Sunday, November 27, 2005

School Committee Budget Forum

The School Committee meeting of November 14th marked the beginning of the School budget process for FY 2007. The committee invited public comment on the priorities that should be addressed as the budget is put together over the next couple of months. Given that fact, the coverage of the Milton Times and comments they attributed to one school committee member were rather inexplicable. The Milton Times ran a headline that said “SC Discusses Budget With No Numbers”, and the quote of a School Committee member seemed to reinforce that sentiment. But why would you put the numbers together before you received the priorities advocated by parents and the school based administrations? It seems we are doomed to be forever plagued by an almost reflexive negativity when it comes to this one town department. One can almost see the headline and commentary if numbers had been presented and discussed at this meeting. “School Administration Offers Budget Without Hearing Public’s Priorities.”

In any event, about 15-20 citizens showed up for the meeting. Seven shared their budgetary concerns with the committee. The most frequently mentioned priority was to reduce class size. This concern was voiced about all levels of the system, in the French Immersion program, and in the Special Needs classes.

The most interesting comments of the evening were offered by Cheryl McDermott. Ms. McDermott urged the School Committee to approach the achievement gap as something other than just a black student/white student concern, as a gap between actual performance and high achievement for all. In this regard she urged the committee to (1) look at successful schools nationally, (2) use MCAS data to develop individualized plans, (3) find exceptionally motivated teachers who view all students as achievers.

Benchmarking successful systems is a very important idea. The National Center for Educational Accountability promotes increased learning through the acquisition and publication of performance data in American public schools. In addition, they identify high performing schools and are in the process of developing best practices based on assessments of student bodies and performance. For each school, top performing comparable schools, (measured by comparable rates of low income students, English language learners, class size and percentage of students tested) are identified. The NCEA sponsors a website where this information for schools representing a good part of the country can be found.

Additional concerns mentioned by attendees included reducing athletic fees, staffing the library so it can remain open beyond 2:30, more physical education time, and detailed communication about the budgeting process as it progresses so that we are not left in a last minute crisis. Of course that last concern cuts two ways. It places a responsibility on school supporters to monitor activity and attend meetings of the School Committee and the Warrant Committee when the school budget is being discussed. If anything was learned from last year it was that the budget process is in some measure a political one that must be treated as such from the beginning of budget discussions in December right up until March/April when last minute pressures are brought to bear. And this year the topic of an operational override will likely surface early in the deliberations. All of the parental concerns mentioned above take money to solve. It costs about $50,000 to add a teacher to the staff, so reducing class size is an expensive proposition. Energy cost increases will eat up further thousands. When you combine this with the fact that it will take $1.2 million just to maintain current staffing levels, you are looking at a substantial need for the schools.

French Immersion

One concern mentioned at the forum deserves special attention. Long time school supporter and Town Meeting Member Karen Friedman Hanna, after speaking about the class sizes in the French Immersion program, went on to discuss what she described as the “watering down” of the program. She referred to a reduction in the French humanities course at the Middle School.

Now my understanding of the program as it operated during my daughter’s involvement is as follows. First and second graders take virtually all courses in French. In the third and fourth grade about 75% of class time is in French, and by the fifth grade this reduces to 50%. The Middle School years include a French course and a humanities course, representing a further reduction in the percentage of time in French, but still a substantial commitment leading up to inevitable AP classes in High School.

As far as I’m concerned the French Immersion program is the crown jewel of the system. Not only do these students graduate fully bilingual, with all that that entails in an increasingly international world, but their capacity for additional language acquisition is greatly enhanced. Many French Immersion students start Spanish in High School and easily advance to AP levels and are quite fluent by graduation. My daughter will likely complete most of the degree requirements for both French and Spanish at Wellesley College, despite neither of these being her major. A friend of hers from the French Immersion program who attends Tufts is a Pre Med student who will graduate with a minor in Italian, her fourth language.

Beyond fluency in a foreign language, immersion programs leading to bilingualism have long been known to enhance cognitive abilities in students. Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto of Dartmouth College is a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent 3 decades studying the biological factors of language acquisition and how language is organized in the brain.

Her most exciting finding is in the area of cognitive abilities. She summed it up as follows:

“We're finding that these young children who have rich and early exposure to two languages are remarkably -- and this is quite an exciting finding - cognitively more advanced than their monolingual peers on certain highly sophisticated cognitive tasks to do with attention and abstract reasoning. And we think it's because they are switching languages and have access to multiple meanings, have part of their brain massaged like a muscle. Then there's the spillover of that amazing honing of their linguistic abilities, making them more cognitively advanced.”

If changes have been made to this program, we need to know about it. Committee member Laurie Stillman asked the administration to report on the issue raised by Ms. Hanna. The French Immersion Program is a curriculum, not a course. It requires a commitment on the part of the students who enter it. There is a concomitant commitment on the part of the school system to maintain what has been a highly successful program for over 17 years.

The 1909 Wing

The School Committee voted to have the administration proceed with a study of the feasibility of moving all the Collicot and Cunningham students from the 1909 wing in the next academic year. A committee was appointed to assist the study, consisting of 26 members at last count.

I continue to be perplexed at how this issue is being handled. The Superintendent offered a draft of a survey which would have gauged the sentiments of parents before undertaking a study. This was rejected based on reasoning which holds that parents wouldn’t be able to react unless presented with specific alternatives, and we shouldn’t ask parents their views until we have determined a move is possible. Excuse me, but this reasoning is entirely backwards. First of all, a competent researcher could fashion a survey that would measure not only overall feelings about moving, but also garner reaction by grade and by class to moving to every possible location in the system, as well as to leased temporary classrooms. But more importantly, why study a move unless you know the parents want to move? Even on a practical level, does it make sense to undertake a complex and time consuming task when you can determine if such a task is necessary by a simple and relatively quick method?

This is important because it once again burdens a thin central administration that is charged with some very difficult educational challenges. For the School Committee to not first find out if such a burden is even necessary is a mistake.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Vote for the Library!

On Tuesday next we will have the opportunity to once again upgrade and improve an important capital asset of the community at a significant discount to its cost. If passed, the override for the Milton Library will help fund, at fifty cents on the dollar, a project that will make us all proud of our library, and will represent this generation's contribution to a cultural contract begun by Milton residents over 100 years ago. We are in this enviable position because of the hard work of the Library Trustees, Staff, and the Library Building Committee, which secured a $3.7 million grant, and the incredible generosity of hundreds of Milton's residents.

Virtually no one argues that this project isn't necessary. And except for one School Committee member, all the townwide elected officials who have voiced an opinion on the issue support the override.

So please get to the polls on Tuesday and cast your vote in support of this important endeavor.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The CAC Decision on the DPW RFP

“Consideration has been given to the possible advantages of encouraging industrial development of a restricted character in certain sections of the community. It is recognized that increased costs in the operation of the Town, together with the improvement of highway and transit connections to the center of Boston, may bring about pressure for the expansion of areas available for commercial or industrial development. The argument that such changes would result in a net increase in municipal revenues is not borne out by studies of the ratio of potential tax income to the increased costs that would probably be required of the community.”

This quote is taken from the summary report of Milton’s original Master Plan of 1958. It exemplifies the attitudes and prejudices toward commercial development that have characterized this community for many years. It is hard to imagine how the blanket statement that commercial and industrial development produce no net revenue could even find its way into such a document. Apparently residential development was seen as completely self-sustaining. In the four decades since this Master Plan was written the Town of Milton has added 1861 units of housing, the majority single family detached housing. No serious planning professional would fail to recognize that this type of development returns the lowest net revenue, in fact often represents negative net revenue to a community, while many forms of commercial and industrial development produce positive net revenue. In 1957, 4.4% of the towns total real estate assessment was commercial or industrial. In FY 2005, these two categories of assessment represent 2.3% of the total. Less than 1% of Milton’s land today is zoned for business development.

Last Thursday evening the Citizens Advisory Committee, appointed by the Board of Selectmen to help draft an RFP, went beyond their appointed task and voted to recommend that no RFP be issued. Having attended the meetings it is clear to me that anti-development sentiment figured heavily in the decision. Two events that provide bookends to the process are illustrative. At the very first meeting, during the very first discussion following the Chairman’s opening remarks, a committee member stated that the RFP should be thrown out and completely re-written. He noted that he had speed read the document in the minutes leading up to the start of the meeting. And at last Thursday’s meeting, when the Chairman proposed that the committee forward its specific concerns about the RFP along with its overall recommendation, one committee member objected, saying that the Selectmen might address the concerns and think it was OK to issue the RFP. Does it sound like the objective was to improve the RFP, or roadblock its issuance?

Now it is true that some members of the Committee voiced concerns and they need to be addressed in some sensible way. Since some of these have been picked up by opponents as well, let’s look at them one at a time.

Community Development Plan

Shortly after Milton LLC made it’s conceptual proposal to develop the DPW Yard, the organized opposition cited the Community Development Plan, cherry picking its contents, in support of not developing the yard. Then some people actually read the plan, and pointed out that it specifically called for increasing tax base diversity, making as one of its main recommendations the re-zoning of the Reedsdale Rd/Randolph Ave area, including the DPW Yard, for commercial development. So the strategy changed and now the opponents are trying to minimize or distort the Community Development Plan. One abutter claimed it wasn’t “official”. The plan was developed under the guidelines proposed, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and with the participation of the Milton Planning Board. The Planning Board has embraced the plan and the state has accepted it as Milton’s official Community Development Plan.

Other abutters in letters to the Milton Times claim the CDP is about housing and cannot be used to justify commercial development, selectively quoting from the Governor’s Executive Order. Here’s what they didn’t quote from the Executive Order: “A "community development plan" is a comprehensive, strategic plan for the future development of a city or town, and shall include, among other things, plans for:

. where the community will create new housing opportunities;

. where it will target commercial or industrial economic development (if any);

. how it will improve its transportation infrastructure (or how its existing
infrastructure will handle any growth); and

. where and how it will preserve open space.”

The booklet put out by the state to assist communities in completing this plan is called: “Building Vibrant Communities: Linking Housing, Economic Development,Transportation and the Environment.” These four elements form a large part of the elements found in a Master Plan, as set out in Massachusetts law. Many of the communities in the state have completed CDPs and they can be found on the website of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. They all deal with economic development. Each community will have a different balance between the various elements of the plan. In Milton, it was clearly recognized that one of the “links” in building this vibrant community was a lack of commercial development, and specific remedies were suggested, including the re-zoning of the DPW Yard for commercial development. Similar kinds of recommendations can be found in other CDP’s, clearly rebutting claims that its purpose is only for Housing development. Milton’s CDP goes a long way toward what the Governor described it as being: “a comprehensive, strategic plan for the future development.” Some people wish to ignore it because they don’t like its conclusions, instead advocating more planning. But if we’re going to ignore planning once we’ve done it, what’s the sense of doing more? Any RFP for the DPW Yard should reflect the recommendations of this plan.

Feasibility Study

This study was suggested by a committee member who works for an employer that requires these as part of ongoing development of land owned by a state authority. While it may prove helpful to them, it is not a necessary part of community development. A feasibility study answers the question, “If I build it, will they come”. The most interested party to this question is the developer, who is obviously not interested in a failed project. Developers do feasibility studies before making proposals. There is no reason we cannot request an overview of the feasibility studies for any developer who responds to the RFP. These would be studies based on specific proposals that someone is actually prepared to build.

Highest and Best Use Study

This is also not a planning tool, but a real estate term. Such an analysis is done as part of a real estate appraisal. The first of two recommended appraisals has been done. The second appraisal will contain this type of analysis.

Impact Study

The proposer of this study noted that this would primarily involve traffic impact. This could be addressed through a traffic study that could either be requested with all initial proposals or of the winning proposal. In any event, nothing would be built without a comprehensive traffic study.

Land Use Study/Master Plan

As I pointed out before, the four elements of the Community Development Plan are also found in Master Plans. A Land Use Plan is one of the components not covered. But Milton is a nearly built out community. We’re talking about the disposition of a single location in conformity with an existing CDP Plan. If the town feels there is a need for comprehensive, town-wide planning then we can do that. The last time we updated our Master Plan in the 1970’s it took 4 years. And it is very expensive. We don’t need to complete such a plan to decide how to proceed at the DPW yard. After all, no one insisted on a Master Plan when we changed the zoning on Wharf street from commercial to residential to permit the building of a condominium complex. The office building at 2 Granite Avenue was done without such a request. No call for an updated Master Plan greeted the most recent additions to Fuller Village, or Curry College, or Milton Hospital. Most certainly no request for a Master Plan was heard when the residential development on Highland Street was announced. Forgive me for suspecting that the call for a Master Plan update has less to do with a yearning for planning, and more to do with tactics to prevent the development of the DPW Yard.

I don’t see how any of these issues individually or collectively can justify a recommendation to not seek proposals for the town yard. The process itself will address most of these as it goes forward. We can now only wait to see how the Board of Selectmen will react to whatever the final report of the CAC says. Perhaps we should let them know how we feel about the process and the issuance of an RFP. So far it seems those who scream loudest are those who are heard.