03 May 2017: School Committee

2017-Apr-30_WalkingLowell_0676At last night’s meeting, the School Committee met for the first time since the beginning of April. This was the first time the public got a glimpse at the proposed budget (see link within the Meeting Packet here), and the first time the rationale for the budget was shared with the public and the School Committee.

The Superintendent’s Contract was approved by a 5 yea (E. Kennedy, A. Descoteaux, S. Gendron, R. Gignac, R. Hoey) to 2 nay (C. Martin and J. Doherty) vote.

Spotlight on Excellence

The Spotlight on Excellence segment was dedicated to this past Spring’s Knowledge Bowl competition between teams from all Lowell Public School Middle Schools, including first-time entrants from the STEM Academy (the STEM has just this year expanded to include fifth grade).  After a quick presentation by Carolyn Rocheleau, coordinator for this effort, and Liam Skinner, Principal at the Daley School (this year’s winning team), Daley School students impressively and passionately spoke to the Committee about their experiences as Knowledge Bowl participants. To paraphrase one student, the Knowledge Bowl is a time when those students who love trivia and academic trivia in particular can feel the same camaraderie that students in athletic competitions feel.

Public Hearing: School Budget 2017-18

If there is a bright spot in this budget, it is that a) the Superintendent and his leadership team have crafted a balanced budget and b) the positions that are “lost” are due to retirements and not reductions in staff.  That’s the good news.

The proposed budget is posted online and definitely worth a look. This document is, as Paul Begala once said a morally profound document in that we fund what we value. Do we value our schools? Here’s a little background on where some of the numbers come from.

The cash contributed by the City to the school budget is about $3 million lower than the current fiscal year, even though the state has proposed an increase (about $5.4 million) in Chapter 70 funding. The fiscal contribution by the City to the Lowell Public Budget is made up from two parts, Net Cash and Indirect (or in-kind). Anticipated increased expenses that the City provides means that contributions in “cash” toward the School Department’s budget is lower. For example, tuitions to Charter Schools will be increased as the grade levels at one of the Lowell charter schools is expanded next Fall. The transportation bid came in at a “much higher” level (if I understood Mr. Frisch correctly, approximately $1.2 million more), and there is a 4.8% increase in health insurance premiums.

The City is meeting Net School Spending (a requirement from the Commonwealth) at the required level. Many of our neighbors in surrounding cities and towns fund budgets that are significantly higher (thanks to Paul Schlictman for this graphic!) and you may be wondering why. The need to add to the state’s funding is necessitated by the calculations for per pupil costs are old and out of date – 25 years out of date as it turns out. Out of dat calculations lead to artificially lowere state funding (And yes, there was an effort to re-set these calculations to be realistic; however, the bi-partisan proposal to do so was not enacted by the Legislature).

All of this is contributory to the proposals made for 2018 and presented at School Committee. This is a less-than-bare-bones budget and unless the School Committee can advocate for an increase in the cash contribution from the City, there will be a need for some very difficult decisions.

Just a head-up to those interested in how this budget plays out: the next budget hearing will be Wednesday, May 10 at 6:30 pm (I didn’t catch the location, so check the LPSD website for details). There will be a chance for the Public to speak in opposition if so desired.

Library Aide Positions

One of those difficult decisions is the proposed budget is elimination of school library aides. The proposal before the School Committee is to offer paraprofessional open positions to the aides (currently 23 positions of which 3 are long-term subs. Three library aides have decided to retire). Technically, no one will lose a position if they don’t object to assuming a paraprofessional position. The libraries won’t close, but library (sounds like this is just check-in and check-out books?) would be “covered” by other staff. Several Committee members expressed dismay at this development and questioned the logistics of “covering” library services.

The schools have already eliminated all but the High School Librarian (Library Media Specialist). As good as the Aides are and as much as each one goes above and beyond their job descriptions to make a school library a great space for learning important library skills, this has been a detriment. To eliminate the last vestige of a library program in the elementary and middle schools is, in my opinion, a HUGE mistake, just as it was a mistake to eliminate the library media specialists and the instructional technology specialists before that.

Bringing Out-of-District Placements In-District

The Special Education Department has made a concerted effort to be mindful of OOD tuition costs. One of the proposals that has been in development for the last few years is to accommodate students who might be sent out-of-district (OOD) within the Lowell Public Schools.

Those OOD placements often include 6-figure tuition costs and involve transporting children to collaboratives quite a distance from home.  Parents have expressed concern that their children have long bus or van rides and have expressed some preference toward including their child within the Lowell schools.  This would, in the long run, reap a cost-benefit to the School District and an educational benefit to students and their families.

To meet these needs, the proposal is to create four additional Pre-K CSA (autism) classrooms to service an increased number of students district-wide. In addition, there is a proposal to create a Special Education Day School to accommodate students who have been in local CSA classrooms. By committing funds to these two endeavors, an anticipated saving of $1.7 million (in out of district placement tuitions) should result. In other words, by investing in Lowell’s capacity to accommodate these students within the District and with District funding, there will be less need for OOD tuition payments.

Other School Committee Business

While the Budget presentation was the major focus of attention, there were two motions put forward, one of which could have possible implications for Lowell Public School budgets.

7.I (Robert Hoey): Requests the Superintendent establish a task force in collaboration with City Administration to review, revise and recommend a new Maintenance of Efforts Agreement (Indirect Costs).

7.II (Jacqueline Doherty): Request the Superintendent provide the committee with a report that compares the district’s performance on state-required standardized tests over the last 3 years with similar urban communities. The report should highlight Lowell’s areas of particular growth and weakness, as well as specify efforts and goals for improvement.

For the packet which includes the budget, click here and navigate to the School Committee subsection.

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