The 63 “counties” of Massachusetts

Middlesex County, Massachusetts is huge. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of more than 1.6 million people, with 818 square miles of land area. As a governmental entity, Middlesex has been neutered, electing only a small core of officers (district attorney, sheriff, registrars of deeds and probate) to perform functions that are vestigial offices of county government.

Yet, our county retains its geographic identity alongside 3,143 counties and county-equivalents across the United States. Steve Kornacki, a native of Middlesex County, is fond of ignoring it while devoting fond attention to counties with 1% of the population of the county of his youth. The vast size of Middlesex has rendered it useless as a descriptor of much of anything. Extending from Ashby to Holliston, to North Reading, to Cambridge, there’s a whole lot of a whole lot of things happening that defies a meaningful summary.

Those little counties adored by Steve Kornacki are all centered around a county courthouse, and have become units of analysis on all kids of measures. Middlesex has a population greater than 12 states, including four New England states (ME, NH, VT, RI), and like a state it has a dozen district courthouses and corresponding judicial districts; seven of these districts have a population greater than the average US county (104,435).

Eastern Equine Encephalitis in Middlesex County? That’s not very specific. Eastern Equine Encephalitis in the Third Judicial District of Eastern Middlesex County? For the 172,000 residents of the district that includes Arlington, Belmont, and Cambridge, that’s a defining and meaningful geographic region.

Middlesex County
The 12 “counties” of Middlesex.

If you combine the Boston municipal courts into one unit, there are 63 judicial districts in the Commonwealth. the population of the average Massachusetts judicial district (103,930) is slightly smaller than the national average. These 63 districts, if we declared them to be the equivalent of counties, would make our data comparable to the rest of the nation.

This is really a simple fix, a quick and easy way to create more meaningful statistical entities that aligns to national definitions of existing for “administrative or statistical purposes.” Clearly, the judicial districts serve an administrative purpose, and would provide a more specific and granular unit for statistical purposes, so why not just designate them as counties?

If we call the judicial districts counties, what do we do with the existing counties? We find a new name for them, possibly regions. Where county commissions currently exist, they can become regional commissions. Sheriffs, district attorneys, registrars of probate and deeds could serve regions.

Changing counties to regions and judicial districts to counties is a semantic game. Though it would require more complex legal language to enact it, it requires nothing more than clerical accuracy by the folks combing through the law to identify instances in the text and make adjustments to the language therein. There may be some requirements to describe regions, formerly known as counties, when pointing toward the few constitutional provisions related to counties. Again, this is not a functional change, but it does revolve around items such as the drawing of legislative districts to correspond (as much as possible) within county borders.

That said, the real fun in this proposal would be to name the new counties. Counties could be named for famous folks or prominent geographic features attached to the county, with a preference for names not used for an existing county or municipality. For example, O’Neill county could be named for Tip O’Neill, and the county containing the city of Barnstable (and Hyannis Port) could be Kennedy County.

Here’s a map of the 63 “counties” and their population (2010 census). I think you will agree using these existing districts, served by their very own courthouse, make much more sense for statistical analysis and making decisions based on criteria (such as rates of COVID-19 infection per 100,000 residents).

Playing vaccine roulette

Friday morning, I scored a coveted COVID-19 vaccine appointment at Gillette Stadium using the Massachusetts vaccine website.

Friends have asked how I did it. Here’s my strategy. Your mileage may vary, but it worked for me.

First, you need to view the vaccine sign-up as a poorly designed online ticket website that is not as easy to conquer. If you want tickets for Hamilton or a popular concert, you know that rapidly repeated hits on the refresh button is the key to scoring tickets. Each hit on the refresh button is a low-probability try to land your ticket, but if you make it past the first screen, you have a few minutes to break out your credit card and finalize the transaction.

In the case of the vaccine, making it past the first screen is a digital contest to enter the race through multiple screens before you win an appointment. (Think of it as qualifying for the Boston Marathon.) The probability of success is defined by how fast you can make it through the registration screens compared to other competitors for that appointment.

Before you start, here are the basics. Understand that you can’t sit around and be picky about the date and time. Claim your spot, and once you know the details, be ready to do what you need to do to rearrange your life around the shot. If you make it a couple of pages into the registration process, you will be asked for your health insurance company and policy number. Be ready for this step. Open a text file and type in your policy number before you start your search, so you can cut and paste it into the field when you reach it.

Your adventure begins when you access the start page of the state website, https://www.maimmunizations.org/clinic/search.

You will encounter the Find a Vaccination Clinic screen. Your goal come up with a narrow, relevant set of clinics and dates, as the strategy is to quickly focus on one page of results. (If you are clicking on multiple pages from the same search, your search becomes stale and chances are you are losing vaccine opportunities with the ensuing delay.)
Find a Clinic

My strategy was to Search by Name of Location. I selected Gillette. It’s a mass vaccination site with lots of appointments. Gillette offers Moderna. Fenway offers Pfizer. Gillette has a large parking lot. Fenway parking is more of an adventure.

You can also query with your zip code and distance from home, or search by vaccine brand name.  Use multiple browsers with different search parameters, check out the results, and lean on the most promising one. Wander back to backup browser just to see if

If you run a search that has multiple providers, become familiar with their restrictions.  For example, you might see Tree House Deerfield listed among the options, but in the Additional Information section of the listing you will see they serve eligible populations in Franklin County. If you live elsewhere, look elsewhere. Some of the Additional Information listings are very dense, but they generally repeat themselves in subsequent listings for that site.

Tree House

 

 

 

 

Most or all of these will list their Available Appointments as 0. However, if the vaccine gods are smiling on you, the number will be greater than zero and a little blue button will appear beneath the listing. If you are lucky, hit that button and start to contest to claim your prize.

However, chances are you will need to conduct multiple searches. Get your thumb on your trackpad and get ready for some exercise. It’s time to get down to business, and this is where the speed factor comes in.

The trick is to get into a rapid rhythm; scroll down the page as fast as you can. Don’t slow down to read anything on the page, just fly to the bottom and don’t stop unless you catch a glimpse of a blue button. If you see the blue button beneath the listing, it’s an invitation to attempt to register for the vaccination. Stop scrolling and click on it as fast as you can. If you don’t see a blue button before you reach the bottom of the screen, quickly scroll back to the top, hit the Search button, and repeat the process.

If you click on the blue registration button, the race to the appointment has begun. You are racing against anyone else who has clicked on their blue button for the same appointment. Once you click that blue button, the first set of screens requests your demographic data. As you move through the screens, they will become your friends, because chances are you will need to fill them in multiple times. Hopefully, your browser will autofill most of the fields after the first time through the routine.

Remember, this is a race, and if there is only one appointment, and someone else fills in their screens and gets to the end of the trail faster than you, they will claim the appointment and you will get the consolation screen.

Go back to the beginning

 

 

 

 

 

Do not be discouraged. Every time you fill in data in the registration screens, you gain practice and you can move faster through the screens. It will become second nature as you gain practice. Just keep trying. You never know when someone will cancel their shot and free up an appointment, or when additional appointments are released into the system. It has been reported that a week’s supply of appointments are added Thursday mornings, so plan your playtime accordingly.

The bottom line is the more you play, the greater your probability of winning a cherished appointment. Each click on the Search button could be the winning click. Don’t be discouraged. Search, scroll down, scroll up, rinse, repeat.

Good luck.

Senator Cassidy: Demagoguery won’t reopen our schools

The latest congressional outrage is from Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who went onto Fox News Sunday (January 31, 2021) with this pile of televised ignorance that begins at 02:34 into the video:

One area where we decrease. He [Biden] has $170 billion for schools. Now, we’ve already given schools 110% of what they usually receive from the federal government. Parochial schools have opened with a fraction of that money. Charter schools are opened. The real problem is public schools. That issue is not money. That issue is teachers’ unions telling their teachers not to go to work, and putting $170 billion towards teachers unions priorities, takes care of a Democratic constituency group, but it wastes our federal taxpayer dollars for something which is not the problem. We have $20 billion to get kids back to school on top of the roughly $66 billion, which is on top of the $57 billion schools normally get, we can get kids back to school without, you know, kind of bailing out the teachers’ unions.

A billion dollars seems like a boatload of money, but there are 51 million students in the US public schools; talk of each $1 billion translates into about $19.60 per child. I can’t speak for the veracity of the numbers Senator Cassidy has been throwing around, but I do know how to translate seemingly big federal numbers into local impact.

Let’s examine the real numbers behind school funding here in Massachusetts.

There are five strands of federal funding that flow to Massachusetts districts. For FY2021, this amounts to $302.750,324, roughly 2% of all school spending in the state. The state contributed $5,283,343,073, roughly 43% of the state’s school spending, with the rest coming from local taxpayers. Arlington receives about $335,000 from these strands, less than one half of one percent of our $82.5 million operating budget.

So, the feds tossed a few extra coins into the pot to provide $154,245 in federal Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for Arlington. It sounds like a big number when Senator Cassidy talks on Fox News, but local officials understand how relatively insignificant the federal support has been to date.

In Massachusetts, local funds are mostly generated from property taxes, a relatively stable source of funds. State revenues are predominantly from income and sales taxes, which are sensitive to economic downturns. Unlike the federal government, state budgets must be balanced annually.

In Massachusetts, state funding is awarded to school districts based on the property wealth of municipalities; ranging from 17.5% to 90% of the foundation budget, so students attending public schools in cities and towns with a smaller tax base are dependent on less reliable state funding.

There are too many state and federal officials who think they can simply decree that schools should be open for full-time, in-person instruction, and that decree should be enough for local officials to open schools. Those of us who rely on science, not state or federal decrees, know there are safety concerns that need to be addressed before we fully reopen our schools.

Instead of blaming teachers’ unions, let’s place the responsibility where it belongs. The federal government, when controlled by Senator Cassidy’s party, ignored science, failed to provide adequate testing, and fumbled the task of acquiring and distributing vaccine in their own end zone.

My message for Senator Cassidy: stop the school privatization demagoguery and do your job. Give President Biden the tools to fix the federal response, and make sure he can provide the resources we need to vaccinate our educators and open our schools safely.

MBTA Bus Route 80: Don’t kill it, make it wonderful!

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) bus Route 80 is on a list of routes to be eliminated under its Forging Ahead plan when the Green Line Extension (GLX) begins running to College Avenue in Medford.

Route 80 runs between Arlington Center and the current Green Line terminus at Lechmere Station. It runs parallel to the GLX, so there is a certain logic to eliminate the redundant portion of the route. That logic only extends from Lechmere to College Avenue, where the Green Line will end. Riders who use the bus between College Avenue and Arlington Center will lose their connection to the Green Line and Tufts University.

Instead of killing off Route 80, the MBTA could turn it into one of the best bus lines in the region. They should drop the redundant portion of the route east of College Avenue, and extend the line to the west beyond Arlington Center to the Arlington Heights busway.

Frequent service on an extended Route 80 could give Arlington residents fast and convenient access to the Green Line, as well as a convenient connection to the MBTA commuter rail Lowell Line at West Medford station.

Arlington pays almost $3 million in MBTA assessments, a disproportionately high amount for a municipality without fixed-rail service. Eliminating and reducing bus routes in Arlington should not be an option. Instead, the MBTA should use the Green Line Extension as an opportunity to improve service to Arlington using Route 80 to extend the benefits of the Green Line Extension into Arlington.

New Route 80

 

Professor Peter Ubertaccio’s myopic and parochial view of US 6

A few years ago, I had the joy of visiting the western end of US Route 6. There’s a big green sign in Bishop, California, proclaiming the 3,205 mile distance to Provincetown, Massachusetts. It’s a bookend for a similar sign in Provincetown, an invitation to cross the continent on our nation’s second longest highway.

It’s a shame that Professor Peter Ubertaccio can’t see the glory of this beautiful transcontinental road, and views it merely as a constipated local road centered on a small stretch from Sandwich to the Sagamore Bridge. It’s a shame to think of this great road in purely parochial terms, limited to the world east of the Cape Cod Canal.

Federal regulations require exit numbers to correspond to mile markers on the nation’s highways. Most states have moved to comply with these rules, but Massachusetts has stubbornly dragged its feet. Massachusetts is the most highly educated state in the nation, and if Maine and Pennsylvania could convert its exit numbers without imposing cognitive trauma on its drivers, we should be able to accomplish this feat.

If the good professor wanders west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, he would see some of the problems with sequential exit numbers. He would see that new exits were sandwiched between the original sequential exits, creating exits 10A and 11A. Once he passes exit 3, he would know exit 2 is the next exit, but he will need to drive 30 miles before he reaches it.

The new exit numbers on US 6 correspond to those little green mile markers on the highway, in which Mile 0 is at the Rhode Island state line. The eastern end of the Sagamore Bridge is at mile marker 55, and a little mental math can benchmark your place on the highway.  If you also remember that the Orleans rotary is at mile marker 91, and mile marker 115 is in Provincetown, you can look at the new exit numbers and the mile markers to triangulate your position on US 6.

The esteemed professor wonders, “How does one get to an exit 89 when travelling down Rt. 6 from the Sagamore bridge?” Easy. Cross the bridge and drive 34 miles because 89-55=34.

There is a happy coincidence that the distance from the Sagamore Bridge to the Rhode Island state line is equal to the distance from the bridge to doProvincetown to Bishopwntown Boston. Our friend at exit 89 has the good fortune to know they are 89 miles from Rhode Island and 89 miles from Haymarket Square.

I hope Professor Ubertaccio will find joy in the new exit numbers, and he will have fun with the geographical mathematics infused in the new system. Even if he never comes to love the new numbers, I hope he can view the new numbers through the lens of altruism, as out-of-state visitors will be able to navigate US 6 with the system in use in the rest of the nation. And if that’s too confusing, he can always travel south on Route 28 from Falmouth to Orleans.

 

Bishop to Provincetown

 

The wisest course is to open in full remote plan

These are my prepared remarks at the August 10, 2020 meeting of the Arlington School Committee.

I am facing the most critical decision I have made in 18 years of school committee service. This has the potential to be a life or death decision for students and staff in the Arlington Public Schools, as well as their families and the rest of our community.

I want to describe the context of the decision this committee is being asked to make tonight. There are 7.8 billion people on Earth; 331 million people live in the United States. Massachusetts law prohibits me from discussing this decision with only six other people; my colleagues on the Arlington School Committee.

The Open Meeting Law prohibits us from deliberating outside of a public meeting. I can’t talk outside these meetings with the six colleagues with whom I will share this decision. Unfortunately, the meetings leading up to tonight have primarily focused on the school administration talking to the school committee, with only a limited opportunity to ask questions of the administration.

We now find ourselves hard on a DESE deadline, with little or no opportunity for the committee to discuss our decision among each other. The key word here is decision, as the voters of the Town of Arlington have elected us to make decisions on their behalf. Our role is to decide, not ratify. Sadly, we find ourselves on the track to ratification of a hybrid plan, without evidence it is safe or educationally sound

In my view, we cannot build any plan without a foundation built on the health and safety of our students and staff. We closed our schools last March, before the governor shut down the state, because the risk of COVID transmission in our schools was unacceptable.

What is the probability of COVID transmission in September if we adopt a hybrid model? I can’t answer that question, but I am confident that the probability of bringing this virus into our schools is greater than zero.

What happens if COVID comes into our schools? Again, there is no certainty, just a matrix of probabilities that we still can’t quantify. We are told that younger children are more likely to be asymptomatic. We know that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people spread the virus. Without a robust, frequent testing program, we won’t know we have a problem until we see the virus generate noticeable symptoms. By that time, we could have a major outbreak in our schools.

When we look at the entry and spread of the virus into our schools, is unrealistic to expect a probability of 0; but I would want that number to approach 0. The lack of testing, the lack of precedent, the lack of proven models, and the lack of reliable data places us in a position where we cannot calculate the probability of sickness and spread in our schools.

I believe the wisest course is to open in full remote plan, and reconsider as we are able to collect evidence of success from other districts. There will be other Massachusetts districts similar to Arlington that will start with various hybrid models, and we can learn from their experiences. We can observe the public health data for these districts.

Going forward, this committee needs to deliberate and discuss the steps going forward.

As I mentioned earlier, the Open Meeting Law prevents us from discussing school committee business with our colleagues. The state has determined that answering email, in which it is possible for other members can read their responses, is viewed as serial deliberation and is a violation of the law.

To that end, I would ask for information requested and required for our work to be provided in a timely manner. I would ask for documents we request to be provided without question or objection, in a timely manner. I would ask for meetings to be structured to allow us the time to talk to each other, as we work together to guide the district through this pandemic.

I believe in science, and I believe the extraordinary efforts of researchers and public health professionals will lead us toward a full reopening before the conclusion of the school year. This year won’t be easy, but we will get to a better place.

Why I’m Sticking with Ed Markey

For friends and neighbors in Arlington, Ed Markey is a familiar face. When he was our congressman, he would find joy in marching in our Patriots’ Day parade. As a school committee member, I enjoyed the opportunity to stroll down the avenue with him. The walk was filled with good humor and stories of his work in Washington.

I saw the more serious side of Ed Markey when I went to Washington, lobbying with a group of Massachusetts school committee members. Ed always had the best legislative aides, all deeply immersed in public policy. Ed, himself, is the type of legislator who grabs hold of critical, under the radar issues, and masters the details in order to move public policy.

Because he is a workhorse, Ed is not as well-known as other statewide figures. This places our senator vulnerable to a challenge from an unremarkable congressman with a well-known and highly respected family name.

The Kennedy name could have fueled a progressive challenge to Governor Charlie Baker in 2018. The Kennedy name could have overcome the governor’s popularity veneer, and Governor Joseph P. Kennedy III could have moved a more progressive agenda through our mostly inert state legislature. Sadly, Joe Kennedy chose to bypass the challenge of replacing a Republican governor, but was compelled to challenge a progressive leader in the United States Senate. Why?

In a year we urgently need to focus on removing Donald Trump and his Republican enablers in the United States Senate, Joe Kennedy’s primary challenge is consuming millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours for a primary that won’t flip a seat or change control of the senate. We still don’t have the answer to the critical question at the center of Kennedy’s campaign. Why?

Since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, we have seen talented legislators using their platforms to move public opinion and public policy. We have seen newcomers Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley emerge as bold, effective legislators and advocates. Joe Kennedy? Not so much.

Joe Kennedy hasn’t earned a promotion, and there’s no compelling case for him to replace Ed Markey. Ed Markey is the visionary, hard-working senator we need and deserve, especially if we gain a Democratic majority in the United States Senate. His passion for public policy, and attention to detail, will be tremendous assets as we restore our democracy and repair the damage inflicted by the Trump administration.

Please join me in re-electing Senator Ed Markey in the Democratic primary. Vote by mail or in person. Your primary ballot is due in the clerk’s office Tuesday, September 1.

Statewide school accountability map – 2019

This is the second year of Massachusetts’ revised school accountability system. An explanation of the system is posted on the DESE website.

Published lists are not the best way to see the patterns and understand the data. Here’s some graphs and a state map displaying the results. A larger scale version is published here.

 

Arlington Override Votes – June 11, 2019

On June 11, 12,723 Arlington voters went to the polls and chose to support a debt exclusion to fund a new high school building and a $5.5 million operating override.
This map illustrates precinct-by-precinct turnout and the votes for both questions. Use the tabs to move between maps, and hover over a precinct for a popup with precinct details. A larger scale, higher performance version is also posted here.

Arlington’s huge 21.1% enrollment increase

I compared public school enrollments for all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts over a six year period (2012-2018), and Arlington has a 21.1% increase. With the exception of some small towns with enrollments less than 100, this is the largest rate of increase in the state.

A larger scale version of the map is available here.