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Old Sturbridge Pillage
Plus, Problem Pregnancy in Teen Vogue!
The main story of the post today is the big news of the week—the “plainly parasitic” charter school which the state approved against an abundantly clear and loudly stated argument that it shouldn’t have.
But first! Check it out!
Baby’s first Teen Vogue feature story! I put a ton of work into this over the past couple months as a sort of side project. I have a lot of research that didn’t make it into this piece and I’ll share a follow-up with some of the more granular stuff on here.
But for now give this guy a read and thank you to features director Brittney McNamara and everyone else at Teen Vogue who worked with me on this story. Really proud of how it came out. An excerpt to whet your proverbial whistles:
On the sixth floor of an office building on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, there was a small clinic, recently opened by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. The walls of the waiting room were cream colored, adorned with modern art prints and lined with 27 newly-polished wooden chairs. It was December, 1982, and this clinic, the first of its kind in the state, had been open about a month, according to the Worcester Telegram. The door was permanently locked, a “no trespassing” sign posted alongside another that read “Ring buzzer if you have an appointment.”
Just a few feet down the hall, the Telegram reported, another office space had a new tenant: PP, Inc. Inside, it was nearly empty. There was only a single desk and a single chair. PP Inc. wasn’t Planned Parenthood, it was Problem Pregnancy, a new crisis pregnancy center opened by the anti-abortion group Central Massachusetts Citizens for Life after they lost a fight to axe the Planned Parenthood clinic down the hall, according to the Telegram. Because they couldn’t prevent the reproductive healthcare clinic from taking shape in town, Citizens for Life President Gerard F. Russell told a Worcester Telegram reporter at the time that they had formulated a different plan. “In the future, we will have our members in the corridor to communicate with potential clients of the clinic,” he said. “We have the legal right to be in the building and plan to exercise our right as Planned Parenthood has exercised theirs.”
For the next six months, that’s exactly what they would do.
And for everyone who already has and said nice things about it and shared it today, thank you so much!
Since this was for a national publication I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the granular Worcester politics stuff, but as it relates to Problem Pregnancy there is very much an ongoing political problem here on the municipal level.
Like so many of Councilor Thu Nguyen’s orders since they took office, the city administration has chosen to quietly ignore a push for action on crisis pregnancy centers. Nguyen requested an ordinance on crisis pregnancy centers and deceptive marketing practices last July, and it went to the city manager’s office with a mandate to come back to the council. But once it went to Batista’s desk it was poof! Gone! Not to be seen again.
This is how I put it in the Teen Vogue feature.
In Worcester, a push for similar action has largely been met with silence. Last July, progressive City Councilor Thu Nguyen requested the city’s law department write a draft ordinance targeting the deceptive advertising of crisis pregnancy centers. While the request passed with little stated resistance, there hasn’t been any subsequent movement.
“I think it's so important that we take the stand of being like ok we need to really hammer it down in Massachusetts and in Worcester,” said Nguyen, adding later: “If we can't even make a stand like that, it's upsetting.”
Asked for an update on Nguyen’s ordinance some seven months later, a city spokesman instead referred to the state attorney general’s form for filing consumer complaints.
Indeed when I asked for comment on the order and the status of it, a city spokesman ignored the order entirely. Here’s how my email read:
For a feature story in Teen Vogue, just wondering quickly if there's been any movement to share on Councilor Thu Nguyen's request for a draft ordinance on crisis pregnancy centers from last July.
And this is the response I received.
Considering the existing protections for consumers who have been subject to deceptive or unfair advertising practices under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act – Chapter 93A, and pursuant to the advisory that was issued by the Attorney General’s office’, the City is promoting existing avenues to report any such commercial tactics. Individuals who wish to file a report, can do so through the City’s website at Consumer Rights | City of Worcester, MA (worcesterma.gov) or in person with Office of Human Rights.
What we see here is the city manager’s office feeling entirely comfortable ignoring the existence of the order, even under a national spotlight. Certainly a move. Not the move I’d make but it’s definitely a move.
Nguyen shed a bit more light on the matter.
Just another example of the city manager definitely considering the council his boss. Definitely not just ignoring anything that he didn’t already want to do or anything like that. The council is definitely providing the meaningful oversight it is designed to provide.
So we’ll see if this article rekindles the push for a CPC ordinance but if the spokesman is willing to ignore my questions and the city manager is willing to ignore the councilor who filed it and there’s no reason to expect they’ll be reprimanded for that in any way by the mayor or council in general... my hopes are not high!
Worcester being Worcester you gotta love it. Another small “why” illustrating the lack of nice things.
Please consider a paid subscription by the way. A byproduct of my having the subscriber base to make this newsletter my full time job is I also have time to pitch to and write about our city for national publications like Teen Vogue. That’s only made possible by the people who graciously decide to support this outlet with paid subscriptions!
Anyway, to the news of the week!
Old Sturbridge Pillage
Over the course of two meetings, on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education put on a master class in how best to go about doing something they know to be unpopular and morally unjustifiable. The board approved the charter for the Worcester Cultural Academy despite the fact it would be a $7 million drain on the Worcester Public Schools, it presents glaring conflicts of interest and other ethical problems, has been quite clearly identified as a cash grab by Old Sturbridge Village and, as Cara Berg Powers pointed out in this newsletter last week, it just stinks. It’s not a good proposal. It’s not a good idea and the claim they can even execute said idea is tenuous.
Ahead of the vote Tuesday morning, speaker after speaker hammered on these issues. Nearly the entire state delegation spoke, as did most of the school committee, the mayor and the superintendent. The only people who spoke in favor of the proposal were those personally connected to the proposed school and/or Old Sturbridge Village.
But there was another narrative emerging ahead of the 7-4 vote from inside the proverbial house. Especially at the Monday meeting, board members and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff made great pains to clearly state what is and more importantly what isn’t to be considered in decision making. Public input, for instance, was not to be considered, nor were the potentially harmful effects on the host city, nor, most astonishingly, were any of the glaring problems within the proposal itself. A twisted logic emerged: in order to ameliorate these problems, they’d have to first vote to approve the proposal, problems and all. If you don’t vote in favor of the proposal, the logic goes, there would be no opportunity to fix the problem in the post-editing stage. So if you don’t like it really what you should do is vote for it. And then the things you don’t like will definitely be fixed in the “opening procedures” process. Have faith.
It’s as telling as it is depressing that the literal child in the room—student member Eric Plankey, a senior at Westford Academy—was the one most capable of identifying and articulating the mental gymnastics at play in this peculiar rationale. Here’s what he said in full with the pressing points bolded:
First I’d just like to thank all of the people who came out for public comment today. A lot of really really insightful points were made during that that I think really helped to deepen my understanding of the issue. I’d like to echo some of the points that were made and call attention to a lot of the criticisms that were levied against this charter school application. I think the idea that we are going to… So many criticisms were raised last night and the idea that we are going to wait until the opening procedures to really dive deeper into a lot of those. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I feel like it’s almost relying on wishful thinking. To be like oh there are a lot of issues, like the lack of dyslexia screening which was brought up last night, and to sort of push those discussions on to the opening procedures, I just... It makes me uncomfortable.
Especially a lot of points that were made earlier today about how in the fiscal year 2022 report, Old Sturbridge Village described this academy as providing a reliable revenue stream, that makes me deeply uncomfortable. To hear students referred to as a source of revenue for a museum? We’re the Board of Education. We’re here to provide high quality education for the students of Massachusetts. We are not here to provide a financial lifeboat for a museum. And I feel like given all the impressive work that’s going on in Worcester right now. All the opportunities that exist there. The idea that this charter school would be adding any sort of innovative solutions or any innovative opportunities to the students of Worcester I just don't see that. I think that the students of Worcester are very connected to their cultural institutions. I think that is supported by a lot of the programs happening at Worcester public schools right now. So I think those are some considerations I’d just like everyone to consider as we move to a vote.
A sound and righteous argument if you ask me. Nevertheless this was not a winning position.
The tortured logic of the prevailing majority was put on stark display by board member Matt Hills, who used his time ahead of the vote to chastise everyone pointing out the problem for doing so. The bad thing is to point out the problems. That’s irresponsible. Problems are outside the scope of the board’s consideration. Inadmissible evidence. The good and responsible thing is to ignore them. That’s what he said. This is how he said it:
I’ve been involved in local politics mostly where I live for 20 years. For the most part I enjoy kind of sitting at the intersection of policy and politics.
I was appointed to the Board of Ed four years ago. Some of what we do is routine. And then there are certain topics that are just treated as if they are existential crises. Certainly, any and everything having to do with MCAS is like a battle to the end for certain folks. Charter schools are, you know, almost no exception to that. And it was two years ago almost to the day where we had to take the vote to reopen the schools. So I have become used to these controversial topics. Just sort of groups pounding and pounding and pounding away at certain points as if it becomes more and more true simply by continuing to pound away at it. And it’s our job as a board to weigh the evidence in front of us and do what the department is doing, which is what we’re supposed to do. Be influenced by the things we’re supposed to be influenced by and make a determination on what the right decision is given the criteria in front of us.
I don’t know what else to say other than the law is the law. The criteria is set out. Nobody is saying you don’t listen to the community. Saying that 100 times doesn’t make it true the first time, let alone the hundredth time, and there’s a vote to be taken. The department has come up with a recommendation. If the recommendation is flawed, given the laws, vote no. Vote no for whatever reason you want to vote no. But enough of the denigrating of other people who are doing very good jobs running educational institutions.
To point out the problems is denigration actually and we wouldn’t want to denigrate now would we?
To be dismissive of criticism in this way is transparently asinine and childish and disrespectful. Not a position taken by someone who cares whether he’s right or wrong or feels compelled to prove it or sees criticism as anything but a temporarily annoying thing to endure.
In his opposition Plankey was joined by three other board members and each of them carefully and respectfully articulated why they’d be voting no. On the other hand, Hills1 was the only member to attempt to justify the majority position, and given the ham-fisted nature of his justification it’s no surprise everyone else decided to keep their mouths shut.
When the position is unjustifiable better to not articulate a justification I say. If all you’re saying is “I don’t care,” silence is the loudest way to say it.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, it was never reasonable to expect this vote would go any different. DESE’s director, Jeff Riley, is deeply committed to privatization. The board is almost exclusively comprised of members appointed by Charlie Baker, a Republican. Extracting profit from public education is baked into the party platform. A new revenue stream for Old Sturbridge Village is not a bug of the proposal to these people, it is a feature. The negative impact on Worcester Public Schools students is at best a secondary concern. Insofar as declining outcomes in public schools are used to justify new charters you could say that the negative impact is in fact another feature.
But the fight doesn’t end with this unfortunate vote. There are two new fronts.
The first was opened by the Worcester School Committee which voted on Monday to request several state agencies look into the financial and ethical issues in the proposal. State Auditor Diana DiZoglio has already confirmed she’ll take up the inquiry.
The second front is in the State Legislature. Just as member Hills justified his vote by saying “the law is the law,” State Sen. Robyn Kennedy said in her testimony Tuesday that if the law allows a proposal like this the green light then perhaps it’s time to look at the law.
“The whole law needs to be reconsidered,” she said.
So now that’s happening. Kennedy announced on Twitter that she signed onto a bill which would re-examine the charter school law.
The key change listed in the bill is a requirement to consider the financial impacts on public school districts—one of the issues ostensibly barred from consideration in this instance despite its obvious relevance. Insane to me this wasn’t already a required consideration, but here’s hoping this bill sees swift passage.
So we were dealt yet another loss here with the Worcester Cultural Academy but seeds have been planted to turn the loss into a vehicle for some real changes, and that wouldn’t have happened if Worcester didn’t rally so hard to fight this thing. A dark cloud to be sure, but not without its silver lining.
Oh and also people are boycotting Old Sturbridge Village right now, which I support but also who the hell goes to Old Sturbridge Village? Don’t do that! Don’t be a sicko. Get your child-churned butter elsewhere.
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Short one this week because the original plan for this post was to have it be half charter school half unhoused. I spent the better part of this week and last working on a dispatch from a homeless encampment eviction I witnessed last Wednesday. That dispatch has turned into a longer and more substantive essay in service of some wider points about how cruelty is assumed and giving a shit is disincentivized. It’s getting pretty abstract and I like it where it’s headed. Here’s a taste:
What happens is that “blight” is woven into the fabric of our values and politics in such an invisible and encompassing way that you really can’t put together a sane argument against it. You’d have to be brilliant or not care if you sound crazy and I am firmly in the latter category so hear me out.
“Blight” is an inarguable problem for a city government to address and the visible presence of the unhoused is inarguable evidence of blight. The “dignity of every human being to be treated as such” is not so unconsciously baked into the value system as “blight.” Dignity is an open question, although it’d be uncouth to say as much directly. Of course people say it all the time in so many words. Depending on how big an asshole they’re willing to be they’ll say it right out loud. Or they position a term like “drug abuse” so as to tacitly ameliorate the “humanity” concern. Mostly though it’s in the subtext. It’s insinuated. An unspoken assumption under-girding the rhetoric. But however subtle it’s not a hard thing to pick up on. And however you say it, the statement “why should I value the human dignity of the unhoused?” doesn’t make you sound crazy like “why do we care about blight?” makes you sound crazy.
As it stands it’s 7,500 words which is pretty much a standard chapter of a nonfiction book. So if I’m gunna go for it like this I might as well really go for it. No need to rush. Excited to share once it’s done, though. Feels like my best work yet.
There was a nice one two three punch of stories about the Worcester Police Department in the Telegram this week.
Firstly, the city is in the process of fighting against an $8 million judgment awarded to Natale Cosenza and against two officers who put him in jail ny fabricating evidence. Because we definitely care about police accountability! For sure!
And then the police union officials got carte blanche space to complain how No One Wants To Be A Cop Anymore. Their analysis of the situation of poor recruitment numbers boiled down to “the god damn liberals” and the Telegram did not present an alternative narrative to that really. What I’m saying though is if the Free Market defunds the police that is going to be very difficult for the Thin Blue Line to process.
Aaaand then another multi-million judgement coming down against a Worcester cop this time for raping. Punch numero three.
What problem? We don’t have a problem. We’re not like other cities with other police departments. In Worcester we do community policing and as long as the police chief keeps telling the city council everything’s great that’s as far as the city council’s going to look into it.
Heading to the Manhattan borough of New York City this weekend with my lady! Where’s a good spot to get a nice dinner? Maybe a good freakin Jewish delicatessen?
Beyond excited to take the pilgrimage on Sunday to New Jersey to THE DELI GUY, my internet personality hero.
The Roast of Worcester is coming up! March 15!
Please send me some jokes I am not very funny.
Ok bye bye
Matt Hills was referred to as “Wills” in several instances when this post was first published. Sorry about that.