The Mystic Valley Charter School is once again accused of discrimination

Note: I’ve blurred out the school staff member’s name

The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School is back in the news and, as usual, it’s for all the wrong reasons. This time it’s for sending a Muslim female student home because she was wearing a hijab in violation of the school’s uniform policy, according to Lara Salahi of NBC Boston. The school admitted to it and said all the family needed to do was seek an accommodation ahead of time. But why should they have to ask permission to practice their religion?

In a message sent out on Aug. 19, School Supt. Alexander Dan claims that the brouhaha was the result of “one of the child’s older siblings posting misleading information about this issue on social media.” Yet the “School Uniform Compliance Form” is as clear as can be — the student was punished for wearing a hijab without permission, an obvious violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of religion. “Hijab” is misspelled “jihab,” which, as one Facebook wag noticed, manages to combine “hijab” with “jihad.”

Mystic Valley is a public charter school that receives tax money.

Dan’s message is remarkably self-pitying, as he goes on to cite — and link to an audio recording of — a threatening message received by a school staff member. The message, Dan writes, “contains extremely offensive, obscene language,” and Malden Police were notified. Obviously that shouldn’t have happened, but this is about the school’s ongoing racist practices rather than the reaction to those practices.

In 2017, I gave Mystic Valley a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for banning hair extensions, an action that disproportionately affected young Black women. Black students with long braids and dreads were taken to the office and inspected to see if they were wearing extensions. Punishment was meted out, including detention and suspension from activities such as athletics and the prom. That fiasco led to an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey and a settlement in which the school promised to behave itself in the future. Just recently, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of hair style and which was motivated in part by Mystic Valley’s actions.

In 2020, The Boston Globe’s Hayley Kaufman reported on concerns among alumni that the school was hampered by a “culture that penalized students who spoke out about inequities, while seeming to shrug off reports of bias.”

And now this. The time has come for the state to mete out some serious penalties.

By the way … sorry for the reproductions. I doubt you’ll be able to read them on a phone, but you should be able to read them on a laptop or tablet.

Can Medford afford a property-tax override? Taking a look at the data.

Winthrop Circle, looking toward Medford Square. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Warning: Hardcore Medford post ahead.

Forty years of Proposition 2-1/2 have caught up with us in Medford. City Councilors Zac Bears and Kit Collins have proposed a $12 million override, which they say is needed to solve our long-term structural deficit. Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn, seeking a compromise, has come back with a counteroffer for an override that would add $3 million to the property-tax levy.  Thanks to Gannett, all of this is playing out in the absence of any regular news coverage.

The debate is going to come down to whether Medford residents can afford to pay more property taxes. I’ve attempted to provide some baseline numbers, drawing on data from the state and the U.S. Census. (Thanks to those of you who helped me find what I needed.) You can look at those numbers here. Let me offer a few takeaways.

First, Medford’s residential property-tax rate is very low — just $9.01 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, placing us at No. 317 of the 348 cities and towns for which I was able to get data. (There are 351 municipalities in the state.) But that’s an irrelevant number, derived from our soaring property values. So let’s get to the good stuff.

Second, our property-tax burden per capita, based on a residential property tax levy of $105.3 million, is $1,766. That puts Medford at No. 248, or in the 29th percentile. By that measure, the property-tax burden here is relatively low. The per capita burden in bordering communities: $4,676 (Winchester, No. 23); $2,911 (Arlington, No. 95); $1,798 (Somerville, No. 244); $1,244 (Malden, No. 321); and $947 (Everett, No. 338). Everett is not an affluent community, but I suspect its property-tax burden is unusually low because of the taxes paid by the Encore casino.

Now, that tells you a lot. But our third breakdown should be the most useful, because it’s based on some measure of whether a community can actually afford its residential property taxes. I’ve taken the tax burden per capita and divided it by median household income. That might sound like apples-and-oranges, but it’s not, since I’m doing it consistently for all 348 cities and towns. In other words, the percentage for any one community may not mean much, but the ranking should work as a pretty accurate measure. Let me walk us through this a bit more carefully.

In Medford, the median household income is $101,168, which makes us a relatively affluent community (No. 129). With per capita residential taxes of $1,766, that gives us 1.75% for property-tax burden as a percentage of per capita income. By that measure, Medford is No. 313. That puts us at the 10th percentile. In other words, the property-tax burden is higher in 90% of Massachusetts communities than it is in Medford. Again, let’s look at our neighboring cities and towns.

  • Winchester, 2.7% (No. 108)
  • Arlington, 2.54% (No. 133)
  • Somerville, 1.76% (No. 308)
  • Malden, 1.67% (No. 324)
  • Everett, 1.25% (No. 341)

Let me offer one final calculation. If you add the mayor’s proposed $3 million override to our total tax levy of $105.3 million, that would be an increase of a little more than 2.8%. If you go with the Bears-Collins proposal to add $12 million, that’s 11.4%. That latter move would bring the property-tax burden as a percentage of per capita income to 1.94% and move Medford up to No. 265. But we would still be in just the 24th percentile, with residents of 76% of other communities paying more of their income on property taxes.

One argument we’re already hearing is that the override — especially the more aggressive $12 million override — is being pushed by affluent newcomers to Medford, and that longtime residents can’t afford it. There is something to that. If you’ve lived here for all or most of your life, you may very well be house-rich but relatively income-poor. We don’t want to force residents into selling because they can’t afford to pay their taxes. Property values are already spiraling out of control in Medford — up 10.1% between June 2021 and June 2022, according to Redfin.

By every objective measure, though, Medford residents can afford either override option, and even the higher of the two would still leave us well below the state average.

Correction: I’ve rewritten the top to clarify that Councilors Bears and Collins’ proposal came first, followed by Mayor Lungo-Koehn’s counterproposal.

Moskva or Moscow? Zelenskyy or Zelensky? Looking into a few linguistic puzzles.

Moscow University. Or is that Moskva? Photo (cc) 2007 by annaspies.

This morning I thought I’d indulge in a little linguistic trivia arising from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. I’m hardly an expert — I took Russian for a few years in high school and college but never learned to speak it. (At one time I could read it — very, very slowly.) So take this with a few grains of salt.

First, the name of the Russian missile cruiser that was attacked and heavily damaged by Ukrainian forces has been identified as the Moskva. You may also know that Moskva is the Russian word for Moscow. In the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s Москва. So why do we Anglicize the name of the city but not the ship? It is one of the great mysteries.

Second, we are told that Volodymyr Zelenskyy prefers the English version of his name with two y’s on the end. The Associated Press has decided to go with that preference as well. But others, including The New York Times, spell it Zelensky, with one “y.”

I would argue that Zelensky with one “y” actually makes more sense. President Zelenskyy is not a native English speaker (although he’s pretty fluent), and went with Zelenskiy before settling on two “y’s.” The Cyrillic version of his name is closer to Zelenskee than Zelenskyy. You may have seen what it looks like on Zelenskyy’s Twitter profile: Зеленський. Proper transliteration should be based on pronunciation.

Finally, what’s up with Kyiv versus Kiev? Here, at least, I think we’ve all gotten it right. Kyiv is pronounced slightly differently, and the Ukrainians argue that Kiev is an artifact of Russian domination. So Kyiv it is.

Is Putin seriously ill?

There are reports on Twitter from credible sources like Julia Ioffe that an independent Russian media outlet is claiming that Vladimir Putin is being treated for thyroid cancer. That would explain a lot of things — the puffiness, the extreme germophobia, the paranoia and irrationality.

Year-round daylight saving time may prove to be less popular than you think

Photo (cc) 2018 by Phil Norton

Now that we appear to be on the verge of adopting daylight saving time year-round, we are finally starting to see some long-overdue pushback.

In The Boston Globe, reporters Gal Tziperman Lotan and Sarah Fatima quote experts who say that although we should stop moving the clocks forward and back twice a year, we should settle on standard time rather than daylight time. The reason: sunrise that can come to Boston as late as 8:15 a.m. during the darkest weeks of the year is far more harmful to us than sunset at 4:15 p.m. They quote Charles Czeisler, a sleep expert at Brigham and Women’s, as saying:

In their zeal to prevent the annual switch, the Senate has unfortunately chosen the wrong time to stabilize onto. What the Senate passed yesterday would require all Americans to start their work and school an hour earlier than they usually do, and that’s particularly difficult to do in the winter, when the sun is rising later.

Czeisler is right — but do we really want to give up those glorious 8:30 p.m. sunsets in the summer, with the light lasting until after 9 for a few weeks? I sure don’t.

So is year-round daylight saving time the way to go? We’ve tried it before — and it quickly proved to be unpopular. In 1973, the federal government adopted a measure to abolish standard time in order to deal with an oil shortage. Andrew Beaujon of Washingtonian magazine writes that the sight of children walking to school in the dark led to quick repeal of the measure:

The early-morning darkness quickly proved dangerous for children: A 6-year-old Alexandria girl was struck by a car on her way to Polk Elementary School on January 7; the accident broke her leg. Two Prince George’s County students were hurt in February. In the weeks after the change, eight Florida kids were killed in traffic accidents. Florida’s governor, Reubin Askew, asked for Congress to repeal the measure. “It’s time to recognize that we may well have made a mistake,” US Senator Dick Clark of Iowa said during a speech in Congress on January 28, 1974. In the Washington area, some schools delayed their start times until the sun caught up with the clock.

In fact, Beaujon found, the increase in the number of fatalities was statistically insignificant, and we really did save a whole lot of energy. But the larger point stands. More sunlight in the afternoon sounds like a good idea until people see what it looks like when they wake up in the morning.

The Senate unanimously passed a permanent daylight saving bill on Wednesday, delighting long-time proponents such as U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, sponsor of the Sunshine Protection Act. The very name suggests that Markey is not a morning person. We’ll see whether it becomes law, or if it stalls once it reaches the House.

There are only so many hours of sunlight available. Some people may not like moving the clocks back and forth, but it’s probably the best of all options.

Sociopathy on wheels along the Minuteman Bikeway

The Minuteman Bikeway, looking west at Lake Street in East Arlington.

One of the best parts about living just north and west of Boston is easy access to the Minuteman Bikeway, a 10-mile paved path that extends from the Alewife T station, at the Cambridge-Arlington line, to Bedford Center. There are also spurs to Somerville, Belmont and Concord. I’ve biked, run and walked on it many times since we moved back to the area seven years ago.

On Saturday, though, I saw something I’d never witnessed before. I was running west, coming up to Lake Street in East Arlington, when the driver of a car pulled up to the path and proceeded to drive onto it, make a three-point turn, and then head off. I don’t think it was possible that he was confused about what he was doing. It was pure sociopathy.

I tweeted about it, and it went modestly viral:

It turns out that there are people in East Arlington who’ve been tracking such incidents — and that what I witnessed was actually predicted back in 2017, when plans were unveiled to improve the Minuteman crossing at Lake Street.

A couple of years ago I was running along a different stretch of the Minuteman at night, with a headlamp, when a driver lurched onto the path and started heading toward me. In that case I think he realized he’d made a mistake and appeared to be trying to figure out how to get off the path.

So what could be done? I suggested a couple of concrete barriers, but someone advised that you need to be able to get ambulances down the path. Someone else suggested collapsible bollards.

Certainly you need something. Riding your bike on a busy city street is dangerous, even when decent bike lanes have been established. You ought to feel as though you’re safe on a designated bike path.

Putin may be just getting started

This is what I’m worried about. Russia screwed up and lost the first week of the war. But they have endless capacity to ratchet things up and unleash wave after wave of hell on the people of Ukraine. From Talking Points Memo:

The Russian military is still holding a lot of their capacity in reserve. Even if things are going relatively poorly after a week they have lots of capacity to intensify their assault, lots of ability to make the onslaught much more brutal and effective.

The irrationality adds to the horror of Putin’s invasion

Kyiv street scene in more peaceful times. Photo (cc) 2004 by almasudi

What’s terrifying about Putin’s attack on Ukraine is that it doesn’t seem rational. He’s turned himself into an international pariah, and his country will be under crippling sanctions for years to come. It’s hard to see how this ends well for him — yet he did it anyway.

God bless the people of Ukraine.