Friday, June 30, 2006
How much can we afford?
Can we have it all — new recreation facilities, affordable housing, two new schools, perhaps more conservation land and a senior center — financed by the real estate taxes on fewer than 2,000 homes? The Selectmen are forming a subcommittee to analyze the town's long-term needs and financial constraints, and they deserve our gratitude for undertaking a very important task.
Setting aside other capital expenses, the question of whether we can afford to build two new schools within a few years deserves study. In April, the Carlisle School Master Plan recommended a series of options for renovation and new construction, totaling between $57 and $66 million. Options allow the Master Plan to be implemented in phases, possibly spread out over many years. Last summer the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS) Feasibility Committee recommended replacing the current high school, at a cost of about $90 million. This is $10 million greater than the estimate for renovations and repairs to the facility. Projected costs have risen sharply. In early 2003, the Carlisle School expansion was estimated at $12 to$15 million, while plans then under consideration for the high school were priced at only $45 million.
The long-term school needs and the financial impacts to the town should both be carefully understood before voters are asked to make decisions at Town Meeting. Former Selectman John Ballantine recently spoke to the Carlisle School Committee about the results of his demographic study, showing a slight decrease in enrollment over the next several years (see CSC considers drop in Carlisle School population, page 5) Notwithstanding past trends in housing, there is significant uncertainty in predicting how many high-density 40B developments will be built in the coming decade. A crystal ball would be very useful.
Ballantine's study also looked at the town's debt capacity. While $20 to $30 million in new capital expenses over the next five years may not be out of line with past debt burdens, he worried that more new debt may result in painfully large tax hikes.
Can we afford $30 million? $50 million? $90 million?
Some factors influencing the school construction costs are out of our control. These include: how fast the price of construction materials and labor rise, whether and, at what amount, the state will resume aid for school building projects, as well as Carlisle's proportion of the CCHS bills. This ratio varies depending on what fraction of the CCHS students are from Carlisle in any given year. It is now 27% and is expected to rise slightly in the next few years. Assuming a 30% assessment ratio, if state aid pays 50% of both the new CCHS building and the $27 million Phase 1 for Carlisle School, then our town's capital expenses would total about $27 million. Without state aid, Carlisle's cost would be $54 million. To construct the entire $66 million Option 1 of the Carlisle School Master Plan and the new high school without state aid would cost Carlisle roughly $93 million.
Would either of these school building plans benefit from further study? Do they provide all that students will need? Are there any more economical designs that would also meet the students' needs? Does waiting only cost more money?
By pulling together people from the school, the Finance Committee and others involved in town finances, the Selectmen's new long-term planning committee will hopefully bring the right people and the right expertise together to guide the town through the coming difficult financial choices. A crystal ball would still be helpful.
English, so to speak
A few weeks ago, while driving about town, half-listening to a midday NPR news broadcast, I heard the following teaser: "When we come back, should we declare English our national language?" After a quick mental rewind, I thought, "Wait a minuteis it not?!"
After all, English has always been as synonymous with American culture as apple pie or the star spangled banner. People from all over the world have come to America for what it promised to be — the land of opportunities, the land of freedom for all; a neatly wrapped package that comes with a flag, a national anthem and a language.
As it turns out, in 1923, in what was the first official-language measure ever considered by the U.S. Congress, Washington J. McCormick, a Republican Congressman from Montana, proposed to displace English in favor of "American" as the national language. And apparently even long before, in 1795, German came close to taking a place alongside English on every official document. The proposal failed by one vote. So, after 230 years, following an impassioned Senate debate last month, an amendment to a proposed immigration reform bill was approved to declare English the country's national language. The charged debate is not so much about the language of this country, but rather a fig-leafing of a tightened approach to immigration laws.
Looking for answers closer to home, I spoke recently with Marie Doyle, Superintendent of the Carlisle School. I learned that while there is currently no local demand for English for Language Learners services, the school will still train as many as 10 ELL tutors this summer in preparation for any future need, and will also design and implement a survey to determine the distribution of languages spoken by students other than English.
Superintendent Doyle noted the town's socioeconomic demographics and its rural-suburban character as likely factors for the absence of ELL programs, but expects changes in line with the trend in the surrounding communities. Another likely factor in the rising need for such services might be international adoption, in particular of older children. Bringing an example from her former school in Newton, she recalled having at one time students from 48 different countries and as many as 20 out of a total of 600 students taking part in the school's English language program.
As Carlisle grows more diverse, more emphasis on school-provided services can be expected. Gearing up for a possible rise of non-English-speaking students in town, the school also plans to rely on a network of community volunteers who speak other languages, with a particular focus on Russian, Mandarin, Portuguese and Arabic.
Surrounding towns have been offering English language programs for adults for quite some time, mostly through their community adult education departments or the public libraries. Such free programs can be found in Arlington, Winchester, Watertown, Woburn, Lexington and Bedford — just to mention a few.
In the comfortable fuzziness of a budding Global Village culture, English has practically established itself as the language of the world, the lingua franca of the Internet. Just ask Nicholas Negroponte about his "One Laptop Per Child" venture. Hand-cranked laptops aside, he told an enthusiastic audience at a recent LinuxWorld conference that cutting-edge technology is bridging — in English — the digital divide with third world countries. He was quick to add that the first English word among the young children in these remote places of the world was"google".
And so, while America's melting pot continues to simmer from sea to shining sea, the rest of the world surely seems to consider English at least as American as Apple laptops.
© 2006 The