Feed the Billionaire, Starve the Students

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

November 15, 2004

The juxtaposition of the two articles, one in the news section and the other in sports, was instructive.

We learned from a page-one story in last Thursday's Times that pupils at Public School 63 in the South Bronx have to take their gym classes in the school's lobby. They don't have a gymnasium. Their teacher, Rose Gelrod, has marked a jogging path on the lobby's floor. These makeshift classes, as reporter Susan Saulny informed us, "are regularly interrupted by foot traffic to bathrooms and deliveries to the cafeteria."

Welcome to the wonderful world of neglect, which is the daily life of New York City schoolchildren.

Ah, but on the front page of the Sports section of that same paper comes a different story. It was a profile of the pampered billionaire owner of the New York Jets, Robert Wood Johnson IV, who is known as Woody to his close friends and those many public officials who stumble all over themselves trying to kiss his ring.

The very people who are crying poverty as they deny gyms and playgrounds to the city's schoolchildren - starting with the billionaire mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and the governor, George Pataki - are pulling out every stop in an effort to round up and hand over hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to their friend Woody so he can have the grandest, most luxurious, most expensive sports stadium the country has ever seen.

The stadium would sit on some of the most valuable real estate in the country, prime Manhattan riverfront property, which would also be handed over for Woody's use. Oh, it's good to be a billionaire.

As for the kids. Well, forget about them. They don't have any money. For 30 years, at least, they've gotten the back of the hand when it comes to playgrounds and athletic facilities. Nearly a fifth of the city's schools lack gymnasiums. Ninety-four percent have no athletic fields. More than half have no playgrounds.

The politicians will tell you we can't afford to do better than that for the kids in the public schools. But a billion-and-a-half-dollar playground for the rich and famous, hard by the Hudson River? No problem.

In the article about Mr. Johnson, The Times's Duff Wilson said:

"He is one of the biggest Republican fund-raisers in the nation, and his grateful allies - President Bush, Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg - make up a rare triple play of powerful support."

When you lavish money on politicians, you expect something in return. Among the things Mr. Johnson wants is $600 million in city and state funds (at least) to make up the difference between the $800 million he is putting up and the estimated $1.4 billion the stadium will cost.

The state and the city are responsible for financing the city's grossly underfinanced schools and they fight like gamecocks over who should pay for what. But they are in the most harmonious agreement that the estimable Woody should get the hundreds of millions that he wants for his stadium.

It couldn't be because he's greased so many palms, could it? I personally think this entire project is a scandal, a wholesale giveaway of tremendous public assets to an incredibly wealthy private interest. In the old days somebody would have called the sheriff. But you don't hear much about bribery or quid-pro-criminal-quos anymore because the rascals have figured out how to make it legal.

Woody Johnson is not big on publicity. He goes out of his way to avoid the spotlight. "He declines interviews for a profile," Mr. Wilson wrote. "He tells his closest family members and longtime business associates not to talk about him, either."

He would like the public to know as little about him as possible. And yet he has his hand out, palm wide open, ready to seize as much of the public's money as he can get.

The neglect of New York City's schools goes far beyond the lack of gymnasiums, athletic fields and playgrounds. Classrooms are overcrowded and there is a dangerous shortage of qualified teachers. Bathrooms in some schools aren't even equipped with toilet paper or hand towels. Parents and teachers are often forced to buy the most basic supplies.

You might think the powers that be would address those sorts of things before catering to the wish lists of greedy, grasping billionaires.

You might think that. But if you did, you'd be wrong.