Recent editorials of regional and national interest from New England’s newspapers:
Public education deserves a champion
Hearst Connecticut Media Editorial Board
Connecticut educators have made this clear: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos let them down. We join them in looking forward to the new person President-elect Joe Biden will appoint to oversee education in our country.
May that person have experience matched with the best interests of public education in mind. DeVos’s background is as a philanthropist who invested in for-profit colleges.
Appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, she pushed for an agenda more favorable to private education. She has sought to divert funds for public education to private institutions and supports vouchers for school choice.
The list of anti-education decisions by the education secretary is long.
Refused to honor student loan forgiveness programs at a time when debt is crushing.
Denied DACA and international students tuition reimbursement when colleges and universities closed early in the spring because of the pandemic, though they pay similar tuition as other students.
Proposed eliminating the entire $18 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics as part of a $7 billion cut in education programs last year. This included a 26-percent reduction in state grants for special education, a growing part of most districts’ budgets.
Claimed in 2019 that “students may be better served by being in larger classes,” which any teacher and parent would recognize as groundless.
Tried revoking the Borrower Defense Rule, which made private schools financially responsible for fraud.
And, most chilling, in response to the mass shooting at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018, DeVos suggested arming teachers.
That is one of the worst and most dangerous ideas ever proposed by someone responsible for education in our country. Teachers must teach, not pack weapons in the classroom.
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, who represents the Fifth District in Connecticut, pressed DeVos in a hearing the next year, but the education secretary declined to say she would not use federal funds to train and arm teachers.
Unlike DeVos, Hayes knows education at the local level — she taught high school in Waterbury and was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. In that role, she visited schools around the country and understands the challenges teachers face and what districts need. Biden said he would name a teacher as education secretary; Hayes would be a fine choice.
Not everything DeVos has done in office has been negative. Within an extensive school safety report following the Parkland shootings was a recommendation for social-emotional learning, modeled after the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement founded by Scarlett Lewis of Newtown, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was one of 20 first-graders killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012.
This is a critical time in public education. The pandemic is forcing hybrid classrooms or all-remote learning and exposing technology gaps among students. It is imperative to have a new federal education secretary who will help local districts in every way.
Our veterans deserve better
Daily Hampshire Gazette
More than 30 hours after learning of the coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Susan Kenney of Ware said she still couldn’t get an answer as to whether her father was alive in the home. Distraught, she wrote on all the windows of her car, “Is my father dead or alive?” and started driving to the facility. Her father, Charles Lowell, died of COVID-19 at the home on April 15.
Roberta Twining said her husband Timothy, a 77-year-old veteran living at the home who contracted the virus but recovered, was moved five times during the outbreak and at one point had no water, wheelchair or buzzer and “literally had to crawl over to the wall to get to the bathroom down the hall.”
Erin Schadel’s father, Francis “Skip” Hennessy, who contracted coronavirus and survived, lost his hearing aids, eyeglasses, clothing and picture of his wife during multiple moves around the Soldiers’ Home during the crisis. He was transferred to a COVID-positive floor and recovered and begged not be sent back to his original floor. “He would comment, ‘If only you knew,’” Schadel recalled. “And then he would stop talking about it.”
Anyone who paid attention to the recent testimony of veterans’ families and former and current staff of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke should be outraged. For two weeks in October, state lawmakers on a joint oversight committee listened as families of some of the 76 veterans who died from the coronavirus outbreak at the facility and others who survived earlier this year shared their pain and heartbreaking stories of loss.
Employees, 84 of whom contracted the virus, described being overworked and the trauma they experienced watching the people they cared for die. “It was a disaster,” Theresa King, a nurse, told lawmakers of the outbreak. She explained that as the virus spread, families were desperate for information, but that management barred staff from providing it to them.
The committee also heard from Paul Barbani, the former Soldiers’ Home superintendent, who testified that he encountered drastic understaffing and a lack of funding that jeopardized patient care when he became superintendent in 2011. He said he was even reprimanded in December 2014 by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders for discussing understaffing in front of state lawmakers. He retired early a year later in protest over the issue.
Today is Veterans Day, the holiday that honors veterans for their service every Nov. 11.
It may be convenient for some to associate the catastrophe at the Soldiers’ Home with the trials and tribulations that many nursing homes around the country faced when the COVID-19 virus spread, including at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea where dozens of veterans also died. But that is not the narrative at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. What has happened at the state-run facility this year is more than a human tragedy caused by an insidious and uncontrollable virus. It is a story of neglect and failure that goes to the highest levels of state government.
As state officials continue to point fingers and lay blame through investigations and by bringing criminal neglect charges against former superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton, many of the fundamental problems at the nearly 70-year-old Soldiers’ Home remain.
The probes are necessary to better understand what happened during the worst of the outbreak and to learn from the failures in decision-making within and outside the home. However, larger solutions are still needed at the Soldiers’ Home to ensure our most vulnerable veterans are taken care of with the dignity and respect they deserve.
An independent investigation commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker found that leadership made “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the death toll at the facility, that Walsh “was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility” and that high-ranking Baker administration officials failed to act decisively when informed of the developing crisis.
Given what we know, the resignations this year of Bennett, Clinton and Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena were a step in the right direction, as they lost the public trust. Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker appointed two new Soldiers’ Home trustees: Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, who is adjunct general for the Massachusetts National Guard, and Lt. Col. Mark Bigda, a Southampton physician who serves in the Massachusetts Air National Guard as a flight surgeon. They follow the July appointment of Brig. Gen. Sean T. Collins, a nurse practitioner who is the Air National Guard assistant to the deputy surgeon general, to the board.
And in October, Baker appointed Cheryl Lussier Poppe as secretary of veterans’ services to replace Urena. Poppe is a 30-year veteran of the Massachusetts National Guard who retired with the rank of colonel and is familiar with the Soldiers’ Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke, having held leadership positions at both facilities in the past.
The new leadership, including those managing the critical work inside the Soldiers’ Home, is welcome and comes with heavy responsibility. Moving forward, these administrators and trustees need to listen to the concerns of those working on the front lines and act on them. They need to pay attention to details. In addition, the state needs to make the long-overdue capital improvements at the Soldiers’ Home a major priority, which a coalition of veterans’ families and advocates have been calling on the state to implement.
Many veterans will be isolated this year as traditional parades, in-person ceremonies and pancake breakfasts have been canceled due to the pandemic. But the commonwealth can do something to recognize their sacrifices. It can pause and take a moment to reflect today, and as a new year begins, think about how better to take care of them.
The election is over, and it’s time to focus on COVID
Portland Press Herald
Ten days after recording its first day with more than 100 new cases of COVID-19, Maine reached another milestone Monday – our first day with more than 200 cases.
That tracks with the spread of coronavirus around the country, with new cases topping 100,000 for the fifth day in a row. The United States is now the first country to record more than 10 million cases, just 10 days after being the first to reach 9 million.
Medical and public health experts say we have entered what could be the most dangerous period of the pandemic, and with widespread deployment of a vaccine months away at the earliest, it will be up to all of us to put aside our differences and take action to stop the spread before the virus sickens and kills the people closest to us.
At least in one respect, we are better off this week than we were a week ago. Last week we were still in the middle of a hard-fought presidential election, the outcome of which was not known. Now we know.
According to state election officials across the country, former Vice President Joe Biden has the votes he needs in the Electoral College to be the 46th president. President Trump is disputing some states’ results, but to change that result, he would need the courts to throw out a minimum of 87,000 votes distributed among the four closest states in Biden’s column – Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin. This is a sharp contrast from the controversial election of 2000, when there was a disputed outcome in just one state, Florida, where the candidates were separated by only 537 votes.
Trump’s lawyers can continue to pursue long-shot litigation, but the rest of us should face the facts. The election is over. Biden is president-elect.
Judging from his tweets, this is not the way Trump wants it to end. And it’s not the outcome desired by his 70 million supporters, including nearly 360,000 in Maine. Many are still claiming that the race is far from over because the official count has not been certified.
But that’s not how elections work in this country. A new president and administration are supposed to be ready to work on inauguration day, and taking over the reins of the federal government to assure a smooth transfer takes time. Even in much closer elections, we have never stopped the transition from getting started while waiting for states to finish their canvassing process (which takes weeks) or for courts to settle every dispute raised by the campaigns.
An efficient transition is more important this year because of the pandemic. Unlike the campaign, which highlighted our differences, the battle against coronavirus demands our cooperation. Trump will be president for the next two months, and he will be succeeded by Biden on Jan. 20. In the meantime, work has to be done in a nation where millions of people are unemployed, students are out of school and families are in fear of losing loved ones to an unpredictable disease.
With Congress back in session this week, its first priority should be passing a COVID relief bill that would send aid to states, cities, businesses and out-of-work Americans. With the election behind them, members of Congress should be able to find a way to work together while their constituents are suffering.
It was good to see that Maine Sen. Susan Collins was one of the first Republicans to congratulate Biden on Monday and acknowledge his victory, pending potential recounts and court cases. That response has not been forthcoming from most of her colleagues and her party’s leaders, who are still behaving as if the outcome of this election were in doubt.
In a crisis like COVID, Americans need a government that is committed to protecting their health and welfare a lot more than they need another month of campaigning. Elected officials should do their jobs and allow the courts to do theirs.
The election is over, and the work of government can’t wait.
Right To Know Ruling Of Supreme Importance To Public
The Caledonian Record
Last week the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a secret list of serious police disciplinary records is not exempt from the state’s right-to-know law.
The High Court remanded the case to decide if releasing the list - known officially as the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, but colloquially as a “Laurie List” - would invade the privacy of the 270+ officers found on it.
That’s a positive development because it was Hillsborough Superior Court Judge Charles Temple who ruled, in April of 2019, that the list should be public.
Prior to these rulings, over 270 N.H. police officers were hiding behind the catch-all “personnel” exemption to the public’s open record law to shield their bad behavior. In May the Union Leader struck another giant blow to the insidious exemption (UL v. Fenniman) in which the Supreme Court ruled “…only a narrow set of governmental records, namely those pertaining to an agency’s internal rules and practices governing operations and employee relations,” should be kept from the public.
The disciplinary records on the N.H. Laurie List are known to include police who have been disciplined and/or found guilty of criminal conduct, excessive or lethal force, sexual assault, lying, falsifying records, or “sustained finding of dishonesty.”
Prosecutors are required by law to inform criminal defense attorneys if a police officer involved in their case appears on the list. NHPR explains:
The Laurie List takes its name from a 1995 New Hampshire murder case in which the conviction of Carl Laurie was overturned after it came to light that a police officer involved in Laurie’s arrest and prosecution had a long history of misconduct that wasn’t shared with the defense.
Under a landmark 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are required to disclose information which could exonerate a defendant, though in practice many criminal defense attorneys contend this doesn’t always happen.
N.H. Newspapers (Nashua Telegraph, Union Leader, Concord Monitor, Seacoast Newspapers, Keene Sentinel), the Center for Public Interest Journalism, and the N.H. ACLU brought the action in 2018. The transparency effort has been zealously opposed by police unions and N.H. Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.
“Police officers who are named on the list are there because they have engaged in sustained misconduct concerning credibility or truthfulness,” Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire, explains. “The public has a clear right to know this information. In this historic moment, there is a demand for immediate transparency concerning the police. While the Court has temporarily delayed this transparency concerning the List, we will continue to fight for this information.”
Thank goodness for newspapers and the ACLU.
Without them, N.H. residents would never have any idea if a responding officer, with the enormous power to detain and use deadly force, has a record of credibility issues or an itchy trigger finger.
The Supreme Court ruling is a historic win for government accountability and transparency, and paves the way for the list’s release, despite MacDonald’s determined efforts to snub the public.
As Bissonnette explained following his important April victory in Temple’s court, “the public has a right to know if there has been misconduct that could potentially impact the community at large.”
Of course, we agree.
There is an overwhelming public interest in holding the police to account. The privacy interest of armed government agents, investigated for malfeasance, should never have outweighed the public’s lone mechanism for holding them to account.