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“I’d love to see actual proof”
Would you, though? On Buses and Binienda
First of all, thank you so much! All of you. Anyone who donated to or shared Katie’s GoFundMe. The amount we were able to raise was just… we hit $10,000 in a matter of hours. We’re at $25,000 now. The page reached so far and wide Frank Turner shared it. Yes–that Frank Turner. You all helped turn something we dreaded for months–a humiliating nightmare, unique to this country, that we had no choice but to go through–into an edifying experience. We launched the site on the day she started chemo. We sat in the hospital room as the IV slowly dripped and watched the fundraising number skyrocket on our phones. By the time we left, we were no longer concerned about her making rent or draining her savings or taking out a medical loan. Months of anxiety washed away in a few hours. Thank you so much. There’s still a long road ahead, though. Every dollar counts. If you haven’t given yet the page is still active!!
Grateful also for my ever-expanding list of contributors! I’m in full caretaker mode and it’s very helpful to have people step up to fill in the gaps. If you want to write a story, send me a pitch! (billshaner91@gmail dot com).
Today, we have a new contributor! Aislinn Doyle! She frequently writes about the Worcester Public Schools over at her newsletter, WPS In Brief, and today she shares a breakdown of the district’s new “in-house” busing system and how it relates to Maureen Binienda, the former superintendent and current School Committee candidate who fought the change tooth and nail for years. It’s a great piece! Thank you, Aislinn.
As always, please consider signing up for a paid subscription so I can continue to treat this outlet as a full-time job and pay great contributors like Aislinn.
Today’s post is a short one which I know some of you people greatly appreciate. I’m working on a few more ambitious pieces that aren’t quite ready yet, but will be soon. There’s one in particular that’s going to be truly special.
Ok, now to Aislinn, then a few quick notes from me afterward.
On Buses and Binienda
By Aislinn Doyle (@itmeansdream)
I know it seems like a mundane thing: school buses. But when they don’t function the way they should, lives get disrupted in monumental ways. Family schedules are upended, parents don't know where their kids are or if they are safe, and learning is interrupted when students get to school late. This is the situation that the Worcester Public Schools experienced for years—years!— while busing was provided by a private contractor called Durham. If you don’t have school-aged kids and didn’t experience it yourself, just ask your neighbor (or the WPS parents on twitter). They’ll have a story to share about busing under Durham.
Despite this building animosity, the company held onto the busing contract for the entirety of the previous superintendent's tenure. No amount of public opposition could outweigh the opinion of one crucial supporter: Maureen Binienda.
For more than 13 years there have been conversations at School Committee meetings around bringing transportation fully “in-house,” which means completely run by Worcester Public Schools rather than by a contracted service. Families and students voiced concerns over and over again. It was debated at School Committee meetings. Durham would make promises they couldn’t keep (anyone remember the bus tracking app?), and still, nothing would change. Around and around it would go.
A 2019 report, produced by WPS transportation and finance teams led by Brian Allen, the district’s highly-regarded COO/CFO, underscored the need for change:
“In summary, the district has experience with operating and managing student transportation and the transportation and district staff already work every day to ensure the safest, most cost-effective operating transportation program. The district has been highly successful in converting other services from third-party vendors to district-employed staff resulting in better services to students and reduced cost. It is all of these reasons combined that will result in a highly-efficient, low-cost operation that can improve safety, quality, and service to our school district.”
The report is clear: There would be lots of benefits to district-run buses. Cost-savings, improved customer support, more flexibility for field trips and athletic events, and the ability to directly negotiate contracts with bus drivers and monitors. Despite this, then-superintendent Binienda thought the district was not ready.
“The Superintendent is committed to improved student transportation services but intends to focus district administration’s human resources and efforts on the sustained instructional improvements that have begun at the ‘underperforming’ schools,” she wrote at the time.
Um, parents kind of need our kids to learn at school AND get there and back safely?
Tracy O’Connell Novick, who was not on the School Committee at the time, offered a rebuttal: “I have heard many things about making improvements at underperforming schools, but never have I heard it used as an excuse not to otherwise go about the work of the district. Worcester can't run buses on time as needed and improve the education of students at the same time? This is essentially a concession of not being able to manage a district.”
Fast forward to 2021, when students were fully back to school in-person, and the situation with Durham was not just bad, but dire. The School Committee once again took up the issue. Against the recommendation of Binienda, who thought we should stay with Durham, they voted to bring transportation completely in-house in a 6-1 vote (John Monfredo, a vocal supporter of Binienda, was the lone no vote). A week later the committee voted not to renew Binienda’s contract (again, Monfredo cast the lone opposing vote).
In this first year of in-house transportation, WPS provided transportation to 12,200 students (including charter, parochial and private school students). That’s 230 buses traveling 11,850 miles daily, and they did a pretty damn good job. Ask any parent or student if they prefer Durham or WPS run buses, or read this WBUR coverage. Beyond getting students to school on time, the decision continues to save the district serious money. The savings are such that the School Committee transferred $600,000 from transportation to hire 20 more paraeducators—one for every kindergarten class. Meanwhile, other districts are seeing a 15-20% projected increase in contracted transportation costs each year.
We’re talking savings in the millions. We are saving money and putting money back into the classroom instead of Durham shareholders’ pockets! The district has been awarded a statewide and a national award for this work. We are held up as a model for what is possible. Yes, Worcester! Having a vision built on equity, bringing it to fruition, and reinvesting back into the classroom is an indisputable success story. Worcester can learn and build on this success.
I want to pause here and acknowledge that this success is due to collaboration among lots of people across many roles. As a parent who puts my five year old on the bus every day, I personally have a huge appreciation for the bus drivers and the transportation support staff who go above and beyond every day. And I do not believe it would have been possible without the current School Committee and the new superintendent who have supported the systems and the professional culture to allow that success to happen.
So, why am I telling you all this, beyond celebrating Worcester politicians actually making a smart decision? Last Wednesday night, at a forum for School Committee candidates put on by the Worcester Community Labor Coalition, the candidates were asked to share their thoughts about the success of taking transportation in-house. One of those candidates is Binienda. This is what she told the crowd:
“I’d love to see actual proof, or data, that students are getting to school on time and that there has been a savings on money.”
My jaw dropped when I heard this. Like there is proof everywhere that students are getting to school on time and there has been a cost-savings. You don’t have to look that hard. Has she not been following anything that’s happening on the School Committee these past two years? Has she not talked to any of the families or administrators? Maybe not. She is busy elsewhere—last year as interim Superintendent at Quaboag Regional School District and now as interim superintendent in Easthampton. Worcester has been setting a notable example. A best practice. Has she noticed at all?
This was an opportunity for Binienda to show accountability—to demonstrate leadership qualities one would expect from the leader of a school district. She could have said “you know, I didn’t think it was a good idea at the time, but I was wrong.” Instead she doubled down, saying she needs “proof” that it’s working well. This displays a lack of awareness and continued disconnect with what the community is experiencing. The "proof" she supposedly needs is not hard to find. I found it pretty easily in reporting this story. Is she unable to find it or unwilling? Hard to say which is worse.
As a longtime watcher of School Committee meetings, this should not have been so surprising to me. While superintendent, Binienda was often defensive and not very collaborative during meetings. I guess I just thought that Worcester busing is one of those things everyone in the community is celebrating as a success. How could she not acknowledge that?
At the forum last week, Binienda was handed a moment to show the voters that she is running for office for a good reason—not as some form of retaliation against the people who fired her, but because she cares about this district and the students she has purportedly “positively affected.” She could have demonstrated that she has heard the constructive feedback from our community and our students. But she didn’t.
Instead she cemented herself as a member of a certain set—one that Bill Shaner recently described as a “group of people in the city who are not interested in leadership so much as they’re interested in power.” As voters, I think that tells us all we need to know.
Seriously, when will it end?
Ok Bill again!
The post’s central idea is that District 5 Council candidate Jose Rivera has no idea what he’s talking about and doesn’t seem to notice or care. In the context of the Mill Street repaving meeting last Monday, this manifested itself in the form of a weird clap:
At one point, answering a question, Rolle said “In the longer term improvements, there will be an active recurring process to engage with the community to develop this, ok?” It was the third or fourth time he said as much. Across the room, I noticed Rivera listening intently. He dipped his head, grinned and pounded his hands together in a loud, slow clap. Like something crucial had happened. The sort of clap you’d give for a clutch double play. A crucial third down conversion. Some momentum-shifting moment for the team. ‘Aright boys we got this now’ sorta clap. Two or three people politely joined, but only for a clap or two. Rivera kept clapping at least a dozen times, well after the others had stopped. He only wrapped it up when Haxhiaj started speaking, letting a few claps ring out under her first sentence.
It was obvious he thought something significant happened–that Rolle’s mention of future public meetings was some sort of victory. Makes sense in the context of his campaign’s attack. The evil traffic engineers will be silent no more! Meetings because I asked for them! But it does not make sense in reality. Those meetings Rolle described are going to happen no matter what anyone says or does. They were a given long before Rivera entered the realm of politics. To claim they’re evidence of any advocacy is just flat out wrong. It’s not a change of course. It’s not a capitulation to the Rivera campaign. It’s frankly nothing at all. But Rivera seemed genuine in his reaction. His claps were earnest. He was alone in it, though. No one else saw what Rivera saw.
It’s the sort of little gesture that says a lot more than any prepared remark and it’s the closest he got to making a comment. It was subtle, but the clap showed Rivera does not truly understand the Mill Street issue, despite having made it central to his campaign. If he spoke, the lack of understanding might have been more obvious. Perhaps why he decided against it. But he did clap!
That was on Monday. On Saturday, one of Rivera’s campaign mailers made its way onto Twitter, and it contained a very, very weird lie. It’s the sort of fundamentally untrue and easily debunked statement that a good liar would have avoided. Could very well be it was more like the clap on Monday. Evidence of someone who just doesn’t understand what’s going on.
Here’s the mailer:
It’s the “safe roads and streets” segment that contains the weird lie. It reads: “Jose will work to get ahead of road safety concerns, and push for more funding and attention to traffic calming measures.”
As explained in the last piece, the meeting Monday was the unfortunate conclusion of a weeks-long campaign by the Rivera team to attack and delay traffic calming measures. At the last council meeting, Rivera filed a citizen petition to halt the traffic calming elements of the Mill Street project. Before that, he tried to paint the project as some sort of conspiracy against residents. Now, he’s claiming he’ll push for more funding for traffic calming measures? Absolutely astounding claim.
This is not a person that’s very interested in his words matching the reality of his actions. That he’s playing to an expressly reactionary right wing base in a bid to unseat a talented and competent woman makes this sort of stuff all the worse.
Going back to the point Aislinn left her piece on, there’s a difference between leadership and power and there’s a set of people in this city who want power but do not care to lead. Like Binienda, Rivera is in this set.
Like the School Committee race, the District 5 race is ultimately a referendum on power versus leadership. Etel Haxhiaj has proven herself a true, competent and passionate leader. Rivera has only shown he wants Haxhiaj’s power.
Odds and ends
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And while I’m on the subject of there being a fearless independent local journalism engine humming here in Worcester, Rewind Video is still in need of cash donations and supplies and volunteers. The store will serve as a physical location for the Worcester Community Media Foundation, a non-profit we’re starting to sustain local journalism. Since Neal’s article on us in the Patch, I’ve been hearing from a bunch of people who are excited and want to get involved. That’s great!
A couple quick things that are worth putting on your radar:
Both of these stories deserve a lot of attention! The CMHA lawsuit especially is on my list for possible future deep dives. There is a whole lot to be said about the wretched business of municipal government in affluent suburbs.
While in caretaker mode these next couple months (one last plug for Katie’s GoFundMe), I’m significantly upping my reading time. This week, I finished Running The Light, a novel by the comedian Sam Tallent. It is a fantastic exploration of the id of a creative person and the destructive force it can have if left unmitigated. Very good!
I’ve also been working my way through Eight Hours For What We Will, a really crucial and fascinating exploration of the Worcester of the late 1800s. I’m currently on a chapter about the city’s working class drinking culture and boy let me tell you there’s a lot of stuff which rhymes with the current day working class drinking culture! I was especially tickled by this little tidbit:
Gotta imagine such a move made today would provoke a similar reaction. Lurie’s Dome alive now as it was then.
On that note, bye bye!