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Buying Time in Mansfield

Mansfield chocolate wars part 2.

Like most people, I love bar charts, particularly those that illustrate something I am interested in. A fascinating example of the chart phenomenon is the “Snapshot” statistical feature that appears regularly in the South section of the Boston Globe – it compares characteristics of more than two dozen nearby towns, looking at a wide range of community trivia – real estate values, educational levels of residents, average number of cars per family, the length of the daily commute, crime rates, you name it. Mansfield usually tends toward the middle of the pack, except when it comes to one thing -- school issues.

I was not surprised to see in the April 5th edition that our town ranked the highest, by quite a bit, in the percentage of families with kids 17 and younger – a whopping 57.2 percent of our families have kids in school. Only Sharon and Westwood came anywhere close to that number. The state average is 43 percent.

What did surprise me was the title the author gave that chart – “Children Welcome.” Huh?

This brought to mind a recent funny story from a National Public Radio news and current events quiz show about a guy who had opened up a Southeast Asian restaurant in some small city. Because he didn’t speak the language of the country whose cuisine he was copying, he asked his appropriately ethnic head chef to spell out the sign over the front door in the proper Asian characters. But then he wondered for weeks why he wasn’t getting any customers from the country whose cuisine he was featuring.

He only found out later from an amused third party that the sign actually said, “Go Away and Don’t Come Back.”

Maybe that’s what we should add to all of our signs at the entrance of town, you know – the ones that say what a fine community we are. We should add, “Unless you are an Industry” onto the end of that statement though. It certainly seems increasingly obvious that at least some of our town officials and a whole lot of our residents regard school age children, either fully developed or only a gleam in their parents’ eyes, as a commodity much to be avoided. It’s as though each incoming child is wearing a bright T-shirt with the town’s per-pupil expenditure emblazoned on the back.

At the two recent planning board hearings on a proposed special permit arrangement that would allow the century-old Lowney’s chocolate factory to be redesigned for apartment housing, it became pretty plain that a huge part of the resistance to the idea was brought forward by people who equate apartments to a tidal wave of children – and the concomitant cost of their educations.

The finance committee and even the school committee have weighed in with similar sentiments. Some members of the several boards and committees who have put the issue on their agendas have stated that the factory, built about the same time as the town saw its first automobiles and electric lights, is in good enough shape to be a home to a modern manufacturing business. They want to retain this isolated behemoth as industrial property, conveniently discarding the fact that the last owners moved the whole operation to Pennsylvania to a plant built to this century’s specifications. Even with the cost of that relocation, the company is saving millions a year.

As someone once told me, there is the good reason, and there is the real reason. Should a great re-use of an original architectural gem that is part of our collective history be shunned because children are going to end up there?

Two weeks ago, I attended the public input session of the town’s “strategic plan” – a research and planning document that has been put together after months of work by a team of consultants from the University of Massachusetts. The team tried to predict out the town’s major challenges, as well as display its considerable strengths. Funny thing -- no matter which of the major planning topics was discussed at the session, what rose to the surface was the fact that to a person, we were more afraid of more children than anything else.

One man, with refreshing candor, suggested we plan for the population we have, rather than actively seeking to find any way possible to make the town hospitable to industry, but not to families. You can’t help but like the sentiment, even while the financial struggles revolving around the schools are tainting every budget season.

This week’s “solution” to the $2.5 million shortfall facing the April 24 Town Meeting is no more than a one-year fix, and the finance committee reportedly is far from pleased they were left out of the decision making process.  It is a move that, while designed to palliate the anger of thousands of parents who are watching their fine school system deteriorate for lack of funding, seeks to patch it by tearing off pieces of the budget that were destined for things the town really needs right now, and gluing them onto the school budget one more time.

Next year, the issues will resurface, because state funding is not coming back any time soon, and the numbers of kids in school are not shrinking enough to make a dent in the cost to the town to educate them.

I don’t think Mansfield is at all “welcoming” to children right now. It would be wise of the school district parents not to assume the problems are fixed, and not to assume this scenario will be repeated when next season’s budget monsters once more arise from sleep. It would be wise for them to question, just as much as those residents do who do not have kids in the system, how we are to sustain the quality of life in this town for all of its diverse population over the coming years.

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