Monday, February 5, 2018

Coffee with Diane

Imagine, if you will, my surprise at receiving a message in my inbox from City Council President, Diane LeBlanc, asking if I'd like to meet for coffee.  After thinking about the invitation, I accepted, partly out of curiosity and partly because I was impressed with her moxie.

We met on Saturday at Cafe on the Common.  I brought by 11 year old as back-up.  Ms. LeBlanc was on the charm offensive from the outset, making the most of her twinkling blue eyes and ready smile.  She started by telling me that, contrary to popular belief, she wasn't born in Waltham; I recognized this from my many years in sales as a way to establish common ground.  Showing that she had prepared for the meeting, Ms. LeBlanc complimented my "quick wit" and confessed that she sometimes didn't get my (dated) pop-culture references (specifically when I used the phrase "jumped the shark", a la Fonzie in Happy Days.)

Then she sat back and said, "I'm sure that you have questions.  Go ahead and ask me anything you like!"  Surprised, I reminded her that she had requested the meeting and that, therefore, she may have questions for me.  She asked what I had thought of the joint School Committee/City Council meeting last week; I replied that, while I was pleased to see that the meeting had finally happened and that both sides remained respectful, that I am disappointed that so many City Councillors remain uninformed regarding the extensive work of the School Building Committee and that the insistence on recommending "other sites for consideration" completely disregarded the methodical and detailed analysis of available sites that the School Building Committee, along with the architectural consulting firm, has completed.  She asked if I understood the difference between a "hostile taking" and "eminent domain." I replied that, although I'm not an attorney, I believe I do.

The rest of our conversation was, for me, fairly predictable.  The group of City Councillors who are opposed to using the Stigmatine Brothers site for a new high school have developed a series of talking points that they employ as needed: whether it's Carlos Vidal or Robert Logan, the messaging is the same.  The main points of our conversation were:

  1. The Stigmatine Brothers site was never for sale; the only reason that they engaged with property management firms was for assistance with management of the property and with an accurate appraisal of the property.  This fable, of course, started with my favorite would-be Shakespearean actor, Stigmatine's Attorney Adam Paton.  The property was for sale: the mayor's office has documents proving that it was and, today, during a cleaning at my dentist, the hygienist, who used to live on Lexington Street, told me about neighborhood meetings regarding a potential sale.  
  2. The 190 acres at Fernald can be redistributed in any way the city likes, as long as there are two parcels: 140 acres purchased with Community Preservation Act funds and 50 acres purchased with city funds.  It seems to me that that is a flight of fancy and that the Commonwealth Attorney General's office would, indeed, have an issue if the city decided to take 50 acres that can be restored and then push 140 acres into the contaminated swamp next to the former power plant, that floods onto Waverley Oaks Road every time there is heavy rain.  Additionally, there are many competing interests, including the veterans, for the Fernald land.  As an aside, I did ask the City Council President why nothing had been done to assess the property and get a bid for restoring the wetlands and cleaning the property.  Her response was another Waltham classic: whenever a City Councillor is asked why something isn't done, it is because the mayor has not requested it.  Whenever the mayor is asked, it's because the City Council won't bring it up.  Pot: meet the kettle.
  3. Apparently, there was a part of the meeting that I missed last week (which is highly likely, since I am doing things like folding laundry, loading the dishwasher, yelling at kids, and drinking wine while I watch): Mayor McCarthy, according to Ms. LeBlanc, can annex 13 acres of Storer Conservation Land, which would then make the current site a buildable site.  Unless the mayor has been amassing an army to take the Storer land, I don't see that happening.  However, I nodded politely.
  4. What about, I asked, the use of the current site for a new K-8 school to house the students in our growing city?  Ms. LeBlanc smiled again and informed me that, first of all, the population projections are probably wrong (much like Mr. Vidal did at the joint meeting last week) and that, if the city did need a new K-8 school, it could just be on the soccer field at the McDevitt.  Ms. LeBlanc's ability to posit completely baseless ideas as good ideas has, I am certain, served her well throughout her long career in the federal government and in her more recent political career.  If you haven't been at the McDevitt Middle School (or any of the nine schools in the Waltham Public School District) during drop off or pick up, do yourself a favor and STAY AWAY. The scene is chaotic at its best.  Additionally, the McDevitt is situated on a very small tract of land; the soccer field, which is down a slope from the school building, is ALL of the land that the school has.
  5. Another solution for a K-8 school, according the the City Council President, is the Fitch School. The Fitch, with its historical preservation art-deco facade, has been brought up in every conversation about school sites that I can remember since we started complaining about overcrowding at the Fitzgerald six years ago.  Here's the deal with the Fitch: the School Committee "gave" it to the City Council.  The City Council didn't do anything with the building.  CC may have "given" it back to SC at some point in time -- I confess that I can't keep up.  In any case, the architectural consultants, including my hero Lorraine Finnegan, looked at the building: the heat had been turned off, causing extensive internal damage; the building is loaded with asbestos; the site is small.  The cost to gut the building while keeping the facade is more than construction of a brand new building.  Apparently, it's only mean moms and mom bullies like me who pay attention to any of these silly details.
At one point in our conversation, Ms. LeBlanc stated that the School Committee should request air conditioning for the existing high school, even if it's only there for four years.  I thought to myself how I believed that my older son, who starts 9th grade in the fall, would have been in the first graduating class at the new high school and, realizing that he won't ever set foot in it, and that his younger brother probably won't either, leads me to believe that maybe we should install air conditioning.  Pig: meet lipstick.

It's my nature to be skeptical and my writing style is sarcastic: having said that, please note that I am genuinely impressed that Ms. LeBlanc reached out and took the time to meet with me.  As an at-large councillor, that's her job; it's nice to see someone doing it.  Nothing that we discussed changed my mind and I fervently wish that we could stop chasing boondoggles and make a decision and break ground and build a school.  A situation where the Stigmatine Brothers can continue their mission and house their aged next door to a state of the art campus that supports our model education plan is the ideal.