Category Archives: Commonwealth Chatter

Mass Transit reform (January 19, 2013)

The breakdown of the T has resulted in many calls for reform. I wrote this piece two years ago, and it seems worthwhile to reintroduce some of these points into the current discussion.

Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed consolidating 240 local housing authorities into six regional agencies. I don’t know what kind of impact will be felt by tenants in public housing, but I doubt it matters if the plumber comes from next door or the next town.

Transit, on the other hand, is another story. Boundaries matter. While people tend to live in one apartment at once, people who travel tend to travel across town lines. They also tend to travel across the boundaries and limits of the MBTA and the 15 regional transit authorities. Yet, in the governor’s plan for improving transportation, there was no proposal to consolidate the RTAs with the MBTA, not to mention all the little suburban bus services that don’t transcend municipal limits.

Shouldn’t we be consolidating transit systems, instead?

Fixed rail is fixed, but those buses can go almost anywhere. When they scrapped the extensive streetcar network, the argument was that buses were far more flexible. Routes could be adjusted to meet demand. Mostly, instead of offering flexibility, they offered an easy, quiet way for our transit infrastructure to disappear.

Private bus lines disappeared, replaced by regional transportation authorities. The biggest is the MBTA, but there are 14 others around the state. Two (Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) make perfect sense, as an island transportation authority doesn’t have a need for expanding its network into adjacent towns. But the other twelve?

Alewife to Lowell
Let’s look at one example of boundaries defining bus routes. Consider a trip from Alewife Station in Cambridge to the Robert B. Kennedy Bus Transfer Center at the Charles A. Gallagher Transit Terminal (also known as the Lowell MBTA station) in Lowell. You can make the 25 mile drive in about a half hour (except in rush hour). Want to travel by bus? It wil take a bit longer.

MBTA buses will take you from Alewife to Burlington, where you will need to change to a Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) bus to go the rest of the way. If the bus gods are with you, you can make the trip in 1:28, but it can also take you 2:16. If you get to Alewife later than 6:20 p.m., forget about it, because you won’t make it any farther than Chestnut Street in Burlington.

The fastest trip is the 350 that leaves Alewife at 6:20 a.m. It doesn’t make the loop to the Burlington Mall, instead it proceeds up Cambridge Street to Chestnut Street, where the route ends. This is also the south end of the LRTA Route 13, which runs through Billerica to the Kennedy Center. The 350 is scheduled to reach Chestnut Street at 7:04, and the LRTA 13 leaves at 7:10, a six minute scheduled layover.

Normally, the layover at Chestnut Street is significantly longer. Get on the 6:42 or the 6:58 leaving Alewife, you will have a 44 or 24 minute layover at Chestnut Street before the 8:10 bus leaves for Lowell.

If you leave Alewife at 8:15, the optimal strategy is to get off the bus at the Burlington Mall, where you have a 12 minute wait before LRTA Route 14 is scheduled to leave for Lowell (arriving at 9:45). Continue on to the end of the 350 at Chestnut Street, you have a 51 minute wait for the connection to LRTA Route 13, and you won’t get to Lowell until 10:38.

You get the picture? You need to get off the MBTA bus at the end of the MBTA service area, then board the LRTA bus for the journey through its towns. Oh, and you will pay two fares, though the LTRA will allow you to pay its fares with a Charlie Card.

What happens if we turn two separate lines into one line? The trip that takes from 1:28 to 2:16 is reduced to a trip of 1:06 to 1:17, eliminating layovers of up to 49 minutes. It can’t happen with two agencies with two territories, but a unified system could do it.

How do you get out of Lexington?
Note: On July 1, 2014, Lexington’s LExpress bus service was extended into Arlington Heights, and now connects with the 77 bus at its western terminus.

The Town of Lexington (with partial MBTA funding) operates LExpress, a suburban bus system that revolves around Depot Square in the center of town. The bus service does cross the line to reach the Burlington Mall, but other than that it doesn’t leave Lexington. You can make a connection to MBTA bus routes 62 or 76 in Lexington Center (two lines, both run hourly mid-day, for a 30-minute headway in Lexington Center). The LExpress buses are timed to leave Lexington Center on the hour and half-hour, and 67/76 buses are scheduled to leave for Alewife about three minutes later. Outbound buses tend to arrive in Lexington Center between 10 and 13 minutes before the LExpress buses leave Depot Square.

However, the LExpress does make its way as far east as Massachusetts Avenue and Taft Avenue, about a half-mile from the Arlington Heights terminal of the 77 (Arlington Heights – Harvard Station) and 79 (Arlington Heights – Alewife) bus lines. The LExpress doesn’t cross into Arlington, doesn’t make the connection, and doesn’t provide an option for a rider looking to travel from Arlington Center into Lexington.

Out of sync?
The Red Line runs every 12 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 12 minutes between Alewife and Briantree, after 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every six minutes.

On Saturdays, the Red Line runs every 14 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 14 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every seven minutes.

On Sundays, the Red Line runs every 16 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 16 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every eight minutes.

One of the major Red LIne connections is the 77 bus from Harvard Station to Alewife. Many of the people on the 77 bus connect from the Red Line. Let’s see how it works:

On weekday evenings, when the Red Line is running on six minute intervals, the 77 runs on intervals of 10 minutes, 11 minutes, and 13 minutes.

On Saturdays, when the Red Line is running on seven minute intervals, the 77 runs on 12 and 15 minute intervals.

On Sundays, when the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals, the 77 runs on 20 minute, 17 minute, 14 minute, and 15 minute intervals.

It’s all so close, but it’s all so far away. You can walk off the Red Line train and find good fortune and a 77 bus will come a minute later. However, you can walk off the Red Line and watch the taillights of the bus vanish and face a 10, 13, 15, or 17 minute wait. What sense does that make?

If the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals on Sunday, why not run the buses on 16 minute intervals? Why not set it up so that the bus is timed to arrive just behind every other train, reducing the wait time on the Harvard Station bus platform? How hard is it to run the buses every 16 minutes instead of every 14 minutes or every 17 minutes?

Anyone with a smart phone can download a bus app that lets us know where the buses are. If we have this technology, why can’t the MBTA use this technology to sync trains to connecting buses? Why can’t we reduce unnecessary waits for buses? Why can’t buses be timed to meet commuter rail trains in places like West Medford?

MassTransit
As long as we have all these separate bus systems, separate from the subway trains, separate from commuter rail, intermodal transit becomes slow and inconvenient. If we put it all under one operating agency, we can sync the schedules in one easy to use system. You can have different operating agencies (LRTA can run one set of buses between Lowell and Alewife, MBTA can run another), but all the buses will be the same color, have the same fare structure, and will have unified schedules.

Let’s make it one unified system. Call it MassTransit. Make it easy to get around the state using the existing resources. Make the connections, let’s reform these little agencies and transform them to a statewide transit system.

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Please vote for Martha Coakley, Tuesday, September 9

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Paul with Martha Coakley

The September 9 Democratic primary offers the choice of three outstanding candidates for governor. I genuinely like all three candidates. I am impressed by the work of Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman as constitutional officers, and Don Berwick’s passion for progressive politics tugs on my heartstrings. However, as much as I like all three candidates, I find it obvious that Martha Coakley needs to be our nominee and needs to be elected governor in November.

Those who know me also know of my passion for K-12 education and local governance. The governor has extraordinary influence over cities and towns, particularly with the appointment powers for a powerful state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Much of the governor’s work is in the weeds of regulations and funding formulas, but this work makes a big deal of difference in our ability to deliver quality services at the local level.

Martha Coakley will be a thoughtful and effective partner for local governments and school districts.

In my conversations with Martha Coakley, I find that she speaks with clarity and specificity on issues of concern, particularly those raised by educators and municipal officials. The reason is obvious. I first met Martha Coakley before she was elected Middlesex D.A., when she lived on Rawson Road. I remember when she visited Town Meeting as she prepared to run for District Attorney, engaging in thoughtful conversations about the office with everyone she met. Ever since she won her first election, she impressed me with her willingness to listen to folks at the local level, to ask questions, to engage in partnerships. She has earned a reputation as an outstanding leader and manager.

Martha Coakley has never been the kind of top down official who would use the power of her office to force thoughtless and arbitrary mandates onto cities and towns. In sharp contrast, Charlie Baker has a longstanding record of disdain for K-12 school districts, and a track record of supporting widespread privatization of local services. His work as a founder of the Pioneer Institute, and his record as a member of the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education, give us significant warning that Charlie Baker would bring us right back to the Pioneer playbook that did so much damage to Arlington during the Romney years.

Charlie Baker is a huge risk to progressive, pragmatic, and sound local governance. I want to elect the candidate who is best able to counter Charlie Baker’s privatization agenda. I know that Martha Coakley is best able to present and support sound, pragmatic arguments that will resonate with Massachusetts voters. Martha Coakley best expresses my values, and is our best hope for taking our commonwealth in a pragmatically progressive direction that supports excellence at the local level.

Please join with me in supporting Martha Coakley for governor in the Democratic primary, Tuesday, September 9.

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How to get away with murder

viola-davis-image
Viola Davis

Note: Since this was posted, The Boston Globe is reporting that the parent company of Hannaford is bidding for Market Basket. Are they trying to buy themselves into the boycott?

If corporations are people, perhaps Professor Annalise Keating has been consulting with some miscreant in the assault on Market Basket. The good professor, played by Viola Davis, is the lead character in the new TV series, How to Get Away with Murder.

We are watching the crime right before our eyes. The stores are on life support. No produce. No customers, except for the few who venture in to get a box of corn flakes or a can of tuna.

I am sure that Professor Keating could talk about motive and opportunity, which all seem to point to Arthur S. and his family’s 51% share of the corporate votes. Plenty of opportunity, and the intra-family animosity would seem to provide significant motive for a crime of this nature.

The evidence also suggests that Arthur S. and his side of the family wants to sell the chain, and they don’t want Artie T. to be the successful buyer.

Market Basket may have been an attractive takeover target a couple of weeks ago, but that’s not the case when customers are entrenched in a boycott unless Artie T. prevails in the current dispute. Not very attractive if Piggly Wiggly wants to expand into New England, because your entire local operation would be a collection of stores that nobody will want to visit.

The customer abandonment of Market Basket brings joy to the owners of Hannaford’s, Stop & Shop, and Shaws. They are probably praying for this dispute to linger into eternity. Might even be worth a billion or two to buy the chain and kill it off. A couple of weeks ago, this may have been a good strategy for one of the competitors, but every day customers are becoming more stubborn supporters of Artie T and the Market Basket workers.  A complicated buyout might have flown under the radar, but if an active competitor buys Market Basket, that competitor would also become a target of the boycott. Thus, we have this interesting triangle in which:

  • Hannaford would be thrilled to see Stop & Shop or Shaws publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.
  • Stop & Shop would be thrilled to see Hannaford or Shaws publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.
  • Shaws would be thrilled to see Stop & Shop or Hannaford publicly buying Market Basket, with the boycott expanding to their stores.

If a mysterious buyer appears and wins Market Basket, one would need to wonder who is behind a Blissful Supermarket Trust, why they would want to buy Market Basket, and why a majority of the board would rather put it in the hands of this outside party instead of a group headed by Arthur T.

Clearly, with the customer boycott in full force and former Radio Shack CEO Jim Gooch at the helm, Market Basket’s death under new ownership could be quicker than an Oklahoma execution. Why would an outside bidder come in to kill Market Basket, and why would the Board of Directors push the chain into a rapid and painful death? We will probably need Professor Annalise Keating to supervise the autopsy and unravel all the details of the crime. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.

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If corporations are people, this is homicide

 market-basket  coen_bros

Disney-Mickey
Everyone loves a happy ending.

Someone is going to make a movie about the current Market Basket drama. We’ll
have a good idea who makes the movie when this episode plays out. If Arthur T. (Artie T.) Demoulas and the workers prevail, it’s a happy Disney movie. If Arthur S. Demoulas, Felicia Thornton, and Jim Gooch maintain control of the company and continue on the current course, the Coen Brothers should make the film.

coen_brosI am more than puzzled by the actions of the DeMoulas Super Markets (DSM) board, sacking the CEO who turned a supermarket chain into a highly profitable and beloved local institution. By all accounts, the directors represent the majority shareholders of this family owned business, shareholders who could sit back and watch tens of millions of dollars roll into their bank accounts every year because shoppers and employees were extremely loyal to their stores.

I know that being a school board member is a very different kind of experience, but I can’t imagine any board placing their organization into a deliberate death spiral. Yes, school committees are accountable to voters, and the Market Basket board is only accountable to the pocketbooks of the majority shareholders, but it still makes no sense.

220px-Matewan_poster
Matewan

The DSM board has the power to replace Artie T. and the power to take control of their buildings. Of course, this would require a management effort reminiscent of Matewan. Is James Earl Jones a Market Basket store manager?

The problem is that contracted truckers and security guards can force the lettuce into the store, but it can’t force the customers to come in and buy the produce. It certainly won’t trump the goodwill built over the years by the employees and policies put in place by Artie T.

The DSM board will meet again on Friday. They can find common ground, reinstate Artie T., and start to put the pieces back together again. Or they can stand firm, and not let a plethora of workers and customers tell them what to do. If they don’t find a way to bring back Artie T. and the fired employees, I don’t know how they escape the death spiral. The magic will be gone. The fanatically loyal customers will disburse into the land of Hannaford and Stop and Shop. Some large corporation will buy out the business, rebrand the stores, and Market Basket will be nothing more than a fond memory. The folks on the DSM board will walk away with a few less millions in their pocket, but they will walk away with the smug satisfaction that they ran Artie T. and his loyal employees out of the store. Multi-million dollar vengeaartience. I guess they can afford it, but it comes at a very high price.

I hope Artie T. gets his job back and we get the Disney movie of the underdog baggers and cashiers prevailing over the evil corporate directors. Even more important, I hope I can spend a week following Artie T. around as he runs these stores. I want to know how he does it.

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The governor’s FY15 budget is disappointing

Before you read on, please think about the amount you need to increase your school budget to maintain level services. Assume a steady enrollment, no new expenditures, just enough to do next year exactly what you are doing this year.

Chances are the number is somewhat north of 1.32%

Sadly, this is the inflation rate built into the FY15 foundation budget under the governor’s proposal released this morning. The foundation budget, the amount defined under education reform as the minimum funding required to provide an adequate education, is a key factor in determining Chapter 70 aid.
After the state calculates the foundation budget, it calculates the amount a municipality can afford to spend based on a community’s wealth, which becomes the minimum local contribution. The state is obliged to contribute the difference between the minimum local contribution and the foundation budget, which is defined as Chapter 70 aid.
This is an oversimplified description, as there are some other calculations that govern the minimum local contribution, but it describes the system accurately enough to engage in a conversation about statewide trends.
Compared to FY 2014, the FY 2015 budget is based on:
  •  A 0.34% increase in statewide enrollment, from 937,604 to 940,831.
  • A 1.67% increase in the statewide foundation budget, from $9.704 billion to $9.866 billion.
  • A 1.32% increase in the statewide per pupil foundation budget, from $10,350 to $10,486
  • A 1.20% increase in the statewide minimum local contribution, from $5.748 billion to $5.818 billion.
  • A 0.86% increase in the statewide per pupil minimum local contribution, from $6,131 to $6,183..
  • A 2.30% increase in the statewide Chapter 70 aid, from $4.301 billion to $4.400 billion.
  • A 1.95% increase in the statewide per pupil Chapter 70 aid, from $4,587 to $4.677.
We have been raising fees, raising local property taxes, and cutting services since the inception of education reform because the foundation budget has not risen proportionate to the increased costs of providing an adequate public education. This year’s paltry proposed 1.32% increase in the per pupil foundation is just another year that Massachusetts public school students will lose ground.
What’s the incentive for the state to under-inflate the foundation budget? Let’s assume the local contribution does not increase (because it is capped), which means that a larger increase in the foundation budget would need to be funded through Chapter 70 aid. A conservative 2.5% increase in the per pupil foundation budget, along with no increase in the minimum local contribution, would require a 4.62% increase in the Chapter 70 line item. Instead of a $90 increase in per pupil Chapter 70 aid, it would require a $212 increase in per-pupil aid, and it would cost the state an additional $52.3 million over the governor’s proposal.
We haven’t even talked about special education, or the increased need for technology that wasn’t anticipated when the foundation budget was devised in 1993. But there are other line items that fund special education and needy students. How are these line items funded in the governor’s budget?
  • Regional School Transportation: $51,521,000 (level funded)
  • Non-Resident Pupil Transportation: $3,000,000 funding zeroed out in FY15.
  • Homeless Student Transportation: $7,350,000 (level funded)
  • Charter School Reimbursement: $75,000,000 (level funded)
  • Circuit Breaker: FY 2014: $252,489,224. FY 2015: $252,513,276. This is a $24,052 (0.01%) increase.
  • METCO: $18,642,582 (level funded)
Don’t think the municipal side of the budget will have any spare change for the schools. Unrestricted General Government aid for FY 2015: $920,230,293 is level funded.
All is not bleak in the education budget.
  • Innovation Schools get a 360% increase, from $1,000,000 to $4,604,123.
  • The combined spending for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Executive Office of Education increases by 2.87% from $15,226,375 to $15,663,792.
  • Extended Learning Time Grants get a 28% increase, from $14,168,030 to $18,168,067
Look on the bright side. After all the cuts precipitated by the paltry Chapter 70 increase and all the other level funded line items, you can get extra money to provide an increased quantity of diminished product.
Time to call our members of the Great and General Court.
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Troubling repercussions from the Boston decision on teacher evaluations

The new teacher evaluation system, adopted in Massachusetts, is an important tool in our efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our public schools. We have long needed to replace the cursory system of checking a few boxes labeled “satisfactory,” replacing it with a thoughtful series of rubrics based on essential components of high-quality instruction.

As an evaluator, I have worked very hard to build trust and understanding on the part of my staff. I have encouraged them to set ambitious goals for themselves and their students. I have set high expectations, including the understanding that not everyone is proficient in all aspects of the art of teaching.

Unfortunately, all of this hard work is in jeopardy, as the Supervisor of Records in the Secretary of State’s office has ruled that the Boston Public Schools must release teacher ratings aggregated by school. The Boston Globe requested the data, and intends to publish it as a measure of the quality of a school.

This ruling is laced with unintended and harmful consequences. As the principal of a small school, I know that one or two ratings of less than proficient would certainly lead to speculation as to which teacher received the low rating. It would be impossible to give a single teacher an unsatisfactory rating without that lone rating pointing to the teacher who received that evaluation, a disclosure that would undermine the confidentiality of individual evaluations, a confidentiality that is protected under the public records law.

Publishing aggregate scores will lead to the possibility that evaluators will be influenced by the publication of scores. Will evaluators inflate the results in order to give the appearance of a better school? Would there be an incentive to rate educators more harshly in order to give the appearance of holding staff to higher standards? Evaluators need to be insulated from external pressures that would potentially undermine the validity of the evaluation.

It is particularly troubling that Boston, with a plethora of small schools, isn’t challenging the Secretary of State’s decision through the courts. By releasing the school-by-school ratings, Boston would be setting a precedent that makes it more difficult for other districts to resist.

Releasing aggregate ratings at the school level was never a goal of the teacher evaluation system. It is not an effective metric for the quality of a school, a measure that is effectively reported through the state’s school accountability system.  It will not benefit any public purpose, but would interfere with an evaluator’s efforts to promote continuous improvement among educators.

As an educator, and not an attorney, I don’t know what we need to do to overturn this ill-conceived ruling by the Secretary of State. I don’t know if the Boston Teachers’ Union has the standing or ability to request judicial review of this decision. However, as the finding is based on an interpretation of the public records law, one solution is legislative. I intend to contact my state representative and state senator in the morning, asking for legislative action that would block the release of school-level aggregate evaluation scores, and would allow us to implement the new evaluation system in a rigorous and trusting context.

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