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Community Block Grants awarded : by Governor Baker (L) and LtGov Polito (R)

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Yesterday Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito ceremoniously distributed Community Block grants to about 40 Massachusetts municipalities, most of them among the State’s neediest. Distributing the Federally funded grants — averaging $ 710,000 — annually is among the happiest of Baker’s and Polito’s duties; and the event, taking place at the foot of the State House’s Grand Staircase, was the opposite of contentious.

From Adams and Amherst to Athol, Greenfield, and Erving, from Southbridge and Ware to Chesterfield, Cummington, and South Hadley, and from Avon and Everett to Chelsea, West Springfield, Amesbury, and Wales, officials smiled as they opposed for a dozen cameras photographing their receiving the Grant checks.

Community Block Grants get applied to the most pedestrians of needs : renovating buildings, adding space to Senior Citizens centers, cleaning up parks and sports fields, fixing sidewalks and repairing roadways. These things matter a lot; small annoyances often matter more, in our daily lives, than big ones.

Much that Baker and Polito do these days is happy, and rewarding, and occasion for mutual thank-you’s; governing isn’t all dispute and division. Yet soon enough, the Baker and Polito team will re-enter the battlefields. This morning, in the Boston Globe, bakers’ priorities going forward were enunciated; he spoke of them also last night, at an intrergvi8ew-forum at Suffolk University. All will occasion much conflict; Baker enters upon these priorities, however, with a strong burst of public confidence in his leadership.

First up is charter school expansion. A bill to lift the charter school cap on allowed numbers thereof failed in the State senate last year. It passed the House but was amended into uselessness in the Senate before being voted down. This time, there may well be a cap-lift referendum placed on the 2016 ballot. If so, says Baker, he will support it.

This is good news. The system of education set up almost 170 years ago, of one size fits all common schools, no longer satisfies the needs of the technology economy, with its fractured, differentiated specialties requiring small size, diverse knowledge. Nor can we any longer allow instructors to not submit their work to competency evaluation. Prospective employers will no longer accept graduates who aren’t ready for entry-level jobs, or who haven’t basic proficiency in English, mathematics, languages, technical, and history. Students need to be tested, moved forward, challenged; need to be encouraged to innovate and — just as important — to be good citizens and not disruptive of others. Most charter schools do all of these task effectively, which is why parents want their children  entered into charters. The problem is that we’re about 30,000 charter seats short.

Baker will find significant opposition awaiting his preference. Teachers’ unions and their public school parents allies resist expansion of charter schools because they say that charters draw money away from standard public schools that would otherwise be accorded them. This op-ed isn’t the place to address that debate, only to note that it will take place, and that Baker won’t have overwhelming support, as he had for his comprehensive MBTA reform package.

Baker will also have plenty of state administrative reforms to see about. Management failures and contractor incompetence continue to bedevil the Registry of Motor Vehicles, DCF, and many areas of the Department of Health and Human Services — in particular, the agency is still not deployed to deal with Opioid addiction as a health matter rather than a criminal one. Baker has time and again stressed how important he feels it is to alleviate the Opioid addiction crisis; he is right about that, and my information is that major decisions about this are coming quite quickly.

While all of these significant Baker priorities become actual — and maybe face pushback, especially his charter school commitment — the question of the Boston 2024 Olympics walks into the picture too. Whether or not Boston should host the 2024 Summer games has become the most heated political dispute I have seen in the City since charter reform 35 years ago. Opponents have injected their anger into City government itself; and the Mayor’s supporters have responded almost as passionately.

Baker has taken notice — how could he not ? — and has engaged an independent body to evaluate the Boston Olympic Bid and report their findings to him. This suggests that he will opine about the bid — support it or defer to. My guess is that he may take a position but won’t make it his big deal. After all, it is mainly a Boston issue, even if some prospective Games venues locate quite distant from the City. So why should he risk getting chewed up by a brawl that isn’t unavoidably his ?

In particular, I do not see the Governor taking a strong position on the games Bid referendum that evidently is slated to appear on the November 2016 ballot. (note : there’s talk, of having this state wide referendum on a different date. Nothing specific about that yet, however.) Baker may well say how he will vote on said referendum, but I doubt he will call out his Team to work one side or the other of it. And why should he ? the charter school referendum will be difficult enough. “One big fight at a time” is a pretty wise axiom.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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