School Committee Meeting, 21 September 2016

2016-Mar-01_0051School Committee Meeting, 21 September 2016

6 present, Mr. Gendron Absent

The items on tonight’s agenda were mostly routine. Business completed in just a few minutes beyond the one-hour mark. 

Permissions to Enter

Three contracts approved for total of $120,200.

Motions

While four motions were listed originally on the agenda for tonight’s meeting, only one was considered due to Mr. Gendron’s absence. Mr. Gendron requested the 3 motions he submitted be considered at the next meeting (October 5, 2016).

2016/365 Mr.Gignac requested coordination between the City and LPSD in dedicating a POW/MIA chair. This coordination of efforts is already underway so that the dedication can take place during Lowell High School Homecoming.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 5 reports from the Superintendent in response to requests and motions.  The first 3 items were accepted as Reports of Progress; the last 2 were approved on roll call.

2016/367 Monthly Budget Report. Mr. Gignac questions and receives confirmation that the amount attributed to a Budget Analyst was in reality a temporary holding account (reminds the body that the Budget Analyst position had not been budgeted for). The amount charged in the account in question is zeroed out on a monthly basis as grant funds allocated for the position (grant manager?) are expended.  Ms. Martin reiterates her request for an Organizational Chart for Central Administrative positions. This request was put into the form of a motion. Report detail starts on p 39 in packet.

2016/375 STEM curriculum at Lowell High School. Martha Cohn and Paula Bransfield walked the committee through the STEM activities beginning with Kindergarten and percolating through Grades 10-12.  Several successes were highlighted: Project Lead the Way, Idea Camp, STEM clubs. The District has received quite a number of grants and been awarded funds and support from both the business and academic world.

This would have been a terrific Powerpoint to include in the packet.  Ms. Cohn and Ms. Bransfield highlighted the cross-curricular activities that have been developed, particularly at early grades. The activities and explorations used to develop engineering skills and process are inquiry based. That is certainly something that has been lacking in recent years and I am excited to see it return.  In using inquiry, students are presented with a problem and possibly some criteria for its solution. Through critical thinking and scientific process, they find solutions without the instructor telling exactly what to do – the words “no-tell zone” describe this perfectly. The instructor becomes more a facilitator and less of a lecturer. Good to see this returning to education!

2016/379 Opioid Abuse Prevention and Awareness. Mr. Gignac expressed some disappointment with the University’s feasibility study associated with this report as it lacked detail for effective awareness. Given the current crisis of opioid abuse, there is an urgency in this area for recommendations to impress upon students (children) the gravity of opioid addiction. While the partnerships cited are a step in the right direction, the progress toward addressing this issue throughout the grades is taking too long. Ms. Durkin offered that the report contained in the packet was an excerpt and that there is a meeting scheduled for Thursday, 10/22 with the University. At that time, Ms. Durkin hopes to have some of the questions about the feasibility study answered and receive some more specific recommendations for moving forward.

2016/380 Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan Revision and 2016/376 Home Education both passed on roll call.

New Business

There were five items under New Business:

  • 2016/362: Approval of an Educational Research Request. Ms. Martin requests further information (would like to see the survey instrument). Passes (1 absent, 5 yea, 1 present-Ms. Martin).
  • 2016/364: Vote to accept Grant award of $2,000 to Bridge Program (1 absent, 6 yea)
  • 2016/373: Approval of Expenditure Transfer. See p 92-93 of Meeting Packet (transfer to make year-end correction for FY2016. (1 absent, 6 yea)
  • 2016/377:  Reclassification of Position. See p 95-97 of Meeting Packet. Substitute Motion made by Ms. Doherty to delay until next meeting in order to receive further description of the position and update the position description. (1 absent, 2 no-Mr. Hoey & Mr. Descoteaux, 4 yea).
  • 2016/381: Vote to Approve Title Change. DESE requires a School Business Administrator to hold license in school administration; when a replacement for the prior business administrator was being sought, there was an effort to (locally) use the title CFO in order to attract strong business administrators who may be from out-of-state. Mr. Frisch, current holder of this position, applied for and received all the requisite licenses; the SBA title can be restored without changing salary or job description. The School Business Administrator is the title to which DESE refers. (1 absent, 5 yea)

Convention and Conference Requests (3) were all approved.

Meeting Packet can be found here.

The $100,000 Question

Massachusetts, one of the highest regarded public education systems world-wide, is embroiled in a ballot initiative, Question 2.  Question 2 proponents want to raise the current cap on charter schools to include 12 new charter school each year. Opponents – and full disclosure, I land in that category for a number of reasons – want to keep charter schools capped at current levels.

One would think that the state governing boards making decisions about which charter schools to approve and how many might try to maintain neutrality in such a debate. But here in Massachusetts, one would be wrong.

Paul Sagan, the appointed Chair of the Commonwealth Board of Education (by Governor Baker who is an advocate for charter schools and lifting the cap) is one of those who gives thumbs-up or thumbs-down to charter schools in Massachusetts. Paul Sagan, it was recently revealed, donated $100,000 of his own money toward the campaign tasked with tasked with getting Massachusetts voters to vote Yes on 2. Does that seem wrong to anyone else?

Mr. Sagan, who sits on a number of Boards of Directors, used to serve as an executive in a company called Akamai. Mr. Sagan, it was revealed yesterday, also deeded over some of his stock to a family fund supporting charter schools.

How, I ask you, is this allowed to stand? Why is there not more outcry for Mr. Sagan to resign from the Board of Education?

Mr. Sagan’s boss, Governor Baker, apparently thinks this is a big “nothingburger“. Yes, that is indeed the terminology Mr. Baker used to describe these ethically questionable donations when asked about it. Nothing to see here, move along.

Even if one were to swallow the spin that Mr. Sagan’s monetary support for lifting the cap on charter schools is perfectly allowable, there is an aura of cronyism here. Instead, of neutrality and impartiality when making decisions about charter school approval, it appears that the “fix” is in.

Political appointees are certainly well within their right to donate and support whatever makes them politically happy. However, when your appointed position on a very high-level board making decisions about how many and which charter applications receive approvals will be impacted by whether or not a ballot initiative passes, that is not a “nothingburger”.

That is the real deal, and a raw one at that.

07 September 2016: School Committee Meeting

IMG_0794School Committee Meeting, 7 August 2016

6 present, Ms. Martin Absent

Tonight’s meeting, the first after the start of the academic year, is the beginning of the regular twice-a-month meeting schedule.  The agenda was short and to the point – under 1 hour. Some of the Superintendent’s remarks were lost due to a faulty microphone. However, from what I could surmise, the topic will be revisited at a future meeting.  

Permissions to Enter

Contracts for both Deputy Superintendent Jeannine Durkin and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Robin Desmond were approved.  $56,000 to SEEN collaborative for out-of-district Special Education service was also approved.

Public Participation

Jonathan Richmond,  Chief Executive and Founder of the charitable organization Takeoff Space spoke to the School Committee regarding the decision process and communication resulting from a proposal he had brought to Lowell High administration, and ultimately, to the School Committee. The program, Takeoff Space, is meant to encourage and mentor top performing disadvantaged students to matriculate to top tier colleges. Mr. Richmond formally registered a complaint that his program was dismissed without due consideration. The High School made the decision not to participate in Mr. Richmond’s program because this need was being addressed through another previously established initiative.

Subcommittee Reports:

  1. Facilities Subcommittee: Approval of Meeting of August 11, 2016. The content had be discussed at the August 17 meeting. Minutes accepted as report of progress.
  2. Finance Subcommittee:  3 topics were on the agenda:
    1. Fiscal 2016 year end financials (including Apple hardware purchases and transfers to make up for loss of state funding for Kindergarten grant (paraprofessionals))
    2. Schedule/timeline for independent audit
    3. Fiscal 2017 year to date financials.  A motion was made and approved to develop a timeline for dealing with year-end surpluses so that the School Committee can decide how to allocate such funds.

3.  Lowell High Subcommittee meeting to discuss 4 motions by Mayor Kennedy.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 12 reports from the Superintendent in response to requests and motions.  Two of these prompted short discussion:

2016/338 Lowell High School Graduates Attending College.  During this report, most of the discussion could not be heard because of a faulty microphone.  The District provided a report stating that 83.5% of Lowell High graduates are attending either a 2-year or 4-year college this Fall.  That compares favorably across the state.  The Committee had a couple of lingering questions. One of these was the data presented show that many students are attending either a 2-year school such as Middlesex Community College or a state 4-year college (University of Lowell).  There was a question from Ms. Doherty as to whether students are receiving sufficient guidance and encouragement to apply for “reach” schools, such as the Ivy Leagues.

I attended state schools through post-masters work and have never for one moment thought that I didn’t get a superior education. It was “on me” to take advantage of classes and study, the value of my degrees came from the hard work I put into school, not from the name on the front gate. I also understand, on a parental level, what a financial burden attending a private university poses. Attending post-high school is a decision that only the student and his/her family can make, and while I would hope that Lowell High students are given information about grants and opportunities to attend their school of choice, I would hope the value of a public college or university will not be lost.

2016/346 Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan Revision. There has been significant revision to this plan due to new regulations implemented by the Commonwealth. One new feature is that the incident report will be available online and includes drop-down selections which will make reporting more efficient.  Ms. Doherty suggested that some clarification is needed regarding the timeline of responses. The Plan was approved and changes to include more precise language will be added at the next meeting.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/340: Permission to Post: PALS Program Head Coach. As explained by Ms. Durkin, the PALS program is funded through the university. University students provide mentor support for high school students.
  • 2016/341 Permission to Post: Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) Data Manager
  • 2016/342 Permission to Post: PALS Program Assistant Head Coach
  • 2016/353 Approval of a Study Grant

All passed.

There was no Executive Session and the meeting adjourned at 7:27 pm (noted by Mayor Kennedy). Meeting Packet can be found here.

Follow the money

DSCN0465With the election about 8 weeks away, there’s a lot of available “information”, and I use that term lightly, about Ballot Question 2 (Balletopedia website for detailed text and Pro/Con Arguments). For anyone who may have missed it, Ballot Question 2 favors lifting the current cap on charter schools allowing up to an additional 12 new charter schools each year.

I was having a discussion about this with a family member from a different state who pointed out that the “No On 2” people are not making their case strongly enough. The advertising on the “Yes” or lift-the-cap side is much slicker and more abundant. I don’t think that’s something that can be denied what with the MILLIONS of dollars being poured into innocuous sounding Question 2 proponent groups – groups with names like Great Schools Massachusetts, Families for Excellent Schools, and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

The names of these groups are engineered to lull voters into thinking these groups are something they are not, because who in their right mind would not want a GREAT school in Massachusetts; which family members would want their child in an EXCELLENT school?  In reality, thanks to diligent and tireless reporting – not from the fourth estate, but from ordinary citizens who have sensed such groups had something more than greatness and excellence in mind, one finds that the funding behind those slick and prolific ads urging voters to vote “YES” on Question 2 more than a bit misleading.

Here are three links to recent stories that all voters should read before deciding how to vote.

Ask yourself, what is the return on investment that will make shelling out thousands or millions of dollars towards lifting the charter school cap worthwhile for out-of-state investors and hedge fund managers? That is the $18 million dollar question.

First Days

IMG_1586 (1)It is back-to-school time here in the City in which I taught for nearly 30 years. You can sense the anticipation in the  breezes that flow down the Merrimack. There is  an almost unidentifiable change to the air. We are changing seasons; we are changing routines.

I loved the first day of school when I was teaching. Make no mistake about it, those first days – and oftentimes weeks – are exhausting as teachers and their new students work to find common ground and to build a community. The first day, the day when everyone wears a little vulnerability in anticipation of new things, the first day is special. And for every teacher who starts rebuilding a new community of learners today, I wish you the best.

My mind floods with the memories of some of those wonderfully special students who made the 30 first days that I was privileged to be part of special. So many unique personalities! You kids have enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined.

In 1990, I was returning to the classroom after a summer of health crises. I remember the exhaustion that year was not from teaching, but from treatments. Dragging my sorry self into a classroom filled with second graders was not only teacher-exhausting, it was physically and mentally exhausting. Yet every single morning, one of my bubbly, precious second graders, Anita, would throw her arms into the air and tell me “Mrs. Bisson, you look mahvelous today!” Now I know the reality was, I didn’t look even close to passable most days. Some mornings, Anita’s greeting was the one thing that kept me moving forward. A few years later, this special girl lost her own battle with cancer – and took a piece of my heart with her to heaven.

All of “my” kids whether you are grown with your own children or still in the middle of schooling, I am grateful to every single one of you. You challenged me to do better, to figure it out, and yet, every day you taught me something about making the most of our time here in our classroom community and on this earth. All those times when you thought I was teaching you, you were really teaching me.

Students are meeting their teachers once again today. May you all have a year filled with precious moments and memory-making. Cherish each moment as you build a lifetime of memories.

First Book/AFT Kicks Off Lowell’s Books on Wheels

FB TruckI’m really excited about this project!

When the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts (AFT-MA), our local union’s state affiliate, approached our local union a year ago about hosting a First Book/AFT Books on Wheels event, we were intrigued, but the timing was just not right. We may have had to put the project on a back burner, but it was never forgotten. And here we are at the start of a new school year, ready to launch for an event to take place in less than 8 weeks.  Things just got real!

The premise is really simple.  First Book is a national non-profit with a mission to provide new books to children in need, addressing one of the most important factors affecting literacy – access to books. Through a unique partnership with American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national affiliate of our local United Teachers of Lowell, we are planning to bring a semi-tractor trailer of new books (ages 0-18) – that’s 40,000 to 44,000 books – to distribute absolutely free to our teachers, schools, programs, and families right here in Lowell.

What is needed in return are 2,000 email addresses of programs and educators working with those children and families in need. By registering an email address, the owner can then access First Book’s Marketplace where brand new books are available for 50-90% off list prices. I personally used First Book’s Marketplace when I was in the classroom to round out my classroom library purchases (yes, teachers do indeed buy many materials) or to create a study set of a book a group of children were reading.

Our efforts toward earning the Books on Wheels Truck of 40,000+ free books kicked off last Friday with the newest faculty members at Lowell Teacher Academy orientation.  We will begin recruiting all returning staff – teachers, administrators, coaches, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria workers, therapists, librarians, school clerks, and tutors – beginning on Monday morning.

We know this is a unique opportunity to increase access to literature for our families. While a truck loaded with 40,000 plus new books is a.w.e.s.o.m.e. by itself, we are hoping to make this event even better.  We’ve also established a gofundme effort to raise $5,000 which will allow Lowell’s English Language Learner expert teachers/coaches to select literature from First Book’s Marketplace of Books.  Click this LINK to access our gofundme page and please, feel free to share with friends and neighbors.

8/28: (Calling out our First Book Lowell crowd funding link here: www.gofundme.com/firstbooklowell)

We will use any funds raised through gofundme to purchase books that are reflective of the cultural and language diversity in our community.  If 500 people donate just $10, we will meet our goal, and if we exceed our goal we’ll be able to purchase even greater numbers of culturally appropriate books for our families and readers.

Our goal is to have everything in place for a Book Distribution on Saturday, October 22 at the Rogers STEM Academy. We are appreciative of Superintendent Khelfaoui’s support of this effort and especially grateful to Principal Jason McCrevan and his team at the Rogers STEM Academy for offering to host this event. More information on the Book Distribution and how you can help will be coming in a future post.

It takes a village, or in Lowell’s case, a city to make this endeavor a success. We are counting on everyone to help our village bring books to our children that will embrace the diversity of cultures and languages of our community.

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

School Committee Meeting, 17 August 2016

IMG_0794All present

This was a lengthy (2-3/4 hours) meeting due to not only the summer schedule of monthly meetings, but the financial topics that became the focus of discussion. Apologies in advance for the delay in getting notes out; I also presented information about First Book to the Committee (separate post to follow).

Permissions to Enter

Contract ratifications for the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendents were deferred to Executive Session, which followed the public portion this meeting.

Subcommittee Reports:

Mr. Gendron shared findings from the Facilities Subcommittee meeting of 8/11. The recommendation, followed by full School Committee approval, to name the Butler School Auditorium in honor of former administrator Mary Alice Foley was made. (Approved). Additionally Skanska, the Project Manager for the Lowell High School Building Project, presented a quarterly report of the work thus far and listed deadlines and timeline for the projected planning work needed to be accomplished ahead of a May 31, 2017 Mass. School Building Deadline.

While I understood this to be a huge construction project for the City of Lowell, I was unaware that the LHS Building Project is the largest school building project in the Commonwealth. There is a need to get the design “right” (sustainable with adaptability for future needs projected 20-30 years out) and to ensure that the costs are under control throughout all phases of the project.  The Project Manager, Skanska, is charged with this task and will work with the design team.  To view the timeline for the work that is envisioned, Sanska has provided details beginning around page 73 of the School Committee Packet.

Reports of the Superintendent

The Superintendent offered 12 reports to the Committee.  The ones receiving the closest scrutiny were financial in nature, but attention also was given to a facilities report by Mr. Rick Underwood. The Doors Open Lowell Public Schools announcement has been covered in detail by both Amelia Pak-Harvey of the Lowell Sun and through the LPS Website.  I was also wearing my “other hat”, co-coordinator of the Lowell First Book Truck Event in October, and will detail that event this week as we kick-off efforts to bring 40,000 free books to our Lowell Public Schools families.  Sharon LaGasse and Kristina Webber presented an end-of-year report on Food Services and the CEP program in Lowell.

The Purchase Order Report (2016/311), received extended discussion as it addressed some of the expenditures and encumbrances made at the end of the fiscal year. Mr. Gignac requested clarification some June 30 Purchase Orders including rental of the Tsongas Center (graduation) as well as hardware (Apple Laptops and carts).

Further in the discussion was the proposal for how to make up the last-minute loss of Kindergarten Grant Funding.  The Kindergarten Grant in Lowell is used in part or in whole to support the services of instructional paraprofessionals at the Kindergartens across the City.  On July 17, Governor Baker’s veto during the Commonwealth’s Budget process created a loss of funding for the Kindergarten Grant – and other budget items as well.  The Lowell School Administration  in attempting to find ways to maintain the paraprofessional positions, has resorted to what I liken to rearranging the deck chairs.  LPS had a budget surplus which seems to have some connection to the “fifth” quarterly circuit breaker payment accounted for in the 2015-16 budget of $2.8 million.  The carryover to 2016-17 is restricted by law to $2.3 million which leaves $548,000 to be returned to the City of Lowell.

Noting the amount needed to make up for the loss of funds triggered by the Governor’s veto, the LPS would request $527,642 once the books are certified by the Commonwealth (December 2016?). The City Manager had been alerted that there might be need for up to $600,000 in supplemental requests to make up for the loss. The trail of transactions as I understand it, would be this:

  • Funds in excess of $2.3 Million returned to City (approximately $547,000)
  • School Committee will request $527,642 supplemental from City Council
  • $527,642 will be placed by City in a Suspense Account (and eventually transferred to the line item needed to pay the salaries of Kindergarten paraprofessionals).

While there is an aversion to using one-time funding sources/payments for on-going expenditures, the Superintendent posited that these transactions will give the LPS a year to plan for how to fund the monies lost by the Governor’s veto on a more permanent basis.  In the end the Committee approved both the motion to request supplemental funding from the City Council and to place such funds in a Suspense Account (6 yeas, 1 absent – Mayor Kennedy).

In a related report, the update to Purchasing Policy (2016/321), an effort to bring the language in the current LPS Purchasing Policy in alignment with both City and DESE/State practice, was referred to the Finance Subcommittee for review.

The updated Hiring Policies (2016/331) giving qualified and certified Lowell residents an interview was passed.

A report on the status of Facilities (2016/326) was made by Mr. Rick Underwood,.  The enormity of maintaining facilities and the near-term end of lifecycle for building components of those schools built during the 1991-1993 school building boom is something for which the LPSD needs to plan. Many of the HVAC plants are reaching the end of life expectancy and are becoming difficult to keep in service. The custodial staff has an enormous amount of work to complete throughout the summer:  thoroughly cleaning buildings, floors, and performing other maintenance tasks (often with community programs in the building AND when temperatures are extremely hot) that are needed while the students and teachers are out of the building. During crunch times, the outside of the building – the landscaping – may not receive the same level of attention.

Mainly what I learned through this discussion is that the custodial staff have performed yeoman’s work to get all the facilities clean and ready for a new academic year. I know that  in the past, when I returned to set up my own classroom, the floors had been stripped, waxed, minor repairs performed – sometimes a new coat of paint, the the overhead lights cleaned. Any surface I didn’t have covered with packed boxes of materials was wiped down. The lockers outside the classroom were cleaned, the halls stripped and waxed and the community spaces maintained as well.

Maintaining the grounds at schools is also a huge undertaking, and of course, the grounds are what the neighbors and public see as they drive by a school building.  Adding landscaping to a custodian’s punch list is sometimes impossible, yet the grounds do need to be taken care of. Mr. Underwood seems quite open to seeking outside-the-box solutions for this, perhaps involving local landscapers in regular maintenance for a courtesy sign or involving community service groups as suggested by Mr. Gendron.

Before moving to Motions, Mayor Kennedy requested an update on when to expect reports for four motions submitted during the July 2016 School Committee meeting. A Report on Graduation Rates  and one on the STEM Program, specific to the High School is expected at the first meeting in September.  The LHS Curriculum Review in light of the building project is expected before December and the Suspension/Expulsion Policy is pending input and action by DESE.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/310: Update on Business Office Reorganization & District HiringMr. Frisch confirms that the number of bodies remains the same; however, report was very difficult to follow. An Organizational Chart with names would go a long way to clarify what positions are filled and which remain unfilled.
  • 2016/318 Accept a grant award of $2,000 for Wang School
  • 2016/322 Expenditure transfer request (see page 165-172 of Meeting Packet)
  • 2016/325 Budget Transfers (see page 172-211  of Meeting packet). These appear to be the detailed transfers of monies to balance accounts from 2015-16.

All passed.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.