School Committee Meeting, 18 May 2016

School Committee Meeting, 18 May 2016

All present

12022015ClockBetween Tuesday’s City Council Meeting and Wednesday’s School Committee Meeting, Mayor Kennedy has done a yeoman’s job of navigating through some very highly charged Public Comment sessions.

The agenda included a Public Hearing on Inter-District School Choice which quickly morphed into comment on Item 10, the Policy Subcommittee’s Report of Monday, May 16, 2016.

Special Order of Business

Mayor Kennedy mentions there are 10 speakers registered to speak about Item 2016/134, Inter-District School Choice; however, after the first speaker, it was pointed out to him by Robert Gignac that many of the speakers were here to advocate for/against the policy of allowing out-of-district children of Lowell Public School staff to be educated by the Lowell Schools. I would urge anyone interested in both sides of this issue to find the LTC meeting replay (tape) and listen to the first hour of the meeting for yourself.

In the end, the School Committee adopted a substitute motion. They have decided to keep the current number of students (grandfathered) for one year and allow them to attend the schools they have been attending. There will be no increase to the out-of-district student pool (freezing the incoming) and the basic policy stands until Fall 2017 when the School Committee intends to have a new/revised policy in place, possibly attaching allowance of out-of-district children of staff based on a still to be developed contractual policy.

Discussing the placement out-of-district (OOD) students of employees in Lowell’s public schools is one that has long been overdue. The issue has been percolating since it first came to wider attention last Fall.  According to the meeting discussion, in 2010 when Dr. Chris Scott was Superintendent, a written policy was floated and referred to Subcommittee. What happened after that seems to be a mystery. I have reviewed the list of open motions submitted by Dr. Khelfaoui in October 2015 and there is no specific mention of an open motion of this nature (although there were at least 2 motions calling for reports investigating changes to School Zones and possibly vacating the School Desegregation Plan).

The current policy seems to be more “past practice” than formal policy.  According to several speakers at this meeting, the practice goes back more than 20 years. If that is true, it was not well known, at least by this Blowellian. So why would it become a more prominent issue at this time? Here’s why I think this issue has bubbled up: funding, space, and a intra-district school choice plan that needs an overhaul.

Money: With the Commonwealth’s habitual underfunding of Foundation Budget calculations, the monies available from Chapter 70 (the Commonwealth) to educate students are well below reasonable. Significant shortfalls put undue strain on local school budgets in cities like Lowell where the difference is unlikely to be made up through increased property taxes (nor should it when the Commonwealth purposefully calculates expenses like Health Benefits of teaching staff at 140% under actual cost). Just an FYI, that each area of the Commonwealth’s Chapter 70 calculations are similarly off. 

So right away, Lowell starts out without adequate financial assistance from the Commonwealth and the penny-pinching begins. In the words of Cindy Lauper, “Money changes everything”. If the Lowell Public Schools had plenty of money to work with would educating 36 out-of-district students be so contentious? Probably not.

Space The space crisis at the Middle School is highlighting the need to accommodate increasing student population – there’s not enough room for everyone and the District is in crisis mode trying to figure this out.  Class sizes at the Middle School level are going to be very challenging for the next 4-5 years.

There also exists competition to ensure students are placed in a “good” school – the waitlist for the Daley School is reported to be about 70 students per grade. The lack of enough space for everyone which will likely lead to ridiculous class sizes is compounded by wait lists at plum school placements.

School Choice/Wait Lists And finally, the Intra-District School Choice policy is overdue for a major review.  There have been several comments over the process of adopting budgets and reducing costs regarding the creation of new neighborhood school zones.  I believe there is a pending motion to explore the legalities and options to do so.  In addition to looking at zones and placements, though, the School Department needs to get a firm handle on where students reside and the use of false addresses (using a grandparent or daycare/afterschool care home address as student residence when the student resides in another town for example). This is a link is documents about the School Desegregation Plan are found on the LPS website.

One aspect of School choice that should be looked at immediately is the Wait List. The list process is confusing and so that confusion and lack of transparency can make the process seem rigged.  Mr. Hoey himself has admitted he has advocated for someone’s placement himself. I am sure he was not alone in this.

One additional thought. It makes me wonder why ALL Lowell Middle Schools, or elementary schools, aren’t as sought after as the one or two perceived to be “the best”.  What is it about the Daley Middle School (culture? leadership? student demographics? parent support?) that creates the demand? Can the Daley’s Success be replicated and how? 

I sincerely feel for the children caught up in this whether they are children from a neighborhood unable to attend their Zone School or are students of staff from out of district who are now acclimated to their current school placement. As Mr. Gignac pointed out, they haven’t done anything that was not allowed.

The second Special Order of Business was recognition of Onotse Omoyeni as the 2016 Princeton Prize recipient for the Boston Area. Given her role as a leader for Lowell High School during this year when racial tensions have been at the forefront, this award is well deserved.

Motions

2016/196 (Mayor Kennedy) was to appoint Steve Gendron to be a member of the Lowell High School Designer Selection team.

2016/199 (Ms. Doherty) was to request a report from the Superintendent on short-term and long term student population trends possibly providing insight into population trends, class sizes, building capacity and transportation needs.

Reports of the Superintendent

2016/190 Interdistrict School Choice. For 2016-17, Lowell High (only) will participate. The program will involve no more than 30 seats at Grades 9-12.

You may be wondering why Lowell does not just apply School Choice to all grade levels and “solve” the issue of non-reimbursement of employee OOD students.  A legal ruling clarified this: if School Choice is invoked, there is no “special category” of students (i.e., students of employees) that can take precedence over any other out of district applicant.  If more families apply for School Choice in Lowell than are allowed seats, there must be a lottery. This does not ensure the employee’s student would have a seat at any Lowell School.  

Meeting adjourned. Meeting notes can be found here.

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