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Now, this week’s news:
Week of Dec. 10: Lexington News Roundup
Reported by Sophie Culpepper; Proofread by Harry Forsdick
- How did a widespread catalytic converter theft in Woburn impact Lexpress?
- Lexington’s Board of Health to receive 30K from the state’s Department of Public Health for contact tracing
- A driver for Van Pool Transportation was arrested at Lexington Children’s Place for driving under the influence of alcohol.
- Town COVID numbers continued to rise this week compared to previous weeks; LPS now records K-12 vaccination rates, not just rates grades 7-12.
- Community announcements: Upcoming LPS vaccination clinics, local election season begins, Wilson Farm chicken takes the Boston Globe crown
Catalytic converter thefts have been hitting Mass communities hard for months. Last weekend, Lexpress got hit — but had all services up and running again by Monday afternoon.
- You may have heard by now that last weekend, Lexpress, Lexington’s local bus system, was one of the victims of several catalytic converter thefts that hit multiple companies in Woburn and other Greater Boston communities.
- Catalytic converters control and ‘convert’ the toxic gasses in exhaust; they are essential for most cars, but can be larger in vans and buses. They are relatively easy to steal and can be worth hundreds each due to the precious metals they contain.
- Lexpress buses are provided by M&L Transit Systems, a small business which operates out of Woburn. Lexpress buses are parked in Woburn each evening and weekend, because the buses only run Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m..
- Lexington Transportation Manager Susan Barrett received notice of the theft early Monday morning, around 6:45 a.m, she told LexObserver. Lexpress drivers inspect the buses each day before boarding, so they noticed the theft of these vehicle parts during their inspection, she explained. Lexpress typically runs three buses per day, with one reserve, Barrett said; all four of Lexpress’ vehicles had their catalytic converters stolen, she said.
- Pre-COVID, Lexpress ridership was about 300-350 rides per day, according to Barrett; now, ridership is down to about 120-125 rides per day, she said. But those who ride Lexpress tend to depend on it heavily — so Barrett knew that any bus delays would directly impact Lexington community members. “One of the first people that called wondering where her ride was is someone with a disability who works in retail,” Barrett noted. “And if we have people working an hourly wage job, and they’ve worked — many of them — throughout COVID…to have something like this at the last minute disrupt their lives, it’s tough.”
- But riders weren’t the only ones hit hard by the theft; Barrett also immediately knew that the provider of Lexpress, M&L, would suffer financially. “This [theft] just pained me so much because of how it was impacting people who have been impacted so heavily throughout COVID,” she explained. Beyond operating Lexpress, M&L provides charter service for conventions, and that business “is hurting right now” as a direct consequence of the pandemic, Barrett said. “I just feel like, wow, this is like another thing to put these small businesses through; COVID’s been so hard, and it was yet another thing.” In fact, Michael D’Ampolo, the company’s president, was driving for Lexpress himself on Tuesday due to the company’s driver shortage, another widespread pandemic-related challenge for businesses.
- Operating during COVID-19 has “just been a nightmare,” General Manager at M&L Transit Systems Lisa Bernstein confirmed to LexObserver. “And then this happens — it’s even set you back even more,” she added.
- Unfortunately, catalytic converter thefts are not isolated incidents; there have been several reports of these thefts statewide for the past year. Catalytic converters include precious metals such as rhodium and palladium, so they can be melted down and sold to scrap yards. This is happening everywhere, Bernstein said; “since June, it’s picked right up.” It’s insidiously easy and quick to steal catalytic converters; it takes about 30 seconds to cut them out from under a vehicle with battery-powered equipment, she explained.
- The thefts hit gas buses and not diesel buses in the M&L fleet, perhaps because diesel buses don’t always have the same kind of catalytic converters, Bernstein said. She estimated that thieves can get $500-$600 per converter when they go to a junkyard. The junkyards are often “in cahoots” with the thieves, since they made little money during COVID, “so they’re happy to see this stuff coming in” even by illegal means, which makes it even more challenging to catch the culprits, Bernstein said.
- In addition to the four Lexpress buses, three of M&L’s other buses parked at the same outdoor location were hit, Bernstein said. And M&L wasn’t the only company hit that night; TransAction Associates, another transit company with Woburn headquarters, had 20 vehicles hit, Transportation Director Brad Schuler confirmed to LexObserver. TransAction’s cameras captured the theft between about 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. Monday morning, Schuler said, but the video was too grainy to capture faces or license plate numbers. MetroWest Regional Transit Authority in Framingham was among other companies hit, according to Schuler. “There were multiple locations that were processed” in the investigation of catalytic converter thefts, Detective Lieutenant Brian McManus of the Woburn Police Department confirmed in an email to LexObserver.
- At M&L, the security camera had been smashed a few weeks before the catalytic converters were stolen, Bernstein said; she thought they had been smashed during Thanksgiving, when everyone was away. But the parts for the cameras take a while to be replaced, so the company’s defenses were still down during the weekend of the theft, she explained.
- M&L has an engineer in Woburn on Saturdays in the day, Bernstein said, but unlike TransAction, they are unsure when exactly the theft took place. “We got the call at six o’clock [on Monday morning],” she said.
- These thefts hit small businesses hard especially because of the large deductibles — between $1,000-$5,000 — companies have to pay, per vehicle, before insurance kicks in. That adds up quickly when several vehicles are hit at once. In fact, since making a claim can cause the insurance premiums to rise, “when these things occur, sometimes it’s better to pay out of pocket and not put claims in,” Bernstein said.
- M&L has ordered permanent replacement catalytic converters, but has about 10,000 orders in front of them, the Lexington Minuteman reported. Bernstein confirmed this, and added that “nobody can give you a straight answer” on when they will actually receive replacement parts. Even before the thefts, because of COVID and much-maligned supply chain challenges, it was already very difficult to get any parts, Bernstein explained. While M&L keeps some replacement parts on hand, in their 39 years of company operation, they have never needed to keep backup catalytic converters on hand, Bernstein said. While insurance is an inconvenience, “it’s getting the parts that’s the big hassle,” she stressed.
- When Barrett first got the call before 7 a.m. alerting her to the thefts, “we didn’t think we’d have service at all that day,” she said. But by Monday afternoon, just six hours later, all Lexpress routes were back in service. How did M&L get buses back in action so quickly? “Our provider worked their tails off to try to track down alternative parts,” Barrett said. “We were fortunate in the sense that we were able to restore service; they worked really quickly.” According to Bernstein, Lexington is currently M&L’s biggest client, so ensuring Lexpress was up and running was a top priority for the business. “Michael called somebody, we got some stuff that we could make some repairs, and that’s what we did,” Bernstein said. Still, among the full fleet, they’ve had to switch buses in and out and add parts as they become available; “my mechanics are just working around the clock to help us,” she added.
- While Lexington’s buses are fully in service, some of M&L’s other services are still down, Bernstein said. For instance, M&L typically runs buses from the parking lot up to the Boston Convention Center — but had to cancel all those jobs for the week due to these thefts, “so that’s lost revenue for us,” Bernstein said. Worse, short-term losses of service can grow into longer-term revenue losses, too; “the fear is once they start and have to get somebody else, you hope the daily will continue to come back to you.”
- This is an active investigation, Detective Lieutenant McManus wrote in an email to LexObserver Thursday evening. “This is a regional problem, and appears targeted toward specific vehicle make/model and target rich locations, as opposed to specific businesses,” he added.
- Barrett and Bernstein both stressed that community members should stay on alert for these kinds of thefts; while buses seem to be popular targets, perhaps since they are easier for thieves to wriggle under, so are individual cars (especially Toyota Priuses). When Barrett discovered the theft, she informed other entities including the Lexington Police Department, the Lexington Public Schools bus operator and the town’s Department of Public Works to ensure they all were on alert.
- “Park your car in a well lit area at the mall, especially this time of year,” Bernstein admonished. “And if you see a camera on a pole, park near there; they’re not going to touch your car.”
- As for ways community members can support M&L, Bernstein just asked that people “pray that this doesn’t happen again. Because guess what? We were told that they’ll wait a few weeks, they know that you have to fix the buses, and you’ll put them back on and then they’ll come and do it again.” Camera parts take several weeks to arrive, and security guards can cost $75-$100 per hour, so security for the buses is challenging: “You can’t [pay security guards’ salaries] and survive seven days a week.” Other potentially effective protective measures, such as welding a plate or cables over the catalytic converter, would also have to conform to federal transportation regulations, and would be expensive — so there’s not an easy, fail-safe protective measure she can immediately implement, Bernstein said.
- “Hopefully we can catch these folks who are doing this and really disrupting people’s lives,” Barrett said.
- “There should be alerts going out there to people saying ‘this is what’s going on, be mindful of this’; I know COVID is a big thing, and it needs to be, but this is also a big thing,” Bernstein said.
Lexington’s Board of Health to receive 30K from the state’s Department of Public Health for contact tracing
- Last Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH) announced awards totaling $12.6 million for school districts and local boards of health across the state. Lexington’s Board of Health will receive some funding, but LPS will not, according to a DPH official.
- This latest funding package includes two parts. First, the Crisis Response COVID-19 Supplemental Funding for Workforce Development from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will provide $8.6 million in funding to 43 out of 300 school districts over two years through the DPH. According to the announcement, this funding can be used to add health support staff — whether by hiring additional school nurses, expanding the roles of school nurse district leaders, and adding other staff to support contact tracing, COVID-19 testing and student mental health needs. Second, the state Department of Public Health will provide $4 million in funding to boards of health across the state to support “COVID-19 contact tracing and case investigations,” per the announcement.
- Will Lexington receive any of these funds? No and yes; Lexington Public Schools is not among the 43 districts that will receive funding, but the Lexington Board of Health will receive approximately $30,000, a DPH spokesperson wrote in an email to LexObserver.
- Why is the Lexington Board of Health receiving $30,000? The DPH previously awarded over $10 million “in contact tracing grants to 197 communities and $4.7 million was allocated to 20 communities most disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 for their vaccine equity initiatives,” according to the spokesperson. But the most recent $4M funding is intended “to supplement communities that did not apply for and receive funding through the Contact Tracing grant program,” the spokesperson added. Lexington is among the communities that did not apply for funds through the Contact Tracing grant program, and variables including population and COVID-19 incidence rate were considered to determine that 30K was the appropriate amount to allocate for the town. Local Board of Health Chair Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays could not be reached for comment by press time. The spokesperson did not specify why LPS will not receive any funding. LPS is better funded than many of the state’s 300 school districts.
A driver for Van Pool Transportation was arrested at Lexington Children’s Place for driving under the influence of alcohol
- On Wednesday, Dec. 8, a Van Pool Transportation driver was caught and arrested during dismissal at Lexington Children’s Place for driving under the influence of alcohol, according to a schoolwide communication from Superintendent Julie Hackett.
- Van Pool transports special needs students throughout several school districts, including Lexington. According to Hackett’s letter, an LCP teacher noticed a small, empty bottle of alcohol in the van while relaying a message to the driver, asked the driver to step away from the van, and waited on the van with the children until the children could be returned to their classrooms with their teachers. The administration was notified and contacted the authorities; the police then arrested the bus driver.
- “We plan to debrief the incident with the senior management of Van Pool Transportation, and the matter is under investigation,” Hackett wrote in her letter, adding that LCP administration were reaching out personally to the families of the children who ride this specific van, that an experienced driver would take over the van starting Thursday, and that Principal Liz Billings-Fouhy would ride to school on the van with the children “to reassure families and help with the transition to a new driver.” Hackett could not be reached for comment by press time.
- “I see nothing in our report that indicates that the driver admitted to driving LPS students under the influence previously,” Lexington Police Lieutenant Chris Barry wrote in an email to LexObserver. “To my knowledge we have had no arrests of Van Pool Transportation drivers in the past while performing their job duties. I am unsure if we have arrested any Van Pool employees while not working for the company,” which would be very challenging to verify, he added.
- Van Pool Transportation declined to comment about the arrest to LexObserver. LexObserver previously reported that the van company responsible for transporting special education students in the LABBB collaborative, which includes Lexington, has struggled to hire bus monitors to fully staff LPS buses, meaning some LPS staff not hired as bus monitors have had to fill these roles. Van Pool is responsible for LABBB transportation, according to their school directory.
COVID-19 cases up in town; LPS begins recording vaccination rates of all students K-12
- Cases ticked up some more in town this week, unfortunate but not unexpected given statewide trends; as of today, the town had 46 new cases this week, 14 more than last week. Middlesex County still has the highest daily average of cases statewide, but Bristol has the highest number of cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times database.
- At press time, Lexington Public Schools had not posted this week’s case numbers. Last week, quarantines were down, but cases were up slightly; 20 students were quarantining, while 13 staff or students were absent who had tested positive. The cases seemed pretty scattered across LPS buildings, with most at the elementary school level.
- LPS recently changed its parameters for measuring the total number of vaccinated students; as of last Friday, Dec. 3, LPS calculates the total number of fully vaccinated students as a total of K-12 students, rather than just students grades 7-12, to reflect the eligibility of all students ages 5+ to receive the vaccine. The new parameters mean that just under half of LPS students K-12 were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 3 —49.5% of students. But, this reflects a total of 2.8% of K-5 students who are fully vaccinated (while 55.4% of students in this age group are partially vaccinated), in contrast to 92.2% of students fully vaccinated in grades 9-12, and 65.7% of students fully vaccinated in grades 6-8.
- LPS has more upcoming vaccination clinics, and as of yesterday, 16 and 17-year-olds are eligible for boosters, too. Appointments for two upcoming clinics — Dec. 13 and 23, appear to be fully booked, but Jan. 7 and 13, 2022 appear to have plenty of availability, all in the Central Office Gymnasium — can be booked here.
- Election season has begun in Lexington; candidate nomination papers became available this Tuesday, Dec. 7. Open positions this cycle include:
- 2 Select Board seats for three-year terms
- 1 Town Meeting Moderator for a one-year term
- 2 School Committee Members for three-year terms
- 1 Planning Board seat for a three-year term
- 1 Housing Authority seat for a five-year term
- Multiple Town meeting seats, divided by precinct
- You can contact the Town Clerk’s office at at 781-698-4558, or email email@example.com to get candidate nomination papers. The annual Town Election is scheduled for March 7, 2022. More information about running for office and participating in local elections is available on the town website.
- Does it taste like chicken, or does it taste like Wilson Farm-bought chicken? According to a delightful piece in the Boston Globe Tuesday, Green Circle Whole Chicken, free-range chickens “raised by 17 farmers in Amish country in Pennsylvania” and available at Wilson Farm were the best among nine chickens sampled by the designated tasters. You can read their whole list, brimming with delicious quotes, here.
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Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu and Vivian Wang