JP forum fosters community debate on ballot questions

October 28, 2016
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Several local Democratic Ward committees held a forum on the five ballot questions that Jamaica Plain voters will help decide on Nov. 8. The most divisive question discussed surrounded the expansion of charters schools.

About 50 people attended the forum, which took place at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain.

Question 2 would authorize the approval of up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charter schools every year. The structure of the forum allowed three minutes of presentation from both the pro and con side for each question, then about 20 minutes for questions and answers.

Shane Dunn, coalitions director of Great Schools Massachusetts Yes on 2 Campaign, represented the pro side for Question 2. Dunn cited free tuition, open enrollment, and high academic standards as benefits of charter schools. He said that charter schools, being public and private, do not take money away from public schools, but they close achievement gaps.

“Thirty-three thousand children are on a waiting list for charter schools in Massachusetts, and 10,000 of those are in Boston,” Dunn said.

The con side for Question 2 was partially represented by Harneen Chernow, Boston Public Schools (BPS) parent and former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Odette Williamson, a parent of children who have attended charter and Boston Public schools. Chernow said that their position was not entirely against charter schools’ existence, but was concerned that this legislation would eliminate the cap on charter schools.

Many of the community questions were concerning both types of schools’ treatment of special needs and ELL students. There were also concerns about disciplinary policies of both types of schools: some community members felt that charter schools were too strict with students and took them out of the classroom for breaking minor rules, and some felt that the strict disciplinary policy was necessary, saying that BPS does not discipline their students enough, causing distractions in the classroom.

Question 1 would allow the state Gaming Commission to issue an additional slots license. David Nealley, who is a city councilor from Bangor, Maine, spoke on behalf of the developers who are trying to get the slots license. Nealley was met with some questions of credibility since he is not a Massachusetts resident and was brought to the panel to share a success story of a casino introduced in Maine.

Nealley’s points supporting yes on Question 1 were that the slots parlor would provide $88 million to the state and that the existing site has been neglected and needs to be redeveloped, referencing a piece of land in Revere where the slot parlor is expected to go. He told an anecdote of economic success in his town of Bangor, Maine, but residents asked why they should believe his position, since he was employed by the developers and the final outcome would not be “in his backyard.”

Representing “no” for Question 1 was Celeste Myers, chair of Committee for Responsible and Sustainable Economic Development. Her main stance was “too much, too soon,” considering the recent approval of a casino in nearby Everett. She also predicted that crime and traffic would increase if there were a new gambling location.

Rueben Kantor, who works for Mayor Brian Arrigo of Revere, was also opposed to the proposition, saying that no elected official has endorsed the project, either. He also questioned the process of having the question on the ballot at all, since it seemed that the ballot question was tailored for one specific piece of land that may have less impact on voters in other parts of the state.

Community members also asked why this casino proposal is different from other casino proposals. Kantor said that this was poorly planned, and didn’t consider subtle differences in the community of Revere from other communities where a casino has been approved.

Question 3 would prohibit certain methods of farm animal containment, and if passed, would ensure that certain livestock be raised in conditions which allow them to stand up, turn around, and extend their limbs. Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said that voters should vote yes on this question in order to protect animal welfare, as well as food safety, citing salmonella as a potential result of animals kept in small cages.

Diane Sullivan, campaign manager of Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice, represented “no” for Question 3 with the premise that by expanding animal containment, the price of food would increase, which would harm middle- and low-income people the most.

Questions raised by the community were about how the law would be regulated, and whether or not this would inconvenience farmers. Shapiro said that the distributors would sign an affidavit declaring that the conditions of these animals would meet the updated standards, and that it would not inconvenience farmers.

The marijuana legalization is Question 4, and pros were outlined by Shanel Lindsey, who represented Yes on 4. Lindsey said that the current black market of marijuana sales promotes gang and criminal activity, which would be eliminated if legalized, and that the money that residents spend on marijuana could be going to support legitimate businesses, and subsequently generate tax revenue. She said that it would still be a criminal offense to possess more than an ounce of marijuana, and that if a town does not want cannabis, they would still be able to ban it independently.

Opposition to Question 4, led by Corey Welford, Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, was mostly centered around the potential problems of commercializing marijuana, the potential criminal activity that could increase in surrounding states, and the accountability of intoxicated drivers using marijuana.

The final question, which will be on the ballot only for Boston, would accept the Community Preservation Act (CPA) for the city. The CPA has already passed in many other towns and cities in the state, and it would establish a dedicated funding source for affordable housing needs, parks, and preserving and restoring historic buildings. The funds would be collected as a tax from property owners based on their property value, and the pro side estimates that the average homeowner would pay $24 a year.

Pam Bender, senior organizer of Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, represented the pro side, and argued that passing the CPA in Boston would significantly help the three sectors the funds are dedicated to, and that the bulk of the funds would come from downtown businesses, not low-income or senior homeowners.

Residents questions about this act were about the affordable housing component, asking what parameters would define “affordable housing”, and whether or not the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) would be involved in the allocation of the funds. The answers from Bender were that a council would be created which would set the standards for affordable housing, and that the BPDA “has nothing to do with the CPA.”

Opposition to Question 5 was presented by Skip Schloming, former executive director of Small Property Owner’s Association. Schloming didn’t directly rebut the CPA except to say that it was an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. He provided an alternative solution, which involves utilizing existing spaces like attics, basements, and subdividing units to create affordable housing.

 

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