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In The Arena

In the Arena: Unintended consequences

There is a definite line between activism and leadership, one that the Greenfield Town Council appears to be straddling as it considers a proposed amendment to the Wetlands Protection Ordinance.

The council’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee recently held a public forum on the wetlands issue, a well-attended event that was one of the more even-tempered and respectful development-related gatherings in recent memory. That was somewhat surprising considering that it was the first meeting since the revelation that Greenfield sprawlbuster Albert Norman had been granted pre-public hearing editorial access to the proposed ordinance.

Thankfully, that issue never came up, despite Norman’s presence. But one thing that was apparent during that two-plus hour hearing is that, for some people, the debate over whether a big box retail store should come to the French King Highway is still very much an open question — so much so that Norman took to the floor to remind people that the issue has largely been decided.

Another point of discussion — one that I hope the council remembers at voting time — is the inherent danger in approving an ordinance that is too restrictive.

“We live in a community where people are trying to do a lot of different things,” Conservation Commission member John Blasiak said. “And if you write a law that tries to block something, you are going to block a whole lot of other people who are trying to do other things which don’t fall into the category of things you want to stop.”

Blasiak says one such example is the very popular Connecticut River Watershed Council’s “Source To Sea” cleanup, an annual event where volunteers get together and pull garbage out of local rivers. Blasiak thinks without a waiver the cleanup wouldn’t be allowed under the law’s 25-foot “no disturb” zone near streams and rivers.

“It’s not permitted as near as I can tell,” Blasiak said. “It would be absolutely illegal. Do you want to stop things like that?”

This was too much for Norman, who said he “didn’t want anybody leaving this meeting” thinking that such a cleanup would be prevented. He also made it clear that he still believes the council needs to do away with the section of the law allowing the commission to waive certain sections of the wetlands replication law — the very waiver Blasiak says allows the commission to consider issues on a case-by-case basis.

“You can’t write a law that applies to every case — there needs to be a certain amount of flexibility,” Blasiak said. “If you tie our hands with very strict language, you are going to get a whole lot of unintended consequences.”

And, in the process, we may learn on which side of the line this council chooses to stand.

Charter school expansion

Beacon Hill lawmakers have once again opened the Pandora’s Box of whether to expand the number of charter schools in Massachusetts.

Charter school advocates, many of whom live in large urban centers with under-performing districts, want the commonwealth to increase the number of charters, which they believe will expand the educational options for children in those areas. The problem is the current system of funding education, which sends the state aid for each student with said student when they leave for another school — in turn, creating funding problems for their home districts.

“In places like Boston, there are thousands of kids on waiting lists for charter schools, and there are parents there who want those opportunities, but then it comes back to the issue of the money problem,” Second Hampshire State Rep. John Scibak said.

Maybe the problem is that the state isn’t asking the right question, like why charter schools have become such a popular alternative. I’ll bet if you took time to ask the parents of charter school students, a lot of them would tell you it’s because of the curricula because, let’s face it, there are certain things students learn at charter schools that they may not in a conventional public school. That is a policy issue that could change tomorrow, assuming the people charged with crafting said policy are willing to acknowledge that reality.

If Massachusetts is truly interested in improving the public schools, maybe the solution is to focus less on the financial dangers posed by charter schools and more on why they are successful. This means developing standards that give our teachers the freedom to be the educators they’ve always wanted to be, and that our children deserve.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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