Newton NIMBY, meet Newton CODS

Cods in Newton? Licensed from Depositphotos

Someone recently asked me how to handle a Twitter troll account that attacked anyone opposed to development at Riverside, regardless of the merit of the concern, as a “Newton NIMBY.”

Dealing with the troll is easy, I said. Just block them on Twitter. They won’t see your tweets, and you won’t see theirs. If the person behind the account elevates name-calling to harassment or threats, it’s possible to report that account.

But there’s another issue to address here: The use of the terms “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard”) and “NIMBYism” by people other than trolls, including activists, some Newton city councilors, and even the former mayor.

As I told this person, “Newton NIMBY” is a patronizing, insulting acronym meant to steamroll all arguments (good or bad) against massive development and put local residents on the defensive. It’s employed as a shrill battering ram against people who dare to raise questions about earlier agreements being abandoned by developers and politicians, increased traffic on small roads like Grove Street or large thoroughfares like Washington Street, the impact on school enrollment and education budgets, and how other infrastructure costs will be paid for in the years to come. Paradoxically, “Newton NIMBY” lumps in people who are concerned about a lack of affordable housing in proposed “market rate”/luxury developments with zealots who don’t want ANY affordable housing in Newton.

While it’s possible to block the Twitter trolls who use the term, I would instead suggest attempting to engage normal people and politicians with a polite question:

If you want to call me a NIMBY, would you mind if I referred to you as a CODS (Co-Opted Developer Stooge) in all conversations going forward?

If a sputtering, indignant reply is the answer (“but I haven’t been co-opted by developers!”) then he or she should understand why others might object to being called a “NIMBY.”

At that point, honest discussions can begin on the basis of mutual respect and a willingness to listen to the other side’s legitimate concerns, as opposed to starting off with condescending, sneering labels that aim to ridicule the other side and silence the debate about development in Newton.

Image licensed from Depositphotos

Thoughts on draft #3 of the Hello Washington Street zoning plan

The city of Newton is soliciting responses from residents about draft #3 of the Hello Washington Street zoning plan. The area they are talking about stretches from West Newton to Newtonville to the edge of Nonantum. Certainly no one wants to preserve run-down commercial properties, but what the mayor is trying to force on local residents (while trying to portray “Hello Washington Street” as a community-driven plan) is a massive developer giveaway worth hundreds of millions of dollars that burden the city with massive school, traffic, and infrastructure costs for decades to come. City Councilor Emily Norton was absolutely right when she said a few months back that the mayor is “bending over backwards” to accommodate developers.

Personally, I’m extremely skeptical of the way this is being handled (see Riverside and Newton’s draft zoning plans for Washington Street reveal “visioning” for what it really is) but remaining silent is not an option. Here’s the letter I sent to city councilors (residents can email the council at citycouncil@newtonma.gov).


Dear City Councillors,

I am responding to draft #3 of the vision and zoning documents for Washington Street. I have no idea if anyone will read this or any of the other comments I have made, let alone incorporate feedback from residents like me who are greatly alarmed by what’s being proposed. [UPDATE: The council president and several councilors acknowledged receipt] I have seen little change in the core concepts outlined in the successive drafts for Washington Street, despite widespread, vocal opposition from many city residents. Honestly, it seems that the current administration and some councilors would rather take their cues from developers, blogs, and the demands of activists, instead of from the ordinary residents who will be directly and irreversibly affected by this plan. Nevertheless, I want my voice to be heard, even if it is likely to be ignored.

The Zoning Document says:

“There is a strong interest in having varied building heights and cornice lines along Washington Street.”

Judging by the results of the Newtonville Area Council survey and the written comments left in the pop-up community centers when “Hello Washington Street” was launched, the above statement and similar claims made about buildings five or more stories in height are false at least where voters are concerned (from the NAC survey: “There is a strong preference for lower building heights: three or four stories.”). Conclusions in the draft plan that are based on such statements in the zoning document are therefore flawed.

The vision document says:

“Newton needs to create new housing at all levels of affordability in order to protect and promote one of the community’s core values – diversity. The city needs to expand its supply of low-income, middle-income, and even high-income housing choices.”

We have enough high-income housing choices, thanks to the relentless teardown phenomenon and desire of developers to squeeze as much profit as possible at the expense of options for ordinary middle class people, low-income households, seniors, and public workers. The above statement codifies the idea that “luxury”/”market rate” housing *must* be included in planning, which developers will be only too happy to provide en masse – with a mere sliver of options for everyone else. How about inserting language that minimizes or even eliminates the requirement that high-income housing be part of future developments?

The vision document says:

“If Newton is fortunate enough to see congestion because people are coming to shop, dine, work in, and explore the village centers, that is a sign of economic success.”

No resident sitting in a traffic jam on Washington Street in West Newton or Nonantum, let alone Needham Street in Upper Falls, Commonwealth Avenue in Newton Center, Grove Street in Auburndale, or any other thoroughfare, will be thanking city planners for enabling “economic success” at the expense of their time, effort, and other costs associated with driving to work or getting things done.

Many of the comments I have made elsewhere about Washington Street, including letters to the council and using online tools, still stand. Below, I am including my comment from March 10, 2019, which I submitted online but never got any response to and may not have been registered.

Sincerely,

Ian Lamont


My March 10 comment:

I appreciate the work that the planning dept has put into this plan, and the opportunity to redo some of the dilapidated sections of Washington Street. However, I and many other residents of Newton strongly object to the new “Village Gateway” (W-VY), “Station Area Central” (W-SC), and “Station Area Commercial” (W-SM) zoning designations. I have to ask how this was slipped into the plan considering the widespread public opposition to giant buildings expressed in surveys and the city’s own feedback-gathering process in the past year.

According to the draft, the maximum height *by right* for all of these zones will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall throughout West Newton. Village Gateway also appears in Newtonville to the edge of the Lake.

I’m sure developers and the tax office loves this prospect, but it’s not what residents asked for according to the Newtonville Area Council survey in October and the comments left in the pop-up community centers.

I participated in the early “Hello Washington Street” visioning process. The following comments were left by citizens on one of the “pop-up” centers in West Newton to collect feedback about Washington Street. Here’s what residents wrote when presented with a poster of large buildings:

“Too tall”
“Too big”
“Bad shadows”
“Big buildings ugly”
“Too urban”
“Air rights over pike”
“This doesn’t look like a suburb. Where are the trees?”
“No trees. Towers destroy neighborhood feel”
“Too tall. Too many people for the space. Too many cars. Overshadows existing homes. Overcrowding of the school system.”
“Seniors have few school age children and many no longer drive.”
“This is bogus. So unappealing I;m sure it’s only offered to make the other scenarios look better by comparison. West Newton resident.”
“No. This is not Boston. We do not have to agree to make Korff rich.”
“Never. We don’t wan’t Manhattan. “
“Have you been to Manhattan?”
“I love Manhattan and Tokyo.”
“No high rises in Newton!”
“Be careful. You will drive away all of the [] who make Newton a magnet.”
“No one who wants to make Newton a magnet can afford to live here now.”
“Underground parking is good. But these cars will still be driving around the city.”
“Way too tall. Big shadows on small houses.”
“Large number of affordable units”
“Build this over the pike”
“What about the existing residents who cannot unfortunately [] this monstrosity”
“Boston? MGH?”

In summary, almost NO ONE who lives in the city asked for developers to be granted 5 stories by right, or 10 stories by special permit. Even 4 stories is a stretch, considering the major impact on traffic, schools, and other infrastructure.

 

 

 

 

A Gold Ben Franklin Award!

This was a surprise: One of the titles my company publishes, Acid Reflux & Heartburn In 30 Minutes, won a gold Ben Franklin award from the Independent Book Publishers Association for excellence in publishing.

The author is none other than my dad, who at 80 years of age still goes to work every day at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston to treat patients, teach students, and serve as mentor to younger doctors. This book was a way for his knowledge and expertise to reach a wider range of patients suffering from acid reflux, GERD, and heartburn.

Kirkus Reviews chose Acid Reflux & Heartburn In 30 Minutes to be featured in the June 2018 indies section of the journal, and had this to say about the book:

The author begins with patient cases that show the effects of either GERD or heartburn on four people of different genders and ages. Using these stories at the very beginning of the book enables readers to immediately identify with the patients and understand that these conditions are universal. Each case ends with helpful takeaways that extract key lessons.

Subsequent chapters explore the causes of heartburn and acid reflux, how these conditions are diagnosed (including lucid explanations of medical tests and procedures), typical treatments, and a final chapter on severe acid reflux.

“Basic treatment of acid reflux,” one of the most helpful chapters, discusses foods that can trigger GERD and heartburn. Also in this chapter is a thorough look at acid-blocking medications, differentiating between H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors. Here, Lamont indicates possible side effects and covers recent research that may indicate a relationship between taking acid blockers and contracting Alzheimer’s disease. “Coping with severe acid reflux” is an equally enlightening chapter because it candidly addresses medication versus surgery for more serious cases.

The author clearly describes various types of surgeries, including the recent LINX device, in simple language. He acknowledges that his intent is to provide general information rather than specific medical advice. 

Many thanks to the half-dozen publishing professionals who contributed to the success of the book, including TLC Book Design, Rick Soldin of Book-comp, Monica Hamilton, Kammy Wood, and ENMASSE. In previous years, other books in the series have won awards from IBPA and Foreword Reviews, but never the top honor, so I am very grateful for their expertise and insights.

 

Riverside and Newton’s draft zoning plans for Washington Street reveal “visioning” for what it really is

Recently, the Newton Tab published an article about the massive new development proposed for the MBTA Riverside T stop. The Tab article, titled “Crowd offers feedback about Newton’s Riverside site,” quoted Mayor Ruthanne Fuller describing the visioning process for Riverside:

“‘This process, in part, is trying to figure out what is the right size,’ said Fuller.”

I have news for Mayor Fuller: The “right size” of the Riverside development is already known.

The last time local residents were asked for input to right-size development at Riverside, discussions took more than five years. The resulting agreement, finalized in 2013, determined that the right size for Riverside was 580,000 square feet, including nearly 300 hundred new housing units.

It’s not local residents who want to go through this process all over again. It’s being driven by developer Robert Korff and his business partner BH Normandy (who negotiated the 2013 agreement). Instead of the agreed-upon 580,000 square feet, they are demanding 1.5 million square feet, including two 200+ foot tall towers, and many hundreds of additional units of luxury housing. They stand to add hundreds of millions of dollars in additional value to their project, while residents of Auburndale, Newton Lower Falls, Waban, West Newton, and other parts of Newton are saddled with massive costs related to traffic, schools, infrastructure, planning, and more.

And despite the mayor’s insistence that she is listening to local residents, the evidence that we see in the actions and policies of her administration is that while we may be heard, the preferences of Newton Voters are largely ignored.

For example, the Newtonville Area Council’s recent survey of Newton residents found that only 12% (Per NAC email: “Actually, it was 4% of all respondents, and 5% of those with a height preference”) were receptive to buildings five or more storeys tall along Washington Street. Of those who expressed an opinion about the number of housing units, 86% supported 500 or less.

Similar opinions were articulated during the long “Hello Washington Street” visioning process. The following comments were left by citizens on one of the “pop-up” centers in West Newton to collect feedback about Washington Street:

Hello Washington Street Visioning Process pop up center Newton

The comments include:

“Too tall”
“Too big”
“Bad shadows”
“Big buildings ugly”
“Too urban”
“Air rights over pike”
“This doesn’t look like a suburb. Where are the trees?”
“No trees. Towers destroy neighborhood feel”
“Too tall. Too many people for the space. Too many cars. Overshadows existing homes. Overcrowding of the school system.”
“Seniors have few school age children and many no longer drive.”
“This is bogus. So unappealing I;m sure it’s only offered to make the other scenarios look better by comparison. West Newton resident.”
“No. This is not Boston. We do not have to agree to make Korff rich.”
“Never. We don’t wan’t Manhattan. “
“Have you been to Manhattan?”
“I love Manhattan and Tokyo.”
“No high rises in Newton!”
“Be careful. You will drive away all of the [] who make Newton a magnet.”
“No one who wants to make Newton a magnet can afford to live here now.”
“Underground parking is good. But these cars will still be driving around the city.”
“Way too tall. Big shadows on small houses.”
“Large number of affordable units”
“Build this over the pike”
“What about the existing residents who cannot unfortunately [] this monstrosity”
“Boston? MGH?”

Now that the second draft of the vision and zoning plans for Washington Street have been published, it’s clear that there is a huge gap in what residents asked for and what we will be getting. Huge tracts of land from West Newton Square to the Armory/Trader Joes, parts of Newtonville on either side of the Pike, the lots where Marty’s and Whole Foods now stand, and the commercial parcels diagonally opposite Our Lady’s church in the Lake, will fall under the new “Village Gateway” (W-VY), “Station Area Central” (W-SC), and “Station Area Commercial” (W-SM) zoning designations:

draft washington Street zoning map feb 2019

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

Nobody cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot (or, for that matter, run-down commercial properties along Washington Street). But when it comes to replacing what’s there now, the people of Newton are tired of negotiating deals that are later ripped up because developers insist on getting more, and participating in acts of political theater in which their opinions are solicited and subsequently ignored. Any new vision for Riverside should align with what we asked for — and the city, the MBTA, and developers agreed to — six years ago.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact ALL Newton City councilors TODAY (easy way: EMAIL THEM ALL AT ONCE via citycouncil@newtonma.gov) and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

Harvard Extension School now requires 12 courses for grad degrees, pushing the cost >$30,000

(UPDATED) This week I noticed that many liberal arts-focused graduate degree programs at Harvard Extension School now require 12 courses in order to meet the graduation requirements, compared to 10 previously. I don’t know when this happened, but it was probably in the last year or two (Update: the switch happened in 2018; see details at the bottom of this post).

For instance, the ALM Biology degree now lists the following requirements:

  • Proseminar
  • 5 biology courses
  • 1 biology seminar
  • 1 statistics course
  • 1 elective
    • EXPO 42c is an elective option
  • Crafting the Thesis Proposal
  • Master’s Thesis part one
  • Master’s Thesis part two

My own degree (ALM History) now has the following requirements:

  • Proseminar
  • 5 history courses
  • 1 history seminar
  • 2 general electives
    • EXPO 42b is an elective option

Additional Thesis Track Courses

  • Crafting the Thesis Proposal
  • Master’s Thesis part one
  • Master’s Thesis part two

Additional Capstone Track Courses

  • 1 additional general elective
  • Social Reform Movements in America Precapstone
  • Social Reform Movements in America Capstone

When I went through the ALM program, the thesis counted as a single class, even though no coursework was involved. What seems to have happened is the thesis (or new capstone) for these ALM programs has been turned into a three-“course” process that divides the thesis proposal, research, and review work into separate stages. But the stages themselves look pretty much the same as what was expected under the old single-“course” thesis requirement.

I use “courses” in quotes because they aren’t courses or seminars or lectures in the normal sense. The process is more like a series of one-on-one meetings with research advisors (at the Extension School) and thesis directors (Harvard faculty members) and sending drafts and comments back and forth via email. The thesis takes years to complete, as I documented on my old Harvard Extension blog. Many people get stuck in “A.B.T.” status (“All But Thesis”) and never finish.

Why bump up the number of required ALM courses from 10 to 12? I can only speculate (Update: See insights below from a current ALM student):

  1. Boosting revenue is an obvious incentive (see below).
  2. Setting  parity with the ALM in Management degree is another — the ALMM has been 12 courses since inception, as I recall, but without a thesis requirement.
  3. A third is the introduction of the “capstone” option to the ALM liberal arts degree for people unable or unwilling to do the thesis (see “ABT,” above). Because the capstone requires taking extra courses, maybe the Harvard Extension School thought it necessary to stretch the thesis coursework to 3 classes to make them “equal” from a cost point of view.

The impact on costs is scary. This paragraph on the thesis description page for the ALM History degree actually made me laugh when I first read it:

To ensure affordability, tuition rates for thesis work are the same as our regular 4-credit, graduate-level courses. Master’s Thesis Part One: $2,750 and Master’s Thesis Part Two: $2,750 or Master’s Thesis One and Two: 8 credits/$5,500.

Affordability? There are now three thesis “courses,” so the cost is $2750 x 3, or $8,250 – three times as what the thesis would cost prior to 2018. It also pushes the total cost for ALM degrees that require a thesis up 20%, from $27,500  to $33,000, based on current rates.

That doesn’t count as affordable in my book (despite the claims of “Affordable Tuition” plastered all over the Extension School website, as shown below), but with hundreds of students engaged in thesis work at any given time, it increases Extension School revenues by hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars every year.

Harvard Extension affordable tuition

UPDATE: A current Harvard Extension School grad student explained the switchover on Twitter:

“I find the thesis component being split into three separate courses a bit silly. I began taking the three courses for admission before the change (2017) and became a student after the changes (2018).

They gave students the choice at the time when I was taking classes in 2017 to stick with the old format or change to the new one which lowered admission course criteria by one class. So you only need two for consideration into the program.

As a result, we have to deal with the split thesis course (3 instead of 1) which is more of a pain than beneficial for some degree programs where the the administration isn’t as helpful in guiding students to resources to complete the thesis. Also, students foot the bill.”

Regarding the reasons why the ALM thesis now requires three expensive courses to complete, Simon says:

I think it was mostly to, in theory, give more guidance to students who need help getting through the thesis. Not everyone has written a paper or knows how to. It takes time to vet a proposal and do revisions. So I would imagine they want the research advisors to be compensated.

It’s true the thesis is extremely tough. When I was a student, only 52% of matriculated students were able to complete the ALM program, and a lot of that had to do with the thesis. It works well if you can write and can push yourself to complete the research requirements, but some people definitely need more help, even after the Proseminar, which is supposed to prepare people for advanced research projects.

Riverside MBTA developers Robert Korff and BH Normandy negotiating in bad faith?

Developer Robert Korff and his company Mark Development couldn’t have asked for a more helpful boost from the Newton Tab in the article titled, “Some concerned over short timeframe of Riverside visioning process,” published online on December 28.

In addition to publishing verbatim developer Korff’s Riverside PR spin points, the Tab failed to question some extremely dubious claims. “The Riverside development could be the economic engine for the city of Newton, but it’s going to require the density that we’re proposing,” he told the paper.

Economic engine of the city? What he’s proposing sounds more like a profit engine for Korff, with no additional benefits for Newton — in fact, it comes with significant costs, as I will shortly explain. And why were there no questions about his intention to rip up a signed deal he and his partners already have to develop the parking lot area at the Riverside MBTA station?

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here, since the Newton Tab wasn’t. In 2013, Korff’s business partner BH Normandy was granted approval to build a 580,000 square foot development at Riverside that includes more than two hundred new housing units. This deal came after six years of negotiations and lobbying with neighbors, local politicians, and city planning officials.

Now developer Korff and partner Normandy want to rip up the 2013 agreement, and force through approval for a far larger development that’s 1.5 million square feet in size, contains two 200+ foot tall towers with mostly “market rate”/luxury housing, and is only reachable by Grove Street, a narrow road connecting Auburndale and Newton Lower Falls.

Why are the developers trying to ram its new proposal through now? It apparently relates to the fact that Newton city council elections are taking place in November 2019, which would require them to start the application and lobbying processes all over again — possibly with a new slate of councilors voted into office based on their stances on the waves of oversized luxury development taking place in Auburndale, West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Upper Falls, and other parts of the city.

Developer Korff is orchestrating a PR campaign in the pages of local media, in “fireside chats” with neighbors, and PR street teams going door-to-door in Auburndale and Lower Falls that aims to grant himself and his business partners hundreds of millions of dollars in additional property rights. We don’t know what the exact figure will be, as this is surely a starting point that will be ‘reluctantly’ scaled back to something that still grants him a huge payout. He’s done it before — check out his tactics with the Orr block in Newtonville, which included using the threat of 40B and having the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce criticize skeptical councilors and community groups on his behalf.

His new plans for the MBTA Riverside development represent an aggressive land grab that would come at the expense of Newton residents, who would be forced to shoulder massive costs relating to schools, traffic, infrastructure, and parking. Meanwhile, there’s nothing in developer Korff’s PR points about affordable housing, housing for seniors, or housing for middle class families, as shown in the flyer his PR team dropped off at my house last month (see below).

The impact would be especially hard on residents of Newton Lower Falls and Auburndale, who thought the Riverside deal was settled five years ago but have since learned the negotiation was merely a preamble to yet more aggressive demands from developers. No one cares about preserving an MBTA parking lot, but there’s already a signed deal that developers, residents, and politicians agreed to. Developer Korff’s attempt to renege on it should be shot down not only on principle, but also to avoid setting a precedent for other real estate deals signed by Korff and other developers throughout Newton.

If you are a Newton resident, please contact all ward councilors TODAY (EASY WAY: Email everyone at once by using this email address: citycouncil@newtonma.gov) and let them know what you think about the Riverside development. Even if you don’t live in Auburndale or Newton Lower Falls, your taxes will end up paying for developers’ profits through increased road, school, infrastructure, and other costs. The developers’ tactics to rip up a signed agreement also sets a precedent for similar tricks in the future all over Newton, including Washington Street, Newton Upper Falls, Newtonville, and elsewhere.

The misleading flyer handed out by MBTA Riverside developers. The actual size of the proposed development is 1.5 million square feet, not 547,000 square feet. The “new neighborhood” phrase suggests this is intended as a luxury enclave, distinct from the existing village structure of Newton.

Robert Korff Mark Development RIverside MBTA parking lot development flyerflyer 121818 SMALL

 

All about Amazon Transparency

Amazon has rolled out a new program for brand owners, manufacturers, and Amazon Sellers called Amazon Transparency. I’ve explained what Amazon Transparency is and the requirements for getting started over on the Lean Media blog.

In a nutshell, Amazon Transparency is the answer to a very vexing problem: How to crack down on counterfeiters who are using the Amazon Seller program to flood Amazon with counterfeit goods.

My Amazon Transparency blog post touches upon some of the legal aspects involved (First-Sale Doctrine and U.S. trademarks) but also gets into some of the practical requirements for Amazon Transparency, including production, packaging, UPC/GTIN registration, and more.Amazon Transparency

You may also be interested in my Amazon Deep Dive for Publishers.

A new genealogy product for kids

As the owner of a small publishing company, I’m always on the lookout for new product or brand opportunities. The EasyGenie brand is in fact an offshoot of a book we published two years ago, Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes. The author, Shannon Combs-Bennett, mentioned how paper genealogy forms can be a great tool for organizing and recording family data. I took that idea a step further, launching a package of high-quality genealogy forms for amateur researchers. It did extremely well, but it was just for adults. Today, I launched a new EasyGenie product, a genealogy kit for kids to enjoy. Here’s a shot of the first shrink-wrapped package coming off the printing press:

EasyGenie genealogy kit for kids

Designing this product was quite unlike the other EasyGenie packages I’ve released in the past. The obvious difference is it’s intended for kids, not adults. Earlier this year, I conducted a brief survey of the genealogy for kids marketplace and was surprised to see how limited the products were, not only in terms of the range of products available, but the quality of the materials. In many respects, they were scaled-down versions of genealogy paper forms for adults, printed on cheap copier paper.

I realized that there was an opportunity to provide something more dynamic, that was not only made better (all EasyGenie products use archival-quality paper, and larger formats are printed on an offset press in the United States) but was also made with kids in mind:

  • The forms recognize kids’ natural curiosity and willingness to apply their own creativity
  • They encourage discussions with adults, rather than on-screen research
  • Explanatory annotations help guide them through concepts
  • Recognition that kids have diverse backgrounds, including blended families and ancestry in multiple continents.

EasyGenie kit for kids map sampleThis last point is driven home by recent government data on the nearly 74 million kids in the United States (“In 2016, 51 percent of U.S. children were White, non-Hispanic; 25 percent were Hispanic; 14 percent were Black, non-Hispanic; 5 percent were Asian, non-Hispanic; and 5 percent were non-Hispanic, All other races.”) So, the kids genealogy kit includes maps showing nearly every country and territory in the world, and encourages kids to decorate or annotate the maps with locations where their ancestors came from.

As with many new design-oriented projects I am involved with these days, I used the Lean Media framework to develop ideas with members of the creative team (thank you Janice, Malgorzata, and Julie) and solicit feedback during the production process from potential customers and users. (Not the same! Parents are the customers, children are the users.)

One other big difference is the packaging. Kids are not the neatest and most organized people in the world (I say this as a parent), so this kit comes in a sturdy three-ring binder which not only makes it easier to store the contents, but also helps to preserve what’s inside.

I want this new EasyGenie product to succeed, but I also hope that it sparks interest in a rewarding hobby and helps children and their families preserve information for future generations.

Learn more about the kids’ genealogy kit.

The Supreme Court shifts and businesses suffer

For more than 25 years, Internet businesses in the United States have enjoyed a big break: If a customer in another state buys something online, the company doesn’t need to collect state sales tax or file taxes in that state unless they have operations in that state such as a warehouse or branch office.

That is about to change, thanks to the recent South Dakota v. Wayfair ruling from the Supreme Court. This essay by a tax expert explains the situation and the impact pretty clearly. I draw your attention to the concluding paragraph (note: nexus is the ability of a state to require businesses to be responsible for taxes):

Many states have enacted economic nexus rules for income taxes that create a filing responsibility based on the amount of sales in a state. These amounts have generally been set at $500,000 and above. Now, states may seek to lower those thresholds to impact more sellers, and states that have not sought income tax nexus may move forward with new legislation.

I own a small business and use the Internet to sell goods to customers all over the country. The Supreme Court ruling is going to be a big headache. I don’t have a problem with paying taxes, but I do have a problem with dealing with 50+ entities (including states and territories) that have different filing requirements that will likely entail a lot of red tape. I don’t have a full-time accountant or staff that can deal with this stuff, so it falls on me to implement systems and processes to handle state taxes outside of Massachusetts.

I blogged my thoughts on this topic in As a small business owner, this is what I fear post-South Dakota vs. Wayfair, but the end result may mean not selling to customers in states whose red tape is too much of a pain … which hands even more power to big Internet businesses like Amazon.

Headmaster David Stettler’s latest (and probably last) letter to Fessenden alumni

Fessenden alumni received the following letter from outgoing Fessenden School headmaster David Stettler earlier this week (scroll below to see it). It’s the latest attempt at damage control that attempts to sound sincere while neglecting to mention several key facts about the Fessenden abuse scandal:

  • For many decades, Fessenden failed to protect students from child predators who were employed by Fessenden school as faculty or staff.
  • These predators committed sickening acts of sexual and physical abuse, scarring their victims for life. You can read some of the accounts written by former Fessenden student victims here.
  • When students and alumni reported abuse by these predators to administrators, they were ignored or kicked out of school.
  • Predators were allowed to remain at the school, and in many cases were able to abuse children for years.
  • When predators left the school, future employers (including other prep schools across New England) were not notified of the reported incidents, opening up the possibility that the abuse continued at those schools.

Like the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic Church, senior administrators failed to report abuse to the authorities for investigation and potential prosecution over a period spanning seven decades (from the 1940s until the beginning of the present decade). The Newton Police Department and Middlesex County District Attorney’s office never had an opportunity to investigate cases, because they didn’t know about the abuse. The case that was investigated in the past year which (mentioned in Stettler’s letter, below) refers to a current Fessenden faculty member.

When the Suffolk County DAs office in 1977 investigated a Boston-area pedophile ring that included two Fessenden faculty members, Fessenden administrators led by then Headmaster Robert Coffin claimed that no abuse of students had taken place on campus:

Headmaster Coffin's statements to the Boston Globe in 1977

This was a lie, and as a result of the statements by administrators to authorities and parents, no investigation was initiated at the school. Had they done so, they would have uncovered prosecutable cases of child sexual abuse involving not only the two faculty members (who resigned) but also other members of the Fessenden faculty, as described in this 2016 Boston Globe Spotlight investigation. Some of these faculty members were employed by the school into the 1980s.

Some other things to keep in mind:

  • David Stettler only told alumni about some of the earlier cases in 2011, and only because the Boston Globe had just reported some of the cases. In other words, it was damage control, not an effort to promote transparency or justice.
  • No Fessenden administrator, board member, or legal counsel has ever been cited for negligence in failing to report abuse of children at the Fessenden School.
  • The child predators were able to get away with their crimes for years at Fessenden, and possibly continue their activities after they left. They got away with these sickening crimes, scot-free.
  • The victims were left without support, ashamed of what had happened to them and traumatized by the abuse. Many have been unable to come to terms with what they experienced, and as adults became addicted to drugs or suffered problems relating to people. Some committed suicide.
  • There has never been any independent investigation into what happened from the 1940s through the 1980s and how the school handled those episodes (the “comprehensive, detailed, and impartial investigation” he refers to below relates to a current member of the Fessenden faculty).
  • No Fessenden faculty member has ever been prosecuted for sexual abuse of Fessenden students.

I was hoping David Stettler’s final letter to members of the Fessenden community (including alumni and current Fessenden parents) would have announced that the Fessenden School was finally announcing an independent investigation involving not just a current faculty member but also the evil child predators who freely abused Fessenden students from the 1940s through the 1980s, and got away with their crimes.

Now, it looks like Stettler’s legacy will be remembered as the Fessenden headmaster who could have done more to uphold justice for all of those who had been wronged and bring together a wounded community, but failed in the end.

To read more about this terrible affair, read these posts:

Fessenden School abuse scandal: It gets worse

Spotlight: More abuse at Fessenden and other schools. But why no official investigation?

Fessenden School and St. George’s: A tale of two investigations

The May 8, 2018 letter from David Stettler

Dear Members of the Fessenden Community,

One of my first communications to the Fessenden community, when I arrived as Headmaster in the fall of 2011, was a letter sharing our concern that sexual abuses that occurred at Fessenden in the 1960s and 1970s were broader in scope than previously acknowledged. The Board of Trustees and I believed that it was time to shine a light on this issue that has too often, and for too long, been hidden in societal shadows. From time to time over the past seven years, I have followed up to share with you what we had learned. As I approach my retirement from Fessenden, it feels appropriate to update you again.
Upon the release of my 2011 letter and subsequent interview and article in The Boston Globe, a number of alumni from the 1960s and 1970s came forward to tell of the abuses that they had suffered. Some chose to communicate with me directly, and some contacted us through an attorney. Some preferred to keep their stories private, and others shared openly with the news media. We have respected all of their decisions regarding how they have chosen to address the memories and aftermath of the abuses they suffered. And we have strived throughout to deal honestly, respectfully, and transparently with this history, while still respecting the confidentiality of the survivors.
One alumnus from the class of 1973 who chose to share his story openly with the news media has recently sent a letter by email to many members of the Fessenden community. You may have received his letter. In it, he details the abuses that he experienced when he was a student at Fessenden in the early 1970s. While we support his choice to disclose his story and share his desire to shed light on an awful chapter in Fessenden’s history, we did not supply him with the contact information for members of our community. I want to reiterate my deepest apology to him and others who were abused by those who were supposed to be caring for them. We continue to offer mediation, potential settlement, and free counseling and treatment to all of our alumni who were subjected to abuse.
Abuses from the 1960s and 1970s:
In October of 2011, I wrote a letter to the community and shared it with The Boston Globe. I offered to be interviewed by The Globe because of the desire to open public dialogue about the history of abuses. As a result of the letter and front-page Globe article, numerous alumni came forward to share their stories with me. The volume of stories and the repetition of perpetrators’ names leave no room for doubt that these abuses in the 1960s and 1970s took place. Therefore, for those former students of that era who contacted us through an attorney seeking financial remuneration for their suffering, we have participated in mediated financial settlements.
Throughout these past seven years, we have made no effort to cover up or hide any information about abuses that the survivors wanted to make public, and we have not asked for a confidentiality clause in any of the financial settlements with survivors. Fessenden alumni remain free to share their stories as a path toward healing and in order to shed light on this topic—that is what we set out to accomplish when we made our concerns about past sexual abuse public in 2011.
Allegation of abuse in the late 1990s:
In June 2017 and in December 2017, I wrote to you about an allegation of abuse dating to the late 1990s. This allegation is separate and unique from the era of the 1960s and 1970s, because it is from a more recent time frame and involves a present Fessenden employee. Therefore the Board and I believed that it could be and should be handled in a different manner.
When we received this allegation, we immediately notified state authorities, placed the staff member on administrative leave, and barred him from campus which required him to move out of his campus home. The School cooperated fully with the police and District Attorney’s investigation and also retained an independent law firm that was given free rein to conduct a comprehensive, detailed, and impartial investigation. In an effort to carry out the most extensive investigation possible, the School sent a correspondence to approximately 11,000 alumni, alumni parents, current parents, employees, former employees, trustees, and former trustees encouraging them to contact the law firm if they had any knowledge pertinent to the allegation.
The investigation by the District Attorney and the police found no corroboration of the allegation. The independent counsel’s report determined that the allegation was unsupported. The employee has categorically denied that any misconduct occurred and cooperated fully in all investigations. Given the conclusions reached from these investigations, the School determined that the staff member should return to Fessenden. To avoid the disruption and costs that are associated with any litigation, the School entered into a mutually agreed upon settlement with the claimant. The School did not ask for confidentiality as part of the settlement agreement. Prior to finalizing the agreement, the School was assured by the claimant’s attorney that the claimant understood that the employee might return to the School.
Throughout these seven years, the Board and I have endeavored to act with honesty, compassion, and respect. We recognize that not everyone has agreed with each and every decision that we have made, but we have tried to do our best. Similarly, we have made every effort to assure the health and safety of our students today by implementing best practices that promote healthy relationships that are aimed at protecting students from harm. In my earlier letters to the community, I have described the education of our students, employee screenings, mandatory employee training, policies, procedures, protocols, and practices that are currently in place. We are resolute in our commitment to the well-being of our students.
Sincerely,
David B. Stettler
Head of School