It seems pretty clear to me

Screenshot 2018-06-08 07.05.05About two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Legislature failed once again to update school funding formulae known as the “Foundation”.  In my opinion, this is not only a huge disappointment, it is a disservice to students, families, and public schools in 351 cities and towns across Massachusetts.

Here in Lowell, the erosion of school services and supports can be traced in the budget cuts that have been necessary over the last nearly 20 years. In the late 1990s, when an elementary class size reached 25, it was common practice to assign a paraprofessional to that classroom, which allowed for more focused and individualized attention to students. In 2015, my retirement year, my grade level of 100 students and 4 classroom teachers shared 1 paraprofessional.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, elementary school staff included not only a library aide, but a certified Library Media Specialist. The library was a space where students not only learned research skills, but were exposed to wonderfully diverse literature and media curated by the Library Media staff. By the mid-2000s, all but one Library Media specialist was cut from the Lowell Public Schools and school libraries were maintained by Library Media aides. This year, 2018-19, the school budget has cut all library staff in Grades Kindergarten through Grade 8 essentially closing the libraries to any students below Grade 9.

These are but two examples of service cuts in Lowell. There have been many others. Teachers in Lowell spend inordinate amounts of personal money (in my own case, I spent on average of $1,000 each year and some years much more) to supply classrooms. Social workers, Speech and Language therapists, OT, PT, Special Education…. all carry larger-than-reasonable caseloads.

Have municipalities like Burlington or Wellesley cut K-8 library staff and access to school libraries? Of course not. Wealthier communities make up the shortfalls in Foundation funding from their property tax base and a community that is able to afford to allocate more funds toward schools. Does that seem equitable to anyone? (read WBUR’s commentary Inaction on School Funding Will Keep Opportunity Gaps in Place.)

What does our Commonwealth say about our schools and the Commonwealth’s responsibility to fund education? We only need to look at the Commonwealth’s Constitution and this paragraph:

“Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge [and] public schools and grammar schools in the towns….” Mass. Const. Pt. 2, C. 5, § 2.

As of this writing, the Legislature has failed our schools and our children. They have failed in their duties to “cherish” education and they have failed to provide the funding that would allow ALL public schools across Massachusetts to provide equitable educational opportunities.

We must tell our narratives as parents, students, educators, and community members. We must let our legislators know in no uncertain terms, that to continue to underfund the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations is unacceptable. We need to cherish our schools here in Massachusetts and fix the funding so that every child has access to equitable educational opportunities.

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School Committee Meeting, 20 July 2016

School Committee Meeting, 20 July 2016

IMG_0190All present

Meeting once a month instead of twice means that monthly meeting is extra long – this one was 3 hours without the Executive Session.  Next meeting will also be on the Committee’s Summer Schedule on August 17.

Motions

2016/287, 2016/288, 2016/289, 2016/290 (Mayor Kennedy) All four motions requested reports from the Superintendent regarding Lowell High. The reports request will be to review curriculum needs and plan for curriculum in tangent the design of Lowell High. Since an architect has been selected and named, consideration of how the building is configured to address curricular needs is timely.

Motion 289 requests a report in response to DESE’s recently published information naming Lowell’s expulsion and suspension rates (along with several other school districts). The DESE report and news release can be found here. Ms. Durkin assured the committee that discussions are already underway to better understand and address this report.

2016/296 (Mr. Gignac) Request superintendent provide full year-end financials to the entire School Committee prior to year-end audit.

2016/297 (Mr. Gignac) Requests report on opiate prevention program/awareness programs.

2016/301 (Ms. Martin) Request status on Central Office hiring along with a current organization chart reflecting changes made in Central Office personnel due to retirements and resignations.

2016/305 (Mr. Gendron) Request Facilities Subcommittee name Butler School Auditorium for Maryalice Foley.

2016/306 (Mr. Gendron) Request Facilities Subcommittee establish quarterly meeting with the Lowell High Project Manager (Skanska OPM).

SubCommittee Report

The July 13th Joint Policy and Student Services subcommittees met to revise School Policy for students with severe allergy and to address Mr. Hoey’s motion suggesting the creation of an early candidate pool for Lowell residents seeking employment in the Lowell Public Schools.

Ms. Laura Ortiz spoke on behalf of 200-plus students who have life-threatening reactions to allergens other than food. The Joint Committee is in favor of revisions suggested to the Lowell Public Schools Handbook which will include non-food allergies such as latex, insect bites/stings, and other allergens that can be life-threatening.  The Joint Committee proposed the changes to the Handbooks and have requested their adoption. This was accomplished in Item 2016/299.

A second topic for this joint committee was Mr. Hoey’s motion regarding creation of an early hiring pool for Lowell residents seeking employment in the Lowell Public Schools. With the addition of language specifying that the Lowell residents needs to be qualified and certified in the area of the open position, Lowell residents are to be granted an interview.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 12 reports from the Superintendent addressing motions and regularly scheduled reporting (Personnel, Motions Report). Additionally, the report regarding the possibility of reconfiguring school zones is progressing as a Task Force consisting of parents, school personnel and community members is being formed. This group will meet beginning in late August or early September with the giant task of exploring rezoning the school district while respecting the Desegregation Order as well as being mindful of the capacity issues. Dr. Khelfaoui expressed that this process will be a multi-year phase in so as to respect the needs and desires of current LPS families as well as being mindful of the factors such as capacity that may be affected. Three reports received extra attention.

In response to Connie Martin’s motions requesting information about 2015-16 educator evaluations, Anne Sheehy spoke to the process and the resulting reported data (see packet). As reported, any licensed educator in Massachusetts must be evaluated using the Commonwealth’s Teacher Evaluation Protocols.  Currently Lowell Public Schools focuses on 15 elements (out of 30) during the evaluation cycle. The resulting evaluation data shows 12% are Exemplary, 86,7% Proficient, 2% Needs Improvement, and less than 1% Unsatisfactory. As Ms. Sheehy pointed out, this is phenomenal and further gives credence to the high quality of the educational staff in Lowell.

The process of educator evaluation applies only to licensed staff at this time – from Superintendent to Teachers, Nurses, School Therapists and other support personnel, all go through the same process. Only licensed educators are evaluated using this process; those personnel who do not need Massachusetts licenses in order to work in the schools are not.

A lengthy discussion accompanied this report as this is a fairly recent initiative that has come through the U.S. Department of Education via DESE at the state level.  It is quite involved and unless you have been through the process – and I have – it is difficult to understand.  I will write a more thorough explanation in an upcoming blog. The short story is that any licensed educator undergoes a two-year evaluation cycle whereby goals (personal and student-based) are set, data-evidenced progress checked (Formatives) and end-of-cycle achievements proven (Summatives).

A second longer discussion was reserved for Item 2016/300, the Year-to-Date Budget Report. Mr. Frisch (CFO) updated the Committee as to outstanding Purchase Orders amounting to about $3.45 million as of July 20. On July 29, the City will close the books on Fiscal 2016 and cancel any outstanding purchase orders as of the final run on that date.

The School Department’s Finance people have preliminarily spoken with the City about creating a Suspense Account equal to the totality of those outstanding Purchase Orders so that vendors can be paid even though their invoices may not arrive before the City closes the books.  That way the June Purchase Orders still awaiting vendor billing for Fiscal 2016 will be fulfilled through the 2016 budgeted amounts.

Another point made during the discussion of this report was how there could be a “fifth quarter” payment for the Circuit Breaker (money for extraordinary Special Education costs provided by the Commonwealth). There was some confusion about how to handle these funds (include in Fiscal 2016 and then transfer to Suspense Account?) and whether the proposition from Central Administration would have financial implications for Fiscal 2017.

The inclusion of  a “5th quarter” Circuit Breaker payment from the Commonwealth appears to be a point of confusion. Apparently the Fiscal 2015 fourth quarterly Circuit Breaker payment was made in July last year which, with new administration is several key positions, resulted in the funds being allocated to Fiscal 2016 instead of Fiscal 2015. There was some question as to why the auditor did not discover three (not four) such deposits in 2015. Through this discovery, there is a proposal under consideration to use the fifth quarter, or windfall, to offset the loss of the 2017 Kindergarten Grant funds, and thereby preserve 17 paraprofessional positions for Fiscal 2017.  (Those who follow the state budget will recall that Governor Baker vetoed the Kindergarten Grant funding during the state budget process. The loss of the state budgeted Kindergarten Grant could potentially result in 17 paraprofessionals being displaced or laid off. This is one of the ways LPS is proposing to preserve those positions. The final decision on how to make up the loss in funding will be voted on in August at the next Committee meeting, 8/17.)

Finally, an additional long discussion took place regarding sizeable negative balances in several line items. Mr. Frisch noted, the City takes a charge for Health Insurance (monthly) and Dental Insurance (bi-yearly?) and when doing so, some of the accounts impacted turn negative. When those charges occur, the line item charges may result in negative balances showing on the financial reports. As far as the City and City Auditor are concerned, the bottom line, not the specific line item balance, is what is important.

Several School Committee members expressed discomfort with that process and suggested that the School Committee may need to consider meeting to make the financials more reflective of what actually happens with these costs/charges and transfer of funds.

The third report receiving extra attention was the Superintendent’s Evaluation. Dr. Khelfaoui took the School Committee step-by-step through his Formative Evaluation evidence (remember, that is the progress-to-date evidence) and is soliciting the current Committee and the past Committee’s input into his one-year Formative evaluation (next year is the Summative Year in the Superintendent’s two-year evaluation cycle). The School Committee members will meet with and complete their piece of the evaluation prior to the August 17 meeting; Mayor Kennedy will summarize these and the Formative Evaluation and any revisions to the Superintendent’s goals will result. This information is done in public, not through Executive Session.

New Business

The salary adjustments for unaffiliated staff were approved with a request from Mr. Gignac to provide the new job description for one of the positions. Custodial rate approved.

Meeting adjourned from Executive Session. Meeting Packet can be found here.

Of Power Companies and Education

We recently returned from a quick trip to DC. The DC-Maryland-Virginia area has been hit hard by a weather system which resulted in many downed tress and, even during our visit, many in the DC area were without power days after the storm itself had passed.  Pepco, Old Dominion, BGE – the area utility companies had many reasons for the delays in getting power restored to customers, many of whom were sweltering in temperatures topping out at 106.

With many downed trees and utility poles, the work to restore power was slow and painstaking. For those of us who live in he Northeast, the memory of the snowstorm last October was similar. Electricity is a basic necessity in modern times and going without causes lots of hardships.

Now how does this vignette connect to education?

In Juliette Kayem’s op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, Pulling Plug on Nation’s Security,she states that the ultimate fix to vulnerable power lines is to bury them. There is resistance to this idea as it is “expensive”; I believe the number quoted in Ms. Kayem’s piece was $6 billion in the DC area for fully burying all lines. It is the ultimate fix, but it is an investment that requires quite a large outlay of capital.

Isn’t that a lot like what public education is today? Lots of piecemeal programs enacted to make the big “problem” disappear… for a while. Investing in education is expensive. Educating a generation so that they become productive members of society 15-20 years later is expensive.

The ultimate “fix” for education is not going to be found in band-aid programs that provide a small amount of help for a small amount of time. Like burying utility lines, it will need a sustained investment which, to date, our government does not seem to want to make.

 

 

Dear Mitt…

As a citizen of the fair Commonwealth of Massachusetts for quite a number of years – nearly 35 at this point – I feel uniquely qualified to respond to Mitt Romney’s latest education campaign speech.

You see, as a public school teacher in a small urban Massachusetts school district, I wonder how Mitt can call the US public education, particularly this state’s system “third world” when his fiscal policies directly affected the state’s ability to adequately fund education. Draconian cuts to the state’s education aid and education budgets were implemented by the Romney administration so that Candidate Romney can now point to his budgets as being so lean and mean that he was able to cut taxes. And if our education system resembles anything “third world” – and I disagree about that pithy little soundbite – Mitt should look in the mirror for the one to blame.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen the district in which I work decimated financially.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, librarians,  cafeteria, custodial staff, social workers…. all cut heavily and some cut in entirety. Buildings closed. Class sizes are bigger, which means that there’s far more crowd control in an elementary classroom today than there used to be.  Sorry Mitt, but despite your crack “research” from McKinsey & Company, size does matter.

Yes, Mitt, successful education is dependent on a partnership – parent, teacher, and student – who support each child.  There may be lots of reasons for that partnership to fail, but it is insulting and simplistic to think that a child’s school success is dependent upon a two-parent family unit. Forcing your own social prejudices into education policy is just plain ignorant.

Hopefully your flawed and obvious pandering to win votes will be seen for what it is. Garbage.