SCHOOLS REFORM : A TON OF DISCONNECT

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^ recess at the Charles Sumner School on Basile Street in Roslindale

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An article in today’s Boston Globe discusses the $ 1 billion gap between two schools funding bills currently before the legislature. The so-called “Promise Act,” backed by a coalition of public school advocacy groups with support from Mayor Marty Walsh, seeks $ 2.4 billion, over seven years, in additional state funds. Governor Baker’s bill requests $ 1.5 billion over the same seven years. You should now read the article here : https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/06/16/report-nearly-billion-gulf-between-two-leading-school-funding-bills/KWpejZnLc8QMkhBy8ewJbI/story.html

Many questions come to mind about either bill. First, why must the State be the focus of funds for local schools ? If said funds are needed as urgently as the Promise Act advocates say, can’t they seek Proposition 2 1/2 overrides in the towns or cities thus needy ? I am especially unmoved by the Boston situation. Why does a City experiencing a long and propitious economic boom need State school funds at all ? The City’s tax valuation has doubled in the past ten years, yet the school budget has, in that time, increased only by 40 percent. Clearly a 2 1/2 override initiative is in order, so why isn’t one being — hasn’t one yet been — proposed ? And if many 2 1/2 overrides fail because taxpayers don’t see the need, why should the legislature arrogate to legislate school matters — which are locally governed by locally-chosen bodies mostly elected that localities have voted against ? Returning to the Boston question, I find it completely out of order for a City as real estate prosperous as Boston to ask for more State aid, when Massachusetts has so many cities that aren’t prospering at all and which badly need all the funds they can get. Nor am I moved by the argument that Boston educates so many students whose schooling costs much more than the average : English language learners, special need kids, kids with health issues. If a City as booming as Boston can’t meet these costs, we’re in serious incompetence mode.

But back now to the two funding bills. I quote now from the Globe article : “In Boston, where much of the city’s school funding gets diverted to charter schools, aid would jump from $220 million this year to $323.9 million in seven years under the Promise Act, compared to $232.6 million in Baker’s proposal, essentially the same increase the city would receive if the Legislature doesn’t overhaul the funding formula…” 

The $ 91.3 million dollar difference is almost precisely the $ 96,000,000 that Boston’s FY 2020 schools budget allocates for transportation. Most of that transport is required by the desegregation busing order entered 45 years ago by Federal Judge Arthur Garrity. This order should be terminated. No part of the City is segregated today, as many parts were in 1974. Today, most Boston neighborhoods are models of diversity. So why not bring back community schools ? Activists talk much these days about community — rightly so — but you can’t have true community without community schools. No institution binds neighbors together as solidly as they. With community schools, you also get PTAs, which enable parent-student-teacher after-hours interaction; and nothing improves school performance as effectively as teacher-student-parent interaction.

Campaigning door to door with a Council candidate in District Five, hardly a night of it goes by that we do not hear, from voters at the door, a desire for community schooling. Almost every mother we listen to, of school age children, is thinking of moving out because they don’t want their kids transported all over the place (and by a lottery assignment system that adds another layer of absurdity). Yet not a word of this issue is to be found in either of the two funding bills before the legislature.

The other schools issue that we hear at the door is the school system’s failure, even after 30 years of Federal grant availability, to render its utility usage energy-efficient. We hear of classrooms that are too hot in winter, too cold in summer. In this regard, the FY 2020 schools budget allocates $ 42,369,098 to “Property Services.” How much of that is attributable to wasted heating or air conditioning ? Probably not a little. Moreover, the system maintains buildings to serve 92,000 students, yet only about 55,000 attend. Why can’t the City close under-attended school facilities and end their “services” altogether ? One would think that those who advocate dramatic increases to the schools budget would be demanding this sort of saving. (You can read the FY 2020 budget here : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzzLbJ_lC7U2SDB1N0RhUmNMN3A0RWhBemg0RUlzbzlKbmJ3/view )

Again, not a word of this is to be found in either the two funding bills or in the Globe article.

Between the legislating going on on  Beacon Hill and the actual concerns of actual voters, there seems total disconnect. One would think that in a democracy, the concerns of actual voters would come first or at all; yet in schools matters, such concerns seem blocked. Parents of school age have been moving out of District Five, to the suburbs in search of better schools responsive to parents since the 1980s : yet in that time nothing has been done to relieve this exodus. The voters just don’t seem to matter.

This is why I protest as I am now doing and will continue to do until the legislators dealing with schools priorities finally listen.

Which is not to say that I don’t support reforming the 1993 funding formula. If we are top have schools funding by the State at all, the formula for allocating it should, as argued by advocates, favor those districts most in need of outside funds. Districts that in 1993 made that cut may well not be the ones making the cut 26 years later. My only reservation is that if State funds are to be allocated to local school districts, they can’t simply be doled out. Specific improvement priorities should accompany them, as well as a state monitor to assure that said funds do in fact get spent in pursuit of these priorities.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

A THIRD TERM FOR CHARLIE BAKER ?

 

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^ aligning openly and purposefully with City Democrats : Governor Baker at Boston’s pride flag raising

 

The header is framed as a question because I’m not sure that he really does mean to seek an unprecedented third term as our state’s Governor. If he DOES mean it, however, significant reasons support his doing this. The Boston Globe article that appeared this morning quotes Baker thus : ““I really want to fight for this approach to governing that’s based on the idea there is such a thing as a bipartisan, pragmatic approach to governing,’’

There was more: Baker said he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito will be heavy presences on the campaign trail in this year’s municipal elections across the state. They plan to back candidates, including Democrats, most of them incumbents, running for mayor.

“I am going to make sure that I and the lieutenant governor support and help incumbents this year on both sides of the partisan aisle who have helped us and we will also work for folks running for office in 2020.”

Let these two quotes sink in for a minute…

In effect, Baker has become an independent in all but name. To hear a Governor say this is new, but the fact is not. Since 1990, when our state elected Bill Weld as Governor, our Governors have, with the exception of Deval Patrick’s two terms, all been centrist Republicans who have, in effect, governed in partnership with the legislative leadership, non-partisan in policy, bipartisan in action. That said, Baker, by committing to campaign for Massachusetts Mayors who are enrolled Democrats, is going beyond what even he has yet done. Until now, he has always campaigned for only Republicans. Now, by aligning himself on campaign turf with Democratic Mayors, he is setting a level of bipartisan example quite bold for any Governor, much less one as cautious as Baker.

Think also of the context. Nationally, America is divided viciously along party lines. If you’re in a party, you are forced to be in that party and only in that party– the other party is the enemy. Baker told the Globe this : “bipartisan interactions at the State House stand in distinct contrast to what is going on around the country.’’

Baker has avoided critiquing Mr. Trump directly, but from Day One of Mr. Trump’s election, baker has acted in specific contrast to the Trump method; and in his first State of the State speech, he made that explicit :”I represent Massachusetts to Washington,not Washington to Massachusetts.” Baker has, by example, governed the opposite way to Mr. Trump, and by doing so, he has also helped to keep Massachusetts politics free of the partisan zealotry that has made useful Federal governance all but impossible. The move that Baker is now contemplating, and the basis that he has set it to, raise his anti-Trump example to a next level.

As the Globe notes, Baker has also separated his political operation from the state Republican party. The party has its offices on Merrimac Street in Downtown Boston; Baker’s operation uses offices on West Street, two miles away. Nor is Baker making any secret of his opposition to the ultra-conservative new regime at Massachusetts GOP headquarters : “Baker acknowledged he will again wade into the elections for the 80 members of the GOP state committee when Republican presidential primary voters go to the polls next winter,” wrote the Globe reporter.

The same report notes that Baker, by not having control of the state party, lost the cash-raising advantages that control of it accorded him. Yet his commitment to oust the current regime seems just as motivated by policy as b y money. Baker has no problem raising vast sums, whether he controls “Merrimac Street” or not. Policy, however, is another matter. The present right-wing rejectionism being voiced by present GOP leadership rejects almost everything that baker’s politics embrace.This is not without consequences. Canvassing voters door to door, I have found that registered Republicans are far more likely to dislike Baker than are unenrolleds and Democrats.

In this context, Baker’s commitment to campaign for Democratic mayors –and to govern openly in partnership with the legislature’s Democratic leadership — practically gives the finger to the folks at Merrimac Street and those who endorse them. One can almost hear what baker will never say, “You don’t like the initiatives I’m working on ? Don’t like that I’m doing them with Democrats ? Tough ! I have a state to govern, a state to reform, a new era to prepare us for!”

Perhaps in the end he will turn the reins to Lieutenant Governor Polito and take his two terms as the nation’s best-liked Governor home to Swampscott. That’s still the more likely outcome. But if he does decide top seek a third term, he will represent the deepest political desire of the overwhelming majority of voters : let us get things done, Democrats and Republicans together, and stop the insanity !” Don’t bet against it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

REFORMING BOSTON’s PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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^ a Roslindale parent has a schools decision to make. Will the system allow her the best decision, or not ?

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Is there anything in the new contract agreement fore Boston school teachers that moves the system toward reform ? Not really. Teachers get a two percent pay raise ? Nice, but teacher pay is not a reform item. The system will hire 22 new full time school nurses, and another 22 aides will also be hired : these will be good news for parents of children in need of mental health monitoring and for the kids, too. Still at issue is the request, made by some, that classes for English language learners be staffed by two teachers each.

Yet these small adjustments do not equal school reform. The so-called achievement gap — the disparity between kids of various skin colors and national origins wit.h respect to test results and graduation rates — will likely remain. Nor does the new teacher contract alter, in the slightest, the two fundamental misdirections impacting Boston’s public schools : first, the school committee is appointed by the people; and second, that kids are still being transported all over the city, per school assignment lotteries established under a Federal Court desegregation order issued 45 years ago.

There is much talk about “the community” in various Boston neighborhoods these days, but you cannot have community without community schools. Community schools bring the kids of a community together. They encourage parent-teacher involvement. The Federal Court order destroyed the PTAs that governed Boston schools, that monitored their excellence and required teachers to not just teach their hours and go home. The old PTAs ensured that the local school community would continue after the school day and during school vacations. This was community  for real. The school community powerfully motivated parents to stay in the community. Just the opposite is the case today for parents seeking neighborhood schools. If you’re not lucky enough to get your kid into Boston Latin School or the Latin Academy, and you are not chosen by the charter school lottery, you will almost certainly move to the suburbs, or strongly consider doing it. (The exception that parents make for the Latin and charter schools results from parents’ confidence that at those schools  their kids will be rigorously well educated, diligently enough that they’ll trade  community for excellence. Correctly or not, parents have no such confidence in Boston’s standard public schools despite the City’s  $ 1,270,000,000 FY 2020 schools allocation.)

I think that parents are right to opine that community schools are the only workable alternative for kids who do not get into the Latin or charter schools. Community, at least, assures that the standard school — funded by fully one third of the entire annual City budget — will not settle for a default minimum, or tolerate teacher failure — the new contract “makes it easier” for teachers unassigned because no school will have them to work their way back to being hired. Community PTAs might well be what they once were, a bulwark of teacher diligence.

It is certainly time to move beyond the 1974 Federal Court order. The City’s neighbor hoods are no longer racially segregated. Residential diversity isn’t uniform, but there no more neighborhoods that are 99 percent Caucasian — nor 99 percent people of color. Door knocking in District Five this year, getting past the Federal Court order — and the $ 99,000,000 that it costs to transport kids — is by far the most frequent schools demand that voters make. It is time to do it; to eliminate the assignment lottery and recreate community school districts.

Taking this step would make an even stronger statement of reform if it were accompanied by City charter change re-establishing an elected school committee. I have proposed an elected  committee according to a district election system which gives five  committee seats to the current large assignment district, four seats to the next largest, and three committee seats to the small district. The Superintendent would then be the 13th member, or else the Mayor ex officio. Granted, that an elected school committee would bring political considerations into the mix : but school issues ought to be a major subject of politics and election. The $ 1,270,000,000 budget requires direct citizen involvement, and sol do major school decisions : curriculum, staffing, administrative autonomy for each school. The Mayor, who appoints the present committee, is chargeable, but he is equally charged on every other major City administrative matter. It is almost impossible to make his re-election depend upon his schools decisions, nor is it a best practice to do so. Best is to elect school officers whose focus is solely schools.

It is time to reform our public schools.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

IS THERE AN ANSWER TO THE “AFFORDABLE HOUSING” CONUNDRUM ?

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^ four candidates spoke and answered questions at last night’s District Five candidate forum

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Last night, at a forum for candidates seeking District Five’s City Council seat, the question of “affordable housing” came up, as it always does these days in Boston policy discussions. Amid the standard answers given by most of the candidates, that affordability should be a priority — though no one proposed a means for achieving it — one candidate vowed to impose a “20 percent minimum” on Boston developers seeking City permissions. Such an imposition is self-defeating, as I shall show, and that it can be seriously suggested at a forum makes clear just how useless, even damaging, is today’s conventional wisdom about house pricing.

Currently, Boston development rules require large projects — those taking charge of 50,000 square feet of living space or more — to offer 13 percent of proposed units under criteria of affordability : some at a price that people making 30 percent of City median income can pay, some at 50 percent. Most electeds whose views I am aware of think the 13 percent rule is quite okay. A few, like the candidate at last night’s forum, think it should be raised to the 20 percent figure. I find both rules self-defeating :

Developers begin with acquisition cost for the land on which they intend to build. The cost of buildable land in Boston has risen almost beyond the markets’ reach. Tom O’Brien of HYM asserts that it will cost $ 500,000 per unit to build his immense Suffolk Downs project. I think he is underestimating, but even if he isn’t — if he is right about the $ 500,000 — the result is that, having to offer 13 percent of his 2200 for sale  units at an “affordable” price means that he must jack Up the price of the remaining 87 percent of units in order to “make the  numbers work,” i.e., to not lose money. I think this result is universal in the world of the 13 percent rule : imposing it may sweeten the price for 13 percenters, but it lifts the price for everybody else.

The 13 percent rule raises the market price of Boston housing by 13 percent.

Because developers are willing to pay acquisition prices that require that 13 percent sale price boost, the 13 percent rule also raises the prices that owners ask when they are looking to sell.

The candidate who proposed lifting Boston’s development rule to 20 percent “affordable” thereby commits to raising the market price of Boston housing by 20 percent — a price lift which will put even more Boston housing out of reach of most Bostonians. In actual life, the 20 percent figure cannot happen. The city of Cambridge imposed a 20 percent rule,. and according to HYM’s Tom O’Brien, development immediately stopped. Perhaps that is the actual objective of proposing a 20 percent affordability rule, though no matter what the objective, no affordable housing is enabled thereby, except by making the market condition even more unaffordable.

Nor has the City administration helped the situation by calling for 69,000 units of new housing by year 2030 and then opening the floodgates of zoning variance to assure the goal is reached in time. The magnitude of the plan, and the hurried time limit, has generated a buying frenzy price war whose results we see all over the neighborhoods close to Downtown. Perhaps it would have been wiser to let the market figure out how to time demand and size it ?

Nowhere in any discussion that i have heard about house affordability is there mention of the real difficulty : that Boston’s median household income is too low. Wage earners, who are the most impacted by the price boom, must find a way to earn more — much more. There are only two ways : raise the minimum wage, as the State has done and will probably do again, or support unions at every turn as they fight to win better wages and benefits for their thousands of workers. Well led contract efforts by Local 26, SEIU”s locals, the Stop & Shop workers, utility workers, and others have brought better times to thousands, and more money, which means more ability to pay today’s high rents or buy prices. The union labor push is, I hope, far from finished. People who already live in Boston must take charge of the market, and they can only do that if they earn much higher wages.

Higher wages also benefit the economy generally, but the City cannot merely stand aside as it happens. City administrators should rethink having an “affordability percentage” rule at all. It doesn’t work, any more than any other attempt to circumvent the ironclad laws of numbers. Hopefully candidates running for open Council seats in Districts 5, 8, and 9 — and for Althea Garrison’s fill-in at-large seat — will begin to offer smart answers to the affordability challenge instead of surface responses that sound good but can’t survive fiscal analysis.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

WILL THE SUFFOLK DOWNS MEGA-PROJECT PEAK THE MARKET ?

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Last night I attended the last public meeting for the initial phase of HYM Group’s huge Suffolk Downs development. For the past two years HYM has hosted these public affairs, at every sort of East Boston and Revere  neighborhood association and to other sorts of locally resident communities. I’ve seen it so often that I’ve practically memorized the presentation. It is worth remembering, because it involves 10,000 units of housing — 2200 of them for sale — as well as 50,000 square feet of commercial space, 40 acres of open space, and an estimated cost of $ 320,000,000 just to build the necessary infrastructure, not to overlook $ 23,000,000 in so-called “mitigation payments” — in reality a kickback — to the City of Boston and probably an equivalent kickback, er “mitigation,” to the City of Revere.

In effect, HYM proposes to build an entire City, occupying — so its CEO, Tom O’Brien, tells us — 20 years to complete it.

I have no problem with the presentation. HYM has gone the extra mile, maybe an extra ten miles, to involve everyone it could reach out to, assuring that the public is fully aware of its plans and all the details, which are long and manifold. I also have no problem with the proposal. If HYM’s investors want to take the risk involved, that’s what capitalism is, and kudos to its capitalists for accepting risk when they could just as easily own Treasury bonds.

My two problems, which I will now discuss, are with the nature of the capital risk and the strong likelihood that HYM’s 10,000 units of housing will peak the market, moving maybe the entire northern half of metro Boston toward oversupply, with all the consequences. Don’t call me alarmist. I’ve seen many real estate projects — huge ones — top off a market easy to topple, given the immense degree of borrowed-money leverage that real estate markets always take on. We think today that there’s no stopping the Boston building boom, that people in need of housing will continue to clamor to live in Boston; but these trends can change, and quickly. In 2004 there seemed no end to the rush for suburban McMansions, yet by 2008 these over-sized houses far from Downtown were almost unsaleable. Who of today’s home buying generation wants one ? not many.

Those who live in Boston — and who are not homeless — already live in a housing unit. New housing is Boston needed only for those who do not yet live here. So : will 10,00 new residents be available for HYM’s 10,000 units ? Or, if current residents decide to live in the HYM’s city, will those 10,000 current units find 10,000 people to rent or buy them ?

That is the risk that HYM’s investors are taking on, and I am not convinced that it’s a slam-dunk. The enormous costs of building housing in Boston already motivate builders to seek outlying locations. Why else is the Governor’s zoning reform bill so powerfully backed by Mayors and realtors ? HYM has it even worse : it can’t only build. It has to implant the entire infrastructure that on existing streets is already in place : electric lines, sewers, water mains, cable, and roads. O’Brien told last night’s meeting that the total cost of building a Suffolk Downs unit is $ 500,000. I think he’s under-estimating. That might be the cost now, but he is committed to use union labor — which is a good thing — and union wages rise over time, as do the costs of materials and permits. Remember : the HYM proposal will be built in four phases over TWENTY years.

The other problem is that Tom O’Brien asserted that his investors have accepted a 5.7 percent rate of return (ROE). If he is correct — and I’m not convinced — then his investors are taking way too great a risk of market change. Most REIT’s look for ROE’s of 11 to 15 percent. Given the immense degree of leverage — borrowed money — involved in major real estate projects, if sales fall short by ten percent, or if mortgage borrowers’ default rate is higher than the usual two to three percent, an ROE of 5.7 runs a substantial risk of default or loss. HYM’s record of success with big projects may well have induced its investors to accept a 5.7 ROE; but reputation is not immune from market change. A 5.7 ROE by itself suggests that our market is peaking, because no serious investor would accept less, and very few would accept 5.7. If this is the present price level, it is one that likely can’t be sustained without major boosts in our region’s median family income.

Speaking of median income, some activists showed up at last night’s meeting asking, or demanding, that HYM offer more “affordable” units than the 13 percent required by City development rules. Personally, I don’t see why there should be any such rule. It’s the investors’ money. They are risking it, they should be free to set the rules. The 13 percent requirement has squeezed developers already. Anything more than that would likely stop development altogether. I think the entire notion of “affordable” in our housing market has gone for the duration and won’t return unless family income rises significantly — a subject of itself , well worth discussion — or the market turns seriously down — in which case we’ll have, as a City, worse economic problems than affordability. In any case, the affordability demand with respect to HYM seems to get the market wrong. I think you will see HYM doing some serious price cutting well before its 20 year build period ends.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

A DISTURBING DEVELOPMENT

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^ 119 Leyden Street : a beautiful, 1880s gem, to be torn down, according to a proposal that should never be allowed.

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Last night I attended a monthly meting of the Orient Heights Civic Association — my first since January. What I saw surprised and concerned me.

The 75 or more locals who saw and listened to two development proposals expressed the usual — and correct — objections to a development process in which the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals approves proposals that aggressively alter, rather than support, the character of the Orient Heights neighborhood. These normal objections should be honored by the Zoning Board, but they are not. I have written before this about the duty given by State law to Zoning Boards of Appeal : that any variance they may give from an area’s zoning designation must enhance and carry out the purposes of that designation. In Boston these past several years, the opposite is the rule, and people are right to dislike that.

Yet what I saw at the Orient Heights meeting went beyond the usual Zoning variance case. In both the proposals offered, 119 Leyden Street and 192 Gladstone Street, two perfectly good, well maintained homes, one an 1880s gem, are to be torn down and replaced with, respectively, a nine unit and six unit condo building. I headed this column with the photo of that 1880s gem to illustrate the audacity of what was being asked. By what whim has development in Boston now reached a point where dwellings that enhance the character of a neighborhood are to be torn down and done away with ?

To put it another way : Are we now at the point where houses — normal houses that establish a neighborhood’s personality — are to be eliminated entirely, purchased by a developer who can afford to pay more than any ordinary, resident home buyer because he or she can turn the parcel into 6 to 9 units each selling for almost the price of a single home ? Well, yes, we ARE at that point, if developers know that the Zoning Board of Appeals will grant them the variances they need to make such an outcome work. And if we are at that point, then neighborhoods like Orient Heights, where normal homes sit on lots large enough for developers to build 6 to 9 condominium units, have no defense. Might as well cash out and say goodbye to a neighborhood that has worked well for a century.

Fortunately for the rest of East Boston, the same strategy cant work. Homes in Jeffries Point and most of Eagle Hill sit on much smaller lots. There’s no room to do what the 119 Leyden and 192 Gladstone developer is trying. Not that downtown East Boston hasn’t its own weaknesses against the moves of grand-design developers; but at least they aren’t naked to this one.

It’s also an easy tactic to counter. The tear-down proposal can’t work if the City won’t approve the necessary variances. That’s all it takes to safeguard the character of Orient Heights, as the State’s zoning laws were adopted to do. Why won’t the City administration put a stop to it ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

STAYING IN BOSTON : THE HYDE PARK and ROSLINDALE MESSAGE

 

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^ Better schools are the key to having this young mother and her family stay in Roslindale rather than moving out. Nor is she the only young parent who will either stay, as we say we want them to, or leave.

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Having just spent more than a month knocking Hyde Park and Roslindale doors with District Five candidate Maria Esdale Farrell, I have a large plate of first hand voter opinion to offer you on the issue most often on voters’ minds in these two neighborhoods of Boston. What to do about Boston schools ? That is the subject most often voiced.

It was the same way back in the 1980s, when, then living in Roslindale, I ran for a public office based in Roslindale, Hyde Park, and points southwest. Then, however, the almost universal view was that Boston schools were hopelessly mired in busing from a child’s home neighborhood to one far away, a thing parents understandably refused to accept and so moved, out of the City entirely. Thus began an exodus of “Rozzie” and Hyde Park people that continues to this day.

If the turnover of homes continues, especially of the most affordable properties, the school issues that began it have changed. The fundamentals are not the same. In the 1980s, busing was a Federally ordered remedy for school segregation arising from segregated neighborhoods. Today the neighborhoods of Boston — all of them — have integrated racially and ethnically, which means there’s a solid basis for rescinding the 1975 Federal busing order. It is now seriously suggested by people on all sides and is certainly seen as crucial by people who own homes in “Rozzie’ and Hyde Park. Nor is rescission of the busing order the only school reform people in these neighborhoods bring up as they set forth the conditions they require if they’re to stay in Rozzie or Hyde Park — to not take half a million dollars for a home that in the late 1980s was worth maybe 50,000 at best.

Here, then, is a list of school reforms that Hyde park and “Rozzie” voters talk about, along with my own suggestions  generated by what voters told my candidate :

( 1 ) end the busing order. The City’s School Budget allocates $ 96,000,000 to transportation. Imagine what that $ 96 million could do for classroom equipment, teacher aide salaries, school lunches, and after-class activities.

( 2 ) bring back an elected school committee. Voters want to participate directly in Boston schools governance and see the appointed committee as too subservient to the Mayor, who is accountable to the voters on far too many fronts for school accountability to get proper priority. Some voters are willing to allow the Mayor one or two appointees to a reformed School Committee, but they want nine to twelve members elected from three districts exclusively drawn for school elections. (District Five opinion on this issue must take into account Rob Consalvo, who was Five’s Councillor and who now serves, by Mayoral appointment, as the School system’s chief of staff. I see no reason why Consalvo cannot respond to an elected committee as readily as to an appointed one, but his opinion on the change must be respected.)

( 3 ) reconstitute parent-teacher associations (PTA’s), which back in the days before busing assured each Boston schools of its direct response to the concerns and priorities of the parents of kids attending.

( 4 ) be open to alternative schools, because education today is no longer a one size fits all service. Charter schools of many kinds should be available to serve parents who want them, but locating charter schools is the sticking point. The Roxbury Prep proposal currently on offer proposes to occupy the old car dealership premises on Belgrade Avenue, and its proponents strongly believe in the location, close to public transportation; but all three neighborhood associations adjacent oppose the location; the result is that a school which ought to be built right now may not be built at all.

So —- local schools locally attended, directed by principals with power to hire and fire, subject to oversight by a committee elected by those who use the school system, and rigorous administration of a schools budget poorly managed and vastly over-committed to employee wages and benefits (these take up 86 percent of the current budget and have done so in all the last four budgets as well), as well as allowing alternative schools to flourish in local settings — these reforms would do wonders toward persuading current — long-term or recent arrival Rozzie and Hyde Park home owners to stay; to not cash out and leave the City; to feel good about the future direction of these two neighborhoods, which offer the same driveway, front lawn, back yard, and abundant verdure that one finds in much-desired suburbs : and which, unlike many suburbs, offer vibrant community connections, funky businesses, and plenty of social network venues, as one expects of a City setting. Yes, Rozzie and Hyde Park today have all of these, the funky social networking downtowns having come to full fruition only recently; but it won’t matter much if the area’s schools do not respond to what locals insist upon.

Lastly ; there are some who feel that the reason for long-term home owners leaving is “white flight.” I disagree. Those who left thirty years ago may well have feared a neighborhood becoming largely brown people or those who speak different languages. That is not true today. What I heard at the door was the same for every voter I listened to, of whatever skin hue or native language. And why not ? Those who think that people with brown skin or whose native language might be Albanian, or Spanish, or Yoruba (Nigeria) want something different from what Bostonians of prior immigrant origin want could not be more mistaken. Voters of Rozzie and Hyde park all want to be ordinary Americans and live ordinary American lives, no different, no matter what you hear from politicians with an agenda. On the schools front that’s absolutely true. You want Rozzie to remain ‘quirky” and Hyde Park to maintain Hyde pride ? Give them better schools better governed. It really is that simple.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

OF CARS, TRAFFIC, AND HAVING A CONVERSATION

tough traffic, but not unmanageable

My District Councillor, Lydia Edwards, has called for “having a conversation” about Boston’s traffic problem and how, perhaps, to reform it. I commend her for inviting conversation.

Actually, it’s already begun : at Large Councillor Michelle Wu proposed a $ 25.00 fee for resident parking stickers. How this assessment alleviates the traffic, I have no answer. Presumably Wu thinks that imposing a fee for Boston resident street parking permissions will induce many to park their cars somewhere other than on the street.

Is this feasible ? Probably not, in the zones most impacted by heavy traffic. So, is this proposal then a device for raising city revenue ? I can’t imagine any other purpose of it, and I object on that ground. Car owners are already taxed and fee-assessed : the excise tax, parking garages Downtown, car insurance, license and registration, annual inspection fee, and if you get a parking ticket, fees galore added. Car owners are easy prey for revenoo-ers : add the gas tax, the cost of a car loan, gasoline and car repair : in my own case, as my wife and I both keep a car on the road, it costs us about 1100.00 a month to pay for everything assessed or charged to us. It’s also twenty percent-plus of our monthly income. I doubt we’re the only ones. Wu’s $ 25.00 parking permission fee could not possibly be moire regressive. I reject it out of hand. It shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all..

What sort of proposal should be talked about ? I’ll suggest some at the end of this column, but first I think we ought to figure out how our traffic mess got to where it now is. Boston roads developed in stages and represent very different, clashing eras of transportation assumption. Downtown, East Boston, Charlestown, the South End, and much of South Boston were laid out long before cars existed. Most of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mission Hill, Brighton, and Jamaica Plain were planned out when cars were few. Mattapan, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Readville, and West Roxbury came about with street plans allowing for every family owning a car.

Hardly any allowance was made for cars at first, not enough allowance was made second, and full allowance came only for some of us — which means that Boston voters entertain contradictory interests in the traffic and parking.

I know of no one who lives in third-phase Boston who believes that Boston should make it more difficult for  City people to own and use a car. In first-phase Boston, however, many residents feel otherwise: they see their narrow streets filled with Airport-bound Ubers and Lyfts and visitors — for these are all tourist destination neighborhoods — parking where residents need to park. First-phase residents can’t easily drive their neighborhoods, much less get from them to other places. East Boston people see even worse, as Route 1-A brings immense volumes of North Shore commuters into and through the neighborhood on its way to the Harbor Tunnels. (Which adds a fourth phase to the three I have already outlined — Route 1-A and the Tunnels were built, in the 1930s and 1970s, onto an already existing neighborhood almost without regard to their impact on it. You could not get away with that today, but back then there was no organized neighborhood action, and what action did arise arose almost too late to make a difference.)

Charlestown has been all but cut off from surroundings by the Rutherford Avenue by-pass and a bridge to the North End that forms a traffic bottleneck almost every day. As for the North End itself, cars are almost an impossibility in its European-narrow streets, yet they’re everywhere, and parking if you’re not already in a space, is almost an impossibility.

All of that said, the requirement that you be a bona fide resident in order to to obtain a parking permit seems to me sufficient restriction.

Parking takes second place to the traffic situation, which affects everyone who needs to get to or through Downtown. The let’s-ban-cars folks say, make car use so prohibitively expensive that people are forced onto public transit. Leaving side the intolerable overreach of such proposal, public transit only goes where it wants to go and when it wants to go there. Fine, if its destination is yours, and its schedule fits your schedule, but if not, then public transit is a burden we should free to not take on.

Public transportation exists to serve those who have no other means and for those who have only one destination, not three, and who don’t want the hassle of finding parking in Downtown or paying upwards of $ 25 for it. And that is ALL it is for. Public transport can NOT be made mandatory. We live in a free society.

I have no problem with public transportation managers seeking to induce new ridership. That’s what any service provider seeks to do : attract new customers. What I object to is having a governmental authority order it, or force it by imposing taxes, fees, and street bans.

Now let’s talk about traffic in a traffic context and not as a justification for imposing other “mobility”: systems on people.

As traffic moves on roads, the conversation ought to confront the miserable design of Boston’s major roads. The Central Artery was built to traffic assumptions from forty years ago. Its designers evidently saw no problem with ( 1 ) squeezing traffic at exits down to one lane ( 2 ) building ramps onto the left lanes of a four-lane roadway barely a half mile from exit ramps on the other side of said roadway. Coming from the Ted Williams tunnel you enter the main highway from the left, then have to nudge your way across bumper to bumper traffic over to the right side in order to exit onto Massachusetts Avenue. 

These mistakes cannot just be wished away with a magic wand. Redesigning our major traffic roads, re-framing them and, perhaps, rerouting them, is out of the question. The disruption would be worse than the congestion. We’re pretty much stuck with what’s there. Nor is the congestion fatal to business. Thanks to cell phones , you can conduct a negotiation while stuck in traffic; can call whoever needs to be called, can plan ahead for when you — and your team of negotiators, or the other side — arrives at wherever. You can also schedule stuff, because even at peak traffic, it takes on average about 30 to 35 minutes to drive from the tunnel entrance at North Station to the Massachusetts Avenue exit. If you’re driving from Eastie to the other side of the Harbor you can also use the Ted Williams tunnel. From entrance to South Boston exit takes about fifteen minutes even at peak traffic. With a fully charged cell phone in your car you should be able to surmount inconvenence of this degree.

What, then, do I suggest ?

First : do not over-react. City ordinances should not be a kind of scratch to an itch.

Second : enough of dedicated lanes. Setting aside road for MBTA buses exclusively, and for bike travel does not better the situation, it worsens it. European cities set no such policy. All “mobility” types mix it up in the same traffic ; vespas, bikes, cars, jitneys. If there’s one principle of traffic management that we must apply, it is equality.

Third : It is maddening to have to find which lane allows you to turn left, or to go straight ahead, at a stop light; and drivers shifting lanes to meet the preference required by current traffic managers only thickens the jam.

Fourth : maintains roads and bridges in good repair. This is far more important than re-routing or creating dedicated lanes. Poor roads cause unnecessary car repairs (potholes everywhere), and bad bridges force complete shut-downs at the worst possible stretch of road.

Fifth : there are some road routes that do need re-thinking. The bridge at Readville, from one side of Wolcott Square and Sprague Street to the other, at Truman Parkway and Hyde Park Avenue, comes to mind. Too many roads intersect in too many competing combinations. There should be an underpass here, for through traffic, alongside the bridge for local option. I imagine there are other similar anomalies, locally defined, in our road system.

Lastly : let’s not overdo, nor make impulse decisions. Boston traffic arises from the Boston boom. It’s a consequence of prosperity and economic growth. Routing mistakes were made, in the 1930s and in the 1970s, even in the 1990s, yet it would be worse to override these now. Best to apply the principle of traffic equality and to not tax Boston resident car owners beyond the already burdensome excise tax and gas tax. We cannot require car owners to pay even more for the sake of public transportation, as a kind of punishment because the “progressives”: do not like cars. No traffic and transportation policy should ever try to punish one transportation preference in favor of another. It’s up to the people — and not to government — to decide which form of transportation they want to use.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

EXTENDING THE GREEN LINE

photo courtesy of Boston Globe

In this morning’s Boston Globe there’s a feature report on the Green Line extension through Somerville to Medford. The new service runs for only 4.7 miles, yet the cost will run to almost $ 2 billion and the work will take two more years to complete (the target date for commencing service is 2021). AS the Globe reports, the new tracks involve bridge rebuilding, right of way widening, noise barriers, new stations, and in the meantime, much detouring of traffic on Somerville’s Broadway and Washington Streets:
https://www2.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/04/21/slowly-but-surely-green-line-extension-coming-along/pVGdQ6TsSMmdU8p91zvBmL/story.html

I doubt this enormous dislocation and rebuilding could ever have been accomplished without solid support from Somerville’;s Mayor and City officials. How else to suffer the inconveniences for several years ? And all of that for a mere 4.7 miles of new track.

Keep that in mind when advocates berate the Baker administration — as many do, every day — about MBTA improvements. Reforming Boston’s public transportation isn’t easy or quick. It could be done 100 years ago, or even 60, before neighborhood activists learned to assemble, or zoning laws took hold. Then, eminent domain moves could easily acquire a right of way. Today, not gonna happen. Extending the Blue Line, as many activists propose — disclosure : i support doing it — sounds good, but it involves Revere and Lynn, and maybe Swampscott and Salem, and it means buying up a right of way — or widening existing rights — and building stations. Blue Line extension was first seriously proposed at least 25 years ago. It still hasn’t moved beyond the talking stage. Will it do so now ? I wonder. Connecting the Red Line to the Blue Line is simpler : an existing track already exists, bet.ween Bowdoin Street and the Charles Street Bridge. (T trains once traveled that track. Why did they stop ?) As for other MBTA reforms, they face every obstacle that the Green Line extension spent a decade overcoming.

More radical transit advocates want much more draconian moves. They see the presence of cars on city streets as the big problem — it is one, to be sure — and the T as the solution. make it so expensive to drive a car into Boston that only the rich will be able to afford it. To these advocates, its not enough that those who drive into Boston face parking fees of $ 20.00 a day and up, or that they pay tolls to use the fastest roads, or that municipalities impose a once “temporary” excise tax on vehicle owners, or that parking meter fines continue to rise, $ 90.00 now being the bottom line in Boston, or t.hat if you happen to get towed in Boston, you’ll pay 4 142 to $ 245 just to get your car back, plus the inconvenience of finding a way to get to where it has been towed. Boston and its adjacent communities already crush car owners. Add to their imposts the cost of car insurance — I pay $ 181 a month, $ 2200 a year — and of inspection, car repair, gasoline, and maybe an auto loan, and you’e put car ownership way out of reach for people on limited incomes. None of t.his is enough for radical anti-automobile advocates. They seek to penalize Uber and Lyft rides with fees and fines. They want the State’s gas tax, already onerous, raise even higher. They want a “miles driven” tax. Some have recently proposed something called ” congestion pricing,” a law which, if enacted, will credit those who drive in off-peak traffic hours. That’s fine, if you can do that. Most of us cannot. As for the explosion of Uber and Lyft cars taking commuters to Logan Airport or picking them up, why should they pay a fine or a fee for providing a service vital to our City’s hectic economy of prosperity ? I suppose that one-way designation can fend Uber and Lyft cars off East Boston local streets: why not institute that ?

Without question traffic on East Boston streets has ballooned past the toleration point : residents on residential streets reasonably wish their street to be free of pass-through traffic. East Bostonians — and others — thus ask why the State cannot push major MBTA build-outs quickly. At least put plans in place, they ask. And so ? The State is doing so. A comprehensive transportation plan was released three months ago — I wrote about it at the time. It’s an ambitious plan that takes environmental issues into account as well as traffic concerns. It will not, however, be quick. How can it be ? We would like to see many more trains put in service on the T lines, than the few which now ruin ? That requires major upgrades to track, switch, and signaling — all of which is being done now and will be be done all the way to 2022, at a cost of $ 8 billion. The Baker administration has also begun work to repair some major bridges in serious need: these include the Mystic River span and the bridges that connect Charlestown to Boston and to Everett. Doing these all at once requires “two years of pain,” as my friend at the T said to me, but “that’s less than the four years it would take if we did it piecemeal.”

In sum, there is no easy or simple answer to our transportation predicament. I do not favor making it even more expensive for cars than it already is, and i do not favor tax impositions arising from the desire to hurry transportation improvements. We do need more trains on the T lines, and more effective bus routing, and these will require the line upgrades which I mentioned earlier and the coming on service of the T’s electric buses, now planned for 2022-2023. We’re not wrong to want more people to use the T and buses, and fewer to choose car travel into the City; but I think we’ve already reached the maximum T and bus preference that can be expect without penalizing people for preferring the precision and efficiency of cars. Public roadways are not property of those who reside on them. If residents want power over who may use their street, let their street become private, as some streets are. As long as tax dollars are used, however, to maintain a public street, the public has a right to use them. If we are going to bring the T and buses to optimum performance, many years of incremental improvement will be needed — to stay within budget and to meet all of the myriad concerns and interests that any transportation proposal faces, from environment and convenience to cost and design. Let the decade and more that it took to get Green Line extension on its way be alesson t.o us all in t.his complex matter.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

TO IMPEACH, OR NOT TO IMPEACH ?

Comngressman Nadler has known Mr. Trump for decades. Theyre both from NYC. He knows where to look, and what to look for.

We strongly support the impeachment of President Trump. In this column I will list and explain our reasoning. The question, therefore, is not whether Mr. Trump ought to be impeached but SHOULD he be ? Opinions differ. In my mind, the Mueller report — which you can read here :
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/politics/read-the-mueller-report/?utm_term=.c12649065162 — is a referral to Congress of findings that support, maybe even require, an impeachment proceeding. On almost every page the narrative tells of acts and notions that reek of corruption, self-dealing, mendacity, indifference to the national interest in favor of personal interests. We see that Mr,. Trump and his circle not only do not live up to their oaths of office — “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” in the words of Article 2, Section 3 — but instead either violate laws or show complete indifference to them; we see cronyism, personal gain, laziness, incompetence, waste of taxpayer dollars, total lack of secure access and communication. We see not a Presidential administration but a clique of grifters, cheaters, shamelessly selfish and almost laughably indifferent to any obligation of trust. Such an administration has no business holding office under the Constitution, and the only question is, how best to end it ?

That the Mueller report amounts to an impeachment referral requires, I think, that the debate must begin : impeachment now, or later ? Or not at all, because, as some Congresspeople have posted, the matter will be decided by the voters 18 months from now ? I think that the impeachment process must begin now. If not — if Congress decides to take a cautious view — it sacrifices its Constitutional duty at a time when the powers given to Congress by the Constitution have already been seriously vitiated by decades of accession of primary power to the executive, accessions never intended by the Framers and for very good reason, as we now see in the gigantic power claims of Mr. Trump. Holding him fully accountable, via the means expressly set forth in the Constitution, recovers significant portions of the Constitution’s framework that have been compromised over decades thanks chiefly to World War II and the long Cold War, in which the President’s powers as Commander in Chief overrode the Constitution’s normal, non-wartime system. In sum, the impeachment process must begin.

Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — which has jurisdiction over the decision to bring a bill of impeachment — will now begin by ( 1 ) subpoena-ing the unredacted Mueller report, so that Congress can know the full details found by SC Mueller. After his committee has that document, Nadler will call Mr. Mueller to testify before his committee. He also plans to interrogate Attorney General Barr and probably others. (All of this will take time, and it will go where Nadler wants it to go : Mr. Trump might have tried to fire SC Mueller — unsuccessfully, thank goodness — but he cannot fire members of Congress. Just the reverse. Congress has power to impeach the President; the President has no such power to impeach anyone.) I would be very surprised if, after Nadler has held his hearings, and more of the Mueller report is made public, a bill of impeachment is not put to a vote of the House. If so, it will certainly be adopted and impeachment trial mangers appointed.

Though I predict this outcome, it is not certain that it is the right outcome, politically. All during the Nadler hearings, right wing media will be blasting him with sensational stories mostly half true and otherwise taken out of context and made to look scandalous. This has been right wing media’s M/O for years now, accompanied by noise and kooky stuff all over social media. Expect, too, that Russian cyber attacks — and from other rogue regimes — will muddy the mix with lies and hallucinations cleverly disguised as they were leading up to the 2016 election. In short, Nadler and his committee won’t have the news cycle to themselves. Counter-narratives will dog them every step of the way, aided and abetted by most (but not all) House Republicans, as has happened already all along. The House Democratic leadership will have to work very hard, and smartly, to maintain the initiative and to make sure that its views dominate every day of the news cycle. Given this scene, is impeachment worth the trouble ? I say yes.

There can be no avoiding the duties that await Congress. Read these lines from Rich Wilson’s latest article in The Daily Beast over and over. They’re all spelled out in the Mueller report, and they aren’t pretty :

The smart legal folks are still parsing the things that kept Mueller from charging Trump, leaving that decision to his old friend Bill Barr. What’s clear from his report is that Mueller had the goods on obstruction, but saw no way to make the case given the DOJ’s rules.

We also know, with even more certainty than we already did, that Donald Trump’s cadre of people who lie with ease and dispatch made it hard for Mueller to do his job.

This is a damning portrait of a president with almost no command of his emotions or his government, one with no compunctions about wrapping up his most loyal staffers in his lies and crimes. The portraits of this White House as madhouse from Fire and Fury to Fear to freaking Omarosa are of an administration where no one is in charge, nothing is true, and chaos rules each day. All are borne out in the special counsel’s report.

In this White House bedlam, Trump has been saved his own ineptitude—with a big assist from Bill Barr—by aides and allies just brave or afraid enough to ignore his criminal diktats.

This is where we are at. Now back to my impeachment call.

As to the argument that Mr. Trump’s fate will be decided by the voters, I agree that if he is in office on election day 2020, he will be defeated, probably by a significant margin. Anyone who is not inside his support bubble is not likely to become a supporter; his approval rating stands at 38 to 42 percent, and in most polls the question “deserves re election / time for somebody else” runs about 38 for re elect, 57 to try somebody new. I doubt these numbers will change in his favor. Obviously, defeat at the polls ends his holding the office and, by returning him to private citizenship, opens him to a host of potential criminal indictments. That would b e a just outcome, but the question of impeachment involves another scenario, one that is completely political : if Mr. Trump[ is impeached and convicted, Mr. Pence takes over; and he would certainly ask the voters to give him a chance to “right the ship.” Such a plea would not fall on deaf ears. Mr. Pence is almost the opposite of Mr. Trump ; a careful man, one who likes people and is liked by those who know him, a man of the House not unlike Gerald Ford, who acquired the Presidency after Nixon’s resignation. I can well understand why Democrats would not want Mr. Pence to take over and be able to make that plea. I share their unease with such an outcome, because Mr. Pence supports laws and policies that I do not and cannot. Nonetheless, I am uneasy with making a calculation decision about impeachment,. I don’t think that Congress can hold the people’s trust if it puts Democratic party interests ahead of upholding the Constitution and the oaths that office holders take to it. These must come first.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere