SCHOOLS REFORM : THE SENATE KILLS A BAD CHARTER CAP LIFT BILL

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^ State Senator Sonia Chang-diaz : her Senate version of Russell Holmes’ charter cap lift bill was amended with poison pills, and as intended, these killed it.

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Yesterday, the Massachusetts State Senate killed, by a 26 to 13 vote, a charter cap lift bill much changed from the proposal that the House voted for by 113 to 33 a few months ago.

The bill voted down in the senate included, if i am to credit the Globe’s cot Lehigh, who wrote of it, many provisions that made no sense and were rightly voted down. Its transportation formulas, funding compensation,  attrition rules, and equivalents guaranteed that charters enabled under this law would not really be charters at all, or would fail.

Much of the Senate bill’s content was put in because of protests by teachers’ unions and groups allied therewith. My friend ed Lyons has called these provisions “poison pills,” and he’s right. they were meant to kill, and they did.

Undoubtedly, the teachers’ unions will view yesterday’s charter cap lift vote as a victory. It isn’t. Yesterday’s vote will only anger charter school supporters and assure a huge issue for this year’s Governor race — except that almost certainly both candidates will voice strong support for increasing the number of allowed charter schools, this assuring that yesterday’s vote will be a defeat for the teachers’ unions.

Ever since i began my in depth coverage of last year’s Boston Mayor race, it became apparent to me that teachers’ unions were going to take the route, not of spearheading reform, but of intransigence in opposition to the school reforms that almost everybody in Massachusetts wants. This is a shame and quite beside the real point, which is that public schools in low income neighborhoods and most communities of color do not work because of deep-seated racism and class bias. Poor people have almost no political power, even in supposedly progressive Massachusetts; and people of color have not much more. Almost all the problems besetting our public schools arise from this.

The charter school cap lift bill arose from the state’s communities of color, whose district schools are among the worst in our state. We need to assure, probably by legislation,l that public schools are funded equally, regardless of income level of the district or the racial composition of the student body; and we need to assure that schools especially in low income and COC districts are accorded the best, most committed teachers. Today these schools often get the worst. Let me repeat : this is a matter of institutional, cultural racism and class. it can be broken by assuring full hiring autonomy to the superintendent AND to the individual school principal. Raising the charter school cap does nothing to solve this cultural bias; indeed, raising the cap — for “underperforming districts,” mind you — aggravates it, in two ways ; (1) by taking the most ambitious students out of low income or COC public schools and by taking funds away from those schools, thereby assuring they will continue to draw the worst teachers. Of course my solution will probably not work, as the poor have no political clout at all in a Citizens United America, and COC people have not much more. All the clout lies in the upper income suburbs, whose people have zero interest in improving the schools that other kids go to and thereby increasing the competition (with the high income kids) for college admissions and, eventually, good jobs. Heaven forfend that low income or COC kids should actually compete with Johnny from Belmont and Mary of Wellesley !!!
Charter schools — innovation schools generally — should be accorded all respect and opportunity, both as laboratories for reinventing how we educate and as best practices alternatives. I support their existence. But reform of schools — transformation of them, as John Connolly eloquently said — must arise from within the public school environ, not in opposition to it. he Horace Mann idea, that all kids of a community larn together and grow up together,. and thus become a more positively bonded community, is a noble one, a democratic ideal that fulfills our nation’s most basic premise : that all kids matter equally and must be given the same level of primary education.

Innovation education may allow kids to grow their own life missions, diversely and more : but schooling is also about citizenship, and the common school teaches it by demonstration and example and does so better than any alternative method. It must be maintained and cherished. Looking to charter schools as an escape from bad public schools is an act of desperation, not improvement. looking to charters as a way to bust unions is an act of selfishness. And in such a con text, charter schools will look more and more, to teachers’ unions, as a threat rather than a boon. we are traveling the road of education disaster if we do not stop and recalibrate our political GPS.

Yesterday’s Senate vote should be taken as an opportunity to do just that.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SCHOOLS REFORM : THE HOUSE SAYS YES TO CHARTER CAP LIFT

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^ triumph day in the House for State Representative Russell Holmes

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Debate on the charter cap lift legislation began at 2 PM yesterday and, according to my best source, who received the news by e-mail, the bill was adopted by a vote of 116 to 35. According to my source, the bill — styled “an act to further narrow the achievement gap,” and first filed by Dorchester State Representative Russell Holmes, was adopted with no amendments. And there were plenty on offer.

Earlier this year I opined at length on the goods and bads of this legislation. In particular I disliked that the bill lifts the cap on charter sc hools only for “underperforming’ districts,’ as state education laws define the term. To me, this was an invitation to shaky, but not disastrous, school distticts, to slack their efforts, so as to be designated “underperforming” ; because parents a with children enrolled in such districts would now have an alternative very much desired and currently not availoable to them. This was what happened when our state adopted Special education’s school plan for children so designated. Parents fought to win “special needs” designation for their children so that they could get the one-on-one curriculum offered by the program.

That said, it is most significant that this legislation was offered by Russell Holmes, who represents one of the economically poorest districts in the state. charter schools are intensely wanted by parents in such neighborhoods, which have had to bear with some of the worst performing schools in the State. It’s hard not to conclude that the money and talent goes to school districts with higher income, more influential parents. Those without money lack power; that;s a fact. One doesn’t like to see low-income districts lose confidence in public schools, but that’s how it is; and who are we to tell such parents that no, you can’t have a chance at something better ?

It was argued to me, by my own state Representative, that the teachers and staff in marginal districts would fight NOT to be designated as “underperforming” because it might mean layoffs and the imposition of principals’ autin hiring new staff. This is a powerful argument; I think that my State Rep has it right.

If so, then the House’s 116-35 enactment vote yesterday will be on balance a good thing. Reimubursement, for pupils lost to charter schools, to the school districts so affected remains an issue both ways. The formula seems arbitrary. But it’s also a way to get more State funds into the budgets of affected school districts. As State education funds aid to local school systems has all but diusapperared, the reimbursement money will surely be very welciome at the district level.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SCHOOLS REFORM : PROCEEDING DESPITE ALL

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School reform will happen — in Boston. It is already happening, quietly, surely. Statewide, not so sure. Issues of curriculum, funding, and school innovation divide in several directions. But let’s look first at Boston.

Last year, few could have predicted that Boston school reform would proceed at all. Mayoral candidate John Connolly made “school transformation” his big issue. As schools are by far the largest budget item in Boston, and school parents the largest identifiable city-wide interest, Connolly’s choice of issue seemed a sure winner. It wasn’t, because Boston’s schools aren’t a single interest group. It’s administrators, teachers, custodians, parents, school buses, a school construction authority, and several types of schools dictated by State Law. The complexity of school interests sliced Connolly every which way, and he lost.

The teachers’ unuon badly misplayed its part in the Mayor campaign. The smart move would have been to endorse Connolly — for maing education his key issue and thereby gaining an inside position in the next mayor’s school policy discussion. Instead, the union backed two candidates who lost in the primary; only on election morning of the Final did it send out an endorsement of Marty Walsh, who, being a charter school board member, the union had not much wanted.

The Mayor has said very little about schools, but he did allocate the school department a four percent increase in funds; and Walsh’s two appointees to the School Committee have voted “yes” to three significant steps taken by John McDonough, the “interim superintendent” who doesn’t look like a reformer but is..

What are these three steps ? First, layng off about 100 central office administrators. Second, giving each Boston school principal full authority to hire, or replace every member of his teaching and support staff. Third, using public transportation — the T — to bring seventh and eighth grade studebts to school, thereby saving money (and acquiring a back door budget increase, as the T has agreed to transport students at its own cost) and somewhat lessening the impact of labor wars between school bus drivers and the company they work for (and who can forget the wildcat strike last Fall that stranded so many students for an entire school day ?)

These are significant reforms. Giving school principals complete hiring and replacement power changes the entire character of the principals’ job. No longer is she simply a high level monitor and a scapegoat for bad performance, now she can demand performance and see that it is given her. Using the T to transport students saves tens of millions of dollars that can instead be allocated to classrooms. Eliminating central office positions moves the burden of performance to the actual school where learning is demanded.

All of this is being put in place — though some say it’s not happening as thoroughly as McDonough’s office claims — by a man who speaks softly and looks even softer; a man who makes everyone involved feel liked and wanted even as he puts his very transforming agenda into place inch by inch.. Where John Connolly seemed to run at the school system like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan hill, John McDonough gets every hill he faces to be on his side.

Example :

At the March 26th Budget vote, after two hours of “public comment” by parents and advocates enraged by the proposal to use the T to transport seventh and eighth graders — and with teachers’ union president Richard Stutman sitting grimly in the audience — the School Committee voted unanimously to do that and to approve McDonough’s staffing autonomy for school principals. “Shame on you !” shouted one activist, who then stormed out of the room.

McDonough’s response ? In that soft white-haired voice of his he applauded the parents and activists : “You’re the most involved parents I’ve seen in forty years,” he told them. “You get it.”

Yep.

McDonough is also preparing his schools for the newly adopted PARCC tests (PARCC stands for “partnership for assessment of readiness for college, a state-based initiative that will be ready for the 2014-15 school year) and is implementing the Common Core curriculum standards that have of late generated some controversy. No one that I am aware of is trying to stop him.

The controversy now attaching to the Common Core initiative is acting out chiefly at the State House. It comes chiefly by right wing Republicans who object to nation-wide anything, much less national education standards; some teacher groups are also critical. These do not like the significant instruction changes that common core standards entai, and they especially dislike that Common Core’s testing tends to dominate classroom instruction. I find these objections anecdotal only. Change is always hard for micro-managed institutions.

In Boston, much of the rancor about school change has come and gone. “We have had some difficult conversations,’ says McDonough, in his humble way. “Change is difficult.” But as he summed up the March 26th Budget meeting, “This is not about public schools versus charter schools. it’s about making all schools better.”

McDonough cannot have been happy to see Orchard Gardens school princiopal Anthony Bott quit his job for the coming year, for Bott has been one of the Boston system’s most successful turn-around leaders. Bott’s leaving has given McDonough’s critics — who think he’s not acting quickly enough, or comprehensively, to change how the school system operates. Nor could McDonough have been thrilled to see John Connolly reappear, after months of silence, at April 9th’s School Committee meeting, on behalf of his fellow Trotter School’s parents, who, as Connolly eloquently told the Committee, are upset about losing their Families Engagement Co-ordinator, a Mr. Alward, who, as Connolly said, “makes the school work.”

Mr. Alward is one of the 230-odd school personnel being cut in this year’s department budget — cuts that McDonough said “involved trade offs.” Schools are losing coaches, teacher aides, even, at the Curley K Through 8, a school nurse. And several families engagement co-ordinators. Few of these have available a spokesman as eloquent — or powerful — as an almost Mayor. In Connolly’s words : “We’re a turnaound school, the Trotter,” he said. Level four to level one. We’re now one of the best schools in the city, we knock the socks off those tests. That’s not going to happen if can’t keep families engaged — if we whittle away what works !”

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Connolly is only the best known, though probably the most moving speaker, of the many Boston School parents who are angry about the layoffs of field personnel. As Heshan Weeramuni, of the Curley School parents group, puts it, “we’re losing school staff even as we’re gaining more students.”

Weeranmuni isn’t that impressed with the four percent budget increase provided by Mayor Walsh. “Over the years, as we’ve lost Federal funds and thus State funds,” he says,” we’ve actually seen a ten percent cut in funding, not an increase.

Weeramuni is active with a Boston school parents group led by karen Kast of Roslindale, who worked the Mayor election for candidate Rob Consalvo and, after Consalvo was eliminated, managed City Council candidate Marty Keogh’s campaign. Kast is an imaginative advocate for what parents call “full funding.” A “$ 61 million bake sale” that she helped organize recently drew much attention, as it took place on the back side of City hall, across the street from iconic Faneuil hall.

Kast is a leader in Boston Truth, a parents-and-teachers coalition militantly opposed to state legislation increasing the number of charter schools authorized in Massachusetts. A bill to do that sits stalled (as of this writing) in the legislatiure’s Joint Committee on Education, chaired by Wellesley State Rep Alice Peisch and by Jamaica Plain’s State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. The proposal — submitted by Boston State Rep Russell Holmes — seems unlikely to be enacted in its present form. Nor should it be. Titled “An Act To Further Narrow the Achievement Gap,” the bill calls for increasing the number of charter schools in “under-performing districts” — but not elsewhere. Yet the principals of under-performing schools get, by this legislation, exactly the powers that John McDonough has already established in Boston.

The bill also proposes a reimbursement formula, compernsation to Boston for students who choose to go to the additional charters, of IRS-like complexity.

For Boston, the proposed bill is otiose in one respect, contradictory in the other : why give a principal power to create the school that she wants, only to take away the effect of that power by putting more charter schools in competition ? Either the legislation wants under-performing school districts to do better, or it wants them to lose students. Which is it ?

I’m not sure the State’s administrators can answer that question. Certainly their take-over of two under-performing Boston schools, the Holland and the Dever, after these schools had already undergone a full year and more of McDonough-led “turn-around,’ suggets that the proverbial one hand doesn’t know what the other is up to.

Almost all of the State’s GOP, and many Democrats too, want more charter schools. That in itself is not a bad idea. The greater the availability and diversity of innovative schools, the better it should be for all the public schools. But many who advocate the loudest for more charter schools do so as a means of breaking the power of teachers’ unions. This cannot be a goal of education policy. Of course, schools do not exist to give jobs to teachers; still, teachers, there are; and the job we ask them to do is a difficult one, and vital. Union member teachers earn a good living; what benefit do we think we get if we block teachers from earning more ? Certainly not an economic benefit, and proabbly not an educational one. And if, as is true, the teachers in charter schools need not be union members, and thus cost less, is that a good ? I have never been convinced that asking workers to earn less is a benefit to anbody in any way.

If our state is to expand the allowed number of charter schools, it must be done generally — never only in “under performimg” districts, for that is to guarantee, even aggravate, their under-performance — and the expansion must benefit the performance of all schools. A diversity of school types must lead to the adoption of best practices, as these are experimented with; to an optimum length of school day; to courses beyond the Common Core basics : courses in civics, history, philosophy, the arts, sports, and more, such as emotional education and foreign languages. (One ‘Best practice’ that I like a lot is ‘dual language learning,’ in which students are schooled, daily and all day long, in English and another language. Chinese, French, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic — you name it.) And all of this must become the mission of all schools, of whatever type.

Until the legislature can forge an achievement gap-narrowing bill that sets forth a path to this end, without detours into special interest pleading, the Joint Committee on education should defer to act. Flawed legislation is always hard to repair, especially enactments that misdirect an institution as flex-averse as public education.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

EVERYTHING WAS QUIET & BUSINESS-LIKE AT MATTAPAN TRANSPO MEETING, AND THEN …..

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^ the community has questions : last night’s Fairmount Line (MBTA) meeting in mattapan

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Last night “the community” filled much of the Mildred Avenue Community Center auditorium to hear an MBTA project team outline plans for a new Blue Hill Avenue – Cummins Highway T stop on the Fairmount Line. State Representatives Dan Cullinane and Russell Holmes were there, as was State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry. City Councillor Tim McCarthy came too. It was all set to be a very genteel, slide show presentation of the much-talked-of new Fairmount Line, featuring many local stops so that the line can serve Boston’s communities of color; through which the Fairmount runs and which, until recently, it had not served at all.

Genteel it was, as the project manager showed photos of new Fairmount stops at Newmarket, Uphams Corner, Four Corners, Talbot Avenue, Morton Street. Beautiful they were, and handsome, almost, the newly rebuilt bridges (there are 41 bridges on the Fairmount, said the project guy) over Columbia Road and Massachusetts Avenue. All of it done and the stations open, operating and doing just fine.

Then came the renderings of the proposed Blue Hill to Cummins Highway station.

Good-bye to genteel.

The audience was not happy to see what they saw : a T stop running between Woodhaven Street and Regis Road, all the way from Blue Hill Avenue (at SIMCO’s) to Cummins Highway (on the other side of Mattapan Square). Of course the line already runs that route and impacts those homes; the only new factor is the T stop. It seemed not that big a change, but to an audience waiting to pounce, it was big enough.

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^ They lined up at the microphone to ask questions. Well, not so much questions as to rant against the T in general.

“It seems to me that we’re always having stuff imposed on us,” said one woman. “We need honesty. we’re the abutters.”

Said another man, “We never get anything !”

“In 2005 they promised us cameras and a phone at the Morton street,’ said another. “Came 2007, the phone was in, but not the camera.”

“Why isn’t there even one station between Blue Hill and Fairmount avenue ?” asked a man. “Three mile stretch and you can’t do even one stop ?”

“i do not trust the T,” said an older woman, speaking to Russell Holmes directly next to her.

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^  St Rep Russell Holmes listens to grievances

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“Where were you when all this was being done,” a man asked of Holmes, who pretty soon had had enough. He stood up, addressed the questioner directly. “You’re for it,” he said to the man, who obviously knew Holmes — addressing him “Russell.” “And I’m for it. So what is the problem ?”

“If the community wants it, it should have it,’ answered Holmes’s friend. “if it doesn’t, then not.”

Holmes certainly was right to stand up a he did. the Fairmount has been in works for over three years now — as Senator Dorcena Forry pointed out in a fierce, extensive speech during which she challenged the nay-sayers and defended the project — which, as the T’s spokes-gal said, is wanted by at least 60 percent of local residents.

Her speech not only quieted the crowd but even garnered extensive applause. But then the questioning continued. There was much talk of the T stops being for “outsiders.” And so it went.

Silly me, I guess, for thinking that the Fairmount line’s addition of several local stops, to serve those who need public transit to get to work, was an unmitigated good thing. I should have realized that even indisputable benefits to a neighborhood look like an imposition to some when they are delivered from the State House by a government in which very few people of color have any direct voice.

The objectors were not, however, playing a race card. One woman loudly praised State Senator Jack Hart, of South Boston (who represented Mattapan before Linda Dorcena Forry) for his work with the neighborhood’s concerns. Rather, the race component lay far deeper in the anger than that. It was directed to the State House in general. And it was hard not to see that every one of the Fairmount Project staff was white — except for its “neighborhood outreach advocate.”

It was also hard not to agree with the woman who talked about promises made in 2005, when Mitt Romney was still governor. The disconnect between State plans and state performance is not Democrat or Republican. It is systemic. it arises from budget traffic jams, departmental conflicts, the constant buffeting, from one crisis to another, of governors by the public. It is very difficult for a complex, 21st century government to do anything quickly or well, and that is how it is with a democracy in which everybody votes and voters get listened to, as they should be.

Some call this performance traffic jam “waste.” I call it democracy in action. Community meetings and neighborhood input are now a core part of the process by which public improvements are brought from concept to built. Onward we go, anger and conflict and all that.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

below : “the community” gathers to listen and object

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MISDEMEANORS TO THE FORE : THE HOUSE EXPELS CARLOS HENRIQUEZ

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^ “impaired judgment” ? the 5th Suffolk’s Carlos Henriquez addressing the Massachusetts house during debate on expelling him

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Not very often do you see a Legislature vote to expel a member. It hasn’t happened in Massachusetts since the late 1970s, when State Senator Joseph DiCarlo was booted for taking bribes. I well remember that day. DiCarlo was a boisterous, dominant presence, the Senate’s majority leader. His crime was a felony, a high crime by any legislature’s definition. Expelling him was a big deal, a giant of politics crashing and burning.

In contrast, yesterdays 146 to 5 vote — to accept the House Ethics Committee’s unanimous resolution to expel the 5th Suffolk District’s Carlos Henriquez — seemed like small potatoes. Yes, his conviction on two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery on a woman was serious. He should have resigned. Had he any concern for the well-being of his 40,000 constituents, many of them needing a full-time legislative voice, he WOULD have resigned. Of this affair he has made many statements. He is innocent, he says — again and again. Not once has he grasped that that isn’t the point ; that the point is his 40,000 constituents. Not once, in his “I am innocent” statement on the floor of the house yesterday did he address a bigger picture. Indeed, he had the temerity to say that domestic violence is a serious crime and cannot be tolerated !

Having delivered this message, he then walked out of the House, an insult to every member and, I suppose, intended as such.

Debate on the Ethics Resolution — H. 3894 — lasted more than an hour. Speaker DeLeo, on whose complaint the Ethics Committee was acting — seemed ready to let his members speak as long as they liked. Several did. Most supported the committee recommendation, some sadly, a few angrily. Over the top was Malden’s Chris Fallon, who shouted his disapproval of domestic violence, very much the candidate — as he is — seeking a state Senate seat, the one vacated by newly elected Congresswowman Katherine Clark.

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^ cogently arguing for censure, not expulsion : Russell Holmes of the 6th Suffolk District

Representative Russell Holmes, of the 6th Suffolk District bordering Henriquez’s 5th, offered an amendment to the Ethics Committee’s resolution. He asked that the House censure Henriquez, not expel him. Holmes’s amendment made two strong points : that with parole, Henriquez will be out of jail by mid April, well before a special election to replace him occurs; and that his crime did not explicitly violate the House Rules and thus could not warrant expulsion.

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^ “this is a sad day for us all, i don;t enjoy this task at all” : Ethics Committee Acting  Chairman David Nangle of Lowell

The Ethics Committee’s finding, that Henriquez had violated Rule 16A, which addresses a member’s impaired judgment, did seem strained. Arguing the point, Reps. Garrett Bradley and David Nangle (acting Ethics Chairman) asserted that, being convicted of a crime of domestic violence, Henriquez’s ability to judge domestic violence legislation was impaired. Really ? if anything, his judgment on such legislation has probably become more acute. As for Henriquez being free of jail by mid-April, Bradley and Nangle argued that that was not the point; that Henriquez is quite free to seek re-election to his seat and to be allowed to take his seat if elected.

They’re right on this. It has happened in other legislatures, including Congress.

Yet even if the Ethics Committee’s Rule 16A argument stretched things, there was a general sense in the House that Henriquez no longer had any credibility to address domestic violence matters and that, by his continued insistence on innocence and not resigning, Henriquez had impaired his own judgment on the matter. Representative Ted Speliotis of Danvers voiced the feelings of many when he noted that, by walking out before the end of debate, Henriquez had insulted the “institution.”

No one, not even Russell Holmes, argued with the Ethics Committee’s finding that domestic violence is a serious matter and cannot be taken lightly by the House. Accepting this argument, the House now deems expulsion no longer limited to felonies; that a misdemeanor conviction of domestic violence is full grounds for expelling a member. As Representative Bradley said, “we’ve never faced this situation before, this is a case of first impression.”

But to return to Russell Holmes’s amendment : it was defeated with only 10 members voting “Yes.” Among the Yeas were Representatives Gloria Fox, Byron Rushing, Carl Sciortino, Denise Provost, Holmes himself, Benjamin Swan, John Rogers, and Angelo Scaccia.

Holmes himself said that Henriquez should have resigned. Little wonder that the actual expulsion vote was even more one sided. Voting not to expel were only Carl Sciortino, Denise Provost, Gloria Fox, Benjamin Swan and, after some hesitation, Holmes too.

A special election for the 5th Suffolk District has been called.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere