Friday, September 13, 2002
Everyone wins with the Green School grant
Three cheers for the Carlisle Public School and the school building committee (SBC) for winning a Green School grant!
This $20,000 grant was awarded by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC) to help the school explore ways to build more energy-efficient buildings. Design improvements will lower fuel costs over the lifetime of any needed expansion or new school building. This will not only save the town money and help the environment, but may also result in more child-friendly classrooms. A study of over 21,000 students has shown that children perform better when classrooms are designed to use more natural daylight (see Christy Barbee's article, Carlisle awarded Green School grant, in the August 30, 2002 issue.)
And don't forget to consider energy efficiency the next time you renovate or build a new house. Our family would have lost our opportunity if it hadn't been for our builder's suggestions. After rejecting the idea of solar heating on our shady lot, we were resigned to using standard building practices for the addition to our house. Of course we were in a hurry to gain the additional living space. We spent more than enough time worrying about closets and doorways and bathroom tiles, and not enough time researching heating systems, recycled building materials, etc. Luckily, our builder knows the importance of insulation. He suggested framing the addition with 2 x 6 lumber instead of standard 2 x 4s, and this allowed room for additional insulation. Thermopane windows look like standard windows, but are much more energy efficient. Investing in these now will do more to keep our energy costs down, than all the weather stripping and caulking we could have applied later.
As a nation, we just marked the end of an anguished year. We struggled to recover our emotional and spiritual equilibrium by strengthening ties to family and friends, renewing our religious faith, and simplifying our complex lives. But even as we heal, the sadness lingers and we try to hold the darkness at bay.
I found comfort this past year in the beauty of the natural world each time I stepped outside my door, the trees, flowers, birds and cloud formations sustained me. I'm not much of a gardener, but this year growing things became very important as I tried to exclude evil from my two-acre part of the planet. Even the promise of beauty hidden in the seeds I planted heartened me.
This same expectation of beauty brought me an indoor plant so severely homely that its survival under my care will surely be a test of faith. I'm told that it just might, in a year or two or three, produce one spectacular blossom only in the middle of the night and only for a few hours! Last spring, Nan, a woman in my exercise class, told us about her Night-blooming Cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus), a cactus. Although hers hadn't bloomed recently, she described its last bloom with near ecstasy. Around eleven o'clock one night, her Cereus blossom unfolded majestically, displaying one giant creamy flower; next morning, the flower was as wilted as our drought-stricken tomatoes. I was intrigued by this exotic wonder, and several weeks later, Nan brought me a cutting from her plant.
It stretches the imagination to believe that something beautiful and ethereal will emerge from my awkward Cereus. It now has five very long and spiny E.T.-like fingers and three tiny leaves. The plant might take two or three years to mature and awaken, and I am notoriously short on patience. But while I'm nurturing this strange living thing, I'm learning more about it.
The Night-blooming Cereus grows in the desert and is a close relative of the Christmas cactus. Its flowers open in the evening so they can be pollinated by night-flying moths attracted by their creamy whiteness. Blossoms vary in size from five inches to one foot wide, are photo-sensitive (hence, the night-blooming), and emit a heady vanilla perfume. Cereus is a healer, too its extract can be used to treat tachycardia, palpitations, arrhythmia, and panic attacks, which only adds to its mystique. You might even say it is a healer of broken hearts, if not through its sheer beauty then by its milky tonic.
Cereus owners tend to throw a midnight party when their plant is about to burst forth. When a bud is about a foot long, they issue party invitations, but timing of the unfurling is as capricious as Mother Nature herself. One year Nan miscalculated and went away briefly. That's when her Cereus decided to open and must have wondered where the party was.
While I'm far from issuing invitations, I'm challenged and charmed by this furtive plant. I like to think about the night when it fulfils its promise and justifies my faith. Then the darkness will be incandescently lit by one of nature's small wonders, luminous and ephemeral, not unlike life itself.
We are blessed to live in a town rich in natural beauty. When our safe but battered world is threatened, we can find comfort and healing on our trails and in our back yards. Inside our homes, even the ugliest of plants can give us hope.
Reflections: Finding a new balance
School bus schedules are set and summer is unofficially over. A governor's election is at hand, promises are made left and right, our economy is still sluggish, and the budget troubles for towns and cities persist.
By August we finally put Carlisle's 2003 budget to bed, and now we begin again. So, what are we to make of last year's efforts? The failed overrides, the torrent of e-mails, the multiple Town Meetings, the selectmen's meetings in the auditorium (four of them), the letters, the editorials, the high school priorities, the school fundraising efforts, and the compromise override.
The headlines, the pictures yes, it was great reading and good theater if you follow town politics. Taxes have been a mounting concern for a number of years, with continuing pressure on the schools as enrollment and perceived needs increase, and selectmen worry about pay equity for town employees. Add to these worries all the revenue surprises, most negative (at least at first).
As selectmen we tried to find a middle ground in the proposed budgets and the Town Meeting Warrant articles. In the spring of 2002 we clearly lost our equilibrium. And so we the selectmen, FinCom, town departments and townspeople struggled for two months to find a compromise. It was a wearing and time consuming process for those involved. Few of us want to repeat it.
A changing town
Before the new budget numbers numb us again, what were all the talk, passion, and feelings about? Yes, part of it was the economy, but Carlisle was also struggling with more fundamental questions.
Every ten years or so we go through a re-examination of our priorities: the character of the town, and its direction. This spring was such a time. What kind of town are we becoming and what kind of community do we want to be? These are not simple questions, decided by a single vote.
It is part of the dialogue going on in family rooms, by the playing fields, in the Mosquito, committee meetings, in e-mails, at Daisy's and other gathering places. I start with numbers and ask obvious questions: how much land, what kind of school, how many services, who will live here?
The changes over the past 30 years shown in the table below are remarkable. Town population has grown steadily (60%, yet slowing in the past ten years), while the number of households has more than doubled as average family size has dropped from 4.5 to fewer than 3.
One of the most striking shifts is the income distribution over the past 20 years a precipitous drop in the number of families with income under $50,000 (stabilizing at 20% over the past ten years) and a significant jump in the past ten years in family incomes over $150,000. These figures have not been adjusted for inflation, but comparing the changes with the Consumer Price Index (see last line of the table) the leap in median family income has outpaced inflation by a factor of two over the past ten years.
We are surely a richer town with a growing elderly and younger population, very different from the rest of the Commonwealth. The pressures are obvious. Taxes and our expenditures have risen much faster than population growth and inflation. However, the relative burden of real estate tax to median income has fluctuated between 5-6% over the past 20 years. When we push close to 6% there is an outcry from a majority of voters.
Other questions and observations can be drawn from this information, but the Carlisle of old, 1960s and 1970s, is now part of our memories. Esther Wilson's service in August was a significant mark in time. Carlisle is no longer a struggling farming community but a bustling suburb with excellent schools, limited services, lots of land, and high taxes still a wonderful place to live, as it always has been.
What's the future?
During coming years we will debate taxes, shifting tax burdens, and especially the school budget (just what is "level service"?). Behind the scenes citizen committees will be involved in difficult negotiations at both schools. Much will be made of the ongoing budget challenges. In the end, we will have a tax increase, and probably an override question or two, but the trajectory will be lower.
Finding balance will take time, and it won't be easy. People will continue to leave and move into Carlisle. Yet our values schools, land, community involvement and a sense that we can make a difference if we choose will hold. Redefining our community should be engaging.
In 2010 Carlisle will be a larger wealthier town. But how much will our mix change? Will our elderly stay, will we become slightly more diverse, or will even more families with children move in? To fill in imaginary blanks in the 2010 census; think about who is here and how we can change things for the better might be an interesting exercise.
As we talk, I hope we can rekindle what faded last spring the humor, passion, and civility that marks an inclusive citizenry. We should value all the characters and characteristics of the town; and remember the fun of town politics. So let the fall begin.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito