It Doesn’t End with Vouchers

flipoutIf you don’t know about H.R. 610, here is a link to the text and the bill’s progress. I urge you to follow it and, if you feel strongly about it, respond to it. While my Congressional Representative is not a member of the House Committee currently reviewing this legislation, I want her to know exactly how this bill will impact our Local Education Agency (LEA).

A tacked on provision in this legislation can be found at the very end: dismantling (my word) of the No Hungry Kids Act. Under the No Hungry Kids Act, fruit and vegetable offerings increased and low- and non-fat milk was offered. Those requirements would be removed. Additionally, the proposal in HR610 would eliminate monitoring school lunch/breakfast choices for sodium, trans fats and saturated fats.

Why does this matter? Childhood and adult obesity continues to be a factor in health and well-being. In school food programs students are exposed to healthier eating options. If you are unfamiliar with the effects of less healthy food choices, read Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman or Jamie Oliver. If you want to see the results of eating high-sodium, high-fat and out of balance carbs, see the film Supersize Me.

Students who receive school lunches in high poverty (economically disadvantaged – to use MA DESE’s new terminology) currently have more healthy choices. Unbelievably, HR610 proposes to change that by eliminating the requirements for low sodium, low fat and fresh fruit/vegetable choices.

To what purpose?  The cynic in me wonders what giant food supplier or lobby is balking at the “expense” of providing students with healthy breakfasts and lunches.

Keeping school food service as a healthy eating opportunity gives me yet another reason to stay on top of HR610.

What’s the Plan Phil?

DSC_0161Remember the episode of Modern Family when Phil attempted to save the old family station wagon from rolling down a hill by jumping on the hood? (video clip here)

What’s the plan, Phil?

Pretty sure I used that same phrase while reading through HR610 this week. HR610, a bill introduced by Representative King (R, IA),  which offers among other things, vouchers to all families of school-aged children in the name of school choice. In fact the “short title” of this legislation is “Choices in Education Act of 2017“. I have a lot of questions about this without even debating that “choices” in schooling already exist (a post for another day).

So here we go:

screenshot-2017-02-24-09-54-35

Just scroll through the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 (and subsequent amendments and reauthorizations). This is the education bill HR610 proposes to replace. School libraries, migratory students, students in poverty, neglected and impoverished students, homeless students, English Language Learners. HR610 will do away with all of the legislation that began in 1965 during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. All of it. What will support those students? A voucher program funded through block grants, apparently.

screenshot-2017-02-24-10-01-00

So here are some of my questions:

The funding: Although HR610 does not come right out and say it directly, can we all suppose that by eliminating the Elementary & Secondary Act of 1965 and all of the amendments, any further funding of current federal grant programs will disappear?  And through elimination of this funding source, what services currently available to students and families will disappear?

This financial report, from the Feb. 15 2017 Lowell School Committee Meeting shows the sources of Grant Funding and expenditures to date. <report>. Picking out the obvious federal funding (Title I, II, III) would include $7,386,139 and eliminate services for student support (for example, social workers in the case of Title I).  Additional federal grants fund the 21st Century Schools programs. If those grants were eliminated, there would no longer be extended day or enrichment programs for students. Need homework help? Tough darts.

Another report from the 15 February school committee notes ALL grant funding – private and government. Now look at this line from HR610 just in case there was any doubt that the federal government wishes to have a hand on non-federal monies (This quote is from Section 105).

screenshot-2017-02-24-10-41-05

Will this language from section 105 necessitate re-allocation of STATE funding toward a voucher program as well?

Who is counting the students and when: The program proposed in HR610 necessitates an accurate count of ALL students in a local education agency (LEA). By ALL, HR610 means all students attending public, charter, private (religious schools included here) and those who are home-schooled.

In Massachusetts, the counts of students has historically taken place on October 1, meaning that a student who is not registered for school in a district on September 29 and arrives, say on October 2nd, is not included in the Foundation Enrollment (click here for MA guidelines on who is included in the count) and therefore not part of the calculation for the Foundation Budget or per pupil allocation from the state. Wherever that student was on October 1st receives the funding for the student for that academic year.

The inverse of that is also true for a student who transfers out of a district on October 2, so while this makes my accounting-brain crazy, statistically, it probably is pretty close unless an entire school closed in mid-year and resulted in a large population of new students flooding a local district.

Since private school students and home-schooled students are not included in the current method of calculation it follows that adding in those students to any enrollment numbers would make a difference in the resulting amounts of money allocated per pupil. The bottom line would mean that traditional public schools would receive less funding per student. Slice the pie a bit thinner because more need a share.

For a community such as Lowell with a large contingent of students with challenging needs, even less resources will no doubt have devastating results on the students who most need the supports and services currently in place. What will be eliminated?

A few more questions, so bear with me:

Under Section 105.2, HR610 requires that the amount of the voucher may not exceed the cost of tuition (fees, and transportation) for a private school or the cost of homeschooling?

screenshot-2017-02-24-11-05-37

For me, this provision opens up a number of issues. Are private (and religious) schools and home-schoolers willing to open their financial records to auditing so that a federal overseer can confirm that the voucher does not exceed the costs as defined by HR610? What costs will be allowed for home-schooling families. Program costs? Costs for the space within a dwelling (like a home office)?  And for both private and home-schools, will the same requirements for time on task and academic year now apply? Will private schools  be required to accept every student regardless of academic need or disability, or will those students either sign away their rights to a free and equitable education or just not receive the services that they require for academic success?

Public schools have open doors; they accept every student and provide not only academic support but often social supports. I’m not certain that this proposed legislation does anything more than pander to a select group, and it concerns me. The students who require the supports provided by federal title grants will be hurt by HR610, and I cannot in good conscience support it.

“What’s the plan, Phil?” Other than dismantling public education, I’m not sure.

School Committee: 15 February 2017

DSC_0442School Committee Meeting 15 February 2017

6 present, SC Descoteaux absent, Student representative: Onoste Omoyeni

Mr. Gignac requests taking Eagle Scout Michael Wojas’ report on textile recycling out of order.

Permissions to Enter

Usually the Permissions to Enter are not all that controversial.  Not tonight. The inclusion of a request for $4,921,313 for Aramark (1 year contract extension) generated about 45 minutes of discussion (my comments follow).

$4,981,113 in expenses ($4,921,313 allocated to Aramark in order to exercise a 1-year option for food service management in 2017-18), See detail in the Meeting Packet (downloadable PDF)

SC Gignac speaks to some issues he noticed during a recent visit to a satellite school (in food-service lingo, that would be a school where there is no kitchen. The lunches are prepared at another site (the Rogers) and transported.). SC Gignac noted the unappetizing appearance of the food, noting that the hot meal he observed was unidentifiable, and the marginally acceptable freshness. The director of the school shared he/she had to sort through a bin of fresh food (fruit, I believe) and remove rotten food. Mr. Gignac noted that the serving size (the school serves middle- and high-school age youth) was small, the presentation was unappetizing and the quality not acceptable. He notes that some schools with kitchen have experienced similar issues with food service in the past and expresses discomfort in awaarding a 1-year contract extension to Aramark.

The Aramark representative (name not given) cites some possible transportation issues that resulted in the food quality; however, the portion sizes provided are regulated by USDA and Aramark adheres to those portion regulations.

SC Gignac questions why satellite schools do not have more than one food choice. Aramark representative states there are some choices (hot meal, salad, and sandwich choice). Both SC Gignac and SC Hoey who were making a visit noted that on this visit a salad and “hot meal” were offered, but not the sandwich option which should have offered.  Both SC members note that school lunch is especially important to students in this setting as the in-school meal is possibly the only meal the students access. SC Gignac repeats that he would like to see an improvement prior to awarding an extension. SC Hoey notes that the quality of food at the alternative school (LeBlanc) was poor; the food quality was unacceptable and needs to be improved.  SC Gignac photographed the food he observed during his school visit and shared that image with other school committee members.

SC Doherty proposes a motion like to take the Aramark expenditure out of Permissions to Enter.

The unnamed Aramark representative mentions that the Lowell management group is working with Worcester’s operation to learn if there are improvements that can be initiated in Lowell.  Mayor Kennedy asks for explanation as to why a sandwich choice would have be missing from a day’s delivery (snow days, delivery issues, food choice not ordered).  If I understood this conversation correctly, there was an assertion that the school clerk at times makes lunch selection decisions (see my comments following). 

A second Aramark representative, Sharon Lagasse, visited Worcester’s satellite program and explains that the hope is to learn some techniques for efficiency that could be implemented in Lowell to improve satellite school food service.

SC Gignac asks for permission for LeBlanc Social Worker to speak to the concerns from the school’s perspective (older students need more food/larger portion, noticing the difference in portion sizes and options offered at LHS (where some of the students at this school originate) causes students to feel that they don’t deserve equitably food service quality, and sometimes lunch offering is a motivation for students to attend school).

Dr. Khelfaoui asserts that delaying the line item approval is a bad idea. He expresses disappointment that he is hearing about the meal issues for the first time at this school committee meeting. States that he will issue a directive about the procedure for lunch choice will be in place as of tomorrow and feels this is a communication issue, not a food quality issue.

SC Gendron asks if delaying this line item from tonight’s Permissions until next meeting would have any ill-effects. Mr. Frisch feels he can give a report of what corrections can be or have been be implemented by the next meeting and the line item can be re-entered.  Ms. Omoyeni speaks in favor of SC Doherty’s motion – not a punitive process but an investigative process. Roll call 6 yeas, 1 absent, approved.

Some years ago, there was an effort to provide students with more than one choice for lunch: a hot choice, a salad, and a sandwich. To manage food preparations, students at the elementary school where I taught (which did have a kitchen), made their lunch choice of lunch from the menu when they arrived in the morning. Those lunch counts were sent to the school clerk in the morning and forwarded to the kitchen staff.  In a satellite school, I’d imagine that a similar process takes place with the count of how many lunches of each category sent to the central kitchen by the school’s clerk. The policy at the time in the school in which I worked was that students who arrived tardy, were served the hot lunch choice by default. I wonder if the reference to a clerk “making lunch choices” might be confused with the clerk transmitting lunch counts and, if a student arrived tardy, the sandwich/salad choices were not available for practicality. 

School lunch, as some Committee Members noted, can sometimes be the only real meal a student eats during a day – that is a sad fact for some students living below the poverty line. Lunches that are unappealing and fresh foods that have gone beyond expiration should never be served no matter what. Pressing the pause button before engaging an extension of a food contract, even a one-year contract, not only sends the message that the School Committee cares about the quality of meals served to our students, but lets a very large corporate contractor know that the expectation for quality and healthy food service is a priority. As Ms. Omoyeni noted, this pause is not punitive, it is informative.

SC Martin does not participate in the CTI line item for permission to enter ($9,000). 5 yeas, 2 absent, approved.

All other permissions were approved (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved).

Motions

Three motions made, all by SC Doherty.

  • 6.I. [J Doherty]: Request the City Manager to provide the Committee with a report that details the City’s Maintenance of Effort Agreement for the last 3 years related to expenditures on the schools. (Typographical error; correction underlined).

Maintenance of Effort funding is sizeable and SC Doherty would like to examine how these services a provided to the schools. SC Hoey supports the motion and thinks the information should have been made available and transparent 25 years ago. Mayor Kennedy thinks it is worthwhile to go through the Maintenance of Effort jointly between Schools and City administrations. Passed.

The Maintenance of Effort amounts confuse me; I understand that some services are provided to the school department by the city (data processing, snow removal as examples). Making these expenditures transparent hopefully will improve understanding of costs and funding between the school department and the city. 

  • 6.II. [J Doherty]: Request the Superintendent provide the committee with a report of the transportation cost estimates of bussing students to a high school at Cawley over the next 12 years based on the number of students by neighborhood currently attending our schools.

SC Doherty would like this information as the Lowell High School project costs are calculated and how those costs might impact future budgeting.

  • 6.III. [J Doherty]: Request the Superintendent provide the committee with a report that looks at our K-12 student population by zip code to determine the number of students from each neighborhood.

In addition to this information, SC Gignac asks about the status for zoning of schools. Ms. Durkin notes that the location of a STEM middle school may impact such a report. SC Gendron asks about neighborhood zoning (moving from city-wide to neighborhood bus scenarios); Ms. Durkin can include this; however, the desegregation plan either has to be vacated or adhered to and this will have an impact on creating city-wide busing. The creation of City-wide schools was a result of the desegregation plan and ensure that equity is achieved. SC Martin notes the profound impact of vacating a desegregation order (she would not be opposed to such a move if it negates the primacy of every child attending a desegregated school in Lowell). Passed

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 8 items under Reports of the Superintendent.

  • 7.I Knowledge Bowl Schedule (see packet for dates and competition details)
  • 7.II Lowell High School Graduation Date & Speaker Announcement (see packet for information)
  • 7.III. Response To Robert Gignac’s Motion Of 01/18/17 Regarding Extracurricular Activities Throughout The District

SC Gignac requests the addition of how many student participate.

  • 7.IV. Response To Jacqueline Doherty’s Motion Of 01/18/17 Regarding The Time Allocated For Recess, Lunch, Physical Education, And Health

Registered speaker (Darcie Boyer) member of City-wide Parent Council and LEJA. Thanks the administration for report but notes the disparity of times across the schools. The CPC will examine this issue in more detail at their next meeting. Notes the importance of lunch/nourishment and free time to student well-being.

So many studies remind and inform us that in order to be ready for of learning and retain learning, students need a balance of “down time” – play and academic time. Students of all ages need to be active, to expend excess energy,  to socialize, to have a brain break. So with all this information on the importance of social and emotional health, why do schools continue to shave away recess time? Why are 6 and 7 year olds asked to sit still and work their brains without a break?

As the academic demands have increased on students, the response has generally been to increase “time on task” to the point that young learners are expected to sit still far beyond what they are developmentally capable of doing. Here’s a link from Harvard Medical School  as an example of why it is so important to give students down time, but don’t stop with just one opinion.

 Fifteen minutes of recess (which oftentimes includes getting ready to go outside and walking to the play area); 20 minutes (or less) to walk to the cafeteria, go through a lunch line, and eat – none of this is adequate for student well-being.

SC Doherty thanks administration for the information; notes 10-minute recess, 15-minute lunches do not include transport.  Makes a motion to refer report jointly to Curriculum and Student Services subcommittees to find some way to return to other aspects now that NCLB has been replaced by ESSA. SC Martin would like some additional information about the disparity of times between urban and suburban districts. Passed.

  • 7.V. Monthly Budget Report
  • 7.VI and 7.VII School Calendar and School Committee Meeting Dates for 2017-18
  • 7.VIII. Personnel Report

All superintendent’s reports 7.I through 7.V passed. 7.VI approved by roll call (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved). 7.VII (first reading – no action). 7.VIII approved.

New Business:

Educational Research request approved (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved)

(Taken out of order): Michael Wojas, a LHS 2016 graduate, gives an update on his Eagle Scout project, a textile recycling effort which was a collaboration with Lowell’s Solid Waste and Recycling as well as Bay State Textiles. Mr. Wojas who is enlisting in the Navy at the end of February, has designed a project to recycle effort. The monies raised through the recycling project results in some fundraising based on the amount of textiles collected and recycled. Currently, recycling boxes are sited at 15 Lowell schools, with the hope that middle schools will become involved in the near future. To date just under 2,000 pounds of textiles resulting in rebates of $7,731 which then go to support the schools. The Lincoln School, Morey School and Reilly School have been the top collectors of textiles. The bin upkeep is maintained by Bay State Textiles at no cost to the City.

Meeting detail and support documentation  can be found here.

School Committee Meeting, 1 February 2017

School Committee Meeting 01 February 2017

IMG_08906 present, 1 absent (S. Gendron) Onoste Omoyeni represented the students during this meeting.

After approval of minutes, SC Gignac requests Lowell HS Subcommittee/Joint Facilities meeting be taken out of order. 

Permissions to Enter

$20,665 in expenses approved, See detail in the Meeting Packet (downloadable PDF) (6 yeas, 1 absent approved)

Motions

Nine motions were presented:

  • 6.I (E. Kennedy): Request that the Superintendent and Administration at Lowell High School provide information regarding how many students walk to Lowell High School and how many students participate in athletic events. (Passes)

Mayor Kennedy is looking for updated information so that any decisions about Lowell High School’s renovation plans reflect that.  Ms. Omoyeni asks School Committee to consider equity in education. The current Lowell High site is centrally located; the impact of other site under consideration for the High School’s building project could have far-reaching impact on students.

  • 6.II (E. Kennedy): Request that the Superintendent and Administration at Lowell High School provide an update on the proposal to institute a STEM curriculum or STEM Academy at Lowell High School. (Passes)
  • 6.III (E. Kennedy): Request to either postpone or cancel the School Committee meeting scheduled for April 19th, which falls during April school vacation. (To be discussed during Reports of Superintendent).
  • 6.IV (E. Kennedy): Request the Superintendent provide a report and update on the school department’s efforts towards recruitment designed to bring diversity to the Lowell High School faculty.

SC Gignac suggests diversity hiring report to include schools all levels, not just Lowell High School.

  • 6.V (E. Kennedy): Request that the Superintendent direct the Lowell High School Administration to take advantage of the free tutoring services offered at the Dharma Center on Merrimack Street.

Mayor Kennedy attended an opening at this Center which is located in the same area as the Curriculum Office. Mayor Kennedy wants to bring this information to the Superintendent’s attention. (Passes)

  • 6.VI (R. Gignac): Request the Superintendent develop and distribute an Organizational Health Survey to all staff and parents throughout the district. (Passed)

SC Gignac would like 2 surveys: one for staff by building; one for parents by building. Focus on Leadership, Teaching Learning, Security, etc. Would like a sense of how each building’s organizational units are functioning and how parents feel. SC Doherty supports the idea as it speaks to the culture in our schools. Asks the Superintendent if LPSD currently doing something like this already (they are). Wonders if an implementation of surveys should consider how this data is collected.  Tim Blake, parent at the Sullivan school (and Leominster teacher) and on site council speaks about a survey the Sullivan Site Council developed. Mr. Blake found the electronic response to surveys increased parent participation.  Ms. Omoyeni advocates for a portion of the survey addressing school climate and comfort level of parent when contacting the school (translators available, cultural norms, etc.). Cautions that multiple language versions are necessary.

Dr. Khelfaoui cites Lowell’s participation in state-wide accountability group and how this type of survey (parent, faculty, student, etc) focuses accountability to include input from all stakeholders in accountability for a school district (part of ESSA, or Every Student Success Act). SC Descoteaux notes the success of the survey can be tied to the brevity of the survey.

  • 6.VII (R. Hoey): Request that the Superintendent send a letter of appreciation to Coach George Bossi, on behalf of the Lowell Public Schools and the Lowell School Committee, in recognition of Coach Bossi’s holiday wrestling tournament, held at the Paul Tsongas Arena annually, and known to bring large crowds into the city. (Passes)
  • 6.VIII (R. Hoey): Request that the Superintendent send a letter of congratulations to Coach Tom Cassidy, on behalf of the Lowell Public Schools and the Lowell School Committee, on Greater Lowell Technical High School Gryphons wrestling team’s recent win over Lowell High School. (Passes)
  • 6.IX (A. Descoteaux):  Have the Superintendent work with the Lowell High School administration to look into adding the IB (International Baccalaureate) program to offer our advanced HS students another opportunity in addition to AP course work. (Passes)

SC Descoteaux would like this offering available to advanced students if it is possible to incorporate such a program into the High School. SC Doherty notices that the program is offered for Elementary and Middle School as well; is this a program that would enhance younger students?  Superintendent Khelfaoui notes that advantages of the program, geared to Grades 11/12 and the preparatory programs (K-10). SC Doherty would like to know more about this as there are costs involved in having educators be certified as Advanced Placement coursework.

Subcommittee Meeting Reports

Finance Subcommittee

The minutes for the January 24 Finance Subcommittee Meeting are found here.  Two Special Education Reserve Fund line item was removed from discussion as there were new regulations regarding carry-over of Special Education Fund. SC Gignac makes motion to create a Special Education Reserve Fund (must go to the City Council). Once the Reserve Fund (currently circuit breaker funds are mandated just to fund outside Special Education placements) is approved, any monies can be expended for Special Education as determined by the Committee. (6 yeas, 1 absent) approved.

Also included during the Finance Subcommittee discussion was a report of transfers by Mr. Cassidy and year-to-date budget expenditures.

Joint Facilities & Lowell High Subcommittee (also 1/24/2017)

Meeting notes can be found here.

Mr. Martin, Head of School, gives a brief presentation  and notes the LHS project is the largest school project in history of MSBA.  Public can access documents and progress through the LHS site on the City of Lowell website (see link here).

The members of the committee visioning this project came from a broad cross-section of stakeholders. The architects will work to refine the resulting parameters for a 21st century Lowell High School. It was interesting to note that the net affect of a transition to a flexible classroom plan is that, even with increased enrollment, the number of classroom spaces will be decreased. Notes this occurs because the rooms will not be assigned to a single staff member, but will be flexibly programmed throughout the day. Presentation Powerpoint is here.

Dr. Amy McLeod presents the Education Program and Programming for the future and how the architects will use this information to plan for a new High School. The visioning group feels that the structure of the school with a separate Freshman Academy is still important, however, including the Freshman Academy as a wing or separate section of a new High School would be more inclusive.

Important updates will address adaptability and flexibility as well as technology needs (creating equitable access to technology) and appropriate science configurations. Another big space is to include teacher planning space. The group feels that clustering classrooms for interdisciplinary studies will allow for advantages where learning crosses the boundaries of a strict, structured curriculum.

Take a look at the last slide on the Powerpoint Presentation. The amount of thoughtful consideration into what Lowell High students need and what is important and valued in the High School, becomes apparent.

MSBA needs document generated by stakeholders can be located here.

Motion to accept this Subcommittee Report (6 yeas, 1 absent), Approved.

Reports of the Superintendent

  • Online Community Resource Guide. Ms. Durkin notes that the resource guide is currently live on the LPSD website.  It is not all-encompassing; however, there is information that can be elaborated on. (Student Support Services); the goal is to update this information quarterly and will include Early Childhood information. The resources will be pushed out to school websites.

This is a valuable resource for everyone working with students in the Lowell School System – parents, students, and educators.  The website is easily accessed from the LPSD website by navigating to Departments-Student Support Services-Community Resources (direct link here)

  • Chapter 70 State Aid The total budget is anticipated to increase by $6.107 million (about a 3.3% increase). About 80% of the funding comes from the Commonwealth and the balance is provided by the City in either cash contribution or in-kind contribution (for example amounts the city “charges” for things like snow removal). The City’s contribution would increase by about $1.1 Million for the 2017-2018 school year making the City’s contribution a bit over $40 million.

Information from City Manager on Wednesday afternoon indicated the non-cash contribution will increase but the cash contribution will decrease by $1 Million. The net effect is a $3.82 increase FY17 and FY18. SC Doherty asked for and received clarification that the cash received from the City would be less even though the Chapter 70 formula indicates an increased City contribution to schools. Several factors contribute to a decrease in cash contribution:

  • non-cash contribution increases and
  • charter school assessment increase of $1.8 Million

SC Doherty also clarifies that Chapter 70 is all state funding, not federal (true). Lowell’s budget has a large proportion of federal grant funding, and, all of those funds are in question pending what may or may not happen with a new administration in Washington.

Foundation Budget Estimates (oh boy). Foundation budgets are – as I understand them – the amounts of funding the state determines necessary for education. This is generated at the state and is based on enrollments and a set of expense categories (here’s DESE link; read it at your own peril).  On the state level, there have been several attempts to update the expense amounts that drive the foundation budget calculations. Some of those expense computations have not be updated in over 20 years; it doesn’t take a degree in finance to understand that 20-year-old numbers are bound to be erroneous. The impact of out-of-date calculation is to underfund education on the state level which of course, trickles down to the local level. 

  • Budget Meeting Dates

The proposed meetings as published in the packed are here and will hopefully be updated to reflect some changes that were approved including: a) date revision for first meeting to 4/12, b) the second meeting (4/26) will be with Finance Subcommitteef and c) location of final budget adoption meetings will be in council chambers so as to allow for broadcast on LTC.

New Business:

A transfer of $500 to create a Coral Supplies account (approved); disposal of surplus supplies (approved)

Convention and Conference Requests were all approved (6 yeas, 1 absent)

Meeting detail and support documentation  can be found here.