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No Retreat for Opponents of Student Housing in Cushman; New England Kids Fare Well in Report; High Court Upholds Gay Marriage; and more

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013
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No Retreat for Opponents of Student Housing in Cushman

A protest by residents of North Amherst against “The Retreat,” a proposed 191-unit development that would house 700 students on 154 wooded acres in Cushman Village, has put an army of lawn signs in yards along the town’s northern reaches. Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga. has offered $6.5 million for the land, which for over a century has been the property of W.D. Cowls Land Co. An attempt to get the town to buy the property with state assistance and preserve 70 percent of it as woodland failed at this spring’s Town Meeting.

Cowls, a large local landowner whose properties embrace 600 acres in North Amherst, has pointed out that if the Cushman project doesn’t materialize, Landmark will likely move to develop student housing on another 150 acres near the municipally owned Cherry Hill Golf Course, a parcel considered more valuable from the point of view of conservation.

The conflict over the Landmark project is a symptom of a larger issue involving student housing in Amherst, where the student body at the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus roughly equals the number of permanent residents in town. Students renting quarters in private houses off campus cause disruption with partying; on the other hand, some live in hazardous substandard housing because of landlords’ neglect of their rental properties. The issue is becoming more controversial because UMass administrators have said they intend to add 1,900 undergraduate students to the university’s population by 2020.•

 

New England Kids Fare Well in Report

 

Kids in Massachusetts have it pretty good, at least compared to kids in other parts of the country, according to a new report on children’s well-being in the U.S.

The 2013 “Kids Count” report, put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked the commonwealth third in the nation in overall child well-being. Neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont placed first and second, respectively, with Connecticut in ninth place.

Children in the Southwest and South fared the worst, with Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico comprising the bottom five.

The annual report evaluates states in four areas: education, health, economic well-being and family and community, considering factors including the number of children living in poverty, parental underemployment, standardized test scores and infant mortality rates.

Massachusetts scored first in the nation in education, with 83 percent of its students graduating high school on time (versus 78 percent nationally), roughly half of its students achieving scores of “proficient” or better on standardized tests (national figures are around one-third), and 59 percent of its kids in preschool (the national figure is 46 percent). On all those criteria, Massachusetts showed improvement from previous years. In addition, the commonwealth earned points for its declining numbers of teen births, low-birthweight babies and teen and childhood deaths.

Still, despite its overall high rating, the commonwealth saw declines in certain measures of children’s well-being. The number of kids living in poverty (15 percent) and whose parents lack secure employment (30 percent) have both grown. The number of kids living in single-parent families (31 percent) and in high-poverty areas (7 percent) also grew.

While Massachusetts’ kids might be faring better than their peers in other parts of the country, there’s plenty of room for improvement, says the Mass Budget and Policy Center, whose Children’s Budget project examines how the state’s spending priorities affect children. For instance, one in six Massachusetts kids under the age of five lives in poverty—a problem that could be addressed by increasing the minimum wage, the group argues. In addition, Mass Budget notes, while half of Massachusetts kids are testing at or above grade level, that still means an unacceptable half aren’t.

The Kids Count report identified several worrisome national trends, including high unemployment and the “lingering effects of the recession”—two years after the purported end of the recession, childhood poverty climbed to 23 percent, with 26 percent of kids under three in poverty—and growing disparities between kids based on family income and structure.•

 

High Court Upholds Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court last week upheld the rights of legally married same-sex couples to the benefits given under federal law to heterosexual couples—benefits such as tax breaks, Social Security survivorship and pension payouts following the death of a spouse. In a 5-4 decision, the Court said the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that treats same-sex couples differently than other married people violates the Constitution, which guarantees all people liberty and equal protection under the law.

The decision came after the Court considered the case of Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a lesbian couple from New York who married in 2007. When Spyer died, Windsor was ordered to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that she would not have had to pay if the two had been a heterosexual couple. Under last week’s decision, she does not owe the taxes. The ruling by Justices Kennedy, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan does not mean that individual states must recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states, but the decision is an historic victory for the nation’s 100,000 same-sex couples.• —SK

 

SCOTUS Takes Up Mass. Abortion Buffer Zone Law

When Massachusetts legislators passed a bill in 2007 that created a protective “buffer zone” outside abortion clinics, critics vowed to fight it, saying it amounted to a violation of free speech.

Now the nation’s highest court will rule on that dispute. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it will take up McCullen v. Coakley, a lawsuit challenging the law filed by a group of protestors who regularly gather outside clinics that provide abortions, including clinics in Springfield.

The 2007 law bans protestors from standing within 35 feet of clinic entrances and driveways. It is an expansion of an earlier version of the law, which had been passed in response to the murder of two employees at a Brookline clinic in 1994 by John Salvi.

The case reached the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court upheld the buffer zone law earlier this year, calling it a “content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others.” That court added: “[T]he right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter health care facilities cannot seriously be questioned.”

Abortion opponents, however, contend that the law impedes on their constitutional right to express their position on the issue. In a blog post, Anne Fox, president of Mass. Citizens for Life, called June 24—the date the Supreme Court announced it would take on the case— a “great day,” adding that the law is “outrageous because it applies to only one kind of facility and to only some of the people there.”

Dana Cody, executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, which filed a brief in support of the challenge, amplified that point, calling the law a “clear case of viewpoint discrimination” in a press release. “Activists who make disturbances at military funerals, animal rights protests, and ‘occupy’ demonstrations are not bound by the sort of restrictions applied to peaceful pro-life witnesses who invite women to learn about abortion alternatives,” the release read. “It’s a true double standard and an unbelievable violation of First Amendment rights.”

NARAL Pro Choice Massachusetts responded to the news with a statement from Megan Amundson, its executive director, in which she praised the law for “transform[ing] women’s experiences in accessing basic health care in Massachusetts, making the once harrowing and often physically threatening experience of entering an abortion clinic safer.

“Allowing the kind of harassment that anti-abortion protestors use at health clinics is what drives women to back alley abortion providers or anti-choice-funded crisis pregnancy centers that provide medical misinformation and shame women,” Amundson continued. The law, she noted, does not prevent abortion opponents from protesting outside clinics, but does prevent “their ability to physically block the entrance entirely—a practice regularly used at clinics in Massachusetts prior to the passage of this law.”• —MT

 

BoA Employees Blow the Whistle

Bank of America employees were ordered to mislead customers about whether the bank had received documents supporting their applications for loan modifications, former BoA workers said earlier this month. The information appeared in sworn statements in a multi-state class action suit filed on behalf of homeowners in federal court in Boston. The homeowners were trying to take advantage of the government’s HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program) in order to avoid foreclosure.

A former BoA underwriter, William Wilson, Jr., said that every few weeks the bank told employees to deny all requests for loan modifications that were 60 days old or more. Bank employees were left to give customers any excuse they could for the inaction on their files, including telling them that the bank had not received their documents when in fact it had. The employees’ statements bear out anecdotal complaints that mortgagors sent the bank required documents and then were told that the bank hadn’t received them. Another former employee said workers “were told that admitting that the bank received documents ‘would open a can of worms’” because there was a 30-day deadline for processing completed applications and the bank didn’t have enough staff to handle the volume.

And, she added, workers who “placed 10 or more accounts into foreclosure in a given month received a $500 bonus.” Bank of America has said that her testimony and that of its other former employees is “rife with factual inaccuracies.”• —SK

 

Dorms at Community Colleges?

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has just reversed a ban, in effect since 1980, on building student housing at community colleges in the commonwealth. The goal is not to start a construction frenzy, said higher ed commission Richard Freeland; the recent decision means that the state will “be prepared to consider” proposals for dorms at Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges.

The down side: opting for housing at a community college may fatten a student’s bill. The up side, as the state explains it: a richer social experience and sense of participation in campus life, and higher graduation rates, are associated with the dorm experience. And dorms could give students the freedom to choose a community college not located within commuting distance of their homes.

During the recession, the pressure on community colleges to accommodate growing numbers of students for whom four-year institutions are too expensive has kept dorm projects off their officials’ wish lists. The only school that has announced an interest in dorms so far is Mt. Wachusett Community College in Gardner.• —SK

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