Senator Cassidy: Demagoguery won’t reopen our schools

The latest congressional outrage is from Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who went onto Fox News Sunday (January 31, 2021) with this pile of televised ignorance that begins at 02:34 into the video:

One area where we decrease. He [Biden] has $170 billion for schools. Now, we’ve already given schools 110% of what they usually receive from the federal government. Parochial schools have opened with a fraction of that money. Charter schools are opened. The real problem is public schools. That issue is not money. That issue is teachers’ unions telling their teachers not to go to work, and putting $170 billion towards teachers unions priorities, takes care of a Democratic constituency group, but it wastes our federal taxpayer dollars for something which is not the problem. We have $20 billion to get kids back to school on top of the roughly $66 billion, which is on top of the $57 billion schools normally get, we can get kids back to school without, you know, kind of bailing out the teachers’ unions.

A billion dollars seems like a boatload of money, but there are 51 million students in the US public schools; talk of each $1 billion translates into about $19.60 per child. I can’t speak for the veracity of the numbers Senator Cassidy has been throwing around, but I do know how to translate seemingly big federal numbers into local impact.

Let’s examine the real numbers behind school funding here in Massachusetts.

There are five strands of federal funding that flow to Massachusetts districts. For FY2021, this amounts to $302.750,324, roughly 2% of all school spending in the state. The state contributed $5,283,343,073, roughly 43% of the state’s school spending, with the rest coming from local taxpayers. Arlington receives about $335,000 from these strands, less than one half of one percent of our $82.5 million operating budget.

So, the feds tossed a few extra coins into the pot to provide $154,245 in federal Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for Arlington. It sounds like a big number when Senator Cassidy talks on Fox News, but local officials understand how relatively insignificant the federal support has been to date.

In Massachusetts, local funds are mostly generated from property taxes, a relatively stable source of funds. State revenues are predominantly from income and sales taxes, which are sensitive to economic downturns. Unlike the federal government, state budgets must be balanced annually.

In Massachusetts, state funding is awarded to school districts based on the property wealth of municipalities; ranging from 17.5% to 90% of the foundation budget, so students attending public schools in cities and towns with a smaller tax base are dependent on less reliable state funding.

There are too many state and federal officials who think they can simply decree that schools should be open for full-time, in-person instruction, and that decree should be enough for local officials to open schools. Those of us who rely on science, not state or federal decrees, know there are safety concerns that need to be addressed before we fully reopen our schools.

Instead of blaming teachers’ unions, let’s place the responsibility where it belongs. The federal government, when controlled by Senator Cassidy’s party, ignored science, failed to provide adequate testing, and fumbled the task of acquiring and distributing vaccine in their own end zone.

My message for Senator Cassidy: stop the school privatization demagoguery and do your job. Give President Biden the tools to fix the federal response, and make sure he can provide the resources we need to vaccinate our educators and open our schools safely.

The wisest course is to open in full remote plan

These are my prepared remarks at the August 10, 2020 meeting of the Arlington School Committee.

I am facing the most critical decision I have made in 18 years of school committee service. This has the potential to be a life or death decision for students and staff in the Arlington Public Schools, as well as their families and the rest of our community.

I want to describe the context of the decision this committee is being asked to make tonight. There are 7.8 billion people on Earth; 331 million people live in the United States. Massachusetts law prohibits me from discussing this decision with only six other people; my colleagues on the Arlington School Committee.

The Open Meeting Law prohibits us from deliberating outside of a public meeting. I can’t talk outside these meetings with the six colleagues with whom I will share this decision. Unfortunately, the meetings leading up to tonight have primarily focused on the school administration talking to the school committee, with only a limited opportunity to ask questions of the administration.

We now find ourselves hard on a DESE deadline, with little or no opportunity for the committee to discuss our decision among each other. The key word here is decision, as the voters of the Town of Arlington have elected us to make decisions on their behalf. Our role is to decide, not ratify. Sadly, we find ourselves on the track to ratification of a hybrid plan, without evidence it is safe or educationally sound

In my view, we cannot build any plan without a foundation built on the health and safety of our students and staff. We closed our schools last March, before the governor shut down the state, because the risk of COVID transmission in our schools was unacceptable.

What is the probability of COVID transmission in September if we adopt a hybrid model? I can’t answer that question, but I am confident that the probability of bringing this virus into our schools is greater than zero.

What happens if COVID comes into our schools? Again, there is no certainty, just a matrix of probabilities that we still can’t quantify. We are told that younger children are more likely to be asymptomatic. We know that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people spread the virus. Without a robust, frequent testing program, we won’t know we have a problem until we see the virus generate noticeable symptoms. By that time, we could have a major outbreak in our schools.

When we look at the entry and spread of the virus into our schools, is unrealistic to expect a probability of 0; but I would want that number to approach 0. The lack of testing, the lack of precedent, the lack of proven models, and the lack of reliable data places us in a position where we cannot calculate the probability of sickness and spread in our schools.

I believe the wisest course is to open in full remote plan, and reconsider as we are able to collect evidence of success from other districts. There will be other Massachusetts districts similar to Arlington that will start with various hybrid models, and we can learn from their experiences. We can observe the public health data for these districts.

Going forward, this committee needs to deliberate and discuss the steps going forward.

As I mentioned earlier, the Open Meeting Law prevents us from discussing school committee business with our colleagues. The state has determined that answering email, in which it is possible for other members can read their responses, is viewed as serial deliberation and is a violation of the law.

To that end, I would ask for information requested and required for our work to be provided in a timely manner. I would ask for documents we request to be provided without question or objection, in a timely manner. I would ask for meetings to be structured to allow us the time to talk to each other, as we work together to guide the district through this pandemic.

I believe in science, and I believe the extraordinary efforts of researchers and public health professionals will lead us toward a full reopening before the conclusion of the school year. This year won’t be easy, but we will get to a better place.

Birds are chirping for enchiladas!

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and this is going to be one of the most beautiful days of the year. It’s a wonderful day for enchiladas!

Enchiladas? Don’t the birds normally sing on election day? Well, yes, but in many ways today’s primary election is the whole enchilada.  In most of Arlington, the Democratic primary is the election, as there is no Republican candidate on the ballot for our Representative in Congress, (Governor’s) Councillor, Senator in General Court, and District Attorney. Senator Donnelly is unopposed in the primary, but the remaining races will be decided this evening.

Even where there is an opponent, most pundits, birds, and cats all agree that the only really competitive race in November will be the election for governor. That’s why the birds are singing for the voters of Arlington who will be making their choices today.

The birds are also singing for Martha Coakley, a former Arlington resident who has been very responsive to local governments in her role as Middlesex DA and Attorney General. They like her collaborative style and willingness to listen.

They also sing for Katherine Clark, who was recently elected to Congress to fill the unexpired term of Ed Markey. Not many folks are aware she has a primary opponent, but she needs to win the Democratic primary to continue as our representative.

There is a lot to like about both candidates for Attorney General, but the birds sing with pride for Mike Lake (Lt. Gov.), Tom Conroy (Treasurer), Charlie Shapiro (Governor’s Councillor), and Michael Sullivan (District Attorney).

That said, the birds are really singing for Arlington, with the hope that Arlington will once again be one of the top voting municipalites in a primary election. The birds are singing for you if you visit your friendly poll workers and thank them for making democracy work in Arlington.

So get out there and vote! Polls are open until 8:00 p.m.

Fixing Ferguson (and beyond)

I can’t stop looking at Ferguson through the lens of my own experience in local government.

I understand how things work in my beloved Town of Arlington, a 5.2 square mile New England town with a population of about 43,000. Ferguson is more suburban than Arlington, in that it has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles. (Our neighboring town of WInchester, MA also has 21,000 people living in 6.2 square miles.)

Taking a spin through Ferguson on Google Maps Street View, I see lots of well kept single family homes with more lawn than almost any neighborhood in Arlington. Having done lots of political door knocking in Arlington, I see Ferguson as a flat, pleasant place for a good old fashioned political canvas.

Yes, I am looking at this as a political problem. I know of no other way to view the whole situation. How can a police department think it’s okay to hunt down and shoot unarmed jaywalkers? Who is holding the police department accountable for their actions?

The line of accountability is through the political process. The police chief needs to answer to the mayor and city council, and these elected officials are accountable to the voters.

The crisis we are witnessing began with the murder of Michael Brown, but was fueled by the lack of an appropriate response from the police chief and the elected officials of the City of Ferguson.

A sick police culture
News reports describe the area surrounding Ferguson as a patchwork of small municipalities where African Americans complain of being targeted by the local police. The system is designed to produce this result.

The New York Times reports that the City of Ferguson receives a quarter of its revenue from court fees. This creates an incentive for the mayor and council to expect significant revenue from traffic fines, putting pressure on the police to generate revenue instead of acting in the best interests of the public it is sworn to protect.

Ferguson is not alone in this regard, as the Times reports that some surrounding cities generate half of their revenue from court fees.

Allowing a municipality to keep and budget traffic fines is nothing more than an invitation for trouble. Consider the notorious little city of Hampton, Florida, where they incorporated a 1260 foot stretch of US 301 for the purpose of turning it into a cash cow speed trap.  In Hampton, it was easy for the police to point their speed guns at out-of-towners. They had no remorse for victimizing “those people” in order to generate barrels of cash for a corrupt little city.

In St. Louis County, “those people” who are the targets for the traffic fine revenue scheme are mostly guilty of Driving While Black. White cops, black motorists, and a white political structure that is happy with the cash flow being generated by strict, racially motivated traffic enforcement. The ground rules poison the political culture, poison the community, and leads to a culture where a police officer thinks its acceptable to fire six shots into a jaywalker who happens to be one of “those people.”

In Massachusetts, cities and towns are not allowed to keep revenue from moving violations. Massachusetts cities and towns cannot balance their budgets and raise revenue through strict traffic enforcement. If Missouri is serious about abolishing the toxic culture that produced this crisis, they will act immediately to eliminate traffic fines as a municipal revenue source.

A political failure
My television has been filled with a stream of really good folks, who reside in Ferguson, who are appalled by the actions of the police, the response by the police chief, and the condoning silence of the mayor and city council. Three layers of failed accountability.

St. Louis County reports that the last election (April 2, 2013) in the City of Ferguson attracted 1,614 out of 13,745 registered voters, an 11.74% turnout. I am not writing this to scold the folks who didn’t vote in the city election (most cities and towns don’t do much better). I am merely pointing out how easy it is for the community to exert greater accountability over this whole mess.

Ferguson elects city council members by ward, and in 2013 the winning candidate in Ward 1 got just 518 votes. The winner in Ward 2 got 497 votes. The Ward 3 candidate ran uncontested and won with 162 votes. This is not a sign of a huge political establishment that has a stranglehold on the city. This is a small city where a half dozen folks willing to put their names on the ballot, a few dozen dedicated volunteers, and about 1800 new voters can make all the difference in the world.

Local elections matter. Local elections define the quality of local services, including police and public schools. I am sure the good folks of Ferguson have come to a very real understanding, and they know what to do when the next election rolls around. I guarantee the days of sleepy, low turnout elections in Ferguson are long gone.

Ferguson will get this right.

What about the rest of us?

Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook Elementary School did all the right things to secure their building. Locks, buzzer, lock-down drills. There was no police officer, but that would have also been a minor obstacle for a mass murderer with multiple military weapons.

The NRA solution of more guns in schools is no solution at all, and would only succeed in making things worse. Gunmen who want to create massive carnage before they exit the world in a hail of bullets will not be deterred by additional guns in and around their target when the gunmen plans for his death as part of the rampage.

It is painfully obvious that we cannot solve this problem at the local level. The solution to this constant stream of semi-automatic gunmen is to separate the unstable civilian gunmen from military weapons. Can we do this while we preserve our second amendment rights?

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

For those who view the constitution most conservatively, looking at original intent, it’s clear the founding fathers were talking about the citizenry’s right to muskets. Specifically, they were informed by the British regulars marching through Menotomy and Lexington on a mission to remove muskets and powder secured for the Concord militia. A central power that could disarm the local militia was a threat to a free State, and a well regulated Militia was a clear balance to the potential of a powerful federal government.

I doubt the founding fathers wanted the village idiot wandering around the common with a musket or two, and the amendment was certainly not written for the purpose of guaranteeing gun rights to the village idiot or any one individual.

We already place significant limits on civilian ownership of weapons. The second amendment doesn’t guarantee civilian ownership of nuclear weapons. You can’t park a fully-operational tank on your front lawn. You can’t ride around with rockets and mortars in the back of your pickup truck.

There’s a line. We just need to find a place where that line should be drawn to preserve reasonable rights and public safety.

Automatic and semi-automatic weapons are military weapons. They have no legitimate civilian use, and we should prohibit civilian use of these weapons. Similarly, high-capacity ammunition is necessary for our military, but its only civilian purpose is mass murder.

The words “well regulated” should also bring us to the point where we can regulate the licensure of gun owners and register guns. Again, under the village idiot in the town common interpretation, licensure and registration should be required for firearms. Because the amendment declares it “necessary to the security of a free State,” let the states register weapons and license users, much as we allow the states to register cars and license drivers.

It is also clear that mental health services are woefully inadequate. If we are to live in a safe society, we need view treatment of mental health issues as a critical public health issue. We need adequate resources so folks get the treatment they need, to protect themselves and their neighbors.

Again, this is nothing we can solve on a local level. This requires significant courage and resolve from our federal legislators, in the face of a powerful lobbying industry that wants to flood our nation with even more military weapons.

A solution delayed is a solution deferred. Our national leaders need to take action now.