Sunday, February 27, 2011

9-11 and our little dust-up with The Ostrich

Regular readers know that two posts have appeared in recent days regarding editorial ‘differences’ with the award winning Ostrich, or NOTWIUN in this case, if you prefer.

It got us to thinking of past examples of questionable and inconsistent execution of op-ed page policies on their part.  And a particularly infuriating example from the past came to mind.

Have you ever submitted a letter or commentary to the NOTWIUN?  If so, have you ever had it published the very next day?  In our prior life, we submitted perhaps a hundred or so such items to the editors, and we can’t recall ever once having an item published the next day.

Strangely enough, there are those instances where it can happen.  You may recall that on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, four hijacked airliners crashed into American targets: the Twin Towers in New York City at 8:46 and 9:03 am; the Pentagon at 9:37 am; and a field in Pennsylvania at 10:03 am (this was not the target, obviously.)

Do you remember not being able to make sense of what was happening, and being unable to comprehend its awful scale and profound consequences?  It would take days, and weeks, and months, and even years for it all to sink in.

For most of us, that is.  One well-known member of the local peace community was able to make sense of it all immediately, and draft and submit a letter to The Ostrich in time for it to be printed in the next day’s edition (Wednesday, September 12, 2001).  Body counts, the extent of destruction, and other consequences of the terrorist acts were barely becoming known, yet this prescient writer had already figured it all out, written it up, and sent it on in.

Here’s what she said in that letter:

Now will we learn?
Rosalie Tyler Paul, Georgetown

To the editor:

U.S. determination to control the world through military force, in the name of protecting our economic interests, has brought us to this dreaded day of retaliation. Violence breeds violence and will continue to do so until a wise nation decides to try another way.

Can this awful experience help us learn to care more for humanity and beauty than for money? Can we finally learn to use our "power" to nurture and protect all people and the Earth we depend upon for life?

We have a choice as a nation, we have a choice as citizens, to insist on leadership that comes from the spirit rather than the pocketbook.

Let us give up our support of one side against another for our own benefit. Let us not, for instance, support Israel against Palestine because Israel provides a military base in the Middle East. Let us blame only our own greed and misuse of power.

Surely we can now see that no missile defense system is of any use against terrorist attack. Let us put those billions of dollars to work on education and health care, job training, public transportation, renewable energy sources, sustainable economic and environmental practices.

What breathtaking insights into the cause of the attacks, and who they were committed by, in a matter of just a few hours!  Why it’s almost as if the writer knew about the plan before it was implemented.

As for us, we were struck by the incredible insensitivity of the writer, that as thousands were dying, the only thing that came to her mind was to criticize her country and its grieving, bewildered, and shocked citizens.  Insensitivity exceeded only by the editorial judgment that would conclude that publishing such a diatribe only 24 hours after the events was the right thing to do for their readers. 

We can only imagine the furious effort to substantiate the writer’s claims, before using the letter to spit in the face of readers that painful Wednesday.  Probably just as furious as in innumerable other cases of verifying letter writer’s claims.  Oh hell, it was a slow news day, right?  And as they say these days, ‘it fit the narrative’ of the editorial board.

The record is strewn with such examples of award-defying journalistic achievements.  We’ll have more to say about that in a few days; so just be patient.

And we’ll save the story about how one editor sand-bagged me on behalf of Johnny Protocols for another time.  And the same for the time another editor accepted an award for writing a commentary that had, in fact, been written and submitted by a reader.

They’re both real doozies, but they don’t quite rise to the level of the current discussion.

Or should we say sink?

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A Tease: servers demand tips before serving…

Here’s a little diversion to sharpen your thinking this afternoon.

Imagine that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had managed to organize and enroll the ‘servers’ at those restaurants we all like to visit, and that they were throwing millions in cash at a campaign to enact legislation requiring that patrons would have to place their planned cash tip on the table, or fill out a credit card voucher, before the server would hand you a menu, ask if you’d like something to drink, or even consider taking your order.  You’d have to decide on your tip without having any idea what you might end up having.

In other words, ‘show them the money’ before they enter into a ‘social contract’ regarding them serving your needs.  The SEIU would promote the concept as only being fair to working people, and use all the standard propaganda tactics to build sympathy for their proposal.  “We’re only asking for our hard working servers to be granted the respect and financial security they deserve,” they’d say.

What would you think of such a concept?

I suppose you’re wondering why I would pose such an odd idea, and how it could possibly make any sense.

OK, that first gut reaction is understood; now go back and ponder it some more, and see if you can think of any parallels.

If you figure it out, post a comment.  If you don’t, I’ll get back to it in a few days.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Update on letters in The Ostrich

We have breaking news on the post of earlier today.

Apparently, either the editors of our beloved award-winning local newspaper follow Other Side, or serendipity resulted in a response to our submission of Tuesday mere hours after our essay on the letters of Monday, February 21st appeared today.

Said editors indicated that our letter would not be published.  Color us shocked.  And aghast.  And humiliated.  What, are we not up to Paul Krugman standards of bloviation, hyperbole, and demagoguery?

The rationale they provided falls into the good news – bad news domain.  The good news is that they assert our suggestion that they didn’t vet the letters to be untrue.  The bad news is that if they in fact vetted these letters, we have a whole new dimension of concern about the rigor of their pursuit of truth as they seek to keep us ‘well informed.’

We went back to read the letters as they appeared, just to make sure we hadn’t overstepped our own editorial bounds of propriety.

To be clear, Dexter Kamilewicz asserts that if you set Defense spending and Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid aside, the rest of federal government gets by on 5% of total federal spending.  And the Kehoe-Ostensens declare that AEGIS Destroyers kill indiscriminately, or more to the point, that those who operate them do.

We invite the editors of our local award winning newspaper to post the substantiation of the letter writer’s claims here.  Isn’t that part of living up to their claim of being a ‘government watchdog?’  And we won’t count it as part of their monthly word limit in our publication.

We consider the offer proof of our commitment to provide you with the facts, as best we can dig them up.

Not that it’s necessary to do so, you understand.  That tradition died many years ago in the mainstream media world.

The Ostrich: still lazy after all these years…

Just when the staff was getting a little sleepy here at the offices, The Ostrich woke us up with a flagrant (or should we say fragrant?) example of their editorial inclinations.  They reflexively buried their head on two published letter submissions.

Since a sandy beach is impossible to find this time of year, we’ll have to assume they found some other dark and foreboding place to bury it.

It’s been a good while since we referred to this ‘award winning’ publication as the NOTWIUN – Newspaper Of The WIllfully UNinformed.  And we had a momentary urge to create a new moniker for them – The Pink Lady – in keeping with their editorial and fiscal reverence for ‘The Old Gray Lady.’

It passed; the two letters in the Monday, February 21st edition cry out for the NOTWIUN label.  These letters simply could not be left unquestioned, and so this correspondent dashed off a letter to the editor of his own on Tuesday morning.

Surprisingly, we haven’t heard a peep (or whatever sound an Ostrich makes) from them in reply, so we’ll assume they have too many other worthy submissions to find space for ours.  Which leaves us no choice, dear readers, but to honor our full disclosure policy and run the letter here for your eyes only.  Here she be:

To the Editor:

Times Record editors have a well-established penchant for accepting on faith the unsubstantiated assertions of letter writers from the left. Yesterday’s edition proves the point twice over.

Dexter Kamilewicz claims “that the Defense budget makes up about 48 percent” of the federal budget. That claim is patently absurd, as anyone reasonably informed about federal spending would have known, and a few minutes worth of internet work would confirm.

The Kehoe-Ostensens state that AEGIS Destroyers are deployed around the globe, and claim they “have launched their guided missiles, killing indiscriminately on many occasions.” Completely lacking in corroboration, this is a cavalier and reckless assertion, and arrogantly disparages those in uniform. One might even say it is ‘indiscriminate.’

This writer is well aware that the editors and the publisher are more than ready to challenge submissions that run counter to their editorial bent. In the examples above, anyone who holds the title editor in a daily paper should have instinctively sensed problems, and at the very least, demanded supporting facts before publishing such clearly erroneous claims and invective.

The plain reality that you did not intuitively know the writers were wildly wrong and/or irresponsible is more than troubling. At the very least, it calls into question your editorial qualifications for writing and accepting opinion on national matters, and for judicious publication of syndicated columns.

To paraphrase Patrick Moynihan, “you are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” More importantly, the editorial lapses cited above could be construed as willfully misinforming the public, which is dereliction of your journalistic responsibility and a breach of ethical standards.

At least you won’t be willfully uninformed on this matter.  And you have your faithful watchdog to thank for that.

As always, we’re glad we could be of service in some small way.  Maybe tiny instead of small, but still ‘way.’

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Volatility surrounds the unsettled Brunswick teachers’ contract

Hooooo-eeeee!  Have you been watching the news the last few days?  We seem to be entering into a ‘national dialogue,’ to put it mildly, on the compensation packages, including benefits and pensions, for public service employees, or as they like to be called, ‘public servants.’  Yah, sure.

It’s a little early to make the call, but just as we seem to be at an inflection point in international events, we could well be at a pivotal moment in the relationship between governments and public employee unions.  Things are heating up very quickly in a growing number of states.  Who knows when the lid might fly off here in our very own ‘quality of place’ state.  You can get some hints in a news report titled Hearings could get ugly.

If nothing else, this seems the perfect time to revisit the Brunswick teachers' contract left open ended last year during the annual budget exercise.

To get yourself back up to speed, please review this post of 8 months ago.  It describes how the school department ‘negotiated’ a two-year contract during the last budget cycle in which the specifics of the second year were left ‘TBD.’

The post included these closing words:

We’d be lying, however, if we said we don’t smell something amiss here.  Or denied that our officials look like patsies offering up a glass jaw for a second punch. 

If you think we’re wrong, or have proof confirming it, please chime in and let our readers know.

Until you do, or other facts come to light proving otherwise, we’ll go with the assumption that the teachers’ union has once again toyed with us, and that taxpayers will be compelled to fork over more and more of their diminishing assets, regardless of steep enrollment declines, an anemic economy, and completely unsustainable fiscal practices.  And that they’ve done so with detailed guidance from professional state and national union leadership that were preparing for just such a situation.

We should point out that in this post a few days ago, we failed to mention that there is a ‘known unknown’ in the school budget outlook, that being the outcome of ‘negotiations’ for the coming school year in the previously approved teachers’ contract.  Hey; don’t jump all over us.  We’re not the ones who agreed to a two year contract in which the second year was wide open.

By the way, a ‘senior school official’ predicted last fall that the open aspects of the contract would be wrapped up ‘by the first of the year.’  But that was before anyone in the union offices knew that the election outcome would be such a surprise.  Or what would be happening in the rest of the country; do the words ‘unions circling the wagons’ mean anything to you?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Deja Vu: The nullification of the town council begins; are you surprised?

(Note: You might hear them say on the streets in Fronce, “beau-hee’-que.”  For readers with a military and/or aviation background, if ‘deja-vu’ is too hoity-toity for you, just think Bravo Oscar Hotel India Charlie Alpha.)

Year, after year, after year, the professionals in the School Department, ably assisted by the monolithic teachers’ union, completely outfox the Brunswick Town Council.  Through a combination of proven tactics and sympathetic posturing, the schoolies back the councilors into a corner from which there is no politically acceptable escape.

While the councilors cannot dabble in school budget specifics, they must approve the school budget total, the town budget total, and set anew every year the fully adjustable property tax rate that pays for it all. 

In the years that I’ve followed the process, I’ve yet to see the council proactively issue budget guidelines to the school department that set the boundaries for a budget they would accept for consideration.  Doing so, of course, would incite mass protests of not caring ‘about the children.’

Instead, the council goes laissez faire, until such time as the looming budget totals reach the breaking point for a sufficient number of residents, who then raise hell.  Typically, the council then asks, rather than directs the school department to go back and remove two tuba positions from the school band, and eliminate the purchase of 12 new basketballs. 

Ever respectful of the council’s wishes, the school department goes off to make the hard decisions, and returns with a reduction of $23,000 or so out of a $33 million total.  Councilors respond with copious praise for the reductions, which have no real value, but make for good theater.

Kabuki Theater, thy home is Brunswick.

This sets the stage for the latest pronouncements from the Brunswick School Department, reported yesterday in The Ostrich and The Forecaster

The School Department, and their front line troops, the teachers’ union, are performing like the true professionals they are, and on the offensive.  They are unilaterally establishing the rules of engagement, shaping the battlefield, and rallying the schoolies to gather ‘round and cheer them on.

All before the town council and municipal government has put its pants on, to paraphrase a famous quote by somebody famous some time ago.  You will note that all the points made in the reports set the stage for higher spending and higher property taxes, while simultaneously avoiding all those factors that should drive things in the other direction.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

PSPS on “soft-indifference”

A senior Navy Officer once remarked during a world class Power Point Presentation of ours that ‘there’s no such thing as a horse that’s too dead to beat,’ and he even held up a drawing of an upside down horse to amplify the point.  We considered it a badge of honor, and it helped inspire our continued efforts in this blog, numerous submissions to the op-ed pages of local media, and beaucoup appearances before the Brunswick Town Council. 

The successes achieved thereby are a matter of public record.  You could look it up.

In that spirit, we have another take on the earlier post on low expectations, particularly as it relates to the concept of equity mentioned here.

In round numbers, the Brunswick School Department enrolls between 150-200 students in each of the elementary grades.  And best we can determine from web surfing, each grade is taught by 8-10 teachers.

Without looking them up by name, we assert the following, based on common sense, the realities of human nature, and substantial background in looking at teachers’ contracts.

  1. Each of the teachers for a given grade, say second grade, teaches children who belong in that grade, and teaches to a uniform curriculum provided by the Department.
  2. Their salaries range from roughly $31,000 for beginning teachers to upwards of $64,000 for those who have been in the system for 22 years or more, a ratio of more than 2 to 1.
  3. The individual teachers vary in skills, talents, experience, devotion, and how hard they work, as any collection of individuals would in such circumstances.
  4. Cognizant supervision, parents, and the teachers’ peers would surely be able to identify those teachers in each grade who are the best in their grade, the worst in their grade, and somewhere in between.
  5. Consistent with how students are evaluated, we suspect that some teachers in each grade would be seen as partially meeting standards, some would be seen as meeting standards, and some would be seen as exceeding standards.  Hopefully, any who were seen as failing to meet standards would have been terminated, as that is an unacceptable rating, at least in the non-unionized world.

Given the above, we now confront again the notion of ‘equity’ as it applies to the Brunswick student body, especially as it relates to the varied economic and social advantages and/or disadvantages of their individual circumstances. 

Don’t blame us for bringing this up; it was a regular drumbeat of those on the school board, and their enablers, who professed that if we didn’t build the new school, we would summarily consign certain segments of our overall student body to failure based on their neighborhood and other perceived social status indicators.

So we are compelled to ask, if equity is our focus here in Brunswick Schools, shouldn’t we ensure that each student in a given grade has the benefit of our best teacher for that grade?  How could we in good conscience assign any student to anything less?  How would we decide which students get the worst teacher for that grade, instead of the best?

How could that possibly embrace equity?

Perhaps you’re saying that ALL our teachers are wonderful and equally capable.  Which, then, of course, leads to wondering why their compensation varies by a factor of 2 to 1 or more?  How can that offer equity to our professional teaching corps?  If a teacher with two years experience is better at his or her job than a teacher with 20 years earning twice as much, where is the justice?  Where is the fairness?  Where is the modeling of appropriate reward?

So we have a conundrum.  From where we sit, out here in reality land, it would seem the School Department is faced with two alternatives.

The first would acknowledge the variation in teacher capability,and devise a plan to ensure that the entire student contingent in any one grade received the maximum advantage available within the system.  Or at least equal treatment with all the other students in the grade.  Here are some possible options:

  1. The teaching staff for any grade is evaluated, and the top ranked teacher becomes the teacher for the entire grade contingent.  All classes are held in an auditorium accommodating up to 200, to ensure that each student has the same experience.
  2. If this is deemed unworkable, the student body remains in small classes, but teachers are rotated among the various classrooms to equalize experiences over the school year.  if there are 10 teachers for second grade for example, and 180 school days, each class would have 18 days with each of the 10 teachers.

Alternatively, the teacher corps could be equalized to eliminate any impression that some are better than others, or that some are worse than others.  All second grade teachers, for example, could be paid exactly the same, in recognition of the fact that they teach the same level of student with the same curriculum.  This would eliminate the impression that compensation is unrelated to ability and contribution to the learning experience.

We’ll leave the interested student to puzzle over the options and come up with a viable  and equitable solution.

As for us, we conclude that like most things in schoolie land, the cries for equity, and especially “it’s for the children,” are a proven distraction used to pursue the desires of the adults, and have no bearing on improving the education of our children.

Which leaves us wondering where the justice is in providing an equally mediocre government school experience, even if equity prevails.

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The MRRA as seen through Rep. Webster’s rose colored glasses

Well, well; the Gerzofsy v. Town Council hissy fit continues to rage on the pages of the area’s award-winning media.  In a feature commentary in yesterday’s Ostrich, Rep. David Webster of Freeport points out that an article on the subject left out naming him as one of the co-sponsors of Stan the Minority Man’s bill to apply the force of law to prevent the Brunswick Town Manager from sitting on the MRRA Board.

The focus of this post, however, is ‘highlighting’ the exaggerated rhetoric used by Webster to gush over MRRA redevelopment activities to date.  While we all hope things turn out well, because the area really needs the help, nobody is well-served by rosy flights of verbal euphoria and trumped up premises.

Try these out for size:

The structure of the original legislation, creating MRRA, has helped take a base-closing disaster and turn it into a wellspring of economic development

it would be better for the councilors to trust the model that is working to ensure MRRA’s continued success.

MRRA works because it is separate from politics.

As we’ve pointed out before, MRRA is a political creation, with a politically appointed board, spending politically derived resources, and dispensing politically created privileges and tax treatment.  To declare it “separate” from politics is to claim that elected and appointed officials, and the goodies they dispense, are apolitical.

I assume MRRA would never want to do anything to damage their close working relationship with the town of Brunswick,

When redevelopments are politically controlled, redevelopment can get stuck in parochial squabbling.  (see the earlier comment on MRRA being “separate'” from politics)

And as proof of MRRA’s apolitical status, Webster reminds us:

Because MRRA’s board is regional and nonpolitical, Sen. Gerzofsky, and other legislators, including me, have been able to get the Maine Legislature to support the creation of MRRA, support a bond package that helped secure matching federal dollars to transform the infrastructure, and create legislative structural support to provide the cash flow necessary for operation.

Well, as long as you’ve got the column space, you might as well pat yourself and your friends on the back for your nonpolitical role in the success, right?

The protection of MRRA from potential local political controls has helped MRRA become the most successful redevelopment in the country.

Wow, I’m impressed, Rep. Webster!  You took the time and trouble to survey all the other redevelopments in the country?  Or acquired a report substantiating that claim?  Be a dear, and forward a copy of the material to us here at Side, and while you’re at it, to the folks over at The Ostrich as well.  We’ll be pleased to broadcast them for all to see; we have no monthly limits for your submissions here.

Or could it just be that someone TOLD you MRRA is the most successful, so it must be true?

Please Rep. Webster, should you choose to reply, don’t inject any politics into your remarks.  The protection of our editorial material from such influence is why we are the most successful such media outlet published in the rural southwest region of Brunswick, and we wish not to soil our spotless reputation.

Wrapping up, we stipulate the bar is pretty low for economic growth success here in Maine, and that when considered in the context of the anemic business profile in the local area, any success at all looks good by comparison.

None-the-less, talk of “wellsprings” and “the most successful in the country” strains credulity.  And we use those words only because our civility manager is standing over our shoulder.

So you’ll have to figure out what we really wanted to say, loyal readers.  Trust your instincts, and imagination.

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Thither goest Johnny Protocols

The Other Side staff had been perplexed for months over the absence of former ‘favorite son’ goobernatorial candidate John (Johnny Protocols, or JP) in the news, leaving us to wonder and speculate on just what he might be cooking up in the way of future plans.  It was hard for us to accept that a man of such ambition would simply drift away on the outgoing tide, as it were, so we assumed some sort of image rehabilitation might be going on.

Finally, we have some news on his return to prominence, and right here in our local area.  It turns out Richardson is bringing his legal talents and political experience to Moncure & Barnicle in Topsham, a firm about half the size of the one he was a member of in Portland for years and years. 

The item in The Ostrich did not go so far as to mention the name of his prior firm, which seems traditional in business section “people on the move” items, so we can only wonder whether the separation was cordial, or in fact had taken place years ago when his political career became all-consuming, if headed for the toaster.

The press notice says:

Richardson will work in legal and governmental relations, as well as on business and economic development.

The first part of that seems an obvious focus, as he looks to make use of all those Augusta based friendships and connections he’s built up over the years. The change in the complexion of Augusta, however, might make things a bit dicier than they would have been if Democrats had continued to run the place.  (‘Legal and governmental relations’ is often the euphemistic cover for lobbying.)

As to ‘business and economic development,’ we confess that we had not thought of that as a legal specialty.  Until we recalled how much our economy these days is dominated by political entrepreneurship as the successor to market entrepreneurship.

The latter is the old fashioned model of ‘find a need and fill it and you can succeed.’  The former is the modern-day pursuit of political favor, tax incentives, grants, ‘investment,’ tailored legislation, and any other governmental influence and advantage that can be secured as the state increasingly intervenes in and distorts the operation of the free market.  Think Angus King and his wind power friends, and the suitors of the MRRA shopping for deals.

Seems like a perfect match for JP’s experience base, especially since his new firm is “actively involved in community organizations such as Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority in connection with the BRAC Closure of Naval Air Station Brunswick.”  Ah, the memories of Jim Horowitz and Oxford Aviation come flooding back, causing  tears to form as we type.

And then we recall the recent move to Maine by JP’s great buddy and fellow business developer F. Lee Bailey, as reported on here.  Suddenly, it all begins to make sense.  That post included this passage:

Well, there you have it.  A story you can’t make up.  Bailey’s ‘partner’ Elliott is a former official at Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, headed by Johnny Protocols (Richardson) until he decided to run for Governor in 2009.

And so, as spring approaches, we wait anxiously to see whether the ‘stars’ are in fact ‘aligning’ to stimulate the blossoming of a glorious new collaboration to supercede the stinkweeds of their past efforts.  (If you’re not into astrological metaphors, think of it as ‘ducks getting in a row.’  Quack, quack.)

Better stock up on your allergy pills, faithful readers.  It could be a new strain of pollen will be causing irritation in the coming months.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Reprise: A Tale of Two Cities

One of the curses of having written so many letters and commentaries over the years, and having made so many posts on Side, is a clouded memory on which items have been run before. 

We’re posting here an item published in The Ostrich more than three years ago, because we believe the underlying realities are entirely relevant to current circumstances.  We did considerable research before writing the original, yet we know that many local readers will decry the content as the work of a nay-sayer and pessimist.

Great; that’s why we make accommodation for comments and opposing points of view – so a ‘dialogue’ can take place.

And the mere fact that we used the d-word should up our stock in the court of public opinion. 


A “Tale of Two Cities”

The classic novel by Charles Dickens begins with these words:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,...”

In the past few months, I’ve invested a good deal of time studying the outlook for Brunswick as closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station approaches. Recently, I looked into the experiences of Portsmouth, New Hampshire following closure of Pease Air Force Base in 1991. You’re not going to like what I found.

As I reflected on this situation, the words above seemed wonderfully appropriate; they capture the wildly divergent extremes our future could hold. We have the “best of times” folks – those “forward thinkers” who feel base closure is a gift from above, and who believe Brunswick is poised for “continuing” and “exceptional” growth.

Then there are those of us who believe closure of the base, coupled with exceptionally dismal demographic and economic outlooks in our region, foretell the “worst of times.” We are especially concerned that town leaders are behaving as if they haven’t yet seen the memo about closure, but are instead practicing business as usual.

We are in a struggle between denial based optimism and fact based apprehension, and only one of the two is considered acceptable by the “Brunswick is special” crowd. To help you decide where you fit in, let me describe what I found.

Pease Air Force Base, a 4,255 acre facility adjacent to Portsmouth, NH, was selected for closure in 1988. In 1989, 3,461 active duty military and 1,080 civilians were employed at Pease. It’s estimated the base created 2,466 secondary jobs in surrounding communities. Military personnel began departing in June 1990, and the base closed in March 1991. (

Portsmouth had a population in excess of 26,000 in 1980, and reached a peak of 29,000 in 1987. By 1989, it had dropped to 25,000, and two years later, was in the 22,000 range. By 2000 it had declined to 20,784. The estimate for 2006 is 20,618. (; City of Portsmouth) Clearly, Portsmouth’s population dropped steeply following base closure, and has not rebounded, in spite of aggressive redevelopment of Pease.


People or Land: Which is more important to Maine’s future?

Since the primary and general election season, we’ve heard and read about “People Before Politics,” one of Governor Paul LePage’s signature mottos.

This thought provides the context for serious reflection on priorities for the citizens and government of this state.  “Land for Maine’s Future” has been a high profile, quasi-religious and fiscal priority for State Government for a number of years, requiring a number of bond issues to fund land purchases.  The Program is managed from a standing organization within the State Planning Office,  and that organization is headed by a resident of Brunswick.

If you check their web site, you’ll find this rationale for their efforts;

The concept behind the Land for Maine's Future (LMF) Program is simple. Lands that have exceptional recreational or ecological value along with working lands for farms, forests, tourism, and working waterfronts all warrant permanent protection. With spreading development and changing land uses, Maine is at risk of losing many of the natural landscapes that residents cherish and that are so important to Maine's natural and cultural heritage as well as to its economic vitality. The LMF Program seeks to conserve these important settings.

Similarly, Brunswick has a program called “Land for Brunswick’s Future,” funded through the town budget.

Both programs are considered so popular as to be beyond challenge, in the same way that our schools and the public library are considered sacred and untouchable.

These programs came about from an abundance of concern about unconstrained growth, or more fashionably, “sprawl.” Conservation and “smart growth” became the watchwords of this wing of the environmental movement. Public ownership of land is supposed to “preserve” it, and thus be the defense against so-called sprawl.

The State of Maine, with its large size and small population, has a plentiful supply of land. We are 38th in population density - less than half the US average. In the midst of numerous other serious challenges, “preserving” land is hardly an urgent priority for us.

Curiously, have you noticed we don’t hear much about “sprawl” these days? And that GrowSmart Maine, once a very public presence in policy discussions, has faded into the background? Growth in Maine of any sort (other than ‘growing’ old), has ceased to be a marquis issue, as it is virtually non-existent.

Side, as you might expect, has a problem with the orthodoxy of the ‘land for the future’ cult.  As we see it, the supply of land is fixed.  The number of acres that make up Brunswick are not likely to increase or decrease in future centuries, unless our elected leaders should engage in negotiations with surrounding communities to either expand or reduce the land under their control.

Similarly, we do not expect the land area that is Maine to expand or contract, other than through political accords we can not now predict.

Surprisingly, a quick survey of literature on Maine’s forested lands, like this report from UMaine, reveals that the amount of Maine land that is forest has grown by about 70% since the late 1800’s.  The report says:

Since the 1880’s, considerable acreage of pasture and cropland have “gone back” to woodland in Maine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Post-script on “soft indifference”

After a bit more reflection on the subject of yesterday’s post, we have further observations and a related policy to propose.

Side is flabbergasted, as you well know, by the way teachers are compensated, and in particular that the very worst makes the same as the very best, and has the same job security.  Any time you propose changing the system, the shopworn defenses pop up:

  • ‘It’s not “fair'” to judge teachers by how their students do.’
  • ‘It’s not “fair” to evaluate them on classroom observation.’
  • ‘There’s so much more to being a good teacher.’
  • ‘We need to make sure teachers are protected from the pettiness of the general public, and the internal politics of school administration.’
  • ‘All our teachers are superb, and we need to pay them all as much as we possibly can.’
  • ‘Teachers are underpaid, and do not get the respect they deserve.  The contracts we agree to fight that problem.’

You can refer to this post from last year as preamble and backup to these premises.  That post also contains this quote, which in our view, cannot be repeated too often:

“When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children.”   - Albert Shanker - President of the United Federation of Teachers [1964-1984] & the American Federation of Teachers [1974-1997]

Along these same lines of idealistic thought, we recall the drumbeat for “equity” as an over-arching justification for building the new school; the notion that all children should have the same experience in our school system, no matter where they live or what their family circumstances.

Hmmm; “equity” seems like the perfect word to describe how our teachers are dealt with.  They’re all treated the same, no matter how different their talents are, how effective they are, how hard they work, or what kind of results they get from their students.

If it’s good for the teachers, it surely must be good for the students, so we propose the following.  Each student in a class will receive the same grade for the class.  This is the only “fair and equitable” way to grade the kids for obvious reasons:

  • Some kids just aren’t good at taking tests.
  • Some kids are disadvantaged compared to others.
  • It’s impossible to judge a student’s progress with simplistic and mechanical tests and other assignments.
  • Allowing teachers to evaluate students beyond such basics calls into play the idiosyncrasies and biases of individual teachers, and is therefore unreliable.
  • Some students take the class in the morning, while others take it in the afternoon, and such differences can yield substantial differences in performance.
  • Classroom location in the building and other intangibles can unduly influence student performance.

Accordingly, i propose the following grading system for all high school students in our system, regardless of classroom performance:

  • All seniors will receive grades of B in all classes.
  • All juniors will receive grades of B- in all classes.
  • All sophomores will receive grades of C+ in all classes.
  • All freshmen will receive grades of C- in all classes.

You must agree, you simply could not achieve any higher level of equity than this policy yields, right?  And no more worries about grade inflation, or bitching and whining about a student’s grade.  The first day you show up at BHS, you know exactly what grades you’re going to receive for the next four years, just like the teachers know exactly how much they’re going to make in the coming years.  What could possibly be fairer, we ask?

We consider this a real breakthrough in education reform.  And any students, parents, or guardians who don’t like the approach must be elitists who can’t comprehend the social justice inherent in this equity based system.  The School Department will have to create a counseling track to help these mal-contents achieve harmony with the higher ideals implicit in the new grade structure.

As for college planning, just imagine the delight that schools like Bowdoin will feel when they realize that no-one from Brunswick High School will have to be denied access to the Ivory Tower because of grades!

Now that’s what we call justice, and what we call equity!  And what a glorious future lies just ahead!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The ‘Soft Indifference’ of Low Expectations

Some years ago, President Bush (43) spoke the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  As I recall, he was referring to the public education system, and how it’s all too easy to lower our expectations for minorities and/or those in poorer areas.

I thought it was an insightful concept, and I still do, and now I see a broader meaning to the concept in our own circumstances.

As I think back to my days in school, I remember two primary motivations to do well (besides my insatiable thirst for knowledge…ha, ha!)  One was the fear of my parents reaction if I didn’t.  The second, which was even stronger, was the fear of being “left back” as we called it then.  Nobody wanted to stay behind when all your friends moved up, and find yourself a sore thumb in the grade you were repeating.  And in later years, nobody wanted to “flunk out.”

Nowadays, my sense is that such antiquated concerns and realities no longer have any relevance in out government run schools.  When’s the last time you heard of a student being “left back,” or flunking out?  There may be an instance here or there, but I’ve come to believe that ‘seat time’ promotions and ‘social’ promotions have become the preferred way of addressing lack of classroom performance.

The first time I heard the term ‘seat time promotion’ I was taken aback.  It was explained to me that if your attendance was acceptable, you would be promoted, regardless of performance in the coursework.

For years I’ve heard the radio ads seeking literacy volunteers to help adults learn to read (and hopefully, write), and wondered how we could have adults who made it through our school systems without learning to read.  I think the answer lies largely in the promotion policies described above; rather than tackle the problem, the system prefers to look the other way and just keep moving the kids up and eventually out, giving them diplomas that are increasingly meaningless.

I asked myself how we could allow such an irresponsible policy to become the norm; how could we so diminish expectations as to render them irrelevant to moving through the system.

Then it dawned on me; this is exactly the way we deal with our teachers, and if it’s good enough for the teachers, it sure should be good enough for the kids.

What do I mean?  Take a look at the teachers contracts here in town and elsewhere, and you’ll find that they are the very essence of ‘seat time’ or ‘social’ promotion through the salary increase system.  Every teacher can look at the contract and project exactly what they will make in coming years, without regard to merit or performance by any measure.  Do the time, earn the credits, get the salary shown.

The very worst teachers move through the salary steps and lanes just as quickly as the very best teachers do.  Occupy your ‘seat’ for a year, and move up a year on the scale.  In other words, as Woody Allen famously said, 80% of success is simply showing up.  And that’s especially true of our pampering and homogenizing of the teachers corps.

Under the circumstances, is it any wonder the ‘professionals’ in the field would be so willing to promote their students without expecting much from them to earn it?

By the way, if you’d like to get a sense of how the State Teachers Union (MEA) guides the local contract negotiation process, just read what follows.  Note, among other things, that should the School Department expect teachers to pay more of their insurance costs, they want their salary to increase to cover that, after other expected increases.

From where we sit, the soft indifference of low expectations is a tragic and near irreversible trend in our public education system, at least under current circumstances. 

And it doesn’t say much about honoring the notion that ‘the children are our future,’ does it.


Maine Education Association
Statewide Bargaining Goals

Wages and Salaries:
1. All bargaining unit members should receive a real increase annually, i.e. a wage or salary increase at least equal to the annual increase in the cost-of-living, after accounting for any increased costs to the employee for maintenance of insurance benefits.
2. Negotiate salary and wage structures that eliminate “dead zones” (multi-year steps without a rate change) and reduce the number of years required to reach the maximum rate on each lane. (Suggested long term goal – no more than 10 steps by 2020.)
2.1 When the State mandates minimum salary or wage levels, associations should negotiate improved scales in which the salary or wage base amount equals or exceeds the mandated minimum amount without extending the length of time required to reach the maximum.

Health Insurance:
3. Maintain or increase the employer-paid share of employee and dependent health insurance premiums, without compromising the health coverage and benefits of the existing plan.
3.1 Associations should reject health insurance plans that reduce premium costs by shifting health care costs to consumers, such as high deductible health care plans, whether or not enticements such as health savings accounts or health reimbursement accounts are offered.
4. Negotiate the same health insurance benefits for all teachers and educational support professionals.

Hours and Working Conditions:
5. Eliminate or reject any provisions that result in two-tiered systems where some employees are limited to lower wages or salaries, benefits or working conditions.
6. Workload – All contracts should address workload.
6.1. Teachers’ unit contracts should deal with workload by language either regulating the amount of work to be performed or requiring additional compensation when the work exceeds specified standards. Aspects of workload that should be addressed in this manner include required duties or meetings outside the work day or work year; planning time; and performance of non-instructional duties.
6.2. Contracts for educational support professionals should deal with workload by specifying work schedules and the length of the work day, work week and work year; and requiring that employees be paid at their regular or overtime rate as appropriate for all hours that they actually work.
7. Eliminate or reject any provisions which result in the Association waiving or giving up its right to bargain about any mandatory subject of bargaining.
8. Negotiate grievance procedures that end in final and binding arbitration.
9. Negotiate just cause protection, to the extent that it is not legally prohibited, for any disciplinary action.
10. Negotiate reduction in force procedures based on objective criteria only, e.g. seniority, certification, authorization, licensure, etc., with no consideration to employee evaluations.
11. Negotiate current and accurate job descriptions that are maintained and reviewed annually and when changes in responsibilities take place.

Recommended by the MEA Statewide Bargaining Committee–March 6, 2010

Senator Stan, the Minority Man

Even the most partisan and jaded among us have to feel the tiniest smidgeon of empathy for our very own beloved Senator Stan Gerzofsky.

Now entering his 11th consecutive year in the Maine legislature, Stan, who insisted he was not a ‘career politician’ during the campaign, won re-election, but not exactly with the outcome he was expecting.

Having cut his teeth in a political environment that tacitly assumed the existence of only one Maine political party in the last 30+ years, we gotta figure that Stan has been suffering mightily from a loss of prestige and influence.  Never in his wildest dreams (or for that matter, in his tamest dreams) could he have imagined that he would be re-elected, but find himself suddenly demoted to minority stature.

We imagine that Stan went to bed with his nightcap firmly in place on November 1st, visions of the Senate Presidency, or at the very least, the Senate Majority Leader spot, dancing in his head.

He awoke on Wednesday to a starkly different reality.  If you’re familiar with the classic holiday film ‘The Christmas Story,’ we would liken Stan’s circumstances to the scene where little Ralphie Parker, having taken all he could handle from schoolyard bully Scut Farkas, pounced on him and beat him at his own game, much to the surprise of Scut and his toady Grover, and the delight of all those who cheered him on.

Stan, in much the same way, is faced with the reality of being on the losing end of the election overall, even though he won re-election to his seat.

His response to this predicament has been quite impressive.  He’s marshaled his resources and turned on his public relations machine.  His toadies at The Coastal Journal, The Forecaster, and The Ostrich have been all too willing to do his bidding.  And just for good measure, he’s turned up the heat on his hissy-fit with the town council.

We’ll make our point with readily available evidence.  Without attention to chronology, look at the front page of yesterday’s Ostrich.  While the lead article focused on the Governor’s statement at the ceremony marking transfer of Naval Air Station airport facilities to the MRRA, the photo accompanying the article was framed and cropped to show only one dignitary besides the Governor, and if you guessed it was Senator Stan, you guessed right.

Stan has also markedly improved his writing skills, as reflected in his numerous columns in the local media.  So much so that we can scarcely believe that he wrote the items himself.  The Coastal Journal carried his column in their issue of January 13th, in which he reminded us that ‘our region has seen the addition of over 600 jobs.’  And we have him to thank for these, among others, in place of those lost on the base.  Perhaps he’ll have time in the near future to take one of you around the base and show you those 600 new employees at work.  Note that this number has grown considerably since the 200 or so he claimed credit for during the campaign.

He said the same things in his commentary in The Ostrich on December 31st.  And he reminds us that he was the force behind legislation ‘to attract businesses to the air station.’  He doesn’t say what it was, but we probably wouldn’t be able to understand the fine points anyway.

Recently, The Ostrich gave Stan commentary space to ‘set the record straight’ in a particularly well written piece.  The subject is the unseemly little power struggle between Stan and town officials over representation on the MRRA board.  Side addressed the squabble a few months back in this item.  Recently we learned that Stan had kicked things up a couple of notches by submitting legislation to block any possibility of appointing Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown to the MRRA board.

It’s his shot at bringing down the strong arm of the law to enforce his wishes, a move likely to cause a hiccup or two in the otherwise respectful and cordial relationship between Stan and town officials.  Or so I’ve heard.

Stan’s new circumstances may well have inspired this move, since he’s got some sizable ground to make up on his role in the stage play that is Augusta politics.  His lines have been clipped some, and the lights aren’t shining as brightly on him as they did in prior years.  Somebody’s going to have to pay the price for this, and it might as well be our humble little town council.

But simmer down councilors.  Senator Stan assures us that “Brunswick should see an increase of up to $10 million or more from the growth of property taxes.”  Hey…that’s great!  A one third increase in tax revenue!  And it’s especially interesting since just about every thing announced so far for the base is in the tax exempt category.  Like anything to do with aviation, according to state law.  You can read about it here.

Is there any doubt the budget busters are already dreaming up new ways to spend the extra $10 million?  Thanks for the help, Senator!

On a separate note, this is a great time to drive around the former Navy housing in the McKeen Street area.  Only those units that are actually occupied have their driveways fully cleared of snow, so you very quickly get a sense of just how few folks are living there. 

My guess is that the occupancy level is around 10%  or so, not exactly a stampede to the “low cost housing” so many consultants promised. Including those who said this is where the students to fill the new school would come from.

But not to worry; I don’t see any news here that can’t be rewritten with the help of new consultants that specialize in rebuilding the outlook.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dirty dishes, milk spills, and other hazards to humanity

Perhaps, like the Poppycocks, you’ve noticed in recent months that your ‘automatic’ dishwasher doesn’t seem to be cutting the mustard, in a manner of speaking.  In particular, we’ve noticed that silverware comes out of the machine, after it runs, looking a bit shabby. 

We rinse everything before it goes in the machine, so asking it to ‘scrub’ things clean isn’t the point.  Simply put, getting silverware that looks this way in a restaurant would result in us asking for clean replacements.

Turns out this is not our imagination.  Thanks to an anti-phosphate movement that began in the state of Washington, dishwasher detergent has been reformulated, and not only does it not clean your dishes like it used to, it leaves the inside of your dishwasher far less sparkling.

As usually happens in such cases, the intentions were good, the politics were high profile, and the consequences were not exactly as predicted.  Here’s a detailed article that explains the entire process.  It contains this rather direct passage right up front:

It so happens that in the last six months, a lot of people have suddenly discovered their dishwashers don’t work as well as they used to. The problem, though, isn’t the dishwashers. It’s the soap. Last July, acceding to pressure from environmentalists, America’s dishwasher detergent manufacturers decided to change their formulas. And the new detergents stink.

We’re reminded of the ginormous international brouhaha over global warming, which has been shown, from time to time, to have underpinnings that are anything but scientific.  Turns out the dishwasher detergent crisis suffers from a bit of the same over-sudsing:

Some of the effluents making their way into the river contained phosphorus in complex molecular forms which are not bioavailable. Algae lack the enzymes necessary to break down this phosphorus, meaning it is essentially harmless. The study was a useful reminder that all science is settled. Until it’s not.

File this next item under “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.”

Many of us grew up hearing such sage advice as ‘don’t cry over spilled (or was it spilt?) milk.’  And here at Side we never thought much about it until recently.

There is no shortage of problems facing our country, and they are real, profound, and daunting.  From where we sit, or walk, we didn’t think spilled milk was one of them.  We should have known better.

It turns out that the EPA, ever vigilant for new causes of disaster they can prevent through ‘appropriate’ regulations, no matter how slight the probability or how trivial the effects, has seized upon spilt milk as just such a cause. 

One wonders whether there is a second deputy assistant undersecretary of enviromental protection whose sole purpose in life is to protect us from the disaster that is spilled milk.  And wiping milk moustaches from the lips of devoted milk drinkers nationwide, lest a drop or two hit the ground and not be remediated before the damage is done.

We’re making light of this, but in the very real sense, the story, which is real, points out just how over-reaching an unfettered administrative state can be.  The old saying goes ‘when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’  It certainly applies in this case.

Lest you think we’re pulling your teat on this one, we are not.  This is an udderly true news item.  You can read about it here.

You can whet your whistle with this:

..the EPA has decided that, since milk contains oil, it has the authority to force farmers to comply with new regulations to file "emergency management" plans to show how they will cope with spilled milk, how farmers will train "first responders" and build "containment facilities" if there is a flood of spilled milk.

It is going to cost the taxpayers money as well, since the EPA is going to have to hire people to inspect farms, inspect farmers' reports and prosecute farmers who don't jump through all the right hoops in the right order.

As for us, we don’t want to be seen as milking the news to find the cream that rises to the top, so we’ll simply whip things up right here. 

If you want a cherry on top, you’ll have to provide it yourself.  And good night, Elsie, wherever you are.