In a (more) perfect world

pexels-photo-220320.jpegIn case you weren’t paying attention, it is budget season here in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Superintendent’s proposed budget is based on funds coming from Chapter 70 (state aide) and funds allocated by the City of Lowell. There are lots of moving parts to this process, including budget hearings which are generally open to the public and to public participation. The result is a financial roadmap for the coming fiscal year. This document links to the dates currently proposed for school budget presentations. Keep your eyes and ears open though, our New England weather may play a large role in adjustments to this meeting schedule.

What is clear to me even as a retired educator, is that our school budgets are quite lean. I know this from personal experience: throughout my career, I spent in EXCESS of $1,000 – and often closer to $2,000 – of my family’s funds to supply my classroom with a classroom library, paper, pencils, folders and much more. I know that I was not alone and I know this “tradition” continues today.

Each time I’ve led a literacy class here in Lowell, I’ve asked the participants what would appear on their classroom wishlist if there was no limitation to funding their classrooms.   I encourage them to not self-limit: if one’s opinion is that more staff would make things better for students, write that down.

As Lowell goes through the process of funding schools and school programs, this too is interesting information that should inform decision-makers. These are some of the items educators, those who work closest with students, would like to see in the budget.

Here is what the Fall participants put on their lists:

PerfectMiddleHigh

Middle/High School

PerfectGr3and4

Grades 3 & 4

Perfect2

Grade 2

PerfectKand1a

K/1 page 1 of 3

PerfectKand1b

K/1 Page 2 of 3

PerfectKand1c

K/1 Page 3 of 3

And here are the wishlists from the Summer participants

 

 

 

 

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.

Public Budget Hearing, 09 May 2016

School Committee Public Budget Hearing

09 May 2015

[EDITED TO INCLUDE] LTC Taped the hearing and it can be found on this weblink.  Click on May 9 videolink.

All members present.

The Budget Hearing was taped for later broadcast. The originally proposed budget can be found on the LPS website here.  The Finance Department link for the Lowell Schools is here. Changed budget allocations will hopefully be published sooner rather than later.

As this was on record as a public input session, there were several participants who spoke during the beginning of the meeting when public input was invited.

  • Susan Orton, a parent of two students at the Middle School level spoke about the positive impact on her family and special needs child in this child’s success. Her student is assigned to a substantially separate classroom, and is experiencing school success credited to a strong program and the expertise of in-district autism staff.
  • Ellen Romanowsky, a CSA teacher at the Bailey School detailed burnout of teachers within this type of program and advocated for increasing the staff so that student to staff ratios were more in line with meeting the needs of this challenging population.
  • Lisa Tenczar, a teacher in a substantially separate program in the Lowell Schools spoke about needs for expertise of behavior specialists and how classroom-specialist collaboration makes for successful support of students’ needs.
  • Shon Texiera made an impassioned plea for increasing the in-district program. Mr. Texiera is the parent of a young student whose needs are currently met through participation in CREST Collaborative program and must be bused to Methuen daily.

In response to this commentary, both Jeannine Durkin (Assistant Superintendent for Student Support) and Jennifer McCrystal (Director of Special Education) reiterated that the LPS is committed to expanding in-house placement of students; however there are necessary considerations for space and safety that need to be addressed.

Returning the budget, Mr. Frisch, CFO, began by stating that budget decisions were a function of the Superintendent’s Strategic Plan with recommendations for changes made by an administrator of each program affected. After the last budget presentation and Finance Subcommittee meeting there were some adjustments made to the originally proposed budget including adding back Lowell High positions in World Language and English, changes to the merger of the MCC Bridge Program with the Cardinal O’Connell School Program, reducing the number of positions for coaches from the originally request, lowering the Superintendent’s Office Supply Budget and use of School Lunch Program funds for some line items.

Starting with page 16 in the Superintendent’s Recommended FY2017 Budget, the School Committee commented and asked for clarifications on changes line by line.  Some noted that the Year to Date (YTD) expenditures seemed significantly off (example under Line 1100, School Committee memberships were budgeted at $6,000 for 2015-16, yet show spent amount at $100). As the Committee reviewed the recommendations, questionable numbers for YTD expenses were listed several times causing the Committee members to ask both Mr. Frisch and Dr. Khelfaoui to review questionable items with answers available by the next meeting (5/11).

There was a note made that, as the Bridge Program will be transitioned more slowly, the salaries of the personnel currently picked up by Middlesex Community College will become the responsibility of the Lowell Schools. Most, if not all, of the staff are paid at a rate below the Collective Bargaining amounts. The United Teachers of Lowell will need to allow the transitioning Bridge staff members to be paid at lower rates for the transition year. (not yet assured, however the Superintendent seems confident that it will be allowed and the following year affected staff will be paid according to Collective Bargaining).

Class size numbers caused by the promotion of the Bubble Class (currently in Grade 4) was a concern. The numbers (ranging from 24 at the Pyne Arts to 31 at the Daley) do not reflect any students transferring to the Rogers STEM classrooms (2 Grade 5 classes to open in the Fall 2016). The School Committee concern is that students may not wish to attend a school outside of their neighborhood assignment in Grade 5, or that the majority of students assigned to the Rogers will be newcomers; the final tally after recruitment to the Rogers Grade 5 is still to be determined. Mr. Gignac did not vote to approve this budgeted account due to his concerns about large class sizes and the need for further discussion to address the same.

Both monies from an account with Comcast and the school lunch program were used to offset some expenses throughout the proposed budget.  The Comcast account, in particular was mentioned as having a significant balance which, prior to this budget, had not been tapped.

Surprisingly the Transportation budget (Item 3300) was for less than the past year (2015-16: $3,399,900 proposed 2016-17 $$3,369,500). Even with what may be increased transport of students (opening of Grade 4 and Grade 5 at the Rogers was cited), the Superintendent and CFO both feel the number is accurately pegged as the transportation company will not replace buses as aggressively as in the past.

Under Account 3500, Athletics and Student Activities, there was an increase in coaches to include 10 new coaching stipends. Ms. Martin questioned this and expressed that adding athletic coaching positions while cutting academic staff (paras, teachers) seemed ill-timed. Additionally the line item for CBOs (Community Based programming such as the after-school Y or CTI before/after school programs) was eliminated.

During discussion of Item 4000, Custodial and Security, the elimination of custodians at the High School was discussed as well as the inclusion of two plumber positions and HVAC technician at LHS.  The Facility Director position returned to a single K-12 position (was two: a K-8 and a LHS). Mr. Hoey proposed that a stipend ($25,000) be given to two custodians who could perform facility director functions as part of a career ladder.  There was much discussion about the building maintenance and city-side vs. school-side maintenance and charge-backs. In the end, this budget item was approved 6 to 1 with Mr. Hoey voting no.

As it was after 10 pm, the meeting was adjourned with three additional budget items to be discussed (starting on Page 38 of the proposed budget) and several questions to be answered. The Budget Discussions will continue on Wednesday, May 11 at 7:15 pm, Rogers School (taped for later broadcast).

Superintendent’s Proposed Budget Presentation, 25 April 2016

Superintendent’s Proposed Budget Presentation, April 25, 2016

flipout5 present, Mr. Gendron absent.

There have been many reports that this budget season is going to be a tight one. Although the City has committed to increasing their contribution by $1 million, the school department had recently floated a budget total with an additional $1 million deficit gap.

Dr. Khelfaoui was on record as against making up the $1 million deficit through cuts to classroom teaching staff (link to Lowell Sun Article). Most of the reductions proposed are achieved through retirements and some through combining programs. Mr. Frisch who is LPS’ Chief Financial Officer, cautions that this budget leaves no room for salary increases in 2017.

Budgeting  and Finance Basics

Several terms – and the source of funding – were explained by both Dr. Khelfaoui and Mr. Frisch as they introduced the budget document (link at end). For clarity, I’m including parts of that discussion here.

Foundation Enrollment: the number of students attending public school in the district on October 1 of the previous year. The enrollment figure for the 2017 budget is based on the October 1, 2015 headcount.

Foundation Budget: the amount of money or minimum budget a community is required to spend to ensure a quality education. This is based on the October 1 enrollment from the previous year times the per pupil spending amount, again determined by the Commonwealth.

Required Local Contribution: The amount that the community is expected to contribute to the budget. It is determined through CASH + IN KIND services. In Lowell “in kind” services are such things as technology services (ex: payroll, purchasing) and maintenance (ex: plowing)

Chapter 70 Aid: This is a dollar amount determined by the Commonwealth and is based on a formula that takes into consideration the financial wealth of a community. The actual amount will be an unknown until the Commonwealth’s 2017 budget is set.

The DESE website holds more detail on all school financial terms and calculations.

Simply stated, the formula for the School’s Budget is:

Chapter 70 Aid + Required Local Contribution = Required Net School Spending

October 1 is a significant date in all things education. It is the date on which a school’s headcount is taken (this has been true throughout the 30 years I taught), and it is a significant date for determining not only the minimum budget for a public school district, but also is the basis for charter school assessments (once the headcount is taken in October and the money stays at the school/district no matter where that student may transfer beginning on October 2). 

Numbers

I am certainly a novice at this, but it seems that if you enjoyed algebra and dealing with unknown variables, you will most likely enjoy budgeting for a school system.  The state contribution through Chapter 70 will be an unknown until the Commonwealth’s budget is in place, the “in kind” portion of the City’s contribution can be estimated, can’t be determined until all of those costs have been tallied (example: how much will plowing out schoolyards in 2016-2017 cost?).  Hence, the back-and-forth between City and School Departments.

The proposed budget from the Superintendent looks like this:

  • Foundation enrollment 15,616 students
  • Times per pupil amount from State*
  • Equals Foundation Budget for 2017 $183,238,362
  • Foundation Budget for 2017 $183,238,362
  • Less Chapter 70 aid (preliminary, best estimate to date) $138,588,381
  • Required City Contribution $  44,649,981

The City contribution is an approximately $1.5 million increase over the 2016 budget.

And now to break out the $44,649,981, because that City Contribution consists of both CASH and IN-KIND contributions. The cost of transportation is broken out separately. For 2017 budgeting, that amount is listed at $7,819,660. City Manager Murphy has committed to a $1 million increase in cash contribution over last year’s cash contribution, making that cash amount $19,856,851.  Breaking away the transportation costs from the cash contribution yields an actual cash contribution of $12,037,191. So,

  • City’s Cash Contribution $ 19,856,851
  • Less Transportation $   7,891,660
  • Net Cash Contribution $ 12,037,191

From here, the City contributes indirectly (in-kind services mentioned above) to a minimum amount of $44,649,981. Those in-kind services could be set higher or end up being more money, but the requirement under state finance is that the City’s contribution is, for now, at least $44,649,981.

When the City exceeds school spending, as it did last year, that’s fine; but when the City does not, the underfunded amount rolls over onto the next year’s contribution. Manager Murphy appears committed to meeting the City’s spending requirements. Historically, Lowell has fallen into both categories. A good discussion of the past spending/budgeting cycles are on the first four pages of the Superintendent’s proposed budget <link here>.

* The per pupil cost is determined based on many factors, including the economy of the community and the demographics of the students served.  My understanding is that this is not just one number applied across the Commonwealth, but specific to each community. Here’s a link (http://www.doe.mass.edu/finance/chapter70/chapter-cal.pdf) with more detail for this process.

What are some of the suggestions for closing the gap between an ideal budget and reality?

First and foremost, both Superintendent Khelfaoui and Mr. Frisch stated that this budget is very lean and as efficient as possible. It aligns to the “pillars” of the Superintendent’s Strategic realignment plan (yet to be published, but the references to it throughout the budget are clear). There is no room for raises which should make for interesting bargaining for future negotiations with unions and non-union personnel.

Some proposals for solving the cash crunch might include an increase in cash from the City, bringing increased Special Education services within the district so that students with Special Education Plans requiring resources for out-of-district services (placements can range from $55,000 to $83,000 – and up – per student) can receive education services within the Lowell Schools (presumably at a less expensive rate). Lobbying the Lowell state legislative representatives to increase programming dollars from the state to support English Language Learners (ELLs) and Special Education Students and a suggestion from Mayor Kennedy to add school zones to the district so that transportation costs savings would occur (thought to be about $500,000).

Some cost savings will be achieved through retirements/attrition and consolidation of programs. The consolidation of the BRIDGE program for at-risk middle school students administered through Middlesex Community College with the Cardinal O’Connell program was discussed. Adding two fifth grade classes to the STEM School and two to the Wang to accommodate the bubble population of the incoming Grade 5 students. Cutting down requested increases in personnel (cutting the request for 21 ELL teachers to 5 for example) and consolidating administrative positions (example: 2 math coordinators will become 1 position) were also mentioned.  Dr. Khelfaoui expressed the hope that the personnel who will be losing current positions will apply for and obtain positions elsewhere within Lowell Public Schools.

There will be a need to add some line items in order to achieve the savings expected through consolidations. For example, an Educational Team Chair (ETC) is needed to lessen the case load of Special Education team chairs and 6 certified behavior analysts are needed so that services to students with autism can remain in-district.

The school committee had several questions about the impact of these adjustments to programs and staff and other changes in the proposed budget. Those questions and others voiced last night will be further addressed in detail at the Finance Committee Meeting which follows the regularly scheduled School Committee Meeting on Wednesday, May 2.  At that time, more detail about many of the line item changes will be provided.

A link to Amelia Pak-Harvey’s Lowell Sun story summarizing the meeting can be found here.

The full detail on the proposed budget is on the LPS website.

Defining the term “furlough”

The public hearings on the 2010-2011 school budgets begin tonight in Lowell. No one thinks that there is any way the schools will be able to get through the next fiscal year without massive cuts of programs, services and teachers. The last several years the budgets have been decreased and belt-tightening measures have been put in place. Optional services and programs have already been cut or consolidated so that, for this next massive round of cutting – or more accurately, unfunding – the cuts are to the bone. Teachers and paraprofessional staff  have been hearing about the possibility of job loss for the last month and now those murmurs are reality.

One idea being floated is the idea of teachers taking “furlough” days – unpaid leave. As you can imagine, the unthinking masses who hate spending a dime on educating “those people” are frothing at the thought of those “lazy teachers” who work only part of a full day (see my previous posting) earning less money.

Hold on here folks. If you assign a particular day to me as a “furlough” does that mean you expect me to still show up for work because that seems to be the popular belief?

When a public works employee takes a furlough day, he or she stays home and the work just does not get done. If I stay home from work, the plans for the day and the preparation to implement those plans, still get done – on my own time – and the City hires a sub at the tune of $75-$90 per day. The school day just doesn’t disappear because I’m present or not.  How is that a budget saver?

Here’s what I would be willing to do: I would be willing to work partial days at strategic times throughout the school year. For example, the first 3 days of school and/or the Friday before a vacation week. In return, the students would be dismissed at lunch time similar to what happens on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break. The day would count as a school day so that would not impact the state’s requirement for 180 school days, the afternoon would be left to my discretion, and the City would not have to pay anyone for the balance of the day.

And in return? If I’m willing to reduce my pay and potentially impact my retirement, I’d like to see some of those 90 teaching positions restored. Our students get little enough without massively cutting technology teachers, music teachers, tutors, or paraprofessionals who are essential in helping teachers reach every student.

And if you have a better idea? Attend the budget meetings. Call your School Committee. Call the City Council. Our children’s futures depend on you.