Friday, December 17, 2010

Boston Residential Tax Bills Increase

The rate’s going up for Boston’s property taxes. For residential property, the increase is from $11.88 per thousand dollars of value to $12.79. For commercial property, the increase is from $29.38 to $31.04.

The average tax bill for residential property will increase by 7.5%, from the previous year’s $2,935, to $3,155. As in past years, there will be an exemption for owner-occupants of residential property. This year’s exemption will be $1,594.85.

The administration of Mayor Menino say it’s raising total property tax revenue by the maximum amount allowed by Proposition 2½. Also affecting the rate is a slight decrease in the city’s overall property values.

The tax bills coming out will be calculated on property values as of January 1, 2010. The date precedes changes in market values caused by the tax break for first-time home-buyers, and by the fall-off in sales when the break expired.

In recent years, residential values in some parts of Boston have held firm or even started going back up. But, in other parts of the city, values are still falling. As in past years, city officials note the average residential tax bill in Boston is lower than the same bills in many other communities. And they say the bill for FY 2011 is 30% below the average residential bill for all of Massachusetts in FY 2010.

After School Closings, Still More Hurdles

With 5,600 vacant seats in the Boston Public Schools, there must be room for saving money on buildings and, possibly, transportation. If the money can be used for longer school days and incentives for more effective teaching (which would have their price in a new teachers' contract), then there’s all the more reason to consolidate.

That’s the case for closings made by most of Boston’s public officials and business leaders, and even by advocates for students. The argument has been made for at least three years.

But, instead of consolidating in phases and spreading out disruption, the School Committee voted this week to close nine buildings and merge another eight schools. That’s the largest single downsizing in the Boston Public Schools since the early 1980’s, a time of economic recession after newly approved limits on the city’s property tax and a drop in enrollment with the start of desegregation.

Over the weeks leading up to the vote on this year’s round of closings, school officials have emphasized the big picture. Repeatedly they brought up the expected savings on facilities—$10 million—and the coming year’s expected budget faces a shortfall—as much as $63 million. And they kept saying that money saved could at least make surviving schools with empty seats more attractive.

“Many of those empty seats are in high-quality schools,” School Committee Chair Rev. Gregory Groover told BNN News, “so if we can relocate some of those children to those high-quality schools, you’re talking about hundreds of more students, if not thousands of more students who will have access to better schools.”

One reason officials backed off from earlier attempts to consolidate schools and transportation was that the remaining options increased educational inequality in a way that was hard to miss on a map. Under one plan to increase the number of school zones from three to five, many families in the poorest neighborhoods would have faced a disproportionately high probability of being stuck with an under-performing school.

So, instead of just leaving access to sub-standard schools more randomized, the goal is to bring more schools up to standard, even with more options among charter schools.

But, as in the 1980’s, many people most directly affected by closings view them as a new uncertainty, and possibly a step backward. At a series of hearings before the consolidation was approved this week, parents and students spoke about what they valued in the schools being closed, and they combined personal narrative with statistics.

At a hearing in November, before more schools were added to the consolidation plan, Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman turned his back on the School Committee and told a hall mostly filled with parents and students, “The schools chosen are not under-performing schools, and not in any way dysfunctional schools.”

This week, the day before the vote, in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Thomas Menino weighed in and put the emphasis on the big picture: “Will we as a city have the courage to stop doing things that limit students’ achievement, so we can grow the strategies that accelerate it?”

The day after the vote, the mayor pointed out that the closings are only the start of a longer process. Along with providing space in other buildings, school officials are faced with the challenges of redesigning the assignment process, improving performance at more locations, and finding the right programs and teachers for English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

At a hearing last month, the assistant superintendent for English language learners, Dr. Eileen de los Reyes, said the aim would be to “move the strength” of the special programs. “We are hoping to move the faculty with the students,” she said.

But, as the West Roxbury Patch reports, plans for English language learners affected by the closing of the Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain are being questioned by parents of students at one destination school in West Roxbury, the Patrick Lyndon.

Another school being closed, the Emerson in Roxbury, has the only structured immersion class for Cape Verdean students. And one opponent warned that splitting up students in the language program would also interfere with daily routines of going to school in groups. “You’re breaking up not only the programs,” she said, “but the families.”

Some of the mergers in the plan involve high schools sharing the same buildings in South Boston and West Roxbury. Though officials say mergers will add strength overall, the chief academic officer, Irvin Scott, denied the change would mean the expansion of one school and the total disappearance of the other.

“The goal,” said Scott, “is to take what’s great in both schools and replicate it.”

With the new combinations yet to be defined, some students from high schools being merged in West Roxbury left class this week to protest in downtown Boston. They talked about being faced with changes in curriculum and possible conflicts with a different mix of classmates.

The mergers of subdivided high schools also signal disillusionment with what once seemed a promising concept—that smaller, more tight-knit schools, would improve student performance. Though some of the innovative schools, such as Excel High School in South Boston—have been hailed as improvements over the standard district high schools, the assistant superintendent for research, assessment and evaluation, Kamalkant Chavda, said that, overall, they showed “no significant” academic improvement.

If nothing else is changed, a smaller number of schools would create more demand for student transportation. That means savings will have to come from other measures. One possibility is to have some middle school students take MBTA buses with discount passes. Another would be to let fewer students within a walk zone have the option of a bus ride.

Demand for busing will also be affected by any redrawing of zones, and the resulting changes in the number of options for school assignments. If there were enough improvement at enough schools, it would be possible to increase the number of zones without increasing inequality of options. And Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar said last month the five zones proposed a couple of years ago are “not enough.” In the best possible outcome, there could even be more families satisfied with a school’s performance and a convenient location in their neighborhood—qualities valued by many of the parents who spoke out against school closings.

But, getting to that outcome will involve difficulties, including some posed by the expansion of charter schools. Along with contributing to a shift of state money away from district public schools, charters have an advantage in transportation. Currently their students are entitled to busing anywhere in the city, and this is paid for by the Boston School Dept. Even with the current assignment plan, busing is only provided within a zone—for students in the BPS and Catholic schools.

Though school officials say the consolidation will stop short of exceeding student-to-teacher ratios in each classroom, some fear there will be more classes where the influx will hurt performance. And, after the vote, Stutman even questioned the determination of Boston officials to stem the exodus of potential new students to charter schools.

By speaking to the Chamber of Commerce instead of parents at the School committee, Mayor Menino chose a setting that was almost certainly less confrontational. And he used the occasion to bring up one other challenge to educational improvement—the rising cost of health care for teachers and other city employees.

As the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, points out, the budget for the Boston School Dept., minus the amount for insurance coverage, is getting smaller. Menino and the Bureau favor a change of state law that would let the city impose a less costly form of coverage without having to get separate agreements from all collective bargaining units—something allowed to the state since 1955.

It stands to reason that give-backs for unions would go over well with business executives, but that has so far been little match for the reluctance of the state legislature and Governor Patrick, or even the Boston City Council, to dramatically increase leverage over health plans for local communities.

Given the media exposure for Menino’s speech, it could be said he was trying to rally a broader public. This could include many people with less generous coverage, and maybe fewer options for educating their children. And, judging by The Boston Globe’s account of new population trends, the audience could even include actual or potential “New Bostonians” whose pursuit of good schools prompts them to move out or avoid the city altogether.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pariahs, Pantheons, and Chuck Turner

It was a little after the City Council vote to expel Chuck Turner when I got off the trolley at Government Center. As I was on the way up the stairs, I saw a descending face that looked familiar yet puzzling.

Not only that, but this figure on the escalator seemed to recognize me. I still don't know who this was, but it was only a couple of seconds before misplaced resemblance became a reminder of a tarnished political figure in Boston's past. That's why, as I headed across the wet brick plaza toward a funereal mass of people outside City Hall, I thought of the late state representative from Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain, Kevin Fitzgerald.

Unlike Chuck Turner, Fitzgerald was never convicted of a crime. But Fitzgerald was entangled in a civil action over money he came by after helping an elderly woman described as being mentally impaired and having bags of cash containing thousands of dollars. Though Fitzgerald was a beneficiary in the woman's will, there was no proof beyond all reasonable doubt of stealing money that, sooner or later, should have gone to someone else. And Fitzgerald denied that it was a case of private compensation for public service. Though the case was widely reported in the Boston media, Fitzgerald kept being re-elected. For the rest of his political career, he would also be saddled with a familiar nickname, "Money Fitz."

As he made his defense before yesterday's vote, Chuck Turner compared himself to a more famous figure who went from humble origins in Roxbury to Jamaica Plain--Boston's "Rascal King," James Michael Curley. Along with rising as high as mayor, governor and congressman, Curley would be convicted twice, and on the second occasion for a federal crime. Not only that, but he continued serving as mayor of Boston after his release from prison.

As a Roxbury politician who spent some time helping local constituents--including ex-offenders--Curley certainly has some things in common with Turner, who has lived in Roxbury for decades but was born in Ohio. To be sure, Curley had his attractive traits and admirable accomplishments. Unlike Turner, the son of immigrants moved to the Jamaicaway and lived in a mansion with servants (plus legendary lines of supplicants at his door).

The author of The Rascal King, Jack Beatty, offers plenty of detail about the dark side of Curley, as off-and-on demagogue and possible crook. When asked if Curley might have done any garnishing along the way, the author of a more recent book on Curley, former State Senate President William Bulger, strongly disagreed.

Two years before he died, Curley moved from the mansion to a smaller house in Jamaica Plain. He was diminished materially and, more importantly, by the death of all but one of his children. The combination of accomplishments, misdeeds, and misfortunes made him seem larger than life.

When Curley died in 1958, there was what has been called "the largest funeral in the history of the City of Boston," maybe surpassing even the turnout at Columbia Point last year after the death of Ted Kennedy. Likewise, Fitzgerald was remembered before and after his death as a strong champion of human services. He would eventually be honored by the naming of a scenic park looking out on the office towers of downtown Boston and the spires of Mission Church.

Further on in Boston's political afterlife, Chuck Turner will be remembered as a leader of campaigns for jobs, reform around criminal background checks, and for putting a spotlight on the persistent achievement gap in the city's schools. If he was remembered in yesterday's vote for taking a wad of cash at his office in Dudley Square (as the federal jury saw it), he might also be remembered for spending time there to help individuals trying to get their lives back on track.

When Turner invoked Curley yesterday in the City Council's Iannella Chamber, some found the comparison fatuous or offensive. If it was a plea for being allowed to stay in office, it was certainly wishful. If less than fully persuasive, it did open the door to more comparisons with elected and non-elected officials who, despite serious lapses, managed to keep their positions.

But the view of Curley in Boston is like an image in a cracked mirror, or a pair of images that don't quite match. So it is with the two pieces of sculpture near City Hall. One shows Curley standing proud--Curley the beloved, the admirable, and perhaps shrewdly mythological. The other shows an old man on a bench, a fellow mortal, not so much enthroned as deposed.

Yes, Curley the ex-offender was allowed to serve the remainder of his term as mayor. He ran again more than once but was never again to be elected. While he was a strong candidate for immortality, the voters of his last decade confirmed he had outlived his usefulness as a public official.

By voting to expel Chuck Turner, his colleagues might seem to have been slighting the positive elements that people might remember in years ahead. If Turner were to have continued serving, the sting leading to his conviction might have gotten more life as a public issue--with voters in Roxbury's District 7 left to see his behavior as principled defiance or colossal stupidity.

But, instead, the
expulsion left the district's voters to concentrate on something else. That takes the spotlight off the afterlife of other officials who go on to work for interests with business before the city or the state. And it dims the glare on the more roundabout--though usually quite legal--ways of rewarding people in the public realm for benefits in the private realm. What Turner's exit also makes less apparent is any resemblance to the lingering presence of Curley on the bench.