Friday, March 12, 2004
How real is the 40B threat?
For decades we have worried that there is a monster under the bed. At one time we really didn't believe in monsters, but lately the growls have been harder to ignore. We have tossed a few crumbs on the floor hoping to appease it, but the stirrings have only grown louder. We look around the bedroom and take comfort that nothing has changed. But we can't shake the chilling thought that one quiet night, while we are peacefully dozing, an enormous hulk with big teeth will suddenly appear on top of us and.life will never be the same again.
It's not a dream. The monster is the Chapter 40B mega-builder and the bedroom community is Carlisle. For 30-plus years the state has rattled its saber but little has happened in Carlisle. So why should we worry now? How real is the 40B threat?
Last year the Fairfield Residential Company of Grand Prairie, Texas proposed a 256-unit 40B development on 12.5 acres in the Town of Mansfield (20 units per acre, Boston Globe, 6/19/03). The fact that the site does not have a town sewer did not deter the developer. 40B applications for large, high-density housing complexes have been filed in surrounding towns. An application for a 60-unit development has been submitted in Boxborough to be built on 21acres of land with no town water or sewer. Avalon Bay is seeking a permit for 139 units on less than 10 acres in Bedford. In Billerica seven 40B projects may contribute 672 units.
From 1970 to 2002, 415 cases where a town rejected a 40B application were appealed to the State Housing Appeals Committee (HAC). 69% were withdrawn, dismissed, or settled. 31% of the cases were decided by the HAC. Of these, 84% ruled in favor of the developer and 16% in favor of the town.
The recent acceleration in 40B applications is driven by a slower economy. In the 90s building million-dollar homes on expensive lots was profitable. Today, sales of large homes are lagging and the 40B development is more attractive.
As of 2002, the Mass. Department of Housing and Community Development listed Carlisle as having a total of 1,647 housing units (2000 census) and 18 40B-qualifying units, or 1.09%. To get rid of the monster, Carlisle needs to acquire approximately 150 new affordable units.
We are now being offered the opportunity to purchase Parcel A and build up to 26 affordable units at a relatively modest cost which will not destroy the town's capacity to meet other capital needs in the foreseeable future (See Cecile Sandwen's story on page 9.) Opponents point out that this will only appease the monster — turn away 40B applications — for about two years. Proponents say we have to start somewhere, and turning down this option will only anger the monster and whet its appetite for Carlisle.
As with all potential threats, how much risk one is willing to take depends on how intolerable the worst-case scenario is. The worst nightmare is that a developer could propose to build 600 units (30 acres), 450 market rate and 150 affordable. If each unit added two school-age children, the enrollment of the Carlisle schools would double. Currently, 80% of Carlisle's annual operating budget goes to support our schools. We don't need to do a lot of math to guess what would happen to our taxes.
Risk assessment is never easy. Sleep tight.
On the wrong road
The governor says there's a crisis in education. That's so, to the extent that lean budget years have forced schools to cut programs and teachers. But more important, I think, is that we've missed a turn in the road. We're still operating according to the industrial-age model that seeks to teach everyone the same things at the same time in order to stamp out the professionals needed to stoke the industrial machine. Peter Senge, who will speak at the ninth annual Carlisle Education Forum on April 3, has written very convincingly about this in his book Schools That Learn.
We need to go back and take the right road. We need thoughtfulness about how to encourage learning. We need to recognize that many of the ways we teach children do not effectively mesh with the ways in which they learn — or with the ways they'll need to think and create in a new economy. We might even need very different kinds of schools and school days.
Children are expert learners. Many, maybe even most, eventually lose some of their natural drive to learn at school because they're constantly told what to learn, when, and at what pace, and they're told, in effect, that what they're interested in — playing games, building things, watching bugs — isn't as valuable as what is mapped out for them in the state curriculum frameworks.
Perhaps looking closely at what children want to learn, and how they learn when we're not telling them how, would lend insights into how to teach better. Maybe seizing on what interests children would pull them into the learning experiences that will help them to learn what our society needs them to know.
Governor Romney, addressing the League of Women Voters on February 26, touted the report of his task force on underperforming school districts, which had just presented its recommendations. The one initiative he chose to highlight was a recommendation that principals be empowered to fire teachers. (For the record, state law already permits principals to fire teachers for a variety of reasons, albeit with provisions for review and arbitration. Also for the record, what the task force actually recommended, among several other things, was removal of staff for "good cause.")
The governor surely knows that making the education system work better will be far more complex than his comments that day would suggest. I hope he'll use his leadership position to get beneath the surface. We don't need more standards or measures.
We need to rethink what we want from education and look at innovations that can help us achieve it. I suspect we could save in some instances and pay more in others. We will always need well-qualified teachers and mentors. Teacher salaries are and always will be the greatest operating costs in schools. Certainly we will need to restore the cuts of the last few years.
Until we look deeply and honestly at the fact that not all humans learn the same way and at the same pace, we will continue to be confounded that there are children — and indeed whole districts — falling through the cracks.
© 2004 The