Yonkers’ bad neighbors

I mentioned before that I was going to focus on a school district I know very little about. That school district is the Yonkers City School District.

I’m doing this for a couple reasons.

As I said, I’ve wanted to focus on a district I don’t know about; maybe to test my chops and maybe to get out of the Pennsylvania context for a bit and try to examine a school district and capitalism in a different region.

I’m focusing on Yonkers specifically because a friend of mine Carlos Burgos is running an insurgent left campaign there for city council. He’s trying to unseat a conservative Democrat and he said it’d be nice to see some analysis of the district. I’ve also been working with Jamaal Bowman’s office on school funding, and Yonkers is right in Bowman’s congressional district.

I have two things I can offer. The first is a bond issuance analysis. This is basically me reading the district’s most recent bond issuance to find important bits of information about debt, but also flows of power in the district’s political economy. I published a piece of that analysis on Monday.

The second is more ambitious and experimental. It’s a form of analysis that places Yonkers in its regional context, specifically the extent to which there is material cooperation across and between it and the districts that surround it. I call it cooperation analysis, but it’s also an attempt to measure racial-capitalist exploitation between school districts, with an eye towards policy interventions.

Cooperation Analysis

‘Cooperation analysis’ describes a way of understanding inequity in a region of school districts bordering on one another. While resources like EdBuild and others have done crucial work to map these inequities, this is a more interactive framework. To what extent are the districts cooperating? Are they sharing resources, or are they adversarially/individualistically taking what they can get? To what extent are they oppressive and exploitative (or as Esther Cyna would say, kleptocratic)?

If districts distribute resources well across such differences, there is a high cooperation level. In such cases, those districts with groups who historically have structurally benefited from racial capitalism are allies (low cooperation) or accomplices (high cooperation).

If resources are distributed poorly, there is low cooperation and some amount of oppressive exploitation. In moderate to extreme cases, districts with more structural benefits are oppressive exploiting other districts.

I have a methodological appendix below, but basically this index is an expression of the standard deviations and averages in a number of measurements: percent nonwhite students, per pupil spending, percentage of students in poverty, percentage of students on free/reduced price lunch, number of students, median household income, median property value, percentage of local revenue, percentage of state revenue, percentage of federal revenue, debt service, and student-teacher ratio.

The overall cooperation level is measured in basis points, or hundredths. Anything over zero is non-cooperative. Anything over 500 is extremely non-cooperative, or oppressively exploitative.

When it comes to Yonkers, let’s look at the other Westchester school districts bordering YSD on its north and east (since the river is to the west and NYC is south). I’ll use EdBuild’s Dividing Lines maps with 2018 data and 2019 NCES data. There are seven districts to consider: Yonkers, Eastchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, Ardsley, Edgemont, Mount Vernon, Tuckahoe, and Bronxville districts.

Here’s what I found:

  • This region’s school districts are extremely non-cooperative, with a score of 721.
  • Yonkers and Mount Vernon struggle with seriously oppressive exploitation viz. the other five districts.
  • Hastings-on-Hudson, Ardsley, Edgement, Tuckahoe, Eastchester, and Bronxville districts are neither allies nor accomplices in fighting this oppressive exploitation.
  • When it comes to specific measures, the most egregious instances of oppressive exploitation are in number of students, avg students with free/reduced price lunch, and debt service. If the oppressor districts took on some of the burden in these categories, the region could become more cooperative.

Here are two recommendations for socialist/left-progressive local and national politicians (city council and congress in particular) based on these findings:

  • Messaging around regional cooperation at both local and national levels is essential when it comes to school funding. We’re all in this together. It’s not a dog-eat-dog world of resources, state government in NY is maxed out and the federal government tends to be hands-off.
  • Yonkers City Council issues bonds on behalf of the school district, as I’ll write about in another post. Leftist electeds should consider pushing for solidarity bond issuances where nearby districts with low debt, high property value, and high credit scores take out loans in partnership with Yonkers to share the debt burden and cooperate on capital projects. Local and national voices would be key in this initiative.

One thing I’m interested in after this analysis are millage rates in this region. They’re so different that I couldn’t average them together and I’m wondering why. For instance, Yonkers school district’s millage rate is 551.6 per every thousand dollars of assessed value. But Bronxville school district’s rate is 14 mills, absurdly low comparatively. I imagine this is because its average property value is a whopping $1.13 million.

Yet Bronxville SD is technically part of the Town of Eastchester (along with Tuckahoe SD). Tuckahoe and Eastchester SD’s millage rates are absurdly high comparatively, at 1525 and 1596 mills respectively. What’s going on here? How are some districts part of townships under the umbrella of town governments, while others aren’t?

Here’s the data I’m working with and my calculations. Below are a couple appendices. For the next part, I’ll do a bond issuance analysis.

Background demographics overview

Historically, the Yonkers City School district is, like so many districts, the result of a consolidation from the 1880s. Many consolidations got off the ground with bond issuances where multiple schools agreed to take out a loan together and build a school. This is what I mean when I talk about solidarity bonds. Such a bond happened in Yonkers in 1881.

The district is situated in what was the Lenni Lenape territory stolen by European colonizers, bordering north of New York City School District, part of Westchester County, just south of several districts that fit more with what you might think when you hear “Westchester”: wealthy white suburb. Yonkers is an ‘inner ring’ suburb (some actually call it the ‘sixth borough’ of NYC), betraying the clumsiness of the suburb concept.

It’s a big district. As of 2019, there are 27,012 students. 39 schools. As of 2018, there is 17% student poverty. Guess how many of those schools have a Title 1 classification, which means they meet the national threshold for receiving extra funds for concentration of poverty? All of them.

While New York tries to compensate for this with progressive spending, it ultimately can’t overcome the oppressive exploitation at the local level. The power of the property values and demographics in the region are too much.

What does this poverty look like exactly? A full 20% of district’s families aren’t in the labor force. Nearly 30% of families receive food stamps. 64.3 % of families rent their homes. More than a quarter of their education stops after high school. Most recent median household income is $57,947 and median property value is $334,400, which maybe don’t seem low but take a look at the neighboring districts and you’ll see.

Looking at some racial demographics, do you know what I’m going to say? The district is majority of color. 58% Hispanic and 18% Black. No other district (except Mount Vernon perhaps) has the same percentage of nonwhite students.

Yet it’s important to take a strengths approach rather than reify or essentialize this diverse working class district as lacking in agency, oppressed, etc. The district is doing very well. According to a recent bond issuance that I’ll read more closely for the second post in this series:

The Yonkers 88% on-time graduation rate for 2019 exceeds the Statewide graduation rate by two (2) percentage points and Yonkers is the first and only Big 5 cities school district to achieve an 80% graduation, accomplishing this consecutively for four (4) years.

This is great stuff, and teachers, students, staff, administrators, and families must be working super hard to pull it off given the structural uphill battles they’re fighting.

Cooperation Analysis Appendix

Here’s how cooperation analysis works. It’s rooted in my previous research on the politics of classroom discussion.

Imagine a discussion in a small group. The space of discussion is like a resource: when we get together and talk we can think and reach new ideas, decisions, etc.

When it comes to sharing the resource of that space, participating cooperatively in the discussion means listening and speaking to one another so no one dominates. We can measure this by saying that non-domination occurs when each participant takes the floor an equal number of times. No one is taking the floor more than anyone else, everyone is listening and speaking. In a perfectly cooperative discussion, each participants’ number of turns taken is identical. They share the space they create together.

No discussion is like that, however. In most discussions there are people talking a lot, some people not talking at all, and everyone in between. Perfect cooperation is an ideal. So when I’m teaching participants how to achieve better cooperation, we can measure how far each of them is from the average: how much more do you have to listen and speak to be cooperating better? These are individual cooperation scores. What’s the group’s overall distance from the average number of turns? That’s the overall cooperation level.

When we do a material cooperation analysis, rather than participants in discussion, it’s entities participating in political-economic activity like, say, school funding across difference. Instead of individual people talking to each other, we have school districts taking in and spending revenue to educate a certain student body. There’s a certain amount of provisions available in the region and they’re all using it, like in a discussion. School district funding is social, interactive, and connected (no matter how much localism tries to ignore this structural fact.)

Here’s how I calculate the index: I put together data points for each of the measures for each district. I find the standard deviation for each distributions. Then I divide the average of these data points by their standard deviation. I then average each of ratios together into an overall number. Anything over zero is non-cooperative.

There’s still many questions and kinks I’m working through in this analysis. Ones on my mind right now are:

  • Should the ‘percent nonwhite’ category be disaggregated to include different racial categories? I’m presuming that the formation is white supremacist, so percent nonwhite would reflect that dynamic. But perhaps taking it apart into Black, Latinx, AAPI, etc would be better.
  • I need to generate a better profile of regions. How does Yonkers stack up against the Philly region, eg? Relatedly, I’d expect in states with policies that have attempted to equalize funding that certain regions therein would be more cooperative (with lower scores on the index). I’m thinking of the Twin Cities region, for example. Is that right? I need to compare.
  • What is my case that these measures are enough like a discussion (interactive/relational) to advance the analysis?

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