It Isn’t Just the Cuts

undefined Budget season is going full tilt in Lowell and the outlook is definitely not very palatable.

The School Department is running on fumes: no K-8 libraries this past academic year, proposed cuts to fine arts positions, proposals to cut services for students in guidance, behavioral supports, Special Education. Who knows where it will end?

Well, here’s where I get off:

I think a question should not be just about what services and positions will need to be cut. I think the big questions is this: Why isn’t the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adequately funding schools so our children receive all of the services they need to succeed? 

By all, I mean: why are schools going without libraries, or technology, or nurses, or social workers, or paraprofessionals, or class sizes that enable an educator to address the needs of the students in front of them in a consistent, thoughtful, reflective way? Why are these and other services that enable our English Language Learners, our Special Education students and our students living in trauma and poverty to be better supported on the chopping block?

Today, across Massachusetts, educators, parents, students, community members are gathering in both Boston and Springfield to SHOW our Legislators that we are not willing to accept the flimsy excuses that have left public school funding scratching for scraps for the last 25-plus years. We are showing up to let you all know IN PERSON that it is beyond time to fix the Foundation Formulas and that our Commonwealth needs to fund our schools so that all of our youngest citizens get an equitable and adequately funded public education.

So even though I could be doing about a million other things today, I will show up, not only for the Rally at 5, but also to engage any Legislator who will agree to speak with me about the importance of funding our future through supporting the Promise Act and the Cherish Act. This is for all the students I’ve taught, the ELLs, the SpED students, the children living in poverty – and for my baby granddaughter, who just might be able to attend a fully and adequately funded school when she enters Kindergarten five years from now if the Promise Act is passed this year.

And that is why I’ll be attending today’s Rally to Fund Our Future on the Common. Will you?

Here’s a short-list of why YOU need to be at the Fund Our Future Rally

Every time I lead a Balanced Literacy course, I ask the participants to create a list of what is needed in the classroom IF funding were no problem. This Spring Semester group came up with these ideas. (yup, a couple tongue-in-cheek, but mostly serious).

Unfortunately, most of these are out-of-reach as our school budget reflects a 25-year under-funded and outdated Foundation Formula.

Our students deserve better. Get to Thursday’s Rally to #FundOurFuture on the Boston Common and send a clear message to those Legislators (and yes, there are some uncommitted in #Lowell who don’t see this as a problem) that it is time to throw on those big boy/girl pants and support the revenues that will enable our public schools to function on more than fumes.

There are events starting at 1 pm for anyone able to get to the Statehouse for them; the Big Rally begins at 5 pm on the Common. If you’re coming from Lowell – look for the Lowell sign so we can stand together.

I’m Not Giving Up On You

Maybe you’ve seen this awesome YouTube video floating around. If not, take a listen to the PS22 Chorus led by Gregg Breinberg, singing with Andy Grammer.

Look at the faces on the students who are about as engaged as any child can be. These are fifth graders and they are not only having the time of their life, they are making a memory never to be forgotten. What would their school experience be if there were no music opportunities in their young lives?

The former music educator in me can certainly appreciate the skill and organization that propels this group of musicians. But I would argue that the connection made to an art like music is just as important.

As a high school freshman, when my Dad’s career took him to New England. it was music that made the culture shock of moving from the comfortable Midwestern community in which I had grown up more bearable. There were friendships that were made in the music room; it was a place where I had something in common with my otherwise foreign New England peers. It was the only place I felt less of a freak or outsider.

What if that safe place that my high school’s music program provided had not been available to me? Because I was different, I already felt a lot of teenaged alienation, and yet, the experience of practicing with other students in our orchestra and chorus helped me to belong. And by belonging, I had a pathway in as a student; it made me into an engaged learner which is something that has stayed with me throughout my life.

One of the impacts bothering me about the test-driven curriculum that we see today is that the arts are in increased danger of losing funding during tough budget times. The disciplines of music and art are often looked upon a frills. I would disagree.

While not every student will choose a career as an artist or musician, our schools should be places where students can experience and appreciate the arts in a personal way. Sometimes, as it was for me, that encounter with the arts may become the difference between a dismal and exceptional educational experience.

As the budget season gets underway in our public schools, Gateway communities in Massachusetts are faced decisions about which programs to keep and which will be cut. When municipal school budgets like we see in Gateway cities do not adequately provide for educational expenses, the temptation will always be to jettison the arts. That I believe is not only short-sighted, it is wrong.

The solution, however, is within our grasp. With 25-year-old Foundation Budget formulas driving which programs are funded and which are not, the answer lies with the Legislature’s capacity for adopting the Promise Act and for making progress toward fully and adequately funding all of our public schools.

So on May 16, I’ll be on the Boston Common rallying with my colleagues to demand our Legislature does the right thing for our students. Somewhere in that crowd might be a young person for whom the arts is a safe way to engage in learning, just as it was for me. I not only won’t give up on you. I cannot give up.

The Envelop System of Foundation Budgets

When I first met my mother-in-law, I was totally fascinated by the organization she used to allocate family finances, the system we fondly refer to as the “envelop system”. My mother-in-law would take an amount of money each week, break it down into smaller portions, and put each portion in its own coin-sized manila envelop which was kept handy throughout the week.

For example, if she budgeted $100 for food shopping throughout the week, five $20-bills would be put into the grocery envelop. When the money was gone, she either shifted cash from another envelop to buy something or went without until next payday.

In my mind, this is an apt analogy for what is happening in the Foundation Budget nightmare currently in place in our Commonwealth. The Commonwealth assigns a set dollar amount of aid for each community based on particular spending allocations, the chunk of money arrives at the municipality and when it doesn’t fully cover one spending category, the schools shift the funding from one category to another that has been shorted.

However, one of the biggest issues with the Commonwealth’s envelop system is that the money going into each envelop is the same amount as was used in 1993, over 25 years ago. Imagine trying to run your own household using the same amounts of cash as you comfortably spent in 1993.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

In Lowell, we heard last Monday about a shortfall of nearly 500 classroom teachers each year. Big underfunded and under-calculated items in the Foundation Budget are surely contributing factors to this. If a district such as Lowell has huge differences between the Commonwealth’s foundation budget determinations for school spending and the amount spent is more than what has been put aside, there are two choices.

Applying the “envelop system” demands a municipality either a) add money from the municipal coffers to make up that difference or b) shift funding from one category to another.

Of course these differences between state funding and actual spending are quite common – not to mention quite large – when the basis for the Foundation Budget calculations have not be updated in about 25 years. If state funding is based in the 1990s but actual expenses reflect the reality of 2019, it follows logically that there will be a huge conflict between state funding and reality. The differences are exacerbated when a municipality, like Lowell, Brockton, Springfield or Worcester, cannot contribute beyond what has been calculated in the Foundation Budget numbers, something a more affluent city of town might be able to do. It follows, then that some difficult educational budgeting choices must be made.

A gateway city, like Lowell, has nearly zero percent chance of not feeling some excruciating budget pain which brings us up to the shortfall of 500 classroom teachers. It is indeed painful to Lowell and to our children.

Four major areas – think of them as “envelopes” – need Foundation Budget reform: English Language Learners, Special Education (not including the Circuit Breaker), Health Insurance and Low Income. All of these funding categories are based on amounts that were set in 1993 which means that when one looks at what the Commonwealth funds and what the expense reality in 2019 is, there are huge variances.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

Let’s consider the budget “envelops” for a couple of these categories. The Foundation Budget calculates Special Education spending at $16.7 million, but the actual cost of Special Education in Lowell is $31.1 million. That’s a difference of $14.4 million which has to come out of one of the other budget envelopes. Health Insurance as budgeted through the Foundation Budget calculations is figured at $17.3 million, but the actual insurance costs, even after switching to a cost-effective plan like the GIC, is $33.1 million. Surely no one in Massachusetts is expecting to pay the same insurance costs as they did in 1993, so is it any wonder that the Foundation Fund amount is so out of whack?

As a taxpayer, a voter, and as a former educator, I am shocked when local politicians claim there’s no money to correct this. I think it is more likely there is no courage because that is what it will take to face the reality of underfunding schools. Revenues to fund schools, as well as transportation and infrastructure, in our Commonwealth are essential.

The envelop is empty and there is no time to waste.


If you don’t like the numbers, just change the criteria

There is so much to digest from last evening’s Funding Forum. So I’m just going to start with one aspect of Massachusetts school funding – the poverty level calculations.

Here’s a bit of recent history. In 2014, the year prior to when I retired, the poverty level in Lowell overall was 75.1%. It was called what it is: Low Income and was based on free and reduced lunch statistics as explained in this report from Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When I retired in 2015, the Low Income Level in Lowell, was re-tooled as “Economically Disadvantaged”. In 2015, the number of students considered economically disadvantaged in Lowell was reported to be 49.0%. One would think the world would be knocking at Lowell’s door to find out how magically 25% of the public school student population was no longer economically disadvantaged. But, the world is not.

There was no magic solution. The same children I taught who needed supports because they came to us from low income families and socio-economically disadvantaged environments, simply moved up a grade level and experienced those same socio-economic traumas. This time, the supports were fewer. The change in counting these children was caused by the Commonwealth’s redefinition of how low income status should be determined. Starting in 2015, the determining factors became participation in SNAP, DCF foster care, transitional assistance for families, and Medicaid (MassHealth).

How does this impact school funding? To begin with, the Foundation Budget allocations contain a calculation to support low income students. The low income multiplier is applied to a community’s low income population to assist with supports these children may require in order to be on an equitable playing field with children who do not experience poverty. So when the Commonwealth changed the definition of poverty so that fewer students were considered economically disadvantaged, the amount of funding available for support also decreased.

This is some pretty fancy footwork with data and statistics isn’t it? Correcting the calculations for low income support was one of the issues directly addressed by the Foundation Budget Review Commission 3 years ago. It is also one of the many reasons why the Foundation Budget must be overhauled this year.

Our children who need support, whether that means additional academic support or extra-curricular opportunities before/after school, or essential wrap-around services such as programs that address health needs and food insecurities, cannot wait. Changing the definition doesn’t solve the problem. It just makes things more difficult.

Funding Our Future: Lowell Legislative Forum

As almost everyone with a stake in public education knows, Massachusetts funding of Public School education is in dire need of updating. Since 1993 when Education Reform and the Foundation Budget calculations were developed, there has been little done by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to update the funding formulae and account for changes in costs over the past 26 years.

Last July, after the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation to update the Foundation Budget formulae, the attention turned to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Sadly, the Foundation Budget Reform legislation was unsuccessful in the House and the entire effort fell short.

A broad coalition of advocates for not only K-12 public education funding reforms, but also Massachusetts public higher education reform worked together throughout the Fall of 2018. In early January 2019 when the new Legislature was seated, the coalition presented two critical Acts designed to provide funds for all students across Massachusetts public education systems. The two acts, the Promise Act and the Cherish Act, endeavor to bring critical funding support to K-12 public education and public higher education respectively.

As part of the state-wide and local coalitions working together, Lowell Education Justice Alliance or LEJA, has been hard at work in the Merrimack Valley to bring attention to the critical effort to update funding of our public schools. Along with LEJA, there is broad support from Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), Massachusetts American Federation of Teachers or AFT-MA, Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), SEIU, and teachers’ union locals in the Lowell area, including UTL495. By establishing this broad coalition and working with students, parents, and the community at large, we intend to bring attention to the needs that our schools are experiencing and work to fund our public schools adequately for the next school year.

On Monday, March 11, 2019, the groups sponsored a well-attended Legislative Forum which included Senator Ed Kennedy and a representative from Senator Barry Finegold’s office, and Representatives Rady Mom, Tami Gouveia, Tom Golden, Marc Lombardo, and a representatives from David Nangle’s office. Parents, students, educators, school administrators, and community members spoke about how underfunding schools has made a personal impact. We were fortunate to speak to several of the participants before and after their testimony, and we have compiled some of their ideas in our podcast, Episode 35.

It is clear that while many in the Massachusetts Legislature do understand the impact of under-funding schools and why that must change, not everyone does. We hope you, our listeners will consider joining this effort to convince local Legislators that our students cannot wait. We need to fix the Foundation Budget Formula now and Fund Our Future.

You can listen to Lowell Legislative Forum participants talk about why the Promise and Cherish Acts are important on this podcast from Episode 35, UTL StraightTalk.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lowell is, according the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, underfunded by $42 Million each year. You can read more about Lowell’s underfunding by downloading this flyer.

BUT, Lowell is not alone in underfunded Foundation Budget funding. Get the Facts about Funding Our Future by linking to AFT-MA Fund Our Future website OR use this interactive map from MTA to select a city or town in MA and discover how much that municipality is underfunded.

Confused about how the Foundation Budget works. We were too – take a look at this short video featuring Colin Jones from Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. Mass Budget & Policy Center also maintains an excellent website of resources if you are looking for more information.

Lowell Education Justice Alliance (LEJA) meets regularly in Lowell to advocate for students and public education locally. You can keep up with their efforts by joining the group on Facebook OR emailing lowelleducationjusticealliance@gmail.com for more details. All who are interested in Lowell Public education, whether a students, parent, educator or community member are welcome to attend meetings.

LEJA is affiliated with Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance or MEJA. You can visit the MEJA website for more information by clicking here.

If you are moved to contact your State Legislator to add your own voice and to raise your concerns about the Foundation Budget, you can find contact information for every member of the Massachusetts Senate or House by using Find My Legislator.

United Teachers Of Lowell 495 is participating in several statewide events for Fund Our Future. Please be sure to check our email blast, Five for Friday for dates and times. We welcome all members to make suggestions for future events.

PHENOM, of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, has a lot of information about the higher education funding bill, the Cherish Act.

If you were unable to attend the Forum, you can see a video recording of the presentations on Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance’s Facebook page.

The 5 Percent

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, the Lowell School Committee and anyone who was listening to the School Committee’s meeting heard the LPS McKinney-Vento report. The report enumerates homeless students in the Lowell Public Schools as defined by McKinney-Vento act:

The McKinney-Vento act defines homeless students as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason.

– March 1, 2019 Report to Lowell School Committee

As of March 1, that number in Lowell was 982 – and actually climbed a bit from there due to students displaced by two fires in the City. The reported number of homeless children, however, represents 5 percent of Lowell Public Schools’ students.

This is a heart-breaking situation, and it is one that I, a former teacher, was aware of when I was a teacher. Nearly every year in which I taught, I had one – and sometimes more – students who were identified as homeless. They lived in shelters, they lived temporarily with a neighbor or relatives, and yes, some of them were living in a vehicle until their situation was discovered by Social Workers.

This brings me to the point of writing this entry: in our public schools, we rely on Social Workers, Counselors, and Health professionals to help us not only to identify which students and families are in trauma, but to help mitigate the circumstances in which they find themselves. In our public schools, with 5 percent of a given student population in crisis due to housing uncertainty, that is a massive responsibility for which there are some, but not many solutions.

Lowell’s McKinney-Vento report sparked a lot of conversations, as well as people asking “what can we do”? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know our school social workers, with caseloads stretched beyond reasonableness, are a key response to students and families living the trauma of becoming homeless.

With burgeoning caseloads, our schools need more professional, trained school counselors, social workers, and wrap-around services to support the homeless in our midst. That, of course, takes a monetary investment.

You may have heard me state that the outdated Foundation Budget calculations, now over 25 years old, are shortchanging Lowell Public Schools by $42 million each year. That is not just a guess on my part, but an estimate based on real numbers that come from Mass. Budget & Policy Center. School funding is a crisis for which the solution – fully funding schools by updating ridiculously outdated funding forumulae – should be a priority.

Our community’s children cannot wait.