Sunday, May 13, 2007
I don't like the vibes coming out of Springfield lately. After several years of really focused attention on the long term prospects of the city's recovery, and on implementing the necessary changes, I'm getting the sense that the wheels are in danger of coming off this fragile process.
Nearly all the credit for what has been accomplished in Springfield can be given to the Financial Control Board. In choosing the current members, former Governor Mitt Romney used financial ability and integrity as his primary criteria. That was not what I thought when they were first chosen; that is what has been demonstrated by their performance. Analyzing and implementing reforms, many of them decades overdue, the Board members often received little but insults and political resistance as their reward. Yet frankly they did more for the city, acting essentially as volunteers, than the paid politicians who for so many years promised so much but instead merely put themselves before the feeding trough and grabbed what they could with both hands. If the Pynchon Award was the high honor it once was, instead of the insider's club vanity prize it's devolved into, then the entire Control Board plus Phil Puccia would have won it years ago.
Instead of being honored, without a word of public gratitude or even acknowledgement of their achievements, all the appointed FCB members are getting the bum's rush. While the fate of Puccia is uncertain, once the current board members are gone, I would consider Mr. Puccia's survival chances as very slim. Why are these outstanding public servants being shown the door? No reason is given except that those currently on the Board are not members of the Democrat Party.
It would be one thing if Governor Deval Patrick had some really good people in mind and wanted to install them instead of the current members. But he had no one to name when he announced the dismissals, and still hasn't, now weeks later. The rumor going around (and I hope it's just a rumor) is that Deval is working from a list of names that has been provided him by Richie Neal. In any case, it is insulting to the people who served so admirably on the Board to be so summarily dismissed, with no reason given and no replacements even waiting in the wings.
The impression this gives is that the Governor does not take Springfield's problems seriously or consider them a very high priority. It also suggests that he is unaware of what has been accomplished in Springfield over the past three years, and does not appreciate who was responsible for those achievements. What it's starting to look like is that FCB is being transformed from a fiscal watchdog into a political entity whose primary purpose will be to see that when the city transitions back to full sovereignty the "right" people will be in charge.
Like in: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
That all this uncertainty is leading to a sense of panic in some quarters was demonstrated last week by the bizarre dance surrounding the offering of a new contract to Superintendent Joseph Burke. I mean here the guy had one foot out the door, applying for a job in Florida and likely to apply somewhere else if he doesn't get it, and here the city is chasing after him begging him to sign a contract. Personally, I think Burke has been overly criticized in some ways. He inherited a horrendous mess from his predecessor Dr. Peter Negroni, and Burke was often crippled in his modest reform attempts by incompetent holdovers from the Negroni era. Much of his first years in Springfield were spent just trying to get half-competent people into positions previously filled by political or affirmative action hires.
But even granting him the small progress he's achieved despite the terrible situation he inherited, Burke is really not the person to bring back the Springfield Schools, now considered to be among the worst in the state even for an urban system. Burke is a competent administrator but we need an idea man, a visionary type who can think big and outside the box and all those other catch phrases. There needs to be a shake-up at the top of the Springfield School System, and the expiring of Burke's contract was a good opportunity to give Burke a thanks and a handshake and hire someone fresh.
Instead, both the School Committee and the Control Board rushed to offer Burke a renewed contract, even as he was signaling his desire to go elsewhere. Why did the city humiliate itself in this way? The word on everyone's lips was "stability." With the Governor throwing the whole reform and recovery process into a turmoil with his unnecessary and inexplicable firing of the current Control Board, everyone suddenly wants Burke to stay just so that we don't have the upheaval of a new School Administration to contend with at the same time that the new FCB sends everything into a tizzy with all new and unpredictable members.
This is the unnecessary crisis that Governor Patrick's ill-informed meddling has caused. If he's not going to focus on Western Mass then fine, we've never had a Governor in modern times who did. But don't just tune in long enough to upset the slow but steady progress Springfield has achieved, without any alternative people or policies in mind, and while apparently relying for advice on the old time pols who got Springfield into this mess in the first place. The Pioneer Valley often complains that we don't get enough attention from Boston, but if this is the kind of help we can expect, then for once Springfield may find itself wishing that Boston would leave them alone.
The controversy over the awarding of an honorary degree to Bush pal and Massachusetts political heavyweight Andy Card continues as the following banner was on display in front of Bartlett Hall.
Stephen P. Tocco is the Chairman of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees.
How do you like my neighbor's antique tractor?
I know nothing about such contraptions, antique or not, but I do know there is a big cult surrounding the collecting and preserving of these agricultural artifacts by those such as Joe Roberts of Wilbraham.