Fall 2010

Fall 2010

A business improvement district in Boston-finally

With city services cut and unlikely to rebound to pre-recession levels any time soon, Bostonians are stepping into the breach.

Businesses in the Downtown Crossing area are banding together and voluntarily agreeing to pay more property taxes next year to fund their own cleanup and security operations. Other parts of the city, including the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, the North Station area, and the Back Bay, are watching closely and considering following suit. Corporate donations are also being sought for the upkeep of the Boston Common and the Public Garden.

Rosemarie Sansone, the president of the Downtown Crossing Partnership, which spearheaded the effort to form a business improvement district, says it’s taken way too long for Bostonians to wake up to the city’s new funding reality. “With 60 percent of the land in this city tax exempt, we shouldn’t have been the last major city in the country to form a business improvement district,” she says. “We should have been one of the first.”

Many big and small cities across the country have business improvement districts. New York City, for example, has more than 60. Massachusetts has business improvement districts in Hyannis, Springfield, Westfield, North­ampton, and Taunton.

Downtown Crossing flirted with the concept many times over the years, but those attempts usually foundered because of opposition from one group or another. Sponsors also tried unsuccessfully to change state law to make participation mandatory if a majority of businesses voted to form a district. Approval was finally won this year from area businesses, but firms were allowed to opt out of the district if they wanted.

Just over 80 percent of the businesses in the district agreed voluntarily to pay more on their property taxes to fund the privately run district, and officials hope more companies in the area will eventually sign on. Partici­pants include Bank of America, Millennium Partners, Fidelity Investments, and State Street Bank, but a number of big names in the district opted out, including Equity Office Properties, which owns five buildings in the district, the Omni Parker House Hotel, and NStar. There is likely to be some friction between the participants and nonparticipants, because nonparticipants stand to benefit from the district even though they aren’t supporting it.

The participating companies are paying an extra $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed value on properties valued up to $70 million; any assessed value above $70 million would be taxed at a rate of 50 cents per $1,000 of value. Only businesses are being assessed. Owner-occupied residential properties were not invited to become members of the district although they are being invited to provide input. “Residents can play a role, but I don’t think they should be assessed,” says Sansone.

The downtown district, which officially launches in April, will be big. Think of it as a triangle with Govern­ment Center at one corner, South Station at another corner, and the intersection of Boylston and Tremont Streets at the third. Sansone estimates the district’s annual operating budget will be $3.1 million, which will be used to fund cleaning crews, market the area, and hire ambassadors who will roam about serving as a cross between Wal-Mart greeters and private cops. Those involved say they hope a laser-like focus on cleanliness will demonstrate that someone is taking care of the area and prompt the public to take better care of it, too.

The business improvement district is unlikely to tackle the biggest eyesore in the area—the hole in the ground left when the developers of One Franklin tore down most of the old Filene’s and then ran out of financing to finish their project. Sansone says it’s the first question everyone asks her.

“People are excited about the BID but they’re also concerned about the hole in the ground. We can’t ignore it,” she says.

Nancy Brennan, president of the Rose Fitzgerald Ken­nedy Greenway Conservancy, said her organization is exploring the creation of a business improvement district to increase funding for the park. If feasible, she says she would like to see it up and running by 2012.

Brennan called the idea of a business improvement district one of the original concepts to fund the Greenway. State officials eventually went in a different direction, but, with state funds scarce, Brennan says the Greenway is revisiting the original idea. The biggest property owner along the Greenway, developer Don Chiofaro, has pledged to lead the effort for a Greenway business improvement district.

“This seems to be a really good time to dust it off and see if it would create a more stable funding platform for the Greenway,” she says.

Turnaround artist

Turnaround artist

Mayor Lisa Wong is determined to revive Fitchburg. Will she stick around long enough to make it happen?

Lisa Wong became a rising superstar in Massachu­setts politics the moment she trounced a veteran Fitch­burg city councilor and catapulted into the mayor’s office at age 28. The wonky daughter of Chinese immigrants, a woman with a short résumé and no previous political experience, was suddenly on everyone’s must-meet list. She was invited to join Barack Obama, Caroline Kennedy, Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. John Kerry, and Sen. Edward Kennedy for a February 2008 pre-Super Tuesday rally in Boston. She had so little advance warning about the event that she jotted down her remarks on the back of a gas receipt in the ladies’ room. (“Warm up the crowd and be funny,” the organizers told her.)

But after the big-name politicos moved on and the laughter died down, Wong returned to Fitchburg and began the work she was elected to do: Turning a mill town left behind by the Bay State’s burgeoning knowledge-based economy into a showcase for central Massachusetts. It’s no easy task. Fitchburg is one of the state’s Gateway Cities, an edgy urban center of more than 40,000 people grappling with a 12 percent unemployment rate, a precariously balanced budget, few job opportunities, and perceptions that crime is out of control despite a drop in the overall crime rate.
Lisa
“These are some of the toughest political jobs in America, running these small-to-mid-size cities that don’t have a significant commercial tax base,” says former Fall River mayor Edward Lambert, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Urban Initiative. (The Urban Initiative partners with MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth magazine, on Gateway Cities-related projects.)

Wong has no magic formula, but she’s tirelessly attacking the problem on a number of fronts. The Boston Univer­sity-trained economist is working on putting Fitchburg’s finances in order and marketing the city to business leaders as a place where they can find good workers and affordable office or industrial space. She is trumpeting the availability of low-priced housing, romancing the local university to play a bigger role in the city, and trying to position Fitch­burg as a cultural and recreational hub.

Wong describes Fitchburg like an antique left too long in a dark and dirty basement. Just as Wong is fixing up her own home in the Fitch Hill neighborhood of town, the mayor says Fitchburg needs to be hauled out of the basement and “dusted off,” “cleaned up,” and “lovingly restored.” Talking like an antique dealer, Wong says: “You can’t build places like Fitchburg anymore. We want to look at Gateway communities as places where people can afford to buy homes, can afford to rent, and it’s still within commuting distance from many different places in the state.”  

Fitchburg, here I come

Wong is not a native of Fitchburg. She was born and raised in North Andover, the youngest of three children of Chinese parents who moved to the United States in 1970. The family opened restaurants in Haverhill and Cam­bridge, and still runs the Royal East, a Cantonese and Szech­uan eatery in Cambridge. Wong worked in the business with her two older brothers. The experience, she says, was “kind of like being a mayor,” spending weekends welcoming and serving regulars and newcomers.

She studied economics and international relations as an undergraduate at Boston University and went on to earn a master’s degree there in economics. She taught global economics at the University of Wyoming for a year before trading academia for a job at the Fitchburg Re­development Authority in 2001. She moved up the ranks quickly, becoming executive director in just 21/2 years. Her stint at the authority gave her the opportunity to assess Fitchburg’s economic strengths and weaknesses and learn what might make it attractive to employers.
walking
In its heyday, Fitchburg was a thriving industrial center, known for its paper mills along the banks of the Nashua River. The river would regularly turn the color of the dye the paper mills were using on a particular day. (The river was later cleaned up and Wong helped create Riverfront Park, a small urban green space on its banks.) By the 1980s, those industries had moved to the South or abroad. The downtown, once known for its wide range of shops, theaters, and housing conveniently located near the center and the mills, began to decline. The rise of suburban shopping malls contributed to the falloff in activity. Fitchburg was left with no identifiable image and a shrinking commercial tax base.

It’s hard to get a handle on downtown Fitchburg today. At one end of Main Street is the modern MBTA commuter rail and regional bus station. Further on is the 19th-century Dickinson Building, home to a business center, a coffee house, and a café and martini bar. There are several new art galleries, a bookstore, a seen-better-days bric-a-brac store, and the homey City Hall Café sprinkled among the government offices.

But between these bright spots are cavernous, vacant storefronts. Most drivers zoom right down Main Street past the dozens of available parking spaces. On several summer afternoons, downtown Fitchburg is practically deserted. The retail action is in Leominster, at the Mall at Whitney Field, which the locals still call the Searstown Mall for its anchor store.

The lack of action downtown is reflected in the anemic commercial and residential property tax base. Per capita income is among the bottom 5 percent in Massachusetts. State aid accounts for almost half the city’s budget. When Wong came into office in 2008, the city had only $10,000 in reserves. The year before, city officials discovered tens of thousands of dollars missing from the treasury due to accounting errors. “The unfortunate reality is that the true financial position [of the city] is weak,” a 2008 financial management review of Fitchburg by the Department of Revenue found.

The school population is 45 percent Latino. Nearly 80 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The district failed for the last two years to meet the federal Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark for student achievement gains. But after a major restructuring, Fitch­burg High School saw an 11 percentage point increase this year in students scoring proficient or advanced in math and a 2 percentage point increase in English on the 2010 MCAS. There were also small increases in all other grades except 8th grade.  

Two of Fitchburg’s biggest selling points are its housing stock and its MBTA links. Compared to the rest of the state, homes in Fitchburg are a bargain. The median sales price for a single family home in Fitchburg is $137,000, according to July 2010 figures complied by the Massachu­setts Association of Realtors. The median price in Boston was $423,000 and the median statewide was $333,000. Even Wong admits she moved to Fitchburg in 2001 in part because of its lower housing prices.

Millions are being poured into a new Fitchburg commuter rail extension and track, switch, signal, and other improvements to that line will help reduce travel times to Boston to an hour or less instead of the current 90 minutes. About 4,800 people ride the line each day. About 350 people take the train into Boston from Fitchburg itself, according to city officials.

For Chris Iosua, the real estate developer who invested “seven figures” into the Dickinson Building downtown, Massa­chusetts needs Fitchburg. “We can provide homeownership opportunities that just cannot be touched within the 495 belt,” he says. At Chaibo, Iosua’s new coffeehouse, he has met people who’ve moved to Fitchburg from Attle­boro, Somerville, and Martha’s Vineyard. “These are regular customers…who are looking at the city of Fitchburg and saying basically either ‘I bought a home or I’m renting a condominium or a loft in this community, and from what I used to be paying I’ve cut my living expenses in half if not more,’” he says.

Life in the big city

Wong’s reputation in Fitchburg was sealed by the ice storm of 2008 that ravaged north-central Massachusetts and left large swaths of the region without electricity for about two weeks. She calls the natural disaster her “trial by ice.” Forced out of her home by the storm, Wong set up shop at the Central Fire Station’s emergency command center. She pressed the local power company to restore power, held press conferences every day, monitored residents in shelters, and huddled with local and state officials.

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat, said Wong asked her to come to Fitchburg during the crisis because she needed help getting answers from the local utility, Unitil. Flanagan says the crisis was a defining moment for Wong. “People got to see Lisa in action,” she says.
lisa and dog
Wong has been on the move ever since. On a recent summer afternoon at the Central Fire Station, two firefighters salute her as she arrives for a survey of a new hilltop public safety communications tower site. Next, she pops in at the Cleghorn Neighborhood Center, helps some elementary school students with homework, and checks out the neighborhood’s “walkability.” After stopping by a hospital care center open house, she dashes home for a quick walk with her white “polar bear” of a dog named Cooper, a Great Pyrenees. She grabs dinner in a plastic container and rushes off again to spend the next three hours discussing school redistricting. When she’s not working, which isn’t often, she’s swimming, playing tennis, hiking, or kayaking.

Wong’s 24/7 schedule is tough on her social life. Dating, she confesses, is “very, very difficult.” Now 31, Wong has no children or any “significant other worth talking about at the moment.” She’s even discussed dating with more senior female mayors, but they haven’t been able to give her much advice.

Wong seems to have no problem attracting friends, however. One of them, Sally Cragin, a school committee member who writes for the Boston Phoenix, says people are drawn to Wong. “I have been around rock stars and movie stars,” she says. “Mayor Wong has the charisma of a public figure, but she has a lot of warmth and people relate to her.”

But warmth shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of toughness. In getting the city’s finances in order, Wong has displayed a willingness to take tough and often controversial stands. She bargained hard with municipal unions and won significant concessions on salaries, health care costs, and other benefits. The police department alone has cut 33 police and civilian positions since 2007.

She also slashed hours at the library and the senior center, and turned off more than 60 percent of the street lights, a move that saved the city $300,000. Wong also tried and failed to get a $5 million debt exclusion on the Novem­ber ballot to repair streets. A trash fee also failed, though an alternative plan is in the works.

Many of the cuts were hugely unpopular, especially the street lights decision. “She’s not seasoned in recognizing the relation[ships] between numbers and what the numbers mean in the lives of people,” says City Councilor Rosemary Reynolds.

Fitchburg now has a little more than half of the city’s 3,100 lights on, but a perception that fewer street lights equal more crime persists. Total reported crime last year actually dropped by nearly 4 percent, according to Fitch­burg Police Department figures, though the incidence of more serious crimes like homicide and rape increased.

Robert Nunes, the state Revenue Department’s local services director, says Wong’s conservative management has stabilized the city’s finances. Cash reserves are now up above $3 million and Standard and Poor’s recently upgraded the city’s bond rating to A-, the second upgrade since Wong came into office.

Wong makes no apologies for any of her decisions, even the ones that have stirred controversy. “Not everything can have 100 percent support. Not everything can be democratic,” Wong says. “If we had voted on street lights, I doubt people would have voted for that.”

Reviving Fitchburg

Befitting Wong’s background, the mayor has become personally involved in attracting new businesses and keeping the ones the city has happy. In a controversial, budget-driven reorganization of city departments, Wong assumed some of the duties of the city’s top economic development job, which had been eliminated. She thought it would help the city’s image if a developer could work directly with the mayor, but the decision stirred a debate in town about the mayor’s proper role.

“We did not hire the mayor to be economic development director,” says City Councilor Reynolds. But Glenn Eaton, executive director of the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, welcomed the mayor’s decision. “Wong can handle the role. She has the energy of four 25- or 23-year-old NFL football players [who] are full of protein all the time,” he says. “Lisa Wong is the economic development strategy of Fitchburg.”  

The core of Wong’s economic development strategy is to make Fitchburg more attractive to would-be residents and businesses. She wants to add jobs at existing companies and set up the infrastructure necessary to attract new ones as the economy improves. She is doing what she can in Fitchburg and also looking to the state and federal governments for help.

One of the larger planned developments is the city’s first industrial park in over a decade. The project, located near the airport and currently in the design/engineering phase, recently secured a $1.3 million state grant. The Legislature also recently passed an economic development package aimed at Gateway Cities like Fitchburg to help them  build market-rate housing and provide tax credits for businesses that create or retain manufacturing, research, or development jobs. There is also money available for historic rehabilitation and brownfields cleanup.
Despite plenty of speculation that she might move on, Wong says she is 95 percent sure she’ll run next year.
While the city has lost 125 jobs in the last five years, Wong’s goal is to create roughly 500 jobs over the next three to five years. The city is still home to niche manufacturers, including biomedical, plastics, and industrial tools companies.

A number of prospective new businesses, from both inside and outside the Bay State, including environmental, alternative energy, and transportation companies, are interested enough in Fitchburg to talk with city officials to find out more. “They like the workforce, affordability, and connections to other places like Boston, Devens, and Worcester,” the mayor says.

Developing a college-town atmosphere is also high on Wong’s agenda. Fitchburg State University, just minutes from City Hall, is the city’s largest employer, with more than 500 workers and about 7,000 full- and part-time students. But for decades there was
little interaction between the city and the school. Even today, residents talk about the school as if it were miles away.

Wong and Fitchburg State President Robert Antonucci have forged a close relationship and the mayor is hopeful the city and the university can reduce barriers bet­ween them, with students shopping downtown and residents attending events on the college campus. Wong and Antonucci are looking at converting five vacant mill buildings into privately-managed student housing.

The school’s expansion has raised some gentrification concerns, particularly in the Latino community. “There is tension between those who want to see a focus on arts, etc. and the neighborhoods,” says Dolores Thibault-Muñoz, executive director of the Cleghorn Neigh­bor­hood Center. “I don’t think the most vulnerable populations are very far from [the mayor’s] mind, which helps me to reconcile that. But I am watching closely.”

Wong sees no problem. There’s plenty of room for improvements in a neighborhood “without making that neighborhood out of reach,” she says.

Next on the agenda

Lisa Wong works hard for her money, and she doesn’t earn much. Her annual $60,000 salary makes her the lowest paid full-time mayor in the Bay State. She easily won reelection in 2009 against two opponents and is giving serious thought to running again in 2011, despite what she says are “lucrative job offers and opportunities around the globe.

Dave Svens, who retired as Fitchburg Access Television’s community access coordinator, is surprised that she might consider another run for mayor in 2011. With all that Fitchburg is up against, he believes that “she is just beating her head against the wall.”

City Councilor Marcus DiNatale, son of the local state representative, has emerged as the mayor’s principal gadfly. The mayor and DiNatale frequently wrangle over the budget, about what to cut and how deep to cut. He complained more than once at the council’s finance com­mittee meetings this summer that her nearly $95 million fiscal 2011 budget was “riddled with mistakes and inaccuracies.”

Jody Joseph, another city councilor, says DiNatale and Wong seem to naturally clash. “Both are talking the same financially sound practices, but it would be like two lawyers in the same room who argue the same case in different ways and who are both right [but] can’t see that they are both right,” Joseph says. “If those two could work together, it would be a powerful thing for the city.”

Speculation swirls around town about whether Wong’s political plans include Fitchburg or some other higher statewide or federal office. Although Wong initially says that she isn’t yet thinking about a 2011 reelection campaign, two weeks later she confesses that “she loves this job too much” and that she’s “95 percent” sure that she will run again. But she also thinks about starting a business “or doing something else.” 

“People fear that I’m going to leave the city,” says Wong. “I feel like carrying around my mortgage papers that show I’m committed to the city for another 25 years, according to my mortgage.”

Breathing easier

Breathing easier

Asthma project at Children’s Hospital in Boston is redefining care and sharply reducing costly emergency room visits and hospital admissions

Izaeyah French of Dorchester is an energetic 7-year-old who loves kickball—and loves knowing asthma won’t keep him on the sidelines while other kids play. In the past, “my head would hurt and I’d have to stay home,” he says. But, thanks to a pilot program at Children’s Hospital Boston that addresses environmental factors in kids’ homes that can exacerbate asthma, Izaeyah’s condition is largely under control.

His mother, Lolanda Randal, says the hospital’s Community Asthma Initiative has helped her to understand the need for changes in her home and helped her with expenses. “I was the type who’d use air freshener in every room,” says Randal. “When [a case worker] came in, they said, ‘That’s an asthma trigger.’”

So Randal, a leasing officer with the Boston Housing Authority, stopped using air freshener. She stopped using bleach as a household cleaner. The initiative paid for the family to have a vacuum cleaner, since allergens were collecting in the carpets, as well as an air conditioner, since Randal’s windows must stay closed to keep out pollen. While Randal says she used to make frequent trips to the emergency room with Izaeyah and his older brother due to asthma, the family hasn’t been back since joining the initiative about three years ago. Today, the boys are leading increasingly normal, active lives.

“I never took my boys anywhere because I was worried they’d exert themselves,” says Randal. “Last year, they were able to do a program for swimming and they loved it. It was so nice. That got me to thinking that boys can be boys.”

The premise of the initiative is simple: Asthma is the leading cause of admissions at Children’s. In both Massachusetts and the nation, the condition is most common in low-income, urban communities. (While 11 percent of children statewide have asthma, the figure rises to 14 percent in Boston, 23 percent in Holyoke, and 17 percent in Spring­field and New Bedford, according to the Depart­ment of Public Health.) The reasons for the geographic and income disparities are uncertain, but, according to a hospital spokeswoman, are likely due to a combination of factors including outdoor air pollution, poor indoor air quality caused by an aging housing stock, and inadequate access to both medication and assistance managing medications. What is certain is that hospital visits aren’t much fun for patients, they’re expensive for taxpayers if the children are covered by Medicaid, and, often, they are preventable.

But preventing inpatient hospital stays and emergency-room visits for asthma means redefining what we consider medical care and even medical devices. It means recognizing that for a child with asthma, paying $200 for a new vacuum cleaner can mean not paying $2,000 for a hospital stay. If that recognition were to come on a broad scale—and officials at Children’s Hospital hope it will—it could have important implications both for pediatric asthma treatment and for a much larger health care challenge facing the state and the country: reforming the way providers are paid.

Children’s Hospital began the asthma initiative in 2005 and has since served 544 Boston children. Funded through the hospital, private donations, and a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the initiative provides medical care, help with pest management and other environmental hazards, and asthma education. The program has no in­come eligibility guidelines, although 70 percent of participants are on Medi­caid. The initiative’s director, Dr. Elizabeth Woods, says the hospital exercises discretion when it comes to assisting patients financially and that many families—even those with employed parents—struggle with the co-payments for their medication. “We certainly try to be judicious in providing the more expensive items, like vacuum cleaners and AC units, to families in greatest need,” she says.

As a result of the initiative, kids are spending less time in the hospital. Among the 544 children enrolled in the program since its inception, total visits to the emergency department dropped 65 percent, falling from 482 visits during the six months preceeding enrollment in the program to 170 over a six month period after beginning the program. Total hospital admissions decreased 81 percent, declining from 350 to 68. Kids served by the initiative also missed 39 percent fewer school days; their families reported a 49 percent decline in missed days of work. And for every dollar the program spent on asthma management, it saved $1.49 in hospital visits.

While the causes of asthma aren’t well understood, doctors do know what helps patients keep it under control: taking medication regularly, and keeping their environments as free from irritants as possible. “If someone has asthma and doesn’t take preventative medicine, they chronically have more mucus. Whereas if you have control of it on an everyday basis, then when you face an irritant, there isn’t as extreme a response,” says Woods.

Woods says that when hospital social workers—who work with physicians and nurses in the asthma initiative —began visiting local families, they were startled by the high levels of what are considered environmental “triggers” for asthma, such as dust, and the droppings of cockroaches and mice. “We also didn’t realize that most families couldn’t afford vacuums and filter bags,” says Woods. “We often have to supply cleaning materials.”

Woods and other members of the initiative would like to see MassHealth, the state’s subsidized insurance program, cover items such as cleaning supplies and vacuum cleaners—tools almost as important as inhalers in keeping asthma under control. The hospital successfully lobbied for language in the current state budget to replicate its program elsewhere in the state and explore what are known as “bundled payments” for the management of asthma and other chronic diseases: Instead of reimbursing hospitals on a per-visit basis, Mass­Health would pay a lump sum for a patient’s asthma care. (Bundled payments are related to, but different from, the concept of global payments, in which providers receive a lump sum for a patient’s overall care.)

With bundled payments, providers could use that money to pay for items such as air conditioners and vacuum filters, as well as inpatient treatments. Staff could also spend time working with school nurses to coordinate a child’s asthma management and be available for phone consultations with parents, both of which the Children’s program now does.

On a steamy August afternoon, Lolanda Randal brings her sons into Children’s Hospital’s Primary Care Center to meet with Linda Haynes, a nurse practitioner and asthma specialist. Both boys feel fine—in the waiting room, Izaeyah races around with a toy car while his older brother, Javaun Dawkins, 10, im­merses himself in a hand-held computer game—and need to have prescriptions refilled before heading off for camp.

“Which medications have they been using?” Haynes asks as the family settles into the examination room.

“I know them by colors,” says Randal. “They’re on the purple one, two puffs a day. And the orange one. And he” —she gestures at one son—“takes the tablets for allergies.”

“The Claritin?” Haynes asks.

“Yes,” says Randal.

For much of the rest of the 30-minute visit, Haynes spends time quizzing the boys and their mother on when to use which medication and how much, making sure they’re sticking to a system that would befuddle many adults, never mind a 7-year-old. “Which are the controller meds?” she asks Randal, who points to the correct inhaler. “And which are for relief?” Randal points again as her sons look over her shoulder. Each boy takes a turn on the exam table, shows Haynes which inhaler he uses when and for how many puffs, and then gets a high-five from Haynes as he jumps back down.

Later, Haynes says that making environmental changes, as the program helped Randal do, are often straightforward. The harder part of her job is getting kids to believe in the importance of taking their asthma medication even when they’re feeling good. “If someone told you that you had to take medicine twice a day for the rest of your life and you’re seven years old, how compliant would you be?” she asked.

The Patrick administration is exploring ways to pay for education, counseling and environmental makeovers—and, ideally, to avoid paying for expensive trips to the emergency room. Reducing asthma-related ER trips and individualizing care is also a priority on a federal level, where it’s estimated asthma costs the US $19 billion in health care costs and lost productivity. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave grants to asthma-management efforts in 34 states.

David Martin, the director of health policy at the Execu­tive Office of Health and Human Services, says, “This is an example of where we as a state, where Gov. Patrick and Secretary [JudyAnn] Bigby, want to go as far as getting a handle on health care costs. Right now, no one is paying you to simply take care of the patient. If they were, you’d try to prevent them from coming in to the ER.”

His office is now in the process of finding hospitals interested in replicating the Children’s program, and determining how MassHealth might reimburse providers. He expects conversations will result in a bundled payment, but says the details are uncertain; he hopes a plan will be in place by early 2011.

Martin says he expects that if MassHealth begins providing bundled payments for asthma, children with private insurance are likely to be affected as well. “The hope is that by embarking on this pilot, private payers will follow along because it’s also in their interest,” he says. But even if they don’t, hospitals that establish a protocol for asthma treatment—say, sending a caseworker to the home to look for environmental triggers—are unlikely to vary it for patients with different kinds of insurance. “You get to a critical threshhold where if 60 percent of kids are being paid for in a certain way, and another kid comes in, you don’t say, ‘Well, we won’t send a caseworker out,’” he says. “As doctors tell us all the time, you seldom know the source of payment. So once you have a system in place, it becomes the norm.”

Martin does not yet have an estimate on how much money the state might save if the Children’s approach expands to other hospitals. “Once we’ve defined the hospitals and know how many kids, and know what the bundled payment will be, we can establish an estimate,” he says. “But I want to caution that the focus isn’t just saving money. We also want to treat kids better.”

Raising the bar

Raising the bar

The race for auditor is grabbing little attention in this crowded election season, but the office has the potential to wield enormous power

Suzanne Bump’s campaign staff is antsy. It’s already an hour into the campaign event, a barbeque with Malden Democrats, and their candidate for state auditor is seriously lagging behind schedule. The most frequent inquiry she gets is: “What does the state auditor do, anyway?” This question takes some time to answer. Campaigning for auditor is half political pitch, and half civics lesson.

Bump has been explaining the auditor’s job to the same table for 10 minutes now. Her staffers keep shooting her looks, silently urging her to wrap it up and move on to the tables out back. Just as Bump breaks loose, the keyboard player launches into a spirited version of “The Wheels on the Bus.” A kindergartener has the microphone. The girl crumbles under pressure, forgets half the words, and just mumbles along to the music. Bump stands at attention, nodding along enthusiastically. When the song ends, she takes hold of the microphone and addresses the girl.

“You don’t have any idea what I’m doing here, do you?” she asks. “I’m a politician. I’m running for auditor. Do you know what the auditor does? The auditor makes sure government spends your money honestly. You don’t want your money stolen, do you? You want to get your money’s worth from state services. Does that sound good to you? Does that sound like a winning platform for state auditor? I do, too.”

Bump is pitching a 6-year-old, but she faces many of the same hurdles in explaining her candidacy to citizens of voting age. Few voters Bump or her Republican rival Mary Connaughton meet on the campaign trail know what the auditor does. The race is also toward the bottom of a ballot crowded with contentious contests for governor and Congress. Yet the position wields enormous power. The auditor’s job is to scour the state’s books, everything from public bidding rules to theft controls. It’s a watchdog for all of state government.

Joe DeNucci, who has occupied the auditor’s office for the last 24 years, is retiring. Most biographies of DeNucci lead with his prizefighting bona fides—he was a Golden Gloves champ, a top professional middleweight, and a member of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. But in many ways, DeNucci is as pure a creature of Beacon Hill as there is. He was a legislative page as a teenager, and before winning his first race for auditor in 1986 he spent a decade in the House. Seven governors, and six House speakers, have served since DeNucci first took public office. He has institutional ties that stretch back decades. High-profile members of both parties count him as a friend. Most are loath to criticize him publicly, even as they stress the divide between the office’s potential and its current performance.
denucci
DeNucci’s 24-year tenure has been marked by reports that had an impat, and by extended periods of quiet. As he leaves office, he’s being dogged by scandal. He handed a job to a man who had been denied work in the state Probation Department because of nepotism concerns, pocketing campaign donations from the man’s family along the way. The State Ethics Commission recently charged DeNucci with illegally hiring his 75-year-old cousin as a fraud examiner. And he touched off a firestorm of criticism for raising his staff’s wages by 5 percent amid broad state budget cuts; a Boston Globe editorial called the raises, awarded after DeNucci had decided against seeking re­election, a “shameless Beacon Hill ritual.”

The pay raises helped catapult a sleepy auditor’s race into the press, and raised some fundamental questions about just what DeNucci’s office was, or wasn’t, doing with its 300 employees and $15.7 million annual payroll—and what Bump and Connaughton would do with them. The two candidates emphasize the importance of the office as a fiscal watchdog. They both speak about making the auditor a proactive change agent. Their challenge lies in making voters care about the office’s problems and potential.

“The major problem is letting people know who you are, and what you want to do,” says Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor and longtime observer of local politics. “The inability to get your message out is extraordinary. My guess is, right now more people know who Philip Markoff is, or Justin Bieber, than Joe DeNucci.”

Lingering questions

The auditor’s office is a statewide constitutional office broadly charged with ferreting out waste, fraud, and corruption in state government. It was created in 1855 as an independent check on the state’s executive branch. The Legislature has gradually handed the office a number of additional functions. It keeps tabs on the state’s information technology infrastructure, and issues commentaries on both the finances and property conditions at local public housing authorities. It determines whether new laws represent unfunded municipal mandates. It investigates fraud in state welfare, food stamp, and health care programs. And the auditor’s office has final say over whether public contracts run afoul of the anti-privatization Pacheco Law. For those tasks, it commands a relatively sizable bureaucratic force: In 2009, DeNucci’s office employed more than 100 more bodies than the office of the state Treasurer. By further comparison, last year the state agency that oversees public employees’ health care employed 56 people, while the governor’s budget-writing office employed 58.

Every year, the auditor files an annual report to the governor and the Legislature, highlighting the office’s prior fiscal year output. In fiscal year 2009, for instance, DeNucci’s office issued 324 audit reports; the year prior, it issued 240 reports, covering 310 state agencies. Lately, though, the great majority of those reports have covered routine, statutorily-required inquiries into IT infrastructure and local housing authorities. Several focused on the need for better cash management systems at district courts, even though a new judicial bookkeeping system is already in development.

DeNucci’s office was vigorous in chasing down Big Dig waste and public construction overruns, and recent reports have uncovered costly lapses at the MBTA and at the Div­i­sion of Unemploy­ment Assis­tance. But lately, much of the waste, fraud, and abuse the auditor’s office has examined has been concentrated in safety net programs. Privately, many on Beacon Hill complain that the office isn’t as aggressive as it used to be, and that DeNucci has lost his fastball.
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Three recent reports from the auditor’s office show where those complaints are coming from. A July 2006 audit of the State Lottery Com­mission noted that 80 percent of the Lot­tery’s scratch ticket business was being driven through a single firm, Scientific Games International. The audit worried about the impact a disaster at Scientific Games’s manufacturing plant could have on Lottery revenues, but did not ask why so much Lot­tery business was flowing to a single company. The Lot­tery later faced a lawsuit alleging that state Treasurer Tim Cahill threw business to Scientific Games because the firm was funneling lucrative consulting fees to a close Cahill associate.

A January 2009 audit of the University of Massachu­setts School Building Authority noted that the authority had a history of handing out consulting contracts without bidding them competitively. The report also said the authority entered into several consulting relationships without written contracts. The authority responded by saying it had no legal obligation to bid out its consulting work. The audit ran just six pages long, and nothing came of it.

A June 2009 audit examined the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facilities Authority (HEFA). When the report was being written, Gov. Deval Patrick was trying to shoehorn a political supporter into a lucrative job at the lending agency. The gambit revealed that the supporter’s prospective job had been vacant for a dozen years, and that HEFA’s lending activities overlapped with those of other state agencies. The eight-page audit did not address the staf­fing controversy, or weigh whether HEFA was a necessary cog in the state bureaucracy. The Legislature folded HEFA into MassDevelopment soon after.

The pit bull barks

It’s a cool, gray late-summer morning, and Mary Z. Con­naugh­ton is in Fitchburg, handing out cookies and serving ice cream to a roomful of senior citizens. She’s discussing scooping techniques with the woman next to her. “I was a Brigham’s girl way back,” Connaughton says. When she finds out the other woman was, too, they trade an enthusiastic high-five. After the two Brigham’s girls have finished their duty, and the mountain of cookies have been dispensed—Connaughton’s Worcester County coordinator had baked 15 dozen of them the night before—Con­naugh­ton does a lap around the room.

She works it like a pro. She shakes hands, explains the auditor’s office, drops her literature, and moves on quickly. When addressing the room, she makes quick mention of strained municipal budgets, transportation consolidation, and the state’s unfunded pension obligation. She gets just wonky enough to let the seniors know she knows policy, but the thrust of her stump speech is folksy and populist.
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“I really believe that auditor is the second most important job in state government,” she says. “It’s the top public advocate, the top watchdog. The auditor only reports to you. I’ll be your eyes on Beacon Hill. I’ll roll up my sleeves and find out what’s going on with our money. I’m not looking out for the special interests. The only people I want to look out for are you.”

This is Connaughton’s first statewide run. She has only made one other bid for public office before, running un­successfully for state representative as part of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s disastrous 2004 bid to erode the Legisla­ture’s Democratic super-majority. She cleared the path for a statewide run not on Beacon Hill, but in Park Square, where the state’s transportation offices are housed. Romney placed her on the board of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and she proved to be a devastatingly polarizing weapon in the governor’s running battle with the Pike’s former chairman, Matthew Amorello. She fought the Turn­pike Authority’s leadership and used her unpaid seat on the board to attract an unprecedented level of attention to the Pike’s finances. Later, she waged a merciless campaign against toll increases on the highway. She did so by aggressively courting the press—in Fitchburg, she ticked off the various print and broadcast outlets the seniors might recall her from. “If you liked me as a pit bull on the Turnpike,” she says, “you’ll love me in the auditor’s office.”

To her sympathizers, Connaughton’s tenure at the Turnpike shined a light on a bloated, ineffectual government agency; her detractors believed her brawling public persona would wind up fueling a future political run. Patrick’s former transportation secretary, James Aloisi, famously denounced her as a distraction and a gadfly.

“She was handpicked to implode the Turnpike Auth­or­ity,” says Jordan Levy, a former Pike board member. “That’s why [Romney] appointed her. She asked the tough questions. She was not afraid and she was not bullied
by anyone. She was put in there for a reason, and she did her job.”

Policy talk and political digs

Like Connaughton, Bump is a political fighter. She served in the Legislature from 1985 until 1993, spearheading an overhaul of workers compensation. Following that, she worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for the insurance and financial services industries before joining the Patrick administration in 2007 as the secretary of labor and workforce development. Bump left the cabinet post last year to run for the auditor’s job.

Bump was heavily outspent in a brutal three-way Demo­cratic primary. She won comfortably by talking up the virtues of good government, while never shying away from elbow-throwing. She pounded Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis over a series of ethical and financial scandals, calling him a liar and repeatedly insisting that Glodis didn’t deserve an office of public trust. And she openly questioned whether her other primary opponent, Mike Lake, actually understood what the state auditor does.

Nor does she need much prodding to lay into Con­naugh­ton. “She has been a critic, but she has never challenged her political establishment,” Bump says. One of the central themes of Connaughton’s campaign is that the auditor should be a CPA, just as the attorney general should be a lawyer; Connaughton is the only certified public accountant in the auditor’s race. “We’re not electing a chief accountant for the Commonwealth,” Bump responds. “That reflects a narrow, shallow view of the role of the auditor. I intend to take audit reports and create change with them. You don’t do that by being in the field.”
Just four men have held the auditor’s office in the past 70 years.  None of them has used it as a bully pulpit.
Bump’s 30-second stump speech hits familiar ground —eliminating waste and fraud, and shifting the auditor’s office into a proactive stance. When she expands on that, though, she talks extensively about the nuts and bolts of making government work better. She wants the auditor to examine government systems, instead of just individual state agencies. In her view, the auditor should be more than a check on the excesses of government, and more than a muckraker. She sees the auditor as a nonpartisan figure. In order for Beacon Hill’s bureaucracy to function efficiently, she argues, the auditor needs to be able to extract policy changes from inside the State House.

“Financial accountability is the backbone of the office,” she says, “but I also want to focus on performance auditing, finding out where there’s duplication of effort, where there are turf battles, where there are silos. I want to use audit tools to highlight those things, and then use the political skills I have to make sure those reports don’t just gather dust, but they actually get put into action by the executive branch and the Legislature. The ability to drive change is an important attribute in the next auditor, so you don’t just have a report that sits on the shelf, but ability to be an advocate for change.”

Connaughton also sees a greater advocacy role for the auditor. She wants to file legislation, and believes the auditor should question the cost and revenue projections behind major policy shifts such as casino gambling or transportation consolidation. But in her version, the auditor isn’t working Beacon Hill hearing rooms. Instead, she says, she’d use radio, television, newspapers, and social media to put pressure on lawmakers and the governor. “I’d be extremely aggressive,” she says. “The office’s real power, besides going in and looking at the books, is in the power of the people. I’d be out in the public. On the Turn­pike board, I saw how things work when the public is informed, and the media is informed. It makes a huge difference in holding people accountable.”

Power and potential

Bump and Connaughton have both pledged to elevate the auditor’s office above Beacon Hill’s partisan bickering, but both have political baggage to overcome. Bump has had the backing of the Beacon Hill establishment since the race began, which helped her during the primary but could hurt her if voters are in a mood for change in November. DeNucci endorsed her candidacy before May’s Demo­cratic convention. She’s in the position of campaigning on her experience in Patrick’s cabinet, even though the governor’s job approval numbers are less than formidable and, depending on how the votes fall in November, she could be in the position of scrutinizing the work of her former boss and colleagues. During their primary fight, one of the nastiest things Glodis thought he could say about Bump was, “She’s the Beacon Hill candidate, and she was serving in the Leg­islature when I was still in high school.”

Republican Party faithful have repeatedly said that in a state where a solidly Democratic Legislature controls spending, the office of auditor seems ready-made for an aggressive Repub­lican. But that line of reasoning seems at odds with the auditor’s explicit mandate to expose waste, and not settle political scores. In her campaign, Connaugh­­ton has appeared to walk both sides of this line. At April’s GOP convention, Connaughton’s speech made the Boston Globe’s characterization of her Pike board tenure—“the thorniest thorn in the side of Gov. Deval Patrick”—an applause line; her next line, that she hadn’t meant to be a thorn, failed to excite the crowd.

Even one of her Turnpike board allies, who was himself not unfamiliar with the art of a well-timed grenade toss, says she’ll need a different approach if she’s in charge of an important state office. “If she’s just a bomb-thrower,” Levy says, “she won’t be successful. The office has to change. Anybody can audit. But what do you accomplish?”

Just four men have held the auditor’s office in the past 70 years. None of them has used the position as a bully pulpit from which to launch a run for higher office. And there’s been a longstanding divide between the office’s promise—that of a highly visible, crusading public watchdog—and its reality.

DeNucci replaced John Finnegan, a longtime state legislator and one-term auditor, in 1987. Finnegan replaced Thaddeus Buczko, whom Gov. Ed King appointed to the bench of the Essex probate court. Buczko, a former state legislator, became the Democrats’ pick for auditor when the office’s longtime holder, Thomas Buckley, died the night before the 1964 primary; it’s said the party was less concerned with Buczko’s burning desire to root out waste, fraud, and corruption in state government, than with his ability to cover two constituencies on the party’s ticket, since he was both Polish and from Essex County. And Buckley, whom Buczko replaced in 1964, was first elected in 1940.

Insiders from across the political spectrum are nearly unanimous in their view of the auditor’s office: They are loath to criticize DeNucci directly, but they say there is a real need for the office to do far more than it has in the past.

“Most people would be hard-pressed to identify the statutory or constitutional functions of the auditor’s office,” says House Minority Leader Brad Jones. “This is not necessarily a criticism of what has been done, but more could be done. The office can be a more aggressive check in a state that doesn’t have that party balance. At a time of diminished resources, it’s more critical than ever.”

Former Gov. Paul Cellucci, who was elected to the House in the same year as DeNucci, and counts the auditor as a friend, says the office should play a crucial role on Beacon Hill. “The auditor clearly plays an important role in state government, not only as a watchdog on spending, but in analyzing whether programs are working or not,” Cellucci says. “With subpoena power, it’s a pretty powerful office.”
Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger believes the auditor’s office is up for grabs at a unique time in history. He compares the electorate’s current mood to the pessimism that permeated the country in the post-Water­gate era. There’s one difference, he says: “In the ’70s, people believed government could really be reformed with the right systems and the right people. Today, government is believed to be the problem.”

The state’s independent constitutional offices, Harsh­barger argues, were specifically established to perform the sorts of oversight functions that breed good government and public trust. They failed to fulfill that promise the last time the public turned on government—the investigative office of the Inspector General was established in 1981, after the Ward Commission declared public corruption “a way of life in Massachusetts,” and the attorney general and auditor were shown to be powerless to stop it. Now, the next auditor will take office with a former House speaker under federal indictment, a former state senator awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges, and a patronage scandal raging in the state Probation Department.

“The potential for good is huge,” Harsharger says. “It is not inappropriate to ask, what proactive roles could the office take? That’s not a criticism of Joe. But what has been done is at least a baseline for what can be done.”

Online teaching

Online teaching

The Internet is a useful teaching tool, but only that

“Although scads of red are always stomach-dropping, I’m really going to learn a lot from this interaction.”

I’ve taught writing, off and on, for more than 10 years, and received plenty of feedback from students. The note I just quoted, though, was a little unusual. Its author is the first person I’ve “taught” without ever meeting. My interactions with this working adult who wants to improve her writing skills have taken place entirely via email.

Since the late 1980s, online education has steadily trickled down from universities to high schools, and now to younger students. This fall, the first virtual public school in Massachusetts opened in Greenfield, with students in grades K-8 statewide eligible to enroll. Although the opening of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy has sparked controversy, support for online schools is growing. In its 2010 annual survery, Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that 52 percent of the public thinks high schoolers should receive credit for courses taken over the Internet, up from 42 percent the year before.

As a former high school teacher who now teaches creative-writing and study skills, at both the university and adult ed levels. I see technology as a blessing—mostly. Once upon a time, the teaching of writing went something like this: Students would do battle with the school’s aging printers, then breathlessly hand me several crumpled pages that may or may not have all been intended for English class. A week and a dozen paper cuts later, I’d return them, covered in largely illegible handwriting.

Then I started collecting work electronically, and began to reap the benefit of other distance-learning technologies. A student could email a piece, and I’d return it with comments he could read while also creating an automatic copy for myself. I could comment on pieces far more quickly while the writing was fresh in students’ minds. Students could use a course website to peer-edit each other’s work and also access assignments when absent.

Still, until this fall, I’d always used technology as a complement to the classroom environment. Interacting with a student exclusively online has been a very different experience. My role is far narrower: I see the woman’s writing, but nothing else. Since she’s a focused adult who has spent 15-plus years in classrooms, my comments on her prose may be all she needs. She’s told me our interactions are helpful, and I’m glad. But it is hard to imagine this kind of remote interaction serving the needs of younger students, especially those who don’t yet understand what they need to learn. For me, email exchanges proved useful as a starting point with students. But it was in class and conferences that I saw them grasp why a specific sentence was made stronger by a particular change—and came to know them as people, too.

Earlier this year, Bill Gates, whose educational foundation has become a priority-setter for American schooling, called for the use of more interactive technology in classrooms. “So far technology has hardly changed formal education at all,” Gates wrote in his foundation’s annual letter. “With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.”

Happily, Gates’s letter recommends use of the Internet as a complement to “face-to-face learning,” but his emphasis on the potential cost-savings is a little alarming. Sure, online learning may seem cheaper: You can send a 12th-grader to an online private school for about $2,000 a year, well below the $18,000 average per pupil expenditure in the Boston Public Schools in fiscal year 2009. But the reduced cost may indicate a reduced experience.

After all, online schools typically offer fewer services. Florida–based Forest Trail Academy, an Internet high school, advises prospective parents that if their child isn’t entirely self-motivated—if she or he is, in other words, a typical teenager—the parent should be prepared to play a role akin to that of an old-fashioned teacher: supervising, motivating, even tutoring. (“Having a stay-at-home parent can be a great asset,” the website advises.) Cost “savings,” then, may just be code for “costs passed onto families.”

Like so many other educational trends, online learning offers both great advantages and great potential pitfalls. It can allow teachers to better tailor lessons to individuals, allow kids to better work at their own pace, and mean no student will ever again have to squint over an English teacher’s chicken scratches. But it can’t replace human relationships—nor should we ask it to.

False start

False start

Women athletes at state schools are gaining under Title IX, but they still run far behind men in nearly every measure of equal treatment

Judy Dixon understands equal opportunity—and the lack of it. Dixon was the first person to file a sex discrimination case against a major university under Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that requires gender equity at any educational institution receiving federal funds.

In 1975, Dixon sued Yale University, where she was serving as the women’s tennis coach and women’s athletics coordinator, alleging the school was treating its women athletes shabbily and paying her less than a male colleague who had fewer responsibilities. Yale fired her after the lawsuit was filed, although the two parties eventually settled.

Today, Dixon is the women’s tennis coach at the Univ­ersity of Massachusetts Amherst. She says women athletes at the college level have come a long way since those early days of Title IX, but they still are not on a level playing field with men. Her UMass tennis team, for example, finally got its own locker room this year when an old storeroom that had been used by the long-defunct men’s wrestling team was converted for their use. The women’s lacrosse and soccer teams still share a locker room, unlike their male counterparts. Dixon says there are many other subtle—and not-so-subtle—ways in which women athletes are treated differently than their male counterparts, from food to uniforms to transportation.

The Title IX regulations say that “as long as you’re moving towards equality, you can be in compliance,” she says. “That’s like saying as long as we’re trying to create a cure for cancer, it’s OK we have cancer. Who decides you’re moving towards it? I don’t think there is enough attention paid to it, and I get very nervous.”

The compliance numbers for sports programs at taxpayer-supported state colleges and universities in Massa­chusetts seem to buttress Dixon’s analysis. Gains have been made by women athletes, but significant gaps remain. From tiny Roxbury Community College to the University of Massachusetts flagship school in Amherst, women run far behind men in nearly every measure of equal treatment, despite making up nearly 56 percent of the public higher education enrollment, according to federal data covering the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent available. The data show:

  • Massachusetts state colleges and universities as a whole spent $29.2 million on men’s and women’s sports, not in­cluding administrative salaries and other budget items unrelated to gender. Women’s sports received 38 percent of the money; men’s sports received 62 percent.
  • UMass Amherst, the state’s flagship school and a Divi­sion I competitor, spends nearly twice as much per capita on male athletes as it does on female athletes.
  • Of the $618,000 the school spent on recruiting, just 30 percent was earmarked for attracting women athletes to the school, with 70 percent going to woo male athletes.
  • At state schools, the average salary for a head coach of a men’s team is 26 percent more than what a head coach of a women’s team makes; assistant coaches on the men’s teams on average make 37 percent more than those on women’s teams. Much of the discrepancy is due to the salaries of UMass Amherst men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg, who earns $215,000, and football coach Kevin Morris, who earns $200,000. The salary for Sharon Dawley, the new women’s basketball coach, could not be obtained, but records show her predecessor, Marnie Dacko, who coached eight seasons, topped out at $145,000.

UMass Amherst handed out $5.9 million in full and partial athletic scholarships to 382 students. Men received 56 percent of the scholarship money and women 44 percent, but the women’s share is inflated because it includes a disproportionate number of scholarships to out-of-state students, whose tuition and room and board are nearly 60 percent higher than what in-state students are charged.

Some of the moves state schools have taken to comply with Title IX seem curious (counting cheerleaders as athletes) or downright bizarre (counting men as women if the men practice with the women’s basketball team). Penalties for schools not in compliance with Title IX have been rare, but that may be starting to change. The Obama administration has stiffened some compliance standards and dramatically accelerated the number of athletic-related compliance reviews. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Conn­ect­icut ruled in July that cheerleading is not a sport for Title IX purposes.

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The athletic directors at Massa­chu­setts state schools say the numbers do not tell the whole story. They say they are, for the most part, in compliance with Title IX, based on other, more subjective forms of measurement that the federal government allows. One exception is Dana Skinner, athletic director at the University of Massa­chu­setts Lowell. He says more needs to be done at his school to meet Title IX’s mandates.

“We obviously don’t commit the level of resources we need to in order to be in full compliance,” he says. “I will not be completely happy until we can say we are treating our programs completely equitably. We want our female athletes to have the same experience as our men. The only way to get to compliance is to be honest with where you are.”

A lot has changed

Title IX is most closely associated with gender equality in sports, even though the word “sports” was not included in the statute. The legislation was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was passed by Congress in 1972, but it wasn’t until 1975, 35 years ago this year, that then-President Gerald Ford signed the final regulations into law.

A lot has changed since then. When Title IX became law, only one in 27 high school girls played sports, and women’s sports received less than 2 percent of the athletic budgets at colleges and universities. Today, one of nearly every three girls in high school plays sports, women’s sports garner 37 percent of college athletic budgets, and 41 percent of all college athletes are women.

Schools can meet the gender equity requirements of Title IX in any one of three ways. The most straightforward method is proportionality, meaning the number of men and women playing varsity sports should be in rough proportion to their enrollment numbers at the school. Proportionality also applies to the distribution of scholarships, facilities, coaches and their pay, and trainers.

The second method is to demonstrate a “history and continuing practice of program expansion for the underrepresented gender,” which in most cases is women. Most institutions are finding this difficult to do; it’s simply too expensive to add new sports at a time when revenues for all sorts of college programs are declining.

The third method is to show that the athletic interests of women are being fully accommodated. But demonstrating that women have the sports opportunities they want is not easy. Under the administration of former President George W. Bush, the Department of Education allowed schools to use surveys to show what sports students were interested or not interested in. In some cases, schools said unreturned surveys indicated a lack of interest and used that information to justify cutting sports out of their programs. The Obama administration has changed course, ruling in August that the use of surveys for such purposes could only be used in conjunction with more thorough methods of assessing the level of interest, including interviews with coaches and alumni, and requiring universities to match the types of programs area “feeder” high schools offer.

Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, DC, and an expert on Title IX, says the change in policy was needed because surveys were being used as justification for reducing sports offerings. “You can’t just rely on a survey,” she says. “It doesn’t hold water that women aren’t interested in sports when there are over 3 million girls playing high school sports.”

At some schools across the country, athletic directors grappling with budget shortfalls have tried to reduce spending and bring their programs into proportional balance by cutting men’s programs. “You never make a funding decision without looking at your Title IX,” says Skinner, who has had to cut the football, wrestling, and men’s and women’s tennis teams because of budget reductions.

In the four decades since Title IX has been the law of the land, 212 colleges have eliminated men’s gymnastics, to the point that there are just 18 programs left in the country; 355 schools have cut their men’s wrestling programs; more than 60 men’s swimming and diving programs have been eliminated; and a number of schools, including North­eastern University and Boston Univer­sity, have shut down their football programs.

But Title IX advocates say cutting men’s teams was never the intent of the law. They also point out that men’s sports programs, in the aggregate, have not suffered dramatic cutbacks.

More men played college sports in 2008 than women —244,267 versus 182,503—but there were 9,560 teams for women compared to 8,465 for men. According to a 2008 report by the NCAA on athletic participation, NCAA-member schools added 2,678 men’s sports while dropping 2,484 between 1988 and 2008, a net gain of 194. During the same 20-year period, colleges and universities added 3,978 women’s sports programs and dropped 1,690, a net gain of 2,288.

In 2006, UMass Amherst cut seven programs, including the men’s tennis, gymnastics, indoor track, and water polo teams and the women’s volleyball, gymnastics, and water polo programs.

Jennifer Braceras, a UMass trustee and a former appointee of President George W. Bush to the US Com­mission on Civil Rights, says she believes in Title IX and the goal of expanding opportunities for women athletes at the university’s campuses. But she says the emphasis on technical parity between the sexes misses a broader point about what sports have become on college campuses.

“From a board of trustees’ perspective, I view Division-I athletics as more than being just about the students,” she says. “As an alumna and as a trustee and as somebody who has looked at this area academically, I would say the focus should be on the branding of the school and what provides our university with the most benefit marketing-wise.”

Scholarship comparisons

Laura Danai is every school’s dream of what a student-athlete should be. She excelled both in the classroom and on the tennis court at UMass Amherst. She was the tennis team’s most valuable player her junior year and had a perfect 11-0 record in the fall season of her senior year. She graduated with honors in 2009 with a degree in biology and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Massa­chu­setts Medical School in Worcester.

But for all her accomplishments, Danai received just $1,000 in scholarship money, and that came in her senior year. During her last two years at UMass she commuted from her parents’ home in Pittsfield to save money. “My parents don’t come from a lot of money,” she says. “Since I didn’t get an athletic scholarship, I’m in debt now from student loans.”

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Natalie Muka of Cortland, New York, had a different experience. A forward on the women’s soccer team, she receives a scholarship that covers 70 percent of her out-of-state tuition. “I love UMass, but I probably would not have come without it,” she says of the scholarship. “The money was crucial because of the out-of-state tuition.”

The money is also crucial for the university’s compliance with Title IX. For NCAA Division I and Division II schools, scholarships are one of the simplest and easiest ways to gauge compliance. Title IX guidelines require schools to distribute athletic scholarships within roughly 1 percent of the proportional participation by the genders. But a scholarship to an out-of-state student plays a much bigger role at a school such as UMass because of the disparity between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities. In-state tuition plus room, board, and fees at UMass Amherst is $19,000 a year, but students from other New England states are charged $23,000 and students from beyond New England are charged $32,000.

A scholarship to an out-of-state state student doesn’t cost the university any more—the cost of teaching, housing or feeding a student doesn’t change whether they are from Massachusetts or elsewhere—but the higher rates charged for out-of-state students pumps up the amount of overall scholarship aid going to women.

UMass officials would not release the numbers of out-of-state versus in-state athletic scholarships, but data filed with the federal government covering the 2008-09 school year suggest scholarship aid is flowing disproportionately to out-of-state women athletes.

About 18.5 percent of UMass undergraduate students come from outside Massachusetts, but a review of the 10 women’s sports rosters shows that 57 percent of the athletes hail from out of state.

All 13 women basketball players received full scholarships valued at $465,153. Only one member of the team was from Massachusetts.

On the field hockey team, 19 players were awarded full or partial scholarship worth a total of $330,926. Eleven of the 19 players were from out of state and two others were from other countries.

The tennis team had 11 players, including five from out of state and five from other countries. All but two of those players received near-full scholarships. The only Massachusetts player on the team, Danai, received a $1,000 scholarship.

Chaudhry of the National Women’s Law Center reviewed the UMass data and concluded the school is not in compliance. “Their scholarships are not within the 1 percent guideline,” she says. She acknowledges the 1 percent rule is a guideline that can be waived if there are other mitigating factors, but she says the school’s use of out-of-state scholarships raises flags. “Schools use [out-of-state] scholarships because they want to try to up their numbers for women in a way that is easy,” she says.

UMass Amherst Athletic Director John McCutcheon urges caution in interpreting the scholarship data. “I wouldn’t get too hung up on out-of-state figures,” he says. “If the question is, are we using out-of-state scholarships to somehow manipulate compliance, it’s no.”

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Dixon, the tennis coach, agrees on this one. In order to be competitive, she says she has to recruit from outside Massa­chusetts. With bigger and more well-known programs such as Stanford and Duke scooping up the best US players, she eyes foreign players who want a chance to live, learn, and play in America.

Dixon says she receives no directives from above on who to recruit and who to avoid. “Our scholarships for tennis have increased dramatically over the years,” she says. “We’re not told where to get people from. We’re told to get the best team we can and go anywhere we have to go.” But Dixon concedes that using her scholarship money on the higher-tuition imports also bulks up the bottom line for the school’s compliance officer.

“I actually think it’s a happy coincidence,” she says.

Crunching numbers

In many ways, Title IX compliance has become all about the numbers. Colleges analyze the number of students enrolled, the number of athletes, and their financial data to determine whether men and women are being treated equally. Every athletic program decision is reviewed within that context.

At Westfield State University, women represent 52 percent of the school’s enrollment and 46 percent of the school’s athletes. Women’s sports receive about 47 percent of the athletic budget.

Nancy Bals, associate director of athletics and senior women’s administrator at Westfield, says the school satisfies Title IX requirements because it has demonstrated a history and continuing practice of program expansion for its women students by creating a women’s lacrosse team a few years ago and a golf team two years ago.

In addition, Westfield athletic officials count the school’s competitive cheerleading squad as a varsity sport for compliance purposes despite US Department of Education regulations prohibiting the practice. Those regulations were upheld in a recent court decision in Con­necticut, which said cheerleading cannot be counted unless a school is granted a waiver by the federal agency, which Westfield does not have.

Bals insists competitive cheering should be counted as a varsity sport, despite the ruling this summer by US District Court Judge Stefan Underhill in a suit filed by members of the women’s volleyball team at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The judge held that Quinnipiac could not use cheerleading to comply with Title IX participation regulations because “the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

Even without cheerleading, Bals says, Westfield is within with 5 to 7 percentage points of proportionality between men and women athletes. “Five percent is five percent,” she says. “It’s not zero, I understand that.”

At Bridgewater State University, women make up 60 percent of the student body but only 42 percent of the school’s athletes. Approximately 44 percent of the athletic budget goes to women’s sports.

Still, Mike Storey, the school’s associate athletic director, says Bridgewater State is in compliance because the number of teams is equal for men and women even if the number of participants is not. Storey says funding an equal number of sports for women, even if the dollars don’t match up, addresses the program expansion and overall interest provisions of Title IX compliance. “We’re in compliance with two out of three,” he says. “We’ll never be in compliance with proportionality.”

UMass Amherst reports to the federal government that its women’s basketball team has 21 members. A small caveat to the records indicates six to eight of the team members are men yet are counted as women for Title IX purposes. The men participate in practices, providing extra bodies, challenges, and rest at scrimmages for the dozen or so members of the team.

In addition to giving regular team members some breathers during practice, the men also provide one more area of assistance for UMass: They are counted in the total number of participants for women’s teams when UMass submits its report to the federal government about complying with women’s sports mandates.

UMass Amherst athletic director McCutcheon says even though men are included in the census when the report is submitted, university officials do not count the men for compliance purposes internally. He says UMass has closed the gender gap significantly in terms of participation and scholarship dollars. “We’ve made progress,” he says. “I think we’re pretty close.”

Braceras says she is a supporter of expanding opportunities for women athletes, “but the money isn’t endless.” In 2007, she was named the head of a trustee task force studying the establishment of women’s ice hockey teams at the Amherst and Lowell campuses to add more athletic slots for women, as well as to take advantage of a growing regional interest in the sport by women. There are 100 high school girls’ ice hockey programs in Massachusetts with nearly 1,800 players, according to an annual survey by the National Federation of High School Associations.

“The reason I proposed the task force was it seemed to me a natural area where the university could expand opportunities for women,” she says. “It’s exploding in interest. We’re a New England school, winter sports can be our signature sports.”

Braceras said the idea never got off the ground for one simple reason: “The economy tanked.”

The continuing economic maelstrom is putting the squeeze on athletic directors, especially those at public schools who have to answer to taxpayers. Despite interest in women’s ice hockey, only one state school, UMass Boston, offers a varsity women’s ice hockey team, on which they spend $111,000. Nine state colleges and universities, including all four UMass campuses, have men’s ice hockey programs, which cost $3.7 million.

“How do you balance off a Division I men’s hockey team in numbers, scholarships and money? Obviously, a women’s ice hockey team,” says Skinner, UMass Lowell’s athletic director. “That certainly is a path to full compliance with Title IX standards. Unfortunately, you’re subject to the swinging pendulum of the economy and hockey is a very expensive sport to maintain.”

Football is an elephant

The ultimate Title IX numbers game, and the proverbial elephant in the room, is football. University officials tend to be supportive of the sport because it brings money and prestige and engenders alumni loyalty, but the high cost of football and the huge size of college squads make compliance with Title IX a nightmare.

Julia Lafreniere, the coach of the UMass Amherst women’s cross country and the indoor and outdoor track teams, says her programs are among the ones the school uses to counterbalance the huge disparity caused by having 97 football players.

She says the combined women’s programs she coaches have about 133 members, but some of those are counted three times for compliance purposes because they participate on each of the three teams. Men’s cross country and track teams can do the same thing but school administrators limit their rosters  so the number of participants who can count as more than one slot is far lower. “On the women’s side, we can help schools with the numbers against football,” says Lafreniere, who as a UMass undergraduate in 1975 was a member of the first women’s cross country team started in response to Title IX.

Lafreniere says football is an important sport at many schools and she would never want to see it eliminated, as Northeastern University and BU did. But, she says, it cannot be excluded from the conversation when it comes to Title IX compliance.

“Title IX is just trying to protect women’s rights to be funded and have the same opportunities that the men are given,” she says. Having a big football program is “like having a family and the eldest son gets to eat everything he wants and then everyone else in the family gets to eat whatever’s left. Until things change in college athletics, I just see more sports going to the chopping block.”

At some schools, a powerhouse football team can generate enough money through ticket sales, booster donations, television contracts, and clothing sales to pay for nearly all of a university’s athletic programs. But that’s not the case at any Massachusetts state college or university.

When UMass Amherst, a Division I-AA school, played Division I-A giant Michigan in Ann Arbor in September, the school was paid $550,000 for the game, in which it nearly upset the then-top 25 Wolverine team. But Michigan is the only top tier opponent on the UMass Amherst schedule this year, and the other opponents offer nowhere near that kind of payday.

In fact, the numbers submitted to the US Department of Education do not reflect any kind of bonanza as far as revenues go for Massachusetts public schools that field football teams. The eight state colleges and universities with football teams spent a little more than $5 million on their pigskin programs, according to the most recent report, while reporting revenues of $4.9 million, with a deficit of about $50,000. Overall, the state’s schools lost $660,000 on all their athletic programs, with men’s programs losing slightly more ($350,000) than women’s programs ($310,000).

“To me, ‘revenue producing’ means making money, paying for yourself, but I don’t think there’s one UMass sport that pays for itself,” says Lafreniere.

Few women pay attention

Title IX, fast approaching middle age along with its pioneers, continues to be a hot button issue in the halls and gyms of academia. It’s a fact of life for administrators, coaches, and players, yet few people understand or want to talk about the mandates that can have such a major impact on their lives. Athletes at state schools interviewed for this story either declined comment or offered few complaints.

Kelsey Anderson, a college senior from Saugus who receives a 70 percent scholarship for playing soccer at UMass Amherst, says she believes women get a fair shake. “I think they try to make things as fair as possible,” she says. “Football, basketball, hockey—they’re always going to be promoted more.”

Jackie Zacarian, who played field hockey for two years at UMass before injuries forced her to stop, says who gets what among men and women was not often a topic of conversation among the athletes. But Zacarian, who wrote her master’s thesis at Northeastern on Title IX, said it’s the right law for the right reasons, even though few people, including those most affected by it, pay attention.
hockey

“People don’t really discuss it too much,” says Zacarian, who now is an assistant coach at Northeastern and coaches at a private girls high school in Boston. “Nobody made an issue of it at UMass. I think there’s really nothing to discuss. But I think we’ll always need the law. I think schools, if they could, would fly under the radar.”

Dixon, the tennis coach at UMass Amherst who literally started the ball rolling in 1975, says student athletes have little historical perspective. “Every three years I show my kids a film on Title IX,” she says. “They think it’s always been as good as it is and they don’t realize how much there still is to go.”

Information on Title IX compliance in athletics for all public and private colleges and universities in the country can be found at this database from the federal Department of Education.

Overcoming tough times

Overcoming tough times

We need to get serious about supporting working families in Massachusetts

Economic crises are social accelerators—things that were abstractly understood as trends are suddenly new and crushing realities. Twenty-five years ago, while the “Massachusetts Miracle” of growth charmed a generation of optimists, some observers of “deindustrialization” warned us about a looming vision of an hourglass economy of un­equal incomes and unremitting pressures on single-parent families and those without technical credentials. Since the Great Recession began in 2007, the steady erosion of sustaining jobs for middle-income families has become a flash flood.

In an earlier era, many working families’ incomes and benefits were buoyed by unions, but the hardest hit sectors during this recession are those that used to have the most union density, manufacturing, and construction. The Commonwealth now waits for a real, rather than abstract, recovery, for the time when new job creation once again outdistances labor force entries. While we remain hopeful that this will happen in the not-too-distant future, and that unemployment rates will finally come closer to or below 5 percent (rather than 10 percent), there is reason to fear that recovery will not provide adequate financial support to many families struggling to make ends meet on diminishing real wages.

Even prior to the recession, the majority of low-income parents did not have the credentials required for jobs that paid family-sustaining wages. Low-wage and low-income families who struggled to make ends meet before the onset of the recession won’t share in the benefits of a more robust economy unless one or both of two things happen: either they gain access to the training and education needed for the jobs that provide family support in the newly-restructured economy, or wages provided by their lower-wage jobs improve.

In spring 2010, Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston–based nonprofit, published the Massa­chu­setts Economic Independence Index 2010. This budget calculator—available online at  www.liveworkthrive.org—identifies what it costs to make ends meet in Massachusetts without public or private assistance. In 2010, a family with one adult and two children requires $61,618 ($29.01 per hour) to achieve economic independence—approximately three and one-half times the (grossly unrealistic) federal poverty level of $18,310. A two adult/two child family requires over $68,000—more than $36 per hour. Housing, child care, and a more realistic accounting of transportation and health and other costs make the federal poverty level more or less irrelevant to what is necessary to maintain a basic standard of living.

It is no wonder, then, that 72 percent of Massa­chu­setts married-couple families with young children had both spouses in the labor force in 2008 compared to 67 percent for the nation as a whole. Families with two wage earners have become the strategy to avoid poverty for large numbers of Com­monwealth households.

Single mothers are uniquely vulnerable to poverty; almost three-quarters of all Massa­chu­setts families living in poverty are headed by single women. In 2009, the median income in Massa­chu­setts for single mothers was $29,754, less than half of the Independence Index family-sustaining wage for Boston. Forty years ago the mothers of young children were less than half as likely to be in the labor force.
When job growth begins anew in Massa­chu­setts, will adult earners, including single mothers, be able to support their families? “Hot Jobs 2010,” another CWU report, identifies 11 “hot jobs,” that is, jobs with 100 or more vacancies in Massa­chu­setts at time of publication that require two years or less of education or training after high school and pay enough to support a family. This report, published every three years, demonstrates some key trends in employment.

In 2007, 16 out of that year’s 26 hot jobs required no post-secondary education. By 2010, only two of the 11 hot jobs required no post-secondary education.

Not only are the number of hot jobs dwindling, which is not surprising in a recession, but the education requirements for available jobs are going up fast. Skill levels are not keeping pace. In 2008, nearly half of Massachusetts’s 3.2 million workers lacked a two-year associate’s degree or other post-secondary training.

One effective anti-poverty approach would be to provide access to post-secondary education and training and support for educational success for adult students, especially parents. Yet state policymakers, while long recognizing the importance of higher education and training, have not provided adequate funding and corollary supports to adult students supporting families.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Massachusetts community colleges are among the most expensive in the nation. Workers earning at the bottom 20 percent of Massachusetts incomes have to pay two-thirds of their salary to receive a community college education. And parents attempting to attend college while raising children face costs of more than double their non-parenting counterparts because of child care costs. Additionally, part-time students are ineligible for many financial aid and educational grant programs. Single parents trying to improve their financial circumstances through education face daunting roadblocks.
The Skills2Compete-Massachusetts campaign, part of a national initiative to promote access to training for middle-skill jobs, has articulated a challenging vision for the Commonwealth:

Every Massachusetts resident should have access to the equivalent of at least two years of education or training past high school, to be pursued at whatever point and pace makes sense for individual workers and industries. Every person must also have access to the basic skills and support needed to pursue such education.

There have been earlier moments in history when society’s reflection on education and the needs of our population and our economy have produced massive change: the 19th century introduction of free public education and the post-World War II launch of the GI Bill, which expanded college attendance five-fold.

Now we have arrived at one of those crucial moments that require an additional investment in education for our workforce, an investment that will almost certainly pay off in increased productivity, increased well-being for families and children, and reduced need for public assistance.

Several short-term initiatives, many proposed by the Asset Development Commission, established by the Legislature in 2006, would go a long way to improve access to higher education and training and help families achieve economic self-sufficiency.

First, support for the Educational Rewards Grant, which provides low-income adults access to education and training. This program is unusual in that recipients can use some of the grant to cover living expenses (as did the GI Bill), an essential component for working and parenting students and one with proven success. The program is currently a victim of state budget cuts with no grants being awarded this academic year.

Second, support for academic and career counseling that specifically targets low-income working adults, recognizing their individual challenges and identifying attainable career objectives with realistic and expeditious pathways. Single parents need information and guidance on what jobs are in demand, which ones pay family-sustaining wages, and the most cost effective and streamlined path to get them.

Third, increased support for adult basic education and better alignment between the K-12 school system and post-secondary schools, ensuring that young adults leaving the public school system are prepared to successfully continue their education and training.

Finally, increased consumer protection and education related to for-profit schools to prevent low-income students from enrolling in high-tuition schools which may not lead to gainful employment.

The other path to improving the earning power of working families, in particular those who may never qualify for a “hot job,” is increasing the wages paid for today’s low-wage jobs. We have in mind the vast number of low-wage workers who care for the old and sick, clean our houses and offices, tend to our gardens and dirty dishes, and, in general, help sustain our Commonwealth in important but often invisible and usually unacknowledged ways. The Clinton Administration used the tax system effectively to “make work pay” through the Earned Income Tax Credit, which reduces poverty but uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize low-wage employers.

Another way is to facilitate workers’ ability to collectively bargain on their own behalf both locally and nationally. Harold Meyerson has noted that Las Vegas is “the only city in the land where service-sector workers in supposedly dead-end jobs can afford to buy homes, retire securely, and put their kids through college.” His observation was not about the beneficence of hotel owners, but rather the effectiveness of Unite-Here, the hotel workers’ union.

There is a certain straight-line logic about this idea: If the loss of union protection has been a large contributor to the vulnerability of so many of our working families, one potential corrective action is new dimensions and areas of union protection.

Some readers may believe that the Commonwealth cannot afford increased expenditures for education and training. And some would oppose measures that would enable more of our less-educated workers to band together to improve their wages and working conditions. But if we are to take seriously the plight of hundreds of thousands of working families in Massachusetts, one or both of these strategies needs to be pursued.

Robert J.S. Ross is a professor of sociology at Clark University. Deborah Connolly Youngblood is vice president of research and innovation at Crittenton Women’s Union.

Jobs held hostage by housing

Jobs held hostage by housing

Trends suggest the state’s high housing costs could drag down job growth once again

Like new england Patriots victories, high housing costs became matter of fact in Massachusetts over the last decade. As we rebuild from the Great Recession and the housing bubble that precipitated it, now is a good time to revisit whether the high cost of living is something the state can continue to take for granted.

New data show our housing costs are once again outpacing the nation. While this trend may have negligible impact on growing high technology sectors, housing costs out of line with other states will surely make it difficult for Massachu­setts to add the middle-class jobs most residents of the Commonwealth seek.

Before the real estate bubble burst, the outflow of young adults was the clearest sign that housing costs were taking a toll on the Massachusetts economy. Between 2000 and 2006, our population in the 25 to 34 age group fell by 110,000 residents. In just a few short years, a city of young workers the size of Cambridge and Allston combined vanished because we simply couldn’t produce housing at prices young families starting out could afford.

Post-bubble, today’s scenario seems reversed. The state’s young population has at least stabilized and it’s probably even grown. This follows a national trend of young unemployed and underemployed residents moving back home with their parents. But as the economy improves nationally, if Massa­chusetts can’t put the brakes on our tendency to outpace the nation in escalating home values, these children will leave the nest for jobs elsewhere.

We should expect this because surveys of young adults conducted by the Boston Globe, MassINC, and others during the last expansion clearly showed that young people were migrating out for lower-cost housing and jobs, both of which we weren’t creating in sufficient quantities here. Economists including Ed Glaeser, Barry Bluestone, and Ed Moscovitch looked at the data and concluded that our high housing costs were caused by barriers to developing modestly priced homes. They also found that our slow job growth wasn’t the result of a broader downturn in our industries. Our mainstays like finance and IT were growing, just not here in the Commonwealth, where we couldn’t house their workers at a reasonable cost.

The good news is the Massa­chusetts economy is recovering some lost ground. For seven straight months, we’ve added jobs, a total of 64,300 between January and August. But with 304,400 unemployed residents, and signs that the recovery nationally may be losing steam, the question is, how much longer will we maintain strong job growth with housing prices much higher than the rest of the country?

Massachusetts home prices have fallen from their all-time peak relative to the rest of the country. In November 2002, Bay State homes were priced 80 percent higher than the US average. But for 28 consecutive months, the state’s home values have been diverging from the nation’s. July’s figures, the most recent that are available, show our homes now cost 62 percent more than the US median.

This is not just a symptom of our relatively healthy market holding its own against a national figure weighed down by hard-hit states like Florida and Nevada. Compared to key competitors, our high housing costs continue to put us at a disadvantage. For 21 straight months Massachusetts has lost ground to North Carolina; we’re now paying 121 percent more than residents there. California remains the only state with higher prices (the zillow.com data we rely on do not include Hawaii). But three years ago California prices were an astonishing 50 percent higher than ours; in July our prices were just 17 percent lower than theirs.

Economists have been describing various scenarios for an economic recovery. It’s worth reflecting on how our high housing costs position us for each of these potential pathways to growth.

The status quo scenario is high-skilled knowledge industries continue to do very well, and both low- and middle-skilled industries continue to see jobs move overseas. A slight variation on this theme would be more government policy focused on fostering high-growth start-ups. Research shows these companies create a lot of jobs, but they tend to scatter them all over the map, moving the bulk of the work to locations where it can be performed at the lowest cost.

If we follow these trajectories and the recovery is mostly in skilled knowledge sectors, what will the outcome be for Massachusetts? Regional data do show Greater Boston, our high-tech economic engine, becoming less cost competitive relative to other leading metros. Regions like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, have seen home values fall by about a quarter from the peak. Boston is off by just 16 percent. But in the past, the high premium for talent meant businesses showed little sensitivity to cost-of-living. Innovators would do almost anything, including living under a cubicle, to be where the action was. It’s difficult to say whether this will change as more cities around the world attempt to replicate our innovation ecosystem, but at least in the near-term, Greater Boston’s knowledge sector seems relatively safe.

The real concern for us should be the missed opportunity if the alternative scenarios some economists have described, which are much more favorable for middle-class Americans, should transpire. Optimistic economists believe that companies have already begun to tire of dealing with offshore production and shipping costs, and will move some manufacturing back to the US. They also see potential in a renewed national commitment to manufacturing, and a focus on rebuilding export markets for domestic products, which could lead to more jobs for low- and middle-skilled workers.

While Greater Boston will probably always struggle with high costs when competing for growth in less-skilled sectors, we might look to regions outside of Boston, where housing prices are dramatically lower, as the state’s opportunity to add these jobs. But the median home in the Worcester area still costs $17,000 more than the median home in Greater Chicago. A house in the Springfield area is $8,500 more than a home in the Raleigh-Durham metro area. Contrasts to other mid-size regions are even more discouraging—Springfield homes cost 54 percent more than homes in Rochester, New York; homes in Worcester are 52 percent more expensive than homes in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

As we contemplate our future and strategies for renewed economic growth, it’s critical that we keep housing as a focal point. Massachusetts voters who dream of one day having the kids move out should think carefully about the fate of Chapter 40B when they go to the polls in November. The so-called “anti-snob” zoning law has created 58,000 housing units. During the last decade, the vast majority of rental housing in greater Boston wouldn’t have been built without 40B.

At the same time, it should also be clear that 40B is not enough to solve our problem. We need is a policy that gives communities real incentive to produce housing that middle-class families can afford. Chapter 40R, which establishes these incentives, is an excellent framework. The state just needs to make a greater commitment to it with a reliable funding stream. As it stands now, towns have little confidence that the state will fulfill its obligation to reimburse them for costs incurred by new development.

Beyond efforts to create more housing opportunity in Massachusetts, we need to be especially mindful and vigilant when it comes to qualities that mitigate our high housing costs. Two in particular are at risk.

Protecting public education should be our first concern. Employers value the Commonwealth’s strong public schools. To the extent families are willing to pay more to live here, in large part it’s because they have confidence in our schools. As the federal government withdraws its support for cash-strapped states, we could easily flitter away this asset by underfunding our public schools.

The second is our transportation system. After housing, transportation is by far the highest household expense for most families in the Commonwealth. According to a recent Urban Land Institute report, the typical family in Greater Boston spends more than half their income on housing and transportation. Massa­chusetts must maintain a reliable transportation system to reduce commuting costs and make communities with affordable housing more accessible. If major employers lose faith in the future of the debt-laden MBTA, we could find ourselves in real trouble.

As much as we’d like to see recovery in our housing markets, there’s no cause to celebrate Massachusetts outpacing the nation in home-value appreciation. At the polls in November, we should support those who are committed to reducing the state’s high cost of living and building an economy that works for all of us.

Ben Forman is research director at MassINC and Sam Greeley was a summer policy intern for MassINC.

Tribes lobby for reservation land

Seeking leverage in state gambling debate, Wampanoags push for law that would let them take Massachusetts land into trust

The demise of state gambling legislation this summer was a blow to Gov. Deval Patrick and many legislators, but no one was more disappointed when the deal fell apart than members of two Massachusetts Indian tribes, the 2,200-member Mashpee Wampanoag and the 1,200-member Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). For years, both tribes have eyed jealously the millions in casino revenue earned by Connecticut’s Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, who run the Mohe­gan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, respectively. The Massachusetts tribes believe that casinos they would like to build could bring them similar riches.

So both are now hoping that the Obama administration and Congress will come to their rescue. Both tribes believe they can significantly strengthen their position in the gambling debate on Beacon Hill, which is likely to begin again next year, by convincing the Interior Department in Washing­ton to take land into trust for them in Fall River. That would create a reservation there for the Mash­pee Wampanoags, and expand one for the Aquinnah Wampanoags, who have an existing 485-acre reservation on Martha’s Vineyard.

With land in trust, the tribes could offer limited gambling—such as bingo, bingo-style slot machines, and poker—without state permission and without sharing any revenue with the state or local government. To avoid that type of situation, Indian officials believe the state would grant at least one of the tribes a full-fledged gambling license to operate a casino in exchange for a share of the proceeds. In essence, the tribes are racing each other to see who can be the first to get land into trust.

Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoags, says that he would prefer to work with state officials, but plans to move ahead regardless. “I would love to see economic development and revenue sharing for the Commonwealth,” he says. “But we’re going to move forward.”

Yet moving forward won’t be easy without action in Washington. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Department cannot take land into trust for tribes recognized by the federal government after 1934, when Congress passed a law creating the land-into-trust process. Both Wam­pan­oag tribes are affected. The Mashpee Wam­pan­oags were recognized by the federal government in 2007, the Aquinnah in 1987.

There is hope for the tribes, though. The Supreme Court indicated that Congress could act to alter the 1934 law to open the door for newer tribes to take land into trust. The Wampanoags are lobbying hard to see that Congress does that this year. Both Massachusetts tribes have joined a broad coalition, led by lobbying groups such as the National Congress of American Indians and the United South and Eastern Tribes, to try to convince Congress to change the 1934 law. The ­Mash­pee Wampanoags have also hired two lobbying firms to press their case in Washington.

“Entire tribal communities are at risk and entire regional economies are also at risk if this doesn’t get fixed,” says Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoags.  

Like Andrews-Maltais, the coalition members insist that their lobbying campaign is about more than just gambling. In fact, the Supreme Court case was about real estate development. Rhode Island’s Narragansett tribe asserted that its housing development adjacent to a reservation in Rhode Island need not meet local building codes—especially once the Interior Department agreed in 1998 to take land for the development into trust. But Gov. Donald Carcieri sued, contending that since the tribe wasn’t recognized at the time of the 1934 law, it could not benefit from that statute. Two lower courts sided with the tribe, but in February 2009, the Supreme Court sided with the Republican governor in a 6-3 decision.

Tribal leaders view the decision as an overly technical reading of the 1934 law, and insist that it violates congressional intent. But winning passage of the so-called “Carcieri fix” from Congress hasn’t been as easy as the tribes expected. Last year, Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, wrote a bill to grant all tribes the right to take land into trust, regardless of when they were recognized. His committee approved the bill in December, but it has foundered since, as have two bills introduced in the House. In July, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the only American Indian member in Con­gress, gave the tribes their best hope when he got comparable language written into the House version of the fiscal 2011 appropriations bill that covers the Interior Depart­ment. But the fate of the Republican’s amendment is still unclear, since Con­gress failed to pass the bill before members left to campaign for reelection in early October. It is expected that the measure will be rolled into a catch-all spending bill drafted during a lame duck session later this fall.

The issue has split the Democrats who are in charge of both the House and the Senate, including those in the Massa­chusetts delegation. Sen. John Kerry and Reps. Stephen Lynch of South Boston, Michael Capuano of Somerville, John Olver of Amherst, and Bill Delahunt of Quincy, who is retiring, favor the change. Delahunt’s district, which includes the South Shore and Cape Cod and the Islands, is the home base of both of the tribes.

Proponents like Lynch say it’s only fair to treat all Indian tribes the same. The court decision, he says, was a “slap in the face” to American Indians, threatening “tribal sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and self-determination.”

But Rep. Barney Frank of Newton, whose district would be home to both of the proposed Indian casinos in Fall River, opposes the so-called Carcieri fix because it would potentially allow tribes to open gambling facilities on trust land even if local officials opposed them. He insists that decisions on gambling should be made at the state and local level, not by the federal government in cooperation with the tribes. He nevertheless supports the Massa­chu­setts tribes’ efforts to acquire reservation land in Fall River for a casino because the local community strongly supports the effort.

Other members of the delegation declined to state a position on the Carcieri fix, and they will likely never have to if the measure passes as part of a broader spending bill. Olver is the only representative from Massa­chusetts on the House Appropriations Committee. Neither Kerry nor his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Scott Brown, have a seat on the Senate Appropriations panel.

Outside Massachusetts, opposition to the Carcieri fix is strong. “There are a lot of very powerful interests who were pleased by the Carcieri decision, such as the commercial gaming industry that doesn’t want competition from Indian casinos,” says Clyde Barrow, a gambling expert who directs the Center for Policy Analysis at the Univer­sity of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, for instance, opposes the legislation, as do state officials in California, where tribes have clashed with local governments over gambling.

Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar sympathizes with the tribes. He has loosened rules for approving land-into-trust deals and continues to process applications from tribes for new reservation land, even as he awaits Con­gress’s verdict on the Carcieri decision to determine whether he can grant them final approval. In June, Salazar ordered the department’s legal officials to begin considering whether the Mashpee Wampanoags’ application to take land into trust, pending for three years, could move forward. The department declined to comment on its inquiry.

Even if the Indians are able to win a majority for the change in Congress, the Massachusetts tribes face further hurdles. To win approval from Interior, the tribes must demonstrate that the land they want to take into trust was part of their historic land before white settlement. And the Interior Department has been reluctant in the past to grant tribes trust land more than 50 miles from their home base. Fall River is slightly more than 50 miles from Mashpee, farther still from Martha’s Vineyard.

If it fails to win trust land in Fall River, the Vineyard tribe says that it believes it could win approval for a gambling facility on its existing reservation on the island. But that’s not assured because of a 1983 deal between the tribe and local officials that created the reservation. Accord­ing to a 2004 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, that agreement allows local officials to veto development projects on the reservation. Even if the tribe was able to get around that hurdle, Martha’s Vineyard would be far from an ideal location for a casino, since it would be hard to draw customers except in the summer.

Both tribes are counting on federal help to give them leverage in the gambling debate in Massachusetts. “We are supposed to be self-governing, to take care of our own people, and keep our Indian ways intact,” says Cromwell. “We are saying to our federal government, ‘Let us take land into trust so we can sustain ourselves and live within our own country.’”

Correspondence Fall 2010

MY MRI COST $7,200

Your article, “Overexposed,” in Com­mon­­Wealth’s summer edition was superb. It revealed so many of the failures and successes of our medical system.

I have only one thing to add: You wrote that the “price of an MRI ranges from $350 to $1,400.” When I had an MRI in 2005, the bill, of which I re­ceived a copy, was for $7,200! I don’t know what Tufts Health Plan paid.

A subsequent CAT scan, just be­fore I was to undergo surgery at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital for a subdural hematoma, revealed that the bleeding had stopped, and no further treatment was necessary. I never saw the bill for that welcome discovery.

I think the simple device of telling patients what their treatment costs might put some brakes on the inflation in procedures and expense.
I was on the Board of the Health Planning Council of Greater Boston. The certificate of need program didn’t fail. Every time we turned down a certificate of need, the hospitals had the Legislature overrule us.

Herbert P. Gleason
Boston

The writer, a lawyer, was formerly corporation counsel for the city of Boston and is a founding director of the Neighborhood Health Plan.


ENERGY EFFICIENCY NO GAMBLE

I was surprised to see Bruce Mohl refer to the state’s green agenda as “The big bet” in the summer edition of Com­mon­Wealth magazine. In it, Mohl claims that the state is betting on a future “in which carbon emissions are costly, fossil fuels are scarce, and clean tech jobs are up for grabs.” Well, the future is here. With some of the highest fuel and electricity costs in the nation and the signs of climate change nagging in the background, Massa­chu­setts and other Northeast states are taking action. Their first fuel: energy efficiency.

Unlike conventional power generation or even renewables, energy efficiency is the resource we don’t see. Yet in terms of cost-effectiveness and public benefits, efficiency is about as close to a sure bet as we’ve got. Dollar for dollar, meeting electric demand through efficiency costs about a third as much as it does to generate and deliver it from a power plant. Efficiency yields equally-impressive savings on heating fuel as well.

As Mohl points out, Massa­chu­setts is at the front of the pack in terms of our energy policy. But this is no reason to rest on our laurels; to do so would be shortchanging the state’s residents and businesses and leaving money on the table. While Mohl repeatedly referred to “green subsidies,” every dollar invested in efficiency returns $2.60 to the economy.

Mohl lumped together energy efficiency investments with bringing new large-scale renewable energy projects online. What he missed is that energy efficiency is the bridge to a clean energy future. The money we save through increased efficiency will help the region finance investments in renewable generation to further displace dependence on fossil fuels.

Efficiency is widely recognized as the pathway of choice to control energy costs, increase energy security, curb greenhouse gas emissions, foster economic growth, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and contribute to a cleaner, healthier society. That’s why Massa­­chu­setts, along with most neighboring states, is directing utility companies to meet as much demand as possible through efficiency before turning to generation resources.

A forthcoming Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships study on New England’s energy efficiency potential says that over the next eight years, we could curb the region’s electric use by 20 percent. This is through existing programs and technologies that are cost-effective and already in use; it’s just a matter of scaling up to the challenge.

Energy efficiency is available now. This is no gamble—it’s smart public policy. And it will yield dividends in­cluding local job creation, a cleaner environment, and putting money back in people’s pockets.

Natalie Hildt
Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships
Lexington

DELUSIONS OF GREEN POWER

It ignores reality to believe that green energy will displace as much fossil fuel as needs to be displaced to salvage the environment and reduce reliance on foreign sources. Although we should develop green energy to the extent feasible, the potential of renewable energy is pitifully small compared to the energy now produced by fossil fuels, and only a fraction of the practical potential of nuclear energy.

Although the cost of a nuclear electric plant is very high, this is more than offset over the plant’s lifetime by the much lower cost of nuclear fuel relative to fossil fuels. In addition, the “hidden” environmental and health costs of the fossil fuel cycle relative to the nuclear fuel cycle overwhelmingly favor nuclear.

One can’t blame the electric utilities from shying away from nuclear, given the difficulty of financing and recovering the high construction cost and given the regulatory and political  roadblocks to licensing. But eventually the nation must find ways to surmount the institutional and political issues, and must develop the informed will to do so. Our future energy policy should be based on the concept of “Get Real!”

Meanwhile, the environment suffers from the notion that renewables alone will solve our energy problems, politicians continue to be both uninformed and lacking in courage, and the public is lulled by light-weight publicity that fails to reveal the quantitative limitations of  renewable energy and biofuels relative to our total energy and environmental requirements.

R. Murray Campbell
Cohasset

MOSCOVITCH ANALYSIS QUESTIONED

While Edward Moscovitch’s Per­spec­tives column, “Teachers Are Not To Blame,” in the Summer 2010 edition of CommonWealth is thought provoking, the methodology used raises questions about the findings.

Dr. Moscovitch’s primary thesis and conclusions are clear—teachers need more tools to improve the quality of public education and student performance—the data and analysis upon which he based his findings and conclusions, despite extensive statistical data, appear to be more hypothetical proposition and argument than a fact-based theorem.

The foundation of Dr. Mosco­vi­tch’s conclusions are based on his analysis of MCAS results using a stress-ratio model he created to compare student performance in each of the school districts against the relative wealth of the collective school districts. He defined four wealth groups “where the stress ratio is the combined percentage of students who are low income, minorities (blacks and Hispanics), and of limited English ability.”

Unfortunately, the linchpin of his analysis appears to be flawed and inaccurate. A quick check of the 2000 census data for just two of the school districts (Billerica and Plymouth) indicates the cursory approach to defining the comparative wealth groups. The census data reveals that Billerica and Plymouth were virtually identical communities based on the defined criteria.

In 2000, the US Census reported that Billerica was 93.6 percent “white alone” while Plymouth was 94 percent “white alone.” The data also indicate that 9.6 percent of Billerica’s households spoke a primary language other than English, while 6.6 percent of Plymouth’s households spoke a primary language other than English. And 32.2 percent of Billerica’s households reported annual incomes of less than $50,000, while 43.9 percent of Plymouth’s households reported annual incomes of less than $50,000.

Despite these facts, Dr. Mosco­vitch included Billerica in the “wealthiest” category while Plymouth was placed in the “medium-low” wealth category.

The 2009 MCAS results by community are equally revealing. Student performance in Plymouth was slightly better in English in all categories than Billerica. Using Dr. Moscovitch’s stress-ratio model, one could argue, based on this simple comparison, that students in a school district with a higher stress ratio (medium-low wealth) performed better than students in one of the Commonwealth’s “wealthiest” school districts. 

The issues raised in Dr. Mosco­vitch’s column are important and deserve continued research, analysis, and action. Unfortunately, Andrew Lang’s famous quote comes to mind. “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts—for support rather than for illumination.”

Sean G. Mullin
Plymouth