School Committee Meeting, 03 February 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, February 3, 2016

All members present.

Subcommittees

2013fieldday3legsThe Subcommittee on Policy, chaired by Mr. Hoey, met on January 27th. The report from the meeting suggested a change to the LPSD school purchasing policy so that LPSD purchasing aligns with the City of Lowell purchasing policy.  Much discussion about the threshold of a requests (currently $5,000; proposed $35,000) that would trigger a Permission to Enter.  While the full committee supports the editorial changes (see meeting packet), there is a larger discussion about retaining the $5,000 threshold for a variety of reasons, number one being to keep a handle on how the school budget is being spent. This discussion will continue at the next school committee meeting.

Reports of the Superintendent

Three agenda items (2016/43, 2016/50 and 2016/44) addressed school year and School Committee calendars.  The Calendar for the upcoming school year was approved after Ms. Martin received clarification that the Massachusetts State Primary date was indeed a Thursday (9/8) and not a Tuesday (9/6).  The reason for the move to a Thursday election day is explained here, but in simple terms, the change is necessary to comply with Federal regulations for the distribution of absentee ballots to overseas voters.

The new calendar is posted here.

As several Lowell schools are used as polling sites, the reality of post-Newtown building safety is that schools are closed for students during election days. This policy also necessitated a revision to the 2015-2016 calendar to accommodate the Primary Election on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. The revision means that the end of school dates on the posted calendar need to be revised to comply with the mandated 180-day school year for students.  The new end dates (pending any snow days) are: June 16 (180th day with no snow days) or June 23 (185 days with 5-day snow allowance). And of course if there are more than 5 snow days between now and June 23, the school year extends further. [Revision 05 February 2016: New last date is June 17 due to snow cancellation today.]

Agenda Item 2016/44, a request to reschedule February and April School Committee dates so that meetings are not taking place during school vacation weeks when interested parents or community members may wish to take part was amended. The meetings are now cancelled with the possibility of a Special Meeting of the School Committee scheduled if the need for such a meeting arises.

Agenda Item 2016/58 addressed the need to hire an additional teacher and paraprofessional at the Bartlett School for students enrolled in a Life Skills program. The requested funding was $64,789. Currently, the number of students enrolled in the program exceeds the compliance number by 3 students.  After some discussion about funding (Ms. Martin points out this is the second meeting in a row that a request for a position was made) and what compliance for the program is, the item is approved.

While on the surface, three students does not seem like it would be a significant number of children to accommodate, the Special Education Department must ensure compliance with regulations in order to adhere to state and federal laws. All students need to have access to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). If you are unfamiliar with what LRE means, this link provides good summary information.

In order to be compliant with special education regulations, the ratio of students to teacher & paraprofessional in the Life Skills program should be no more than 12:1 (note that preschool ratios are 9:1).  As Ms. McCrystal (Special Education Director) explained, to achieve the compliant ratio, three students would need to be sent to an outside-of-district placement for their education, a decision that would not be necessitated by need but by number.  Cost estimates for placing for one student out-of-district would be about $50,000 not including transportation. 

Three additional agenda Items address:

  • athletic participation at Lowell High,
  • an update on engaging the legislative delegation and Lowell’s concerns regarding Newcomer programs (and the difference between reimbursement and program costs which are significant), and
  • an update for Community Service Day in the Lowell Schools.

The biggest discussion of the meeting was in response to the LHS Investigation Report (Agenda Item 2016/65).  The report has been made public and can be found here.

Among the many suggestions and discussions regarding information and suggestions in the report is one complicated question: Do Lowell School staff members – in all schools, not just the high school – mirror the diversity in the schools? And if not, how can the schools achieve greater diversity among staff?

The redacted report has been the subject of much discussion throughout the community; there are of course, privacy and personnel matters that impact the release of the redacted information. The Superintendent appears to be following the advice of counsel, and I would like to allow him the opportunity to follow-through. The suggestions that were made public seem minimal and should be acted on immediately. When an event this important happens to make our students and families feel unsafe, looking back at what happened and where breaks in protocol occurred are important. Ensuring that staff at all levels understand and comply with procedures no matter who is involved and increasing sensitivity and awareness to cultural differences and issues of race are imperative to school culture and the safety of all families and students.

One important suggestion in the report is to engage in more diverse hiring practices. Changing to a more culturally and ethnically inclusive faculty and staff is not necessarily something that happens overnight. Engaging in more inclusive recruiting and hiring from a more diverse field of candidates is just the first step, in my opinion. 

A more complex question might be how to encourage potential education majors from a wider cultural and ethnically diverse population. Do all students see a college education and a career in education as something within reach, something attainable? Or has the high cost of higher education coupled with the toxic public education environment turned potential educators away to other careers or fields of study? 

Last night, one of the comments was that diveristy in hiring is not simple; the corporate world is grappling with this issue as well. However, this does not mean we do nothing. I would agree with that. 

The incident at Lowell High has brought an ugly undercurrent to light. Looking at what has occurred in the past is a necessity, but the actionable items should not stop there. Looking at school department policies, sensitivity toward an incredibly diverse family population, and diversifying the school staff from top to bottom are all part of this larger conversation and effort.

The meeting packet can be found here.

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