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Testimony at the Democratic Platform Hearing in Arlington

Here are my prepared remarks for the Democratic Party Platform Hearing held this evening in Arlington.
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Welcome to the home of our Representative Town Meeting; one of the most open and responsive legislative bodies in the nation; made even more accountable with our adoption of electronic voting.

I am Paul Schlichtman, and I have spent 21 years as a Town Meeting Member, and 15 years as a school committee member. During that time, it seems the open meeting and public records laws became stricter every year. Sometimes I wonder if I can sneeze at a school committee meeting if it isn’t on the agenda.

Accountability and transparency are good things, but from its inception through every subsequent reform, the state legislature has exempted itself from these laws. It makes no sense that the volunteers on the Bicycle Advisory Committee operate under strict rules that don’t apply to our professional state legislators.

As a nation, we have been transforming ourselves away from our democratic ideal, where public policy decisions were made, and public funds were appropriated, by elected representatives of the people. We are trending toward a plutocracy, where tax cuts for billionaires translate into cash-starved state and local governments. Without adequate revenue, cities, towns, and school districts are chasing funds from the Walton and DeVos Family Foundations. They provide the money, they set the policy.

Speaking of Betsy DeVos, our unelected State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Secretary James Peyser, have been given broad leeway over education policy. While the town meeting that sits in this hall makes granular appropriations of local funds, such as $2,160 for the Arlington Historical Commission, an ideological group of Republican appointees can swoop in and take millions of dollars out of a city or town budget for an unwanted, unnecessary charter school. Instead of maintaining tight restrictions on the actions of cities and towns, the legislature needs to engage itself in some adult supervision of the state education agencies. We also need to reform governance and funding of charter schools. If we are expected to pay for charter schools, we expect the right to approve a new school and vote its appropriations.

With the nonsense happening in Washington, Beacon Hill needs to be a beacon for  thoughtful, progressive, successful government.

We don’t need a stupid wall. We need a smart transit system. We don’t need a stupid South Station expansion, we need a smart North-South rail link. Bill Weld and Michael Dukakis agree that the rail link is $2 billion cheaper than expanding Boston’s two dead-end terminals, and it would be the lynchpin of improved rail service throughout the region.

We shouldn’t need a Proposition 2 ½ override to maintain level services, especially when the Foundation Budget Review Commission has documented the annual erosion of state funding for public schools using formulaic trickery. For Fiscal 2017, the state said our costs DEFLATED 0.22% Really?

We are severely constrained at the local level in our ability to raise revenue, and the state refuses to talk about revenue and their structural deficit. Instead of looking for solutions, they pass the problem down to cities and towns and school districts.

Employer-based health care is a drag on small businesses and our economic competitiveness with other nations. The Republicans point to failures of Obama-care, Romney-Care, in rural states where the markets are not working. Vital, universal public needs like education and health care shouldn’t be market driven opportunities for high profits; we need Medicare for all, and a transition away from an expensive, profit-driven private bureaucracy with no public oversight or accountability.

At the end of our warrant, we have a sanctuary town, or trust act resolution. We have had many open discussions, and I believe it will pass by a significant margin. Our Human Rights Commission placed this on our warrant. It has been discussed. It will be voted upon. The discussion has been public; open. Just as I have faith that Arlington will vote to support the resolution, I have no faith that our legislature will even bring a similar resolution to the floor for discussion.

This hall is the home to open, transparent democracy at its best. If we can do it here, why not on Beacon Hill. Shouldn’t our legislature be as good as our town meetings? Shouldn’t we, as Democrats, embrace the highest standards for representative democracy and apply that to our state government? Shouldn’t our platform embrace, and advocate for, a state government that aligns to our local ideals?

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The birds are… shivering!

The birds should be chirping, but they are shivering instead.

What’s up with the weather? It was 68 degrees in February, and we are in the midst of a frozen Nor’easter on the first day of April. It should feel like spring, with chirping birds, lots of bikes on the bike path, and happy folks enjoying the first days of sidewalk dining. While we are just two short days from opening day at Fenway, it is a windy, wet, cold, snowy, Saturday. April Fools!

This is where I usually get into the feathery shtick and tell you it’s a beautiful day for an election. Let’s be honest. The weather is less than ideal, and the town-wide races are uncontested. It’s the kind of day that lends itself more toward French toast and huddling under a blanket with a good book. Still, there are good reasons to venture out into cold reality and visit your local polling place.

First, there are poll workers who are waiting for your visit! A slow election is a lonely day for the election workers, who make sure you have the opportunity to participate in your town government. Go thank them for working a very long day to make democracy possible.

Second, voting in an uncontested election is a way to say thank you to the people on the ballot. My colleagues on the school committee, and the other folks on the town-wide ballot, are all hard working and thoughtful people who spend considerable time working to make Arlington a better place to live. Diane Mahon is also a long-time friend and fan of this chirping bird routine. Please take the time to fill in the bubble next to Diane’s name, as well as Dan Dunn, both running for re-election as selectmen. Fill in the bubble for Mary Winstanley O’Connor, running for re-election to the Board of Assessors. Fill in the bubble for Town Clerk Stephanie Lucarelli, and Finance Committee member Dean Carmen who is running for Town Treasurer. Please vote for my school committee colleagues, Jennifer Susse and Bill Hayner, and I ask for your vote as well.

We work well together, we respect each other, and I think Arlington is moving in a positive direction. Your vote today may not be a vote to select candidates, but it is a vote of confidence.

In eleven of 21 precincts, it is also a vote to elect Town Meeting Members. Our citizen legislature appropriates the town budget, enacts bylaws and zoning bylaws, and makes the major decisions for the town. Some of the Town Meeting races are very spirited, with your neighbors engaged in a contest for the right to spend several spring evenings representing you in Town Hall.

Yes, we have a town election on April Fools Day, and it’s the fools who fail to use their vote! The polls are open until 8:00 p.m., and I promise you, if you vote, the birds will be out chirping in the sunshine really soon.

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The dysfunction of the U.S. House speaker

As a low-rent local elected official, I know I am substantially worthless. I can decide absolutely nothing, but as a member of a seven member board, I can only get something done if I can convince three other members to vote with me to do something. This is why the phrase, “Can you count to 4,” is significant in a seven member board.

Our Congress isn’t much different. With 435 members of the United States House of Representatives, the question is if you can count to 218. Under current circumstances, this presents an interesting challenge.

The House is currently comprised of 237 Republicans, 193 Democrats, and there are five vacancies. If you can get all 237 Republicans to agree on something, you can reach a decision. However, last week’s failure of the House Republicans to gather 218 members to support a health insurance bill illustrates a fatal flaw in the current House structure.

If you look at the current House mathematics, you need to consider the dynamics of the Republican caucus. Let’s start with one of the driving factors of the GOP split, the 23 Republicans who represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton.

Clinton GOP
GOP Representatives in Clinton districts

So, if you do some simple subtraction, taking 23 moderates away from 237 Republicans, you find yourself at 214. Similarly, if you remove approximately 30 members of the Freedom Caucus, your 237 member majority suddenly looks like a 207 member minority.

Republicans in Congress
Congressional Republicans by faction

If you start at the far right of the distribution with a policy proposal, chances are you are going to run out of yes votes before you get to 218. Similarly, if you restrict yourself to Republican members,start with the moderates, and move right, you are going to see the Freedom Caucus drop away.

Congress
Entire congress

The message is simple. A governing majority needs to somewhere near the middle, and cannot limit itself to one party. This is going to become more crucial if the probable outcome in 2018, a Republican loss of 10-15 seats, will leave the GOP with a razor-thin majority.

To legislate successfully, you need a Speaker of the House who can determine the will of the Congress, and lead it to that position. However, the role of the Speaker has transformed from the leader of the entire House of Representatives to a kind of uber-majority leader. The Hastert rule, where the Speaker was bound by the majority of the majority, effectively puts him in the position of supporting the position of the 119 most conservative Republicans in the House.

I don’t know how we are going to get there, but we need to find a way to get a more neutral Speaker, one that has the support of members from both parties. We need a Speaker who can work from the center and be able to bring the majority and minority leaders into the room and craft legislation that can achieve 218 votes. So, you lose 30 far-right Republicans, you can pick up 50 centerist Democrats and put together a governing coalition that stands a better chance of gaining acceptance of the American public.

Think about it. If the Speaker was focused on the will of the majority of all members, not just the majority of the majority, we would have had no problem passing an immigration reform proposal backed by George W. Bush and John McCain, many Democrats, a majority of the entire Congress, but not a majority of members of the Republican caucus.

Corker tweet

The ideal candidate for Speaker would be one of those Clinton-district Republican moderates, someone who is friendly with and can work with Democrats. We need someone who is more interested in representing the will of Congress, rather than advocating for a ideological or partisan position through the Speaker’s chair. The partisan advocates should be the majority leader and the minority leader; the Speaker should represent the entire Congress.

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Responses to YourArlington questions – February 1, 2017

Here are my answers to three questions asked by YourArlington.com:

— Why are you seeking reelection?

These are exciting times in our schools. We are building a new Gibbs School, planning for a new Arlington High School, renovating the Stratton School, expanding the Thompson School, and planning an addition to the Hardy School. I am energized by the tasks ahead, and honored to be able to work with six fantastic school committee colleagues as we meet the challenges we face in Arlington.

— What are your qualifications to hold the office you seek?
Past President, Massachusetts Association of School Committees (president in 2004)
15 years of school committee service (four years on the Minuteman Regional School Committee, eleven years on the Arlington School Committee).
21 years of service as a Town Meeting Member (1993-2003 and 2006-present).
34 years as a public school teacher and administrator
B.S., City University of New York;
Ed.M., C.A.S., Harvard University Graduate School of Education

— What major three challenges face a candidate for this seat, and how
would you address each with an aim to improve Arlington?

Three challenges:
1. Rebuilding Arlington High School. We have made tremendous progress in the past two years, but we have significant work ahead of us. We were accepted into the core program of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and we are advancing to Feasibility Study module of the construction program. We brought our case to the voters last June, and the funding for the Feasibility Study was approved by a 3:1 margin. Our challenge going forward is to devise a plan for a school that serves our community well for the next several decades.

2. Meeting the needs of a growing enrollment. During the housing crash eight years ago, Arlington was one of a few communities that retained housing values through the crisis. When lenders started to make mortgages available again, Arlington became a popular destination for young families. We are in the middle of a demographic shift, and many young families are willing to trade space for the amenities of an urban community with reasonable commutes and enticing amenities. We are in the middle of an enrollment surge that has us repurposing the Gibbs School, adding six classrooms to the Thompson School, and planning for an addition to the Hardy School. Our challenge is to continue to stay ahead of the demographic trends, and to rally community support for the funding required to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding enrollment.

3. Maintaining momentum. During my time on the school committee, we have made steady progress in our schools. We now have a culture of continuous improvement, and our teachers are committed to the work of making things a little bit better every day. We need to support or teaching staff in their work, and provide them the encouragement and resources they need to do great things for our children.

The connection among all three items, for the school committee, is to build the community’s understanding of our challenges, and gain support for our work.

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Vote NO on Question 2; November 8, 2016

I have been a member of the Arlington School Committee for more than ten years. Some things change, some things remain the same, but the one constant is that I have had to spend too much time and energy saying no.

I have said no to lots of great ideas. I have said no to programs that would benefit our children. I have said no when my heart was jumping up and down urging me to say yes. I have said no because the school committee has the difficult job of weighing priorities against a difficult fiscal reality.

It is no secret that Arlington has had to raise property taxes, significantly, since the turn of the century just to struggle to maintain our current level of municipal services, on the town side and in our schools. The worst year was our 2003-04 school year, when our Chapter 70 education aid and our unrestricted general government aid was cut by 20%.

Last year, the state’s Foundation Budget Review Commission determined that the state underfunds its obligations to local school districts by more than $1 billion. The state’s response was to deflate the Foundation Budget by -0.22%. Last week, facing a $294 million budget deficit, Governor Charlie Baker announced plans to cut 1% of the state budget.

In this context of steady and significant disinvestments by the state in local government, with more cuts on the horizon, Governor Baker and lots of wealthy out-of-state big money contributors want us to approve Question 2, which would blow the doors off the current spending cap for charter schools. Question 2 would allow 12 new schools charter schools to open, taking 1% of the total statewide school population, costing $120 million more in the first year alone.

$120 million worth of new charter schools every year? How can Governor Baker afford it? The answer is simple. He can’t afford it, but he has no worries. He just takes the money out of the host communities’ Chapter 70 state aid.

Though the Yes campaign states that Question 2 does not impact suburban districts, you don’t need to put a charter school IN Arlington for it to hurt Arlington. Natick doesn’t have a charter school, but they lose 39 students and $435,000 to charters in Framingham and Marlborough. A charter school across the border in Cambridge of Somerville could have a large negative impact on our funding, and with a dozen new charter schools every year the probability of one or two or more bringing significant harm to the Arlington Public Schools students is very high. Charter schools in neighboring communities could quickly blow past Arlington’s charter cap of about six million dollars, doing considerable damage to the programs we offer our students in our public school system.

Yes, I am making an argument about the money. As Reverend Ike once said, the lack of money is the root of all evil, and the disproportionate and preferential funding of charter schools, at the expense of public schools, presents significant harm to the children who remain in the public system.

Under the current rules, the state takes away our decision to set priorities, to make decisions about our town’s budget. Do we want elementary librarians or a charter school? Do we want reduced class size or a charter school? Do we want to expand our early childhood program or a charter school? Do we want to reduce athletic fees or a charter school? Under the current rules, the state can make the decision for us. They can decide we must pay for a charter school. With all caps lifted, the probability of programs for a public school will be reduced expand exponentially because the state decides our priority will be to pay for a charter school.

Question 2 is an assault on our Town Meeting. It is an assault on the New England tradition that we can come together and make decisions about how our town budget is spent. It is an assault on the principle that people who want to spend money from our town budget should stand before Town Meeting and defend their request for an appropriation, no matter how small. Question 2 blows the doors off Arlington’s $6 million cap on charter school garnishments. It is unsustainable, and it will inflict considerable harm on each and every student who remains in any public school district that is forced to pay for a charter school.

There really isn’t much of a difference, in the underlying concept, between a Commonwealth charter school and a regional vocational school district like Minuteman. Both provide choice. Both provide a different kind of education. However, we voted to join the Minuteman district. We voted to amend the regional agreement and to allow bonding for a new school. We had a referendum to exempt Minuteman capital costs from Proposition 2½, and another referendum to authorize the building. Charter schools don’t ask for our money. They take it. They take it without giving us any opportunity to vote to start the school, fund the school, or expand the school. They take it without any opportunity to review how the money is spent, without any opportunity to weigh it with any of the other priorities of the town.

There are charter schools that do good work, that make a difference in the lives of children. There are other charter schools that are mediocre at best. What do they have in common? Preferential funding, unaccountable to the cities and towns forced to pay for them. Question 2 calls for 12 new charter schools every year, seats for 1% of students statewide, $120 million additional every year. Cities and towns caught between Proposition 2½ and underfunded state aid accounts can’t afford this wholesale expansion without massive cuts to schools and municipal services, overrides, and higher user fees.

It was hard to say no to elementary librarians, reduced class sizes, and reduced sports fees. Question 2? That’s an easy choice. Please join me in saying NO when it counts for the children in our public schools. Please vote NO on Question 2 on November 8.

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We need Martha!

I am urging all my friends and neighbors to come out to vote for  Martha Coakley, who is the best choice to lead Massachusetts as governor for the next four years.

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 regulatmartha_paulions 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.

Martha has always demonstrated a willingness to listen to multiple points of view and to do her homework. In January, Martha’s views on education were seemed to be good, but they were also quite vague. I told her that I didn’t need to agree with her on everything, but I needed to get a firm sense of understanding and direction pertaining to local governance and K-12 education.

I met with Martha last spring, as she spoke to a gathering of a couple of dozen uncommitted delegates. She spoke with clarity and specificity on issues of concern, particularly those raised by educators and municipal officials in the room. She spoke of the need to eliminate the prohibition of educators from serving on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. She spoke of the need to recalculate the foundation budget. She also reminded me of the partnerships she formed with local schools when she was Middlesex DA.

That’s why I enthusiastically support Martha Coakley for governor.

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