Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Turning education green

By Bennett Gavrish

When students walk through the doors of the new Newton North High School in 2010, they will recognize their familiar school colors of orange and black.

But the building’s designers want students to think of another color as they wander down the hallways and into classrooms – green.

The city’s new high school will be one of the first in the state to be certified as a green building by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which rates buildings based on the sustainability of their design.

“Students will have a more healthy environment to work in, especially with respect to air quality, which we hope will make them more productive,” said Kurt Kusiak, a School Committee member.
The construction of the high school – which local officials estimate will cost about $200 million – has sparked a citywide effort to make more environmentally friendly buildings.

At the new school, classrooms will be equipped with light sensors that turn off the fluorescent lights when the rooms are empty.

“With light sensors in every classroom, the use of artificial light will be minimized,” said Jeremy Solomon, the spokesman for Mayor David Cohen. “The less artificial light we use, the less our electricity costs will be.”

Solomon said other environmental initiatives include low-flow automatic spigots in bathroom sinks to limit water waste and a 40,000 gallon underground tank that will save rain water to irrigate sports fields.

The green plan for the school is adding to the project’s cost, making it the most expensive high school ever built in the state. But city officials said they expect to recoup on the investment within 10 years.

“We estimate a $200,000 savings in the first year of operation,” Solomon said, “and with the trend of increasing energy costs, that figure will only grow over time.”

More schools in Massachusetts and around the country are starting to follow Newton’s lead, said representatives of the U.S. Green Building Council, which rates buildings based on their sustainability and impact on the environment.

“The green school movement is really taking off,” said Emily Knupp, who works in the council’s education sector. “We see one or two new projects registering for certification every day.”

Not everyone supports the green plan for the new high school.

Anatol Zukerman, a Newton architect, has criticized the building’s design and said it is not as environmentally friendly as the city claims.

“It’s an example of local politics trumping a truly sustainable design,” he said. “The new building has more skin exposed to the weather and needs to be heated and cooled by burning more oil and using more electricity.”

School officials remain confident that their design for the new Newton North is the best plan for the community.

“By saving money in the long run, we keep programs and teachers in the Newton Public School system that might otherwise be cut in difficult financial times,” Kusiak said.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

House kills non-citizen voting act

By Bennett Gavrish

Lines of voters extended around the perimeter of Newton North High School on Election Day, but one group of locals was absent from the crowd.

Non-citizen immigrants in Newton, who were on the verge of gaining a vote in community affairs, were silenced again.

“This is taxation without representation,” said Ted Hess-Mahan, the Ward 3 alderman who first proposed giving voting rights to non-citizens. “We fought a war over that one time in this country.”

Over the past two years, three cities in Massachusetts have proposed non-citizen voting initiatives, but the state legislature has repeatedly rejected the plans and forbidden immigrants in areas such as Newton from filling out a ballot.

Twenty percent of Newton residents were born in another country and 8 percent are not citizens, according to a 2004 survey by the US Census Bureau.

“That means most non-citizens in Newton eventually do become citizens,” Hess-Mahan said. “But it also means that while they are becoming eligible to apply, they live here but have no voice in who will represent them in City Hall or on the School Committee.”

Last year, the Board of Aldermen voted 20-4 in favor of Hess-Mahan’s proposal. The proposal would have given Newton immigrants the right to vote in local elections, as long as they signed a declaration saying they intended to complete the citizenship process.

Over the past few months, the House has turned down the city’s plan and similar proposals in Amherst and Cambridge. All three cities filed home-rule petitions, which would have allowed the initiatives to go into effect in only those areas.

Anping Shen, a Chinese immigrant who moved to Newton in the 1980s, said the proposed legislation would benefit the culture of the neighborhood.

“The voice of immigrants is both meaningful and important to community matters,” he said. “Plus it would be a mutual educational experience for these non-citizens to actively engage in community issues with citizens.”

Advocates said non-citizens in Newton could sway elections.

“A fair proportion would vote, probably somewhere close to the percentage of Americans who currently vote,” said Jason Levy, a local immigration lawyer. “I think you would see a somewhat different demographic of representation in the state House and Senate.”

Opponents argue the proposal would add unnecessary complications to the state’s election laws.

“Allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections could lead to problems,” said Joshua Goldstein, a Newton attorney who specializes in immigration law. “Voters could be confused as to which elections permit non-citizens to vote and which do not.”

State lawmakers did not vote against the city’s plan; they sent the bill to study after a public hearing, effectively killing it.

“This means that most likely the bill will need to be refiled during next year’s session and go through the entire process again,” said Sarah Blodgett, the chief of staff for Senator Karen Spilka, the vice-chair of the Election Laws Committee.

Hess-Mahan is optimistic lawmakers will change their minds.

“It took African-Americans almost 80 years and women almost 120 years after the Constitution was ratified to get an amendment guaranteeing them the right to vote,” he said. “These things take time.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Anger brewing in Newton Center

By Bennett Gavrish

Denis Goodwin is no longer so perky in the morning.

Goodwin, a website tester from Newton Center, used to be a regular customer at the Union Street Starbucks, enjoying its cozy atmosphere next to the train tracks.

“The space itself was great,” he said. “It was open and spacious. Where else could I bring three kids for an hour or two and have everyone enjoy themselves? You can’t put a price on train-watching either.”

In July, Starbucks announced it would close 600 locations in the United States, including seven in Massachusetts. Despite protests from local residents, the 17-year-old Starbucks built inside the Newton Center Train Station closed last week.

“When I heard that Starbucks was thinking of closing it, I thought it was a shame,” said Chuck Tanowitz, a West Newton resident. “It was a great, homey space and probably one of the most unique coffee bars in Newton.”

The location attracted many commuters because it was above the Newton Center T stop on the Green Line.

Starbucks officials would not comment on individual closings, but Austin Myerson, a company marketing manager, said in an e-mail that about 20 full and part-time positions will be eliminated with each closure.

“I was very disappointed with Starbucks,” Goodwin said. “I now look at them as just another chain that’s bad for the country in the long run.”

But other coffee lovers said they understand the decision, especially because of the economic crisis.

“People are less likely to want to spend that much on coffee, so it makes sense that Starbucks is eliminating locations,” said Kristine Munroe-Mahoney, a writer from West Newton. “But I’m not sure why they opted to close down this location as opposed to other ones which are just like every other Starbucks in the world.”

Goodwin gathered about 400 signatures for a petition to save the Union Street Starbucks. He blames the company’s senior management and insists he will boycott all Starbucks products in the future.

Starbucks officials said they are working with the targeted stores to prepare employees for the closings.

“As closure dates are decided, our priority will be to work with impacted store partners to try and identify opportunities in nearby store locations or elsewhere within the company,” Myerson said in the e-mail.

The Boston Development Group, which owns the lease on the building at 70 Union St., would not comment on plans to replace the Starbucks franchise. Goodwin said he has heard an independent coffee shop may be moving in.

“My fear all along was that the space would either remain vacant in a bad economy or that the usual Newton Center real estate thing would happen and a bank or a salon would come in,” Goodwin said. “So I remain hopeful that the independent coffee shop plan will happen.”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A 21st century education

By Bennett Gavrish

Alderman Ken Parker wants to redesign the city’s schools.

Parker, a Ward 6 alderman, has waded through test scores and survey results over the last few months to establish long-term goals for Newton’s education system.

“We have met with hundreds of Newton residents, learning their concerns and ideas for how we can improve education in Newton,” he said. “The project is intended to bring together these ideas into a vision for the future of our city that is ambitious, but also practical and implementable.”

Parker’s project is part of a city-wide effort to institute a long-term educational plan that calls for broad curriculum changes, new technology and more training for teachers.

“We are stressing the need for creativity, innovation, collaboration and critical thinking as 21st century skills that are essential for our students to compete on a global stage,” said Dori Zaleznik, the chairman of the Newton School Committee. “We are looking to take the Newton public schools from good to great.”

School officials recently launched a 19-member committee to envision what Newton schools should look like in 2020.

“It’s important to plan ahead because it often takes quite some time to make changes in a system as large as ours, with 21 schools and well over 11,000 students,” said Kurt Kusiak, a member of the School Committee and strategic planning group.

Because of recent economic trends, some committee members worry that there will not be enough cash to finance the group’s goals.

“The biggest challenge is money,” Kusiak said. “With the growing structural deficit and the bleak fiscal outlook for the state over the next several years, we’re going to have less money to work with.”

But school officials do not want financial concerns to hinder the long-term plan for the city’s education system.

“I’m hopeful that our plans will come to fruition because I strongly believe that this is the most promising way for communities with a commitment to education to begin to reestablish control even when money is very tight,” Zaleznik said.

The new committee is focusing on curriculum and facility changes that will provide students with skills and equipment necessary for technical careers. Members also said it’s important to educate teachers about technology and develop them into innovative instructors.

“The way people work is so different now, with more collaboration an incorporation of technology,” said Sue Flicop, a member of the committee and chairman of the Parents-Teachers Organization. “We need to bring these ideas and processes into schools to properly prepare students for the real world and for successful lives.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A neighborhood makeover

By Bennett Gavrish

Almost 90 percent of Newton residents are white, according to the latest census data, and some local realtors are in trouble for forgetting about that other 10 percent.

After two recent studies by local non-profit groups found that many Newton real estate agents discriminated against potential clients, city officials are pressuring realtors to sell and rent property to all qualified buyers.

“Virtually every community has housing discrimination, and Newton is an obvious example,” said Philip Herr, a member of the Newton Fair Housing Task Force. “We conducted the audits and found that there is a very high, but not unusual, amount of unequal treatment.”

In its 2006 audit report, the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston found discrimination in 45.8 percent of rental tests in Newton. The group designed the tests to determine if realtors discriminated against potential tenants based on their race or ethnicity.

In the tests, a minority couple and a white couple would be sent into a real estate office separately to inquire about the same property, and then they would report back on how they were treated.

The Disability Law Center reported similar results in its 2007 audit of Newton, finding discrimination toward people with disabilities in 48 percent of tests.

Local officials said the tests were an important first step in reducing housing discrimination.

“Newton has been at the forefront of uncovering housing discrimination and taking steps to root it out,” said Jeremy Solomon, the mayor’s spokesman. “While other communities may choose to sweep these issues under the rug, we in Newton decided to take a proactive approach.”

Since the reports were released, the city has educated realtors about the problem with workshops, training sessions and publications. Herr said the city anticipates additional audits in a few years.

Charlie McMillan, a realtor at Coldwell Banker Real Estate in Newton, said his office tries to prevent discrimination by educating its employees, but the same is not true for all local agents.

“The longer a realtor has been in the business, the less likely that sort of behavior will take place,” he said. “But because the entry standards to the industry are so low, some people who harbor inappropriate prejudices will sneak through and become realtors.”

Some housing advocates cite the lack of diversity in Newton as another cause of housing discrimination.

“It is certainly possible that the lack of significant numbers of minorities in the city has contributed to the problem,” said Josephine McNeil, the director of Citizens for Affordable Housing in Newton.

The mayor hopes the efforts to prevent discrimination will create more affordable housing and increase diversity.

“People of differing backgrounds coming together in our city is part of what makes Newton great,” Solomon said. “If we shut our doors on these people, we miss out on attracting a different mix of citizens.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A new lane to the city

By Bennett Gavrish

Commuters are finding more competition for space on the city’s busiest streets after Mayor David Cohen unveiled Newton’s first official bike lane last month.

Over the last two years, the mayor worked with local organizations to create a bike lane on the side of Walnut Street to protect bikers and force drivers to share the road.

A white stripe extends from Beacon Street to Newton North High School.

“A dedicated lane provides an important safety measure for cyclists,” said Jeremy Solomon, the mayor’s spokesman. “Instead of trying to stay close to the curb and avoid parked cars, it provides a clear and free lane for them to use.”

Along with marking bike lanes, the city is posting “Share the Road” signs on streets with high levels of traffic.

“Our roadways are so car-centric now that they are no-man’s land for anyone not surrounded by two tons of metal,” said Steve Runge of Newton Center, who writes a blog about biking in Newton. “More bikes on the road mean more drivers getting used to making way for human beings.”

Because the new biking initiatives are partially covered by state funding, the city is only paying for the painting of the lanes, said George Kirby, the chairman of the Newton Bike and Pedestrian Task Force.

“It’s a very reasonable price for reducing congestion, lowering collision and making things safer,” he said.

Some members of the community have criticized the local government for not pursuing safety measures earlier.

“The city has done almost nothing up to this point, because it has for so long bought into the dominant belief that cars rule the road,” said Lois Levin, the leader of Bike Newton, an organization that works to make the city safer for bicyclists.

City officials said the delay was not due to a lack of concern.

“The recent changes have been in the works for some time,” Solomon said. “The mayor worked with citizen groups to locate a few streets that could safely accommodate a bicycle lane. Once safety studies had been completed, we were able to carry out their plan.”

Solomon also said creating bike lanes on many streets is not feasible.

“Implementing bicycle lanes presents a challenge because many of our roads here are fairly narrow and were not designed to have a dedicated bike lane,” he said.

Bike advocates say additional lanes will encourage residents to adopt more environmental-friendly transportation.

“All of our shopping areas, schools and libraries could be easily accessible with a bike if so many people were not scared to be out there unprotected from speeding cars,” Levin said.

Solomon said the mayor is aware that the city’s bicyclists are not satisfied and will work with them to add more lanes.

But because of economic concerns, bicycle activists do not expect new projects in the near future.

“Bike lanes are very low priority given the city’s present financial condition,” Levin said. “The situation will be getting worse, so we are going to have to be very creative to get the changes we want in the next couple of years. But we won’t stop trying.”