. Funny that the AFP feels the need to protect its reputation, knowing that even Republican parents in the town want their kids to have an excellent, cost-effective education).

      • Alan – You’re making the mistake of trying to argue factually with people who confuse their opinions for facts.

  • A 9.8% increase is just too much –

  • If education in Clarence is truly free, a 9.8% tax increase wouldn’t be on the ballot. The perverse train of thought that equates anything provided by the government is free has led to the economic climate we suffer under and drives people and businesses out of New York.

    • You’re right. It’s not free. It costs money. And as is true with many things, you get what you pay for.

  • hwhamlin

    Sic the IRS on him.
    Only NYSUT is allowed to send out slick mailings.

  • jimd54

    As our son wended his way through an excellent local school district, eventually resulting in him getting into a top 25 college, we dutifully paid yearly tax increases. As empty nesters we are happy to continue to pay so the next next kid can have a similar opportunity. But almost 10%? Man that’s rough. Something is wrong, I wonder if an independent audit is not in order.

    • As I wrote, the increase could have been more modest had the district not dipped into the reserves the last few years.

      • jimd54

        I understand Alan and believe me I’d shell out the money too. You get one chance to get it right with your child’s education. But contrary to the rich white kid comment, there are plenty of middle class families in Clarence that will really feel this kind of increase. And if this is systemic, future increases. The fact that some dopey shadow organization brings this to the forefront should not diminish the existence of a problem.

  • Just a thought, at least at the High School level, why not increase class sizes so advanced courses or extra curricular programs aren’t gutted and taxes don’t skyrocket? When I was in college my core classes had at least 40 people in them, even at a smaller school like Canisius, and if we’re going to prepare High School students for secondary education (either traditional or vocational), why not try to actually simulate that environment in some way? It would seem to me that not getting rid of the AP/College class, music, sports or club program that motivates a kid to succeed in exchange for a higher student to teacher ratio is a fair trade.

  • DEisenbart

    Kinda hard to feel bad about some rich white kids not having orchestra classes. : Cuomos legislation is giving tax payers a chance to defend themselves. I thought this was a good thing.

    • No one’s asking for sympathy.

      I’m arguing for the school curricula to not be gutted, based on the taxes that I pay for schools that are supposed to be excellent. What good does it do anyone to make the schools worse?

      • DEisenbart

        One must question the severity of the cuts. Even afterwards, your children will still be in some really great schools as shown by the video you posted in your own article. I am sure a lot more people would move to Clarence if given the chance for their children, yet can’t afford it. Not a concern for many people in Clarence though I suppose.

        Take the moment in Alan, next time someone throws around something like “regional government” and you can’t understand why anyone would be against it, remember how you are feeling about the “fear” of the quality of life being diminished for you and your family.

      • Ellie3b

        I went to a free college prep school from gr 7-12…no sports, no orchestra, no plays, no art, 7 years Latin, and I could just about have my pick of colleges.
        I’m not suggesting we eliminate them, but they are luxuries.

      • What do you mean gutted? Lowering what each employees earns is not gutting the school district.

      • If the budget doesn’t pass, the district will have to fire another 30+ teachers, all music classes, bands, orchestras, instruction except basic state mandate will be eliminated, all AP honors courses eliminated, art programs reduced to almost nothing.

        The law prevents the school from unilaterally breaching a contract.

  • The state gave Clarence schools more money after the board set the 9.8% tax increase. You would think they would reduce the tax hike but they chose to spend more money. No respect for the taxpayer! They think if they keep it under 10% they voters won’t see how outrageous an increase this is. Anyone that doesn’t realize this has been insulated from the economic downturn that the rest of us are enduring.

    The Sloan school district saw similar cuts from the state last year and the teachers took a cut in their contract and the superintendent retired early to save money. I don’t seeany sacrifice like that here!

    Why do they cut the arts before sports programs? Aren’t the children in school for an education?

    • The state aid this year increased by $110,000. The deficit, which in past years had been plugged with rainy day funds, cannot be made up with that.

      • Yeah, pocket change, just spend it, it’s not their money!

        Arrogance.

        Vote No!

      • Who said that? The arrogance is voting to diminish the quality of the most important thing drawing new residents to the town and keeping property values up.

        Penny wise, pound foolish.

      • Well what did they do with the extra state money?

        Please answer that direct question?

      • The district has lost over $13 million in state aid over the last 4 years. So, “nothing”.

      • Buffalo News: “The district recently learned it is receiving nearly $270,000 in
        additional state aid. Those funds are expected to be directed toward
        restoring four teaching positions that were targeted for elimination.”

      • Well, there you go. Teachers.

      • Spend, spend, spend as long as we keep it under 10%!

        Vote No!

      • Are you suggesting that the district is inefficient?

      • Ellie3b

        They are probably somewhat efficient, but want to get from A to B w/ a Cadillac, instead of a Chevy

      • Touchee 🙂

      • People in the past have suggested government employees in quite a few positions are over paid when you add up the total compensation. Salary, healthcare package and pension contribution.

      • You’re talking in generalities about one of the most efficient school districts in WNY.

  • Has Clarence given away tax breaks to businesses? I’m just curious if they did. And if they did how much less in taxes did the town collect? If they didn’t how much more revenue would have been available for the school budget.

    • You realize that they’d be two completely different pots of money, right?

      • You realize two pots or not it is the total cost to live in your home/operate your business in Clarence that means anything.

    • recliner70

      Tony, If you are wondering about tax breaks, I would suggest that you look at your condominium developments in Clarence. These are not the traditional multi-story buildings that are condominiums but separate houses that receive a substantial tax break on school and I believe town taxes. These tax savings developments still get to use police, fire and school services. They just shift more of the cost to home owners and businesses who are not in these developments. There are two real winners in homes the homeowners and the developers and I would guess the legislators who take in a lot of campaign donations from the real estate industry.

  • Is there a link between spending more on education and better outcomes? Buffalo City schools spend way more per student and they graduate about 50% of kids on time. As a parent with kids in Clarence schools, I’m wondering about if there is any evidence on the ‘spend more’ side of the argument. Unless I’m wrong, Catholic schools spend less per student and have very good outcomes.

    • Clarence School district’s per pupil spending is 5th lowest in WNY. It is 6th in administrative efficiency, and 12th in teacher pay.

    • Ellie3b

      Motivated students and creative teachers make a great school…NOT Money

    • Jibreel Riley

      last I recall the Town of Clarence doesn’t have massive heavy Infrastructure as the City of Buffalo. The City of Buffalo can levy taxes in plenty of ways Clarence can’t due to the town of Clarence lack of commercial or industrial space. Last I recall, the Eastern Hills Mall is on its deathbed. Dead mall, empty storefronts and falling property values; damn Clarence is feeling like Buffalo in the 1980s.

      p.s. Catholic Schools are just as broke!

  • NY The Vampire State

    Sorry your getting your ass kicked here Alan, especially on your own page that must hurt. People are starting to figure out the the solution isn’t to write another check, especially to the government.

    Hicks said it himself, “The two major factors contributing to our deficit are health care and pensions.” This budget does absolutely NOTHING to address those issues. If teachers and especially administrators would contribute at least 25%- 50% of their healthcare, like the rest of the working world does the ship would be righted and we wouldn’t have a 10% hike.

    The board has been able to negotiate these absurd contracts with the unions and for years the state has bailed them out. Now we have The IL Duce Cuomo on TV comercials (paid for by us) pounding on his chest saying look at me “NO NEW TAXES”. Yea cause you took all the money you usually bail the schools out with to try and cover up your $17,340 debt per citizen this state has accrued. This is a Cuomo tax hike, but it goes way beyond that. Pensions are not sustainable! If this 9.8% increase goes through it will only dig us in a much deeper hole. The system needs to crash, burn and then be re-built.

    • A 9.8% increase will cause the school tax rate to rise to $15.52/$1000. That is lower than they were in 2007 ($15.86/$1000) and over a dollar per $1000 lower than they were in 2003 ($16.85/$1000). Also, in the last 4 years Clarence School District has lost over $13 million in aid.

      Pensions might not be “sustainable”, but you also can’t abrogate the law. Since you suggested changing the contract, how exactly would you propose re-opening negotiations on a contract that was executed over a year ago, and isn’t even halfway completed?

      As for “getting my ass kicked”, I don’t get my ass kicked by people who spout off, “it’s just too much”.

      I have now asked you a direct question. Answer it.

      • They reopened Sloan’s contract and the teachers voted yes.

      • Who is “they”?

      • Cheektowaga Sloan school board and the teachers union.

      • That’s nice. So, it has to be bilateral, and they have a one year-old contract subject to Taylor and Triborough.

      • Yeah why even try, just spend the taxpayers money.

      • NY The Vampire State

        Give them the ultimatum… take the new offer or take a hike.

      • You can’t tell them to “take a hike”. Do you know how the law works?

  • Ellie3b

    This is absolutely ridiculous. AFP has NOTHING to do w/ the mailers. It is a group of concerned citizens and seniors who face the possibility of losing their homes. This budget is not for “the sake of the children”. It is for the “sake of the administration and teachers” who do not want to pay more for their healthcare and pensions, and want increases in their salaries. There ARE other ways. If they gave an early incentive to 4 teachers to retire early, they could hire 10 new teachers. If teachers pay 30% toward their healthcare instead of 8%, it would take care of the problem completely.
    Alan Bedenko does not know what he’s talking about, as usual.

    • Thank you for your comment, Ellie. And for your kind final sentence. This is the same Ellie Corcoran who was drummed out of the Clarence Democratic Committee after recording radio voiceovers for tea party candidate Lenny Roberto against Brian Higgins? While we had Higgins’ chief of staff on the committee? Good to see you again.

      To your accusations: 1. How exactly is money being saved if you hire 10 teachers to replace 4 at the same cost? 2. You could make the teachers’ health contribution 50% and it still wouldn’t cover the shortfall.

      Have a great day and thanks for playing!

      • Ellie3b

        Read it again, Alan…because you’re WRONG, once again. I think you just like to get attention, good or bad….sounds to me like you have anger issues.

      • OK! Let’s read it again!

        This is absolutely ridiculous. AFP has NOTHING to do w/ the mailers. It is a group of concerned citizens and seniors who face the possibility of losing their homes.

        Wrong. This is absolutely being done in consultation and with coordination and funding from the AFP. It strains credulity to argue that a hitherto-non-existent organization would suddenly muster up enough cash to pay for two slick mailers to every mail customer in town, plus a 4-page full-color 8×10 insert in the Clarence Bee, all over an $11/mo per $100k in propert value tax hike. It strains credulity even further to suggest that a hitherto-non-existent organization was able to come up with this money without ever having a meeting or holding a fundraiser of any kind. It’s not for nothing the kid on Long Island knew to give me Thrun’s information immediately. This is outside money paying for an effort to harm my kids’ education.

        This budget is not for “the sake of the children”. It is for the “sake of the administration and teachers” who do not want to pay more for their healthcare and pensions, and want increases in their salaries.

        So, it’s all about the greedy teachers, who happen to be the (very capable) educators teaching the children. Who do these local interlopers think they are, fighting against an unflux of tens of thousands of dollars from Koch Industries’ useful idiots in Suffolk County?! Clearly, earning $50k per year to educate the next generation of Americans is all about greed! Who do these people think they are, wanting a pension and healthcare! They should get neither, like normal Americans!

        With that said, the teachers executed a negotiated contract with the district just last year. It has 2 more years on it. It’s hardly the teachers who are to blame for anything. If anything, one could point to prior years under Dr. Coseo, when spending increased but spending went down and the district dipped into now-depleted reserves.

        There ARE other ways. If they gave an early incentive to 4 teachers to retire early, they could hire 10 new teachers.

        Yet you’d still be spending the same 400k/year. So, where exactly is the savings?

        If teachers pay 30% toward their healthcare instead of 8%, it would take care of the problem completely.

        No it wouldn’t. They could pay 50% towards their healthcare and it wouldn’t bridge the gap.

        Alan Bedenko does not know what he’s talking about, as usual.

        And, like every other tea party astroturf “activist”, your only agenda is to eliminate public education and labor unions altogether. To hell with the kids.

      • NY The Vampire State

        Yes Alan your right this system is working great…

        Bankrupt school district, bankrupt, state, bankrupt country.. Way to go! Idiot…..

  • Wow, Alan, did you piss off the teabaggers? Don’t you know they’re only protecting America from book learnin’ and stuff?

    Keep fighting the good fight, brother 🙂

  • Robert Snyder

    A lot of money was spent on mailings,signs and the like and I think it is pretty sad when this group can hide from the public this way. I understand the concept of free speech but that should not mean you can fire away at the school system this way. The advocates,for example the teahers association do let you know who they are. This anti group should have the courage of their convictions to let fols know who they are.