Haverhill ponders pathways to a more inclusive future
The Gateway Cities Journal
At a time when division seems all pervasive, it’s reassuring to visit Gateway Cities and find citizens engaging in difficult and potentially divisive issues in an entirely respectful and open-minded manner. Such was the scene at a community forum in Haverhill last Thursday. Hosted by Mayor Fiorentini, Representative Andy Vargas, the Latino Coalition of Haverhill, and Greater Haverhill Indivisible, the public meeting explored the possibility of moving from an all at-large council structure to a hybrid body with both at-large and district councilors. While the conversation began with a focus on the city council, the dialogue expanded to include a discussion of revamping the school committee structure as well.
In diverse Gateway Cities, all at-large structures can lead to under representation of minority groups. The consistent lack of racial and ethnic diversity on Lowell’s all at-large council and school committee led the Lawyers Committee to file a complaint against the city in 2017. Lowell settled the suit and is now in the process of changing its council and school committee to a mix of at-large and district seats.
Oren Sellstrom, the Lawyers Committee’s litigation director, spoke about how all at-large structures present civil rights concerns. (Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly recently named Oren lawyer of the year for his work on behalf of the Lowell plaintiffs).
Haverhill leaders want to move collaboratively with the community to address this problem before it becomes a matter for the courts. However, a charter change requires support from the voters, which could be difficult to win. Gateway Cities have few resources to educate voters and boost turnout. And as recent MassINC research points out, the electorate in low-turnout municipal elections skews toward more affluent white voters, who may lose political power under proposals that lead to more balanced representation. Given this dynamic, leaders in Haverhill face pressure to keep proposed charter changes as straightforward as possible.
In an ideal world, this would be the moment to pursue more innovative approaches to governance. For Gateway Cities that serve as launching pads for families striving to achieve upward economic mobility, providing public education is local government’s most important function. Whether elected at-large, by district, or a combination of the two, the K-12 school committee is an outmoded institution. Gateway Cities need to rapidly move away from all at-large structures that produce bodies that fail to reflect the diversity of their student populations. But shifting to a hybrid at-large/district model, as Lowell has done, should be an interim measure. We need to find ways to produce better bodies.
Better bodies would include voting student members, just like the state board of education. They would also include voting members who represent other youth serving systems, including community health centers, early education providers, and after school and summer programs. Over the years, cities have experimented with this kind of approach by creating Children’s Cabinets and other informal bodies. The time has come to find a means of providing greater coordination and accountability for holistic learning and wellbeing. Without more systemic change in governance, achieving equal representation is unlikely to close the large gaps in wealth and opportunity that have accumulated over time.
Housing and Economic Development
Stonebridge Mutual Properties hopes to construct a 44-unit apartment building next to downtown Brockton’s commuter rail station and bus terminal.
The Planning Board approves Haverhill’s vision for 2035, including walkable village centers and larger business parks.
New Bedford receives a $3 million MassWorks grant to improve Union Street (the “main street” of downtown).
Worcester receives a TDI grant to fund a community garden and food festival project.
With its new bureau in Worcester, WGBH wants to bring more Worcester news to its audience.
The Brookings Metro program apportions blame for the high cost of housing. The Urban Institute releases a new tool to assess the community impact of Opportunity Zone investments. The New York Times Upshot says urban boomers is a myth.
A state grant funds a new parking survey in Lowell.
Putting some DC clout behind state Senators Eric Lesser’s push for Springfield-to-Boston rail service, Representative Richard Neal presses the case.
Worcester’s “Ride the Woo” shuttle service attempts to connect the city and make it more accessible to residents and visitors.
Leominster High School partners with the Fulbright Program to bring international teachers into the classroom.
Lowell changes the waitlist process in an attempt to increase communication, especially with ESL caretakers and parents who have been previously left out.
The Standard-Times reports on a draft of proposed changes to the state’s admissions rules for vocational high schools, included eliminating discipline as a criterion.
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation launches a new grantmaking strategy to address racial equity in public education.
As expected, the state’s new educational funding helps Gateway Cities, but every community, even the wealthy ones, receives some extra money.
Fall River wins a grant to produce functional and inspirational art.
A Lowell artists opens an exhibit with portraits of local residents, highlighting the importance of everyday community.
Pittsfield marries the area’s beautiful scenery with its arts scene at the upcoming 10X10 festival.
Communities & People
A Brockton student receives honors for a civil rights documentary focusing on her grandmother. Students at the Four Rivers Charter Public School release a documentary about the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions.