Budget Meeting Part 2, 11 May 2016

School Committee Public Budget Hearing, Part 2

11 May 2015

All members present.

The Budget Hearing was taped for later broadcast. The originally proposed budget can be found on the LPS website here.  Changed budget allocations will hopefully be published sooner rather than later because there were many, MANY changes as the budget numbers were revised to reflect suggestions from the School Committee.  

The Committee continued the detailed budget analysis and approval process, reserving the last part of the meeting for LPS Administration responses to queries. Process begins on Page 37 of the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget document (Account 5100/5200).

Mr. Gignac asked whether or not Mr. Frisch had reached out to the City Auditor regarding legalities of using monies from Food Service Revolving Account to offset the salaries of two Health/Nutrition Teachers. When Mr. Frisch said he had not, Mr. Gignac said that he had done so and had discovered that using Revolving Account monies for teaching salaries was not allowable. After brief discussion, motions made to realign offset from Food Service Revolving Account to Account 2300 to Account 1400 (page 18, 23, and page 37).

During discussion of Account 5300 (Rentals), Mr. Hoey commented that he was against paying rent and that the LPS Central Office location on Merrimack Street was not a good use for Downtown Lowell storefront location.  His suggestion was that, in the process of either locating space for other school programs or in the process of the High School building/renovation project, some land/space be located for Central Offices.  Both Mr. Gendron and Mayor Kennedy spoke in favor of the Merrimack Street offices as a viable solution (for the present) and cited the advantages to Downtown businesses by having a School Department presence on Merrimack Street.

The School Committee Suspense Acvount (9000) was adjusted several times over the past two meeting to account for a teacher’s salary that had been listed in two places. A line item request for an allocation for Choral Music budget was offered by Mr. Descoteaux at this meeting. There were also adjustments to accounts impacting the Suspense Account that had been approved on May 9.  Some monies remain in the account (approximately $183.9 K).

The Committee explored using a significant amount ($95K for salary + benefits) to reinstate a crisis social worker at the High School.  The Committee thought this cut would have significant impact on improvements to things such as school attendance; however Ms. Durkin and Dr. Khelfaoui explained that while cutting a social worker would be difficult, there would be 6 still at the High School who would realign their work to the budget realities. The current Suspense Account balance is being held pending the settlement of the Clerk’s contract negotiations; however, the School Committee agreed that, should a surplus remain at the close of 2015-16, cuts to Lowell High custodial staff, clerks, and academic positions would be revisited.

After a brief discussion regarding the number of FTE between comparison years, the Committee votes 7-0 to approve the budget as depicted on p 15 ($158,445,232). This total was composed of the City of Lowell contribution of $19,856,851 ($12,037,191 Cash + $7,819,660 Transportation) plus Chapter 70 Aid from the Commonwealth of $138,588,381.

Discussion/Answers to questions posed on Monday night included clarification of the regular education transportation budgeted amount ($7,819,660). The Committee had questioned this amount as it represented a reduction from 2015-16, yet increased transportation to accommodate students attending the Wang and Rogers Grade 5 (Bubble Classroom Accommodations) would make the budget number seem impossible.

John Descoteaux explained the District was entering the fifth and final year of the contract with the bus contractor which would result in a stepped increase of about $50,000. However, relief in the form of an effort by the Governor to reduce homeless transportation costs is expected to yield a savings of $80,000; the net effect would be a $30,000 reduction in regular education transportation costs.

Additional conversation included input from both Mr. Descoteaux and Central Office Administration and focused on a need to have a more comprehensive, complete plan for dealing with space needs to accommodate the 2016-17 anticipated increase in students at the start of each school year (about 200 students) PLUS the increase in middle school population resulting from bubble classes moving from elementary to middle school over the next 5 years. Some suggestions needing further research might include:a move toward neighborhood schools OR increasing school zones (currently 2 plus City Wide). Changing zoning and school assignments action may necessitate vacating the desegregation order under which the school system currently operates. Some possible ramifications of changing such an action may include:

  • an effect on obtaining aid through school building assistance fund,
  • disruption to families who would be moved out of current zones into newly configured ones
  • effect on parochial school students who access regular education transportation system

Mr. Gignac and Ms. Doherty both expressed concern over populating the Rogers STEM school Grade 5 classrooms. As available space currently stands, there would be no room at the Rogers STEM school for next year’s fifth grade to continue in the same school for Grade 6 (or 7 or 8). This needs to be expressly communicated to parents. In other words, any student who attends the Rogers for Grade 5 next year should be prepared to be moved to another school for Grade 6.

This conversation led to a discussion of class sizes at the largest middle schools and what contingencies the LPS might have should there not be enough interest/enrollment to populate 2 classrooms at the Rogers STEM next year.  The administration has considered this and could make a decision to add paraprofessionals in place of one teacher at the Rogers; doing so would reduce numbers at the most populated Grade 5s (Daley, Robinson, Wang).

Mr. Hoey also commented that he has received many calls regarding the Wait List and transparency of the same. The administration stated that a review of this school assignment procedures is in process of being addressed. Mr. Gignac, Ms. Martin, and Mr. Gendron expressed that a timeline for implementing any changes to accommodate the Bubble Classroom (Grade 5) in 2016-17 needs to be developed and known soon.

Another lengthy discussion took place regarding cutting positions at the high school. There was much concern that changing the Social Worker/Crisis Teams would impact the notable success with students who are at risk of dropping out or for those with attendance issues.  The Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent for Student Services both feel that, while this is unpalatable, Lowell High School has made the best of the need to cut a position in this area. Mr. Gignac expressed concern that the High School was shouldering cuts in support staff (custodial, clerk) which could possibly be alleviated by looking at a slight class size increase (LHS class sizes will be less than those at Middle School). Mr. Frisch offered that, should a 2015-16 surplus be found after the school year closes, the decision to cut support staff in any of these positions could possibly be changed. There was a motion made to refer a strategy for this to the Lowell High School Subcommittee.

Meeting video is now available on the LPS website. Click here and scroll down to the May 11 meeting.