Friday, October 31, 2008

SouthCoast Photo of the Month

Here's October's SouthCoast Photo of the month!

All summer long the Taunton River is dotted with sailboats. It's really something to see them riding the waves. By the time October rolls around, the sailing is reduced to just those few Indian summer days. So for this month's photo I chose a lone sailboat riding in the sunset. Bidding warm weather goodbye and to return once the winter has thawed.

Are you an avid picture taker? Do you have a shot you're particularly proud of? Perhaps just a shot that you'd like to share? Submit it here for the SouthCoast Photo of the Month! Send submissions to

Durfee Textile School - A lesson in short term thinking

The Herald News recently reported that the Redevelopment Authority is ready to accept proposals for the Bradford Durfee Textile School. The building which sits prominently on the corner of Durfee Street and Central was last used by Bristol Community College about a decade ago.

When the city acquired the building from the state there was much talk about how this would be a part in developing the arts community in Fall River. There was talk that the building could feature artists lofts and galleries and that this would be economically viable, in part, by renovating the top floor or floors as luxury condominiums.

Since taking ownership the City Council has approved an Arts Overlay District, exactly the sort of tool that would allow the idea above to become reality. It would seem that here is the opportunity for the city to spearhead its arts initiatives, so why does it feel that we're about to ignore our long term objectives for short term gains?

I could be wrong on this, who knows what proposals will be received and if done right the city will have the ability to reject any proposal that doesn't develop the property in a way that meets our goals. But, the Mayor is quoted in the article as saying:

“My position is this,” Correia said Thursday: “I have no personal interest in who gets it as long as they meet the requirements and we get the property back on the tax rolls.”

Mayor Correia has also expressed an interest in seeing Peabody Properties Inc. do something with the property noting: "They’re prominent developers."

Peabody Properties Inc. manages the Borden East and Borden West complexes, both are subsidized housing for the elderly. Is this what they are proposing for the Durfee Textile location? Is this the sort of development we need downtown?

Converting the former textile school to senior housing does nothing to revitalize downtown. Seniors are not going to reinvigorate the Main Street's nightlife. Seniors are not going to bring in new businesses or visitors to our city.

What we need to do with that building is to redevelop it for a purpose that will bring people into our city. That's the sort of development that will spur new businesses and further revitalization. If the former school were converted to artists galleries, lofts, and luxury condos there would be a benefit to nearby restaurants and shops. Perhaps the building could be used as a campus for an school of arts and design. That would bring students into the city and require a support network of stores, shops, cafes and the like.

The point is, when are we actually going to commit ourselves to the long term plans we keep talking about? The Bradford Durfee Textile School building is ideally situated to be the cornerstone of the Arts Overlay District that would passed with such fanfare. Let's not sacrifice our long term goals and the future of our community for short term gains.

Failing Grades!

The budget issues for the Fall River School Department seem never ending. After weeks of finger pointing and grandstanding it seems that the our elected leaders have just about closed the gap.

Right from the start we should have known we were in trouble. The Mayor introduced HIS plan for reducing the budget, and then various committee members introduced their plans. How come nobody seemed to be working together to come up with a plan?

So, our elected leaders seem to be close to closing the gap, but how did they do it? They picked what was most palatable from plan A, and moved on to what was most palatable from plan B. Basically, in my opinion, they looked at each plan and choose what cuts they could most easily live with. The Mayor says, this makes no sense and that it's like trying to assemble a picture using pieces from different jigsaw puzzles. I have to agree with him.

I have deep fears that a few months from now we'll be revisting this issue. I have deeper fears about the next fiscal year when there is nothing left to cut!

I've already suggested that they start from scratch and build the budget from the needed essentials out. I've also suggested that the budget just may not be enough to achieve our goals. Instead of figuring out what we need and how much it will cost, our school officials keep chipping away to meet a number that is simply what the Mayor dictates.

Okay, if we're not going to compare our costs to that of similar districts, if we're not going to zero budget, if we're not going to look for ways to increase the school budget, what should we do?

Let's start by revisiting the foreign language requirement at Durfee. This was something voted in place just a few short months ago. The idea is college bound children need to have 2 years of foreign language and that every Durfee graduate should have that. Great idea, but we can't afford it. We need to focus on efforts and money on the core subjects (English, Math, Science, Social Studies). We should reverse that vote and make cuts to foreign language. If some foreign language is dictated by law, then we provide only what is required. We should then cut foreign language at the middle school level. Again, I understand the benefit, but we need to focus on the essentials. Having a child speak Spanish is not helpful if he can't pass Science.

Next we need to cut after school sports. I KNOW that people will just hate the thought of that. However, we have about 10,000 children in our schools and the vast majority do not participate in after school sports. I understand the benefit. I understand the positive aspect this has in the lives of many of these children, but we can't afford it. Having a child play football is not as important as having him pass Math. Still I think school sports is a positive thing for students and for the school and for the community. Perhaps the community at large could step up and provide funding for school sports to continue.

We need to increase the bus routes to the 2 mile radius that I believe is required by the state. If we did that we might be able to save some money on transportation costs. We also need to make sure that children our attending the schools closest to where they live. If they're not, and it's because of parental choice, we should not be providing those students with busing.

We need to look at the music program. Much like after school sports, this is a program that I think has great value but only benefits a small portion of our student body. We should either cut the program, reduce the program, or find other funding sources.

I think we need to consider cutting the Gifted and Talented program. Again, I think this is beneficial. I think it's something we should want. But it's not something we can afford.

We need to focus our resources and our money on making sure we're providing the basic, essential education that every child is required to have. We should not be making cuts such as cutting classroom teachers, that hurt the ability to provide those crucial educational foundation that life long learning is based on.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hartley's Pork Pies

If were to make a list of things that someone visiting Fall River should visit, see, or try, Hartley's Pork Pies would have to be on that list.

It might get a little overlooked when compared to all the Portuguese food, the famous chow mein and chow mein sandwiches but Hartley's delicious little pork pies have been a Fall River tradition for over a century!

Thomas Hartley opened his first shop in the South End of Fall River back in the early 1900's. Hartley's pork pies were a familiar comfort food to the many English who worked in the mills but they quickly gained popularity with other mill workers because of their convenient size, affordable price, and because they were tasty and filling. The pies were soon peddled not only to mills but also saloons and grocery stores.

The Original Hartley's Pork Pies is located on South Main Street, here in Fall River. At one time Mr. Hartley had another location in New Bedford and his grandson opened up the shop in Somerset that still does brisk business. The Hartley family owns neither location. Allen Johnson owns the original Hartley's here in Fall River, while Donald Setter owns the location in Somerset and with partners have opened up another location in Acushnet. Both men have expanded their offerings. Now chourico pies are offered and Mr. Johnson also offers chicken, salmon and sausage. However it's the classic pork pie that Hartley's is famous for, and although there is a little contention over who has the original recipe, both men claim to, it's still the reason people keep coming back.

The pies have changed little over the years. Each individual pie looks like it was baked in half a soup can. Its golden crust is made with pure lard giving it a shortbread-like texture. Breaking through the top crust reveals a chunk of seasoned ground pork, surrounded by a sea of gravy made from the juices of the cooked meat. The story goes that Mr. Hartley was so protective of the quality and taste of his pies that he once refused to sell one to a customer upon learning that the patron intended to slather it with ketchup! Today, those who love to add a dab of ketchup needn't worry.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Questions and Answers - the update

The race for the 7th Bristol district has remained painfully quiet. A lone debate will take place hosted by the Herald News and available only on the internet. This is so disappointing.

About 2 weeks ago I emailed Representative Kevin Aguiar and challenger CJ Ferry questions provided by you the readers of this blog. Mr. Ferry responded within a short time, and after a few days sent me his responses. I never heard back from Representative Aguiar and 5 days ago sent him a second email, this to his official state rep. email address. To date I've yet to hear back from Kevin.

Now, as a blogger I'm not surprised or upset by Kevin Aguiar's lack of a response. This blog isn't one of the recognized official media outlets. I don't have the universal respect of our local politicians. However, as a resident, as a voter I'm very disappointed that one of our local officials didn't have the courtesy to at least email me back and decline! Particularly because these are YOUR questions!

Kevin Aguiar has run a very quiet campaign. Perhaps he feels that re-election will come easily and he doesn't need to take the time to explain his positions to the voters. If so I'm very disappointed. Much has changed since he won the special election and I, like many Fall River residents, am concerned about the present and the future.

CJ Ferry has one hell of an uphill battle ahead of him. For his campaign debates were essential to help him get his message out. It is my understanding that his campaign made several attempts to get debates scheduled. It is also my understanding that he offered to make himself available to whatever times were good for Representative Aguiar.

Mr. Ferry has received the endorsement of former State Representative Candidate, Ray Leary. He has also received favorable mention on the Fall River Parents and Citizens for Change blog. I really wanted to have the answers from both candidates, however it seems unfair to Mr. Ferry to not publish his answers. So on Tuesday I will post Mr. Ferry's answers on, If and when I hear from Mr. Aguiar I will post his as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

School of thought

I'm more than a little amused by Mayor Correia's proposal to close the gap on a 3.5 million dollar shortage in the Fall River school budget. When news of the shortfall hit the front page of the Herald News, I told a friend that the Superintendent and the admin staff should take a 5-10% pay cut and the School Committee should return ½ their salaries. These were some thoughts I meant to blog about days ago. See what happens when you end up sitting on a post?

So the Mayor has offered a proposal along those lines - that would cut salaries and eliminate 48 positions, mostly administrative. To no surprise this has well received by the general public who feel too much money is spent in administration and not enough in the classroom. Like everyone else I have been angry and upset by the current condition of our school department. Like everyone else I don't want cuts that are going to affect the quality of our children's education. However, I am not sure if the Mayor's proposal is really the best way to go about this.

I've said this before, but we need to compare the structure of the Fall River School Department to that of similar communities. We need to figure out what services are essential and the amount of manpower needed to provide those services. It sounds great to cut the fat out of administration, but what if it isn't fat? Can you imagine if a company cut it's sales staff to save money? That would probably result is a poor sales forecast! Can you imagine if a company fired it's research and development team? It would be trying to sell an out of date product! The point is you can't just make cuts and eliminate positions without considering what the impact will be.

The Mayor, Superintendent, and School Committee need to start at square one. They need to figure out what the cost is to meet our minimal obligation. How many teachers are needed and what is their cost? How many people in food services, janitorial staff, para-professionals and their cost. This process should continue until we've figured out the cost of a bare-bones budget. This budget would include no extras, no after school programs, no after school sports, if it isn't required by law, if it wasn't essential, it wouldn't be included.

Of course people will complain about the loss of certain programs and the negative effect that will have, but I'm not saying we should stop there. At this point the big three above need to figure out what services go above and beyond the bare-bones that they are not willing to do without. Do we want after school sports? Add that in. How about the music program? Think of this a little bit like buying a new car. First you take the base cost of the car and then you add the options you want, adding and taking away based on what you can afford and what is important to you. Sometimes you end up with the car you wanted and sometimes you end up with one that isn't as nice as you wished but it's still better than basic transportation.

However, at some point the numbers get pretty inflexible. What happens if the Mayor is saying the budget has to be under 85 million but a bare-bones budget is 84 million? What happens to our extras? What happens to after school sports, arts and music? I think this is kind of where we are now, except I'm not sure anyone knows what the bare-bones cost would be or the costs of the extras, or that anyone really knows what's fat and what's bone.

So we're left with a school system in crisis, and most people are pointing the finger of blame directly at Dr. Nick Fischer. I think that's pretty unfair. To be sure, he has a lot to answer for. It seems every school committee meeting there is a new discovery of a budget shortfall, or something unexpected, or under-projected. It's gotten ridiculous! It's gotten to a point where I wonder why Dennis Sullivan has a job. Dr. Fischer may be the captain of the ship, but he has been let down by his crew! That's something he needs to answer for! Why does it seem that the department doesn't have a handle on it's own budget? If Dr. Fischer knew that this was a woefully underfunded budget he should have said so, LOUDLY. However he also needs to be ready to justify EVERY expense.

I would love to take the Fall River school budget to the superintendents of New Bedford, Brockton, and Taunton and ask if they could provide these services under this budget? I get why people are upset at Fischer, but I also think people find him aloof and arrogant and so blaming him becomes pretty easy. I'm upset with him too, but I'm furious that Mayor Correia cut the school budget and now offers up MORE cuts. (By the way, has he offered to cut his own salary?) I'm furious because I don't think the Mayor made the effort to figure out if the budget was adequate to meet projected expenses. I'm ticked off that our school committee seems willing to bicker back and forth but unwillingly to challenge the Mayor for more money. It's easy to point fingers at Dr. Fischer but did the members of the school committee have any idea if the budget they passed was adequate for the program they helped put into place?

Our school system is in crisis and so far the solution of our leadership is to keep chipping away until it fits into the budget the Mayor has deemed appropriate. The motto of the day is cut the fat and blame the Superintendent! The reality is we're cutting more than fat. We're cutting quality and services. No one is bothering to analyze where the fat is or to see if the budget was ever enough to cover expenses. The actions being taken now are going to have far reaching effects on our future. Who do we point the finger at then?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Boy, are we stupid!

The other day as I was commuting to work, following a ribbon of highway with hundreds of other cars, I thought to myself, 'boy, are we stupid.' Here I was, with people all around me driving. How much of their day was spent commuting to and from work? How much was the cost in fuel and wear and tear?

Our parents and grandparents weren't this stupid. Years ago if you worked in Fall River you lived in Fall River, or maybe in a nearby town. You didn't waste time and money commuting. You probably walked, or took a bus or a trolley. Obviously they could do this because there were jobs in Fall River, something that isn't true today, but why haven't we made more efforts to bring in new economic engines to our region?

Today we have this huge issue with trash and recycling. Years ago milk, juice, and soda all came in glass bottles that were used again and again. Our ancestors were recycling before we knew what recycling was! Things like peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, bones and skin were usually kept separate from the 'regular' trash. In some areas this might have been used as a compost, in others there were heavy lidded outdoor containers were this would be dumped into and collected. That meant there was a lot less 'regular' trash and it was a lot less likely to attract mice, skunks, or rats!

Today we're worried about the cost of heating fuel. Years ago houses were designed so unused rooms could be closed off and not heated. Houses were built to take advantage of the natural landscape, positioned so certain rooms would get the morning sun and others the afternoon light. Windows were large to let in not just the sunlight but the heat that came with it. Shutters and heavy drapes were used to keep the heat in and the cold winds out.

It seems like our older generation had an answer and use for anything! Newspapers were reused to wash windows. A single left over chicken leg would become the base of a soup to feed the whole family. Slow baking in the winter not only fed the family but helped warm the house! From our miles of highways, our houses with open floor plans and built with no thought to their environment, our 'obsession' with convenience items with disposable packaging, we seem to have moved away from such common-sense approaches. Boy, we really are stupid.