TRASH-PACT CEREMONY IRKS CRITICS

JAY JOCHNOWITZ Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Wednesday, March 25, 1998

Gov. George Pataki stood side by side with black activists Tuesday to unveil a historic $1.4 million settlement in a minority neighborhood's federal environmental lawsuit against the state ANSWERS trash incinerator. But with hundreds of students shut out of the fanfare at Philip Livingston Magnet Academy, a neighborhood leader was left questioning the school's discipline policy.


Pataki told the young people selected to attend the ceremony that the settlement will give them ``the ability to develop the expertise to become the environmental stewards of the next generation.''


Albany NAACP President Anne Pope hailed the agreement as ``the epitome of taking something negative and turning it into something positive.''


However, only 150 of the school's 750 students were on hand to hear the speeches, sparking criticism of how school officials determined who could and could not attend the assembly in the auditorium, which remained less than half full.


Administrators cited two reasons for excluding so many students. State Attorney General Dennis Vacco's office, which negotiated the settlement, asked for only about 150 children, school officials said. And under the school's discipline policy, 200 to 250 kids -- about a third of the student body -- were ineligible to attend because they disrupted classes or otherwise violated school rules. The discipline policy bars them from sports, assemblies, field trips and events during the marking period in which the problem occurs.


``I don't reward kids for doing things they're not supposed to do,'' said Principal David Burnham. Noting that the children who did come had to sit for more than an hour and a half because of delays in starting the assembly, Burnham said he would not have relished the idea of putting kids with disciplinary problems through the same test. ``Sitting as long as they had to sit, I don't think we would have put our best foot forward.''


But Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens President Aaron Mair, whose group filed the lawsuit against the state, called the public-school discipline policy ``disastrous and uneducated.'' Mair said he was disappointed to see a mostly white crowd representing the inner-city school. In Mair's view, the story of the lawsuit, which pitted a largely minority, low-income neighborhood against the state government, could have served as a lesson in responsible civic activism for kids who might have trouble obeying the system.


``This was an important lesson for all the children of the school,'' Mair said. ``They had a right to be here. Here we had a chance to let the children of the community see positive role models, who look like them, standing with the governor and the attorney general.''


Vice Principal Kimberly Williams, however, said Mair's argument ignored the school's primary mission of educating kids. Without consistently applied rules, she said, teaching suffers. The school, she added, put the assembly together on two days' notice from Vacco's office.


``For someone outside our building to question how we do things in our school, I take offense,'' said Williams. ``Where is he the rest of the 179 days that we have to get kids educated?''


For its part, Vacco's office denied setting any attendance limit. ``We did not put a specific number on kids,'' said spokesman Marc Carey. ``Obviously that is something we would allow the school (to decide).''


The settlement in U.S. District Court ended a 3-year-old lawsuit brought by the Arbor Hill citizens group and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They charged that the ANSWERS plant on Sheridan Avenue, which for 13 years burned garbage from Albany and surrounding communities, polluted the neighborhood and harmed residents' health. The waste-to-energy plant, which provided steam for Empire State Plaza, was closed in 1994 under an agreement between Mayor Jerry Jennings, who was was at the school on Tuesday, and former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.


While blasting Cuomo's refusal to close ANSWERS sooner, Mair praised Pataki for agreeing to the pact.


The governor said it will ``help pay back for the environmental damage that the ANSWERS plant did to Arbor Hill and the city of Albany.'' The state will contribute $385,000 to an environmental justice fund for the neighborhood to use for soil testing and legal action against polluters. The deal also includes $1 million for a new environmental education center at the school and funding to develop the nearby Tivoli Lakes Nature Preserve into an environmental education laboratory, similar to the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Five Rivers wildlife center in Delmar.


Meanwhile, the state's legal problems with ANSWERS may not be over. Workers at the plant, which has since been converted to burn natural gas, saw the size of Tuesday's settlement and immediately contacted an attorney to discuss a class-action suit.