The Envelop System of Foundation Budgets

When I first met my mother-in-law, I was totally fascinated by the organization she used to allocate family finances, the system we fondly refer to as the “envelop system”. My mother-in-law would take an amount of money each week, break it down into smaller portions, and put each portion in its own coin-sized manila envelop which was kept handy throughout the week.

For example, if she budgeted $100 for food shopping throughout the week, five $20-bills would be put into the grocery envelop. When the money was gone, she either shifted cash from another envelop to buy something or went without until next payday.

In my mind, this is an apt analogy for what is happening in the Foundation Budget nightmare currently in place in our Commonwealth. The Commonwealth assigns a set dollar amount of aid for each community based on particular spending allocations, the chunk of money arrives at the municipality and when it doesn’t fully cover one spending category, the schools shift the funding from one category to another that has been shorted.

However, one of the biggest issues with the Commonwealth’s envelop system is that the money going into each envelop is the same amount as was used in 1993, over 25 years ago. Imagine trying to run your own household using the same amounts of cash as you comfortably spent in 1993.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

In Lowell, we heard last Monday about a shortfall of nearly 500 classroom teachers each year. Big underfunded and under-calculated items in the Foundation Budget are surely contributing factors to this. If a district such as Lowell has huge differences between the Commonwealth’s foundation budget determinations for school spending and the amount spent is more than what has been put aside, there are two choices.

Applying the “envelop system” demands a municipality either a) add money from the municipal coffers to make up that difference or b) shift funding from one category to another.

Of course these differences between state funding and actual spending are quite common – not to mention quite large – when the basis for the Foundation Budget calculations have not be updated in about 25 years. If state funding is based in the 1990s but actual expenses reflect the reality of 2019, it follows logically that there will be a huge conflict between state funding and reality. The differences are exacerbated when a municipality, like Lowell, Brockton, Springfield or Worcester, cannot contribute beyond what has been calculated in the Foundation Budget numbers, something a more affluent city of town might be able to do. It follows, then that some difficult educational budgeting choices must be made.

A gateway city, like Lowell, has nearly zero percent chance of not feeling some excruciating budget pain which brings us up to the shortfall of 500 classroom teachers. It is indeed painful to Lowell and to our children.

Four major areas – think of them as “envelopes” – need Foundation Budget reform: English Language Learners, Special Education (not including the Circuit Breaker), Health Insurance and Low Income. All of these funding categories are based on amounts that were set in 1993 which means that when one looks at what the Commonwealth funds and what the expense reality in 2019 is, there are huge variances.

Lowell Superintendents’ Forum, 4/22/2019

Let’s consider the budget “envelops” for a couple of these categories. The Foundation Budget calculates Special Education spending at $16.7 million, but the actual cost of Special Education in Lowell is $31.1 million. That’s a difference of $14.4 million which has to come out of one of the other budget envelopes. Health Insurance as budgeted through the Foundation Budget calculations is figured at $17.3 million, but the actual insurance costs, even after switching to a cost-effective plan like the GIC, is $33.1 million. Surely no one in Massachusetts is expecting to pay the same insurance costs as they did in 1993, so is it any wonder that the Foundation Fund amount is so out of whack?

As a taxpayer, a voter, and as a former educator, I am shocked when local politicians claim there’s no money to correct this. I think it is more likely there is no courage because that is what it will take to face the reality of underfunding schools. Revenues to fund schools, as well as transportation and infrastructure, in our Commonwealth are essential.

The envelop is empty and there is no time to waste.


The 5 Percent

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, the Lowell School Committee and anyone who was listening to the School Committee’s meeting heard the LPS McKinney-Vento report. The report enumerates homeless students in the Lowell Public Schools as defined by McKinney-Vento act:

The McKinney-Vento act defines homeless students as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason.

– March 1, 2019 Report to Lowell School Committee

As of March 1, that number in Lowell was 982 – and actually climbed a bit from there due to students displaced by two fires in the City. The reported number of homeless children, however, represents 5 percent of Lowell Public Schools’ students.

This is a heart-breaking situation, and it is one that I, a former teacher, was aware of when I was a teacher. Nearly every year in which I taught, I had one – and sometimes more – students who were identified as homeless. They lived in shelters, they lived temporarily with a neighbor or relatives, and yes, some of them were living in a vehicle until their situation was discovered by Social Workers.

This brings me to the point of writing this entry: in our public schools, we rely on Social Workers, Counselors, and Health professionals to help us not only to identify which students and families are in trauma, but to help mitigate the circumstances in which they find themselves. In our public schools, with 5 percent of a given student population in crisis due to housing uncertainty, that is a massive responsibility for which there are some, but not many solutions.

Lowell’s McKinney-Vento report sparked a lot of conversations, as well as people asking “what can we do”? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know our school social workers, with caseloads stretched beyond reasonableness, are a key response to students and families living the trauma of becoming homeless.

With burgeoning caseloads, our schools need more professional, trained school counselors, social workers, and wrap-around services to support the homeless in our midst. That, of course, takes a monetary investment.

You may have heard me state that the outdated Foundation Budget calculations, now over 25 years old, are shortchanging Lowell Public Schools by $42 million each year. That is not just a guess on my part, but an estimate based on real numbers that come from Mass. Budget & Policy Center. School funding is a crisis for which the solution – fully funding schools by updating ridiculously outdated funding forumulae – should be a priority.

Our community’s children cannot wait.

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

 

 

 

 

Another Reason for Increased Recess

2013fielddayaI wonder how many other adults have experienced this? After about 30 minutes of intense focus, there is a need to get up and move. For me, moving around when I am actively engaging my brain applies in nearly every circumstance, and I notice it most especially during some training or class when my brain is powered up and I’m trying hard to retain new information.

An article republished in the New York Times’ Well column made me think of how sitting and movement impact learning for all students regardless of age level. Written for runners and titled Can Running Make You Smarter, the article was originally published in July 2016. Here are some major take-aways from the article:

  • exercise fosters neurogenesis, or creation of neurons which cluster in the brain and increase ability for thinking and recall
  • physical stimulation is necessary for healthy brains
  • Cathepsin B protein, which helps muscles recover from exercise such as running, appears to be a factor in neurogenesis
  • in the study, more active subjects like runners had better and more improved tests scores for memory and thinking

So what’s the connection to students and learning? Here’s my take:

One of the first things schools jettison when time-on-task and test preparation becomes the focus, is recess. Recess is short-changed in many schools across the US even though research study after research study shows that children need recess and breaks from more academic pursuits in order to learn and think. Google the phrase “importance of recess” and page upon page of research pops up. And then, of course, you could just ask a teacher.

Recess is important. If this study is taken seriously, active play during recess appears to be even more important. Recently, in response to School Committee member Jackie Doherty’s motion of January 18, 2017, the Lowell Schools reported (click here for the report from the February 15 meeting packet) on the number of minutes allocated for recess at each Lowell Public Schools. The times ranged from zero minutes at Lowell High School and alternative school settings to 20 minutes at several elementary schools (25 for some Kindergarten classrooms).

The studies cited in Can Running Make You Smarter point once again to the importance of allowing students enough time to be active throughout the school day. Isn’t that a good reason to pay greater attention on finding some additional recess and play time in the school day?

 

School Committee Meeting 07 December 2016

School Committee Meeting 07 December 2016

2016-nov-26_cityoflights_lhsbandSix present, Ms. Martin Absent

Prior to the beginning of the regular agenda, SC Gignac makes a motion to refer Item 13 to Negotiations subcommittee. Item 13 was a report of the Superintendent for the Policy on Admission of Children of Non-resident School Employees . Public input and/or comment will be allowed during the subcommittee’s meeting when that meeting is scheduled.

Spotlight on Excellence

Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School recently was recognized by National Title I Association for closing the student achievement gap and is one of two Massachusetts receiving recognition for their achievements. Principal McLean described the collaborative culture at the Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School that brought this school from the 11th percentile (meaning 89% of all other schools performed better) to the 57th percentile over 5 years. The school’s achievement is impressive and national recognition of the school is well deserved. A large contingent of PMES teachers also attended last evening’s meeting. Over February School vacation, members of the school faculty have been invited to attend the annual Title I meeting in California where they will receive national recognition.

A second spotlight on excellence highlighted the United Teachers of Lowell’s FirstBook “Books on Wheels” event where over 450 educators and 2,000 students received free new books. A video of the event can be found here and the introductory remarks for the video hereOn a personal note, we’d like to thank the cast of thousands who made this event come together. The Books on Wheels event exceeded our expectations by every measure and we are looking forward to planning for the next round after the first of the year. If you would like to be part of our early planning, please let us know.

Permissions to Enter

$319,023 in expenses approved, including a $0 expenditure for Middlesex Community College to provide a dental hygiene program for Lowell Public Schools.. See detail in the Meeting Packet on p 29-31. 6 yea, 1 absent – approved.

Motions

Four motions were presented

  • 2016/460 (S. Gendron): School of the Month Program. Once every month a school is highlighted with a brief presentation during which students in attendance from the school will lead the Committee in the Pledge of Allegiance. (approved)
  • 2016/461 (C. Martin): Science Fair Opportunities at the LPS and plans for expansion(s) during 2017 or 2018. (approved)
  • 2016/468 (R. Hoey): Letter of Appreciation to Moody School for Veteran’s Day Presentation on 11/17. SC Hoey notes the excellence of the music program and the program honoring veterans. In discussion, SC Descoteaux notes that the Butler School’s Veteran’s Day performance is also exemplary and Mayor Kennedy notes the excellence of the LHS Choir during the City Hall Open House. A suggestion was made to recognize all three schools’ groups for their excellence.
  • 2016/469 (R. Hoey): Previously taken during Spotlight on Excellence.

Subcommittee Report

Meeting notes of the Lowell High School Subcommittee (2016/464) were presented by Mr. Gignac, chair of the committee.  The subcommittee addressed specific language necessary to include School Committee participation by a student representative from Lowell High School (for the balance of 2016-17 the representatives would rotate between LHS Sr. Class President and Vice President). While a non-voting position, this member would provide advisory role especially during discussions relating to Lowell High. Following a roll call vote, Ms. Onotse Omoyeni. LHS Senior Class President was invited to join the committee for the remainder of the meeting as student representative. (Meeting Notes, pages 40-41).

Reports of the Superintendent

There were five items under Reports of the Superintendent, including 2016/470 which was taken out of order (motion to refer to Negotiating Subcommittee) during prior to the Spotlight on Excellence.

  • 2016/470: Policy for Admission of Non-Resident School Employees This report has been referred to the Negotiations Subcommittee.
  • 2016/476: LPS Strategic Plan Presentation The LPS Strategic Plan was presented by the Accountability Office. The work on the plan began in September 0215 and included community input. Subgroups analyzed data and generated reports and recommendations throughout the process resulting in a vision (Inspire-Engage-Empower).

The Pillars of Urban Excellence support the vision and values of the Lowell Public Schools:

  • Pillar 1: Teaching and Learning (broken down to 4 objectives)
  • Pillar 2: Students Learn in a Respectful and Joyful Community that Attends to the Whole Child
  • Pillar 3: Students Learn from a Highly Qualified, Expert and Diverse Workforce
  • Pillar 4: Every Educator Engages Parents, The Community and Partners
  • Pillar 5:  All Schools Have Adequate, Equitable and Safe Facilities and Resources

To make the plan a meaningful document, there needs to be accountability, not as a punishment tool, but as a support structure. How do we get to where we want to be. The LPSD is establish targets and benchmarks (in the process of developing this) through a “data dashboard”. Test scores will be part of the data dashboard and can be changed based on test scores and other measures of student achievement. A Human Resources dashboard will enable the District to monitor efforts toward meeting the District’s goals for a diverse teaching staff. There will also be capability to track, using real-time tracking, class sizes and enrollments.

The plan was well received with some suggestions and thoughts to aligning the district plan and goals to data gathering and evaluation. Accepted as report of progress.

  • 2016/472: Disposal of Surplus Supplies  See pages 49-58 of the Meeting Packet. (6 yeas, 1 absent approved).
  • 2016/475: Request to Reschedule the April 5, 2017 Early Release Day A substitute early release alternative date would be to move this early release to Wednesday, March 29. The original date of April 5 had been developed prior to the state’s MCAS window publication. (6 yeas, 1 absent, approved).
  • 2016/477: Health and Wellness Policy Advisory Committee SC Doherty was nominated and appointed to this advisory committee.

Convention and Conference Requests (2) were all approved.

Due to the proximity of the next meeting (12/21) to the Christmas holiday, the regular school committee meeting of 12/21 is cancelled. There will be a special meeting, the date for which is to be determined, to discuss/approve items related to the Lowell High School project.

Meeting Packet can be found here.

 

School Committee Meeting, 21 September 2016

2016-Mar-01_0051School Committee Meeting, 21 September 2016

6 present, Mr. Gendron Absent

The items on tonight’s agenda were mostly routine. Business completed in just a few minutes beyond the one-hour mark. 

Permissions to Enter

Three contracts approved for total of $120,200.

Motions

While four motions were listed originally on the agenda for tonight’s meeting, only one was considered due to Mr. Gendron’s absence. Mr. Gendron requested the 3 motions he submitted be considered at the next meeting (October 5, 2016).

2016/365 Mr.Gignac requested coordination between the City and LPSD in dedicating a POW/MIA chair. This coordination of efforts is already underway so that the dedication can take place during Lowell High School Homecoming.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 5 reports from the Superintendent in response to requests and motions.  The first 3 items were accepted as Reports of Progress; the last 2 were approved on roll call.

2016/367 Monthly Budget Report. Mr. Gignac questions and receives confirmation that the amount attributed to a Budget Analyst was in reality a temporary holding account (reminds the body that the Budget Analyst position had not been budgeted for). The amount charged in the account in question is zeroed out on a monthly basis as grant funds allocated for the position (grant manager?) are expended.  Ms. Martin reiterates her request for an Organizational Chart for Central Administrative positions. This request was put into the form of a motion. Report detail starts on p 39 in packet.

2016/375 STEM curriculum at Lowell High School. Martha Cohn and Paula Bransfield walked the committee through the STEM activities beginning with Kindergarten and percolating through Grades 10-12.  Several successes were highlighted: Project Lead the Way, Idea Camp, STEM clubs. The District has received quite a number of grants and been awarded funds and support from both the business and academic world.

This would have been a terrific Powerpoint to include in the packet.  Ms. Cohn and Ms. Bransfield highlighted the cross-curricular activities that have been developed, particularly at early grades. The activities and explorations used to develop engineering skills and process are inquiry based. That is certainly something that has been lacking in recent years and I am excited to see it return.  In using inquiry, students are presented with a problem and possibly some criteria for its solution. Through critical thinking and scientific process, they find solutions without the instructor telling exactly what to do – the words “no-tell zone” describe this perfectly. The instructor becomes more a facilitator and less of a lecturer. Good to see this returning to education!

2016/379 Opioid Abuse Prevention and Awareness. Mr. Gignac expressed some disappointment with the University’s feasibility study associated with this report as it lacked detail for effective awareness. Given the current crisis of opioid abuse, there is an urgency in this area for recommendations to impress upon students (children) the gravity of opioid addiction. While the partnerships cited are a step in the right direction, the progress toward addressing this issue throughout the grades is taking too long. Ms. Durkin offered that the report contained in the packet was an excerpt and that there is a meeting scheduled for Thursday, 10/22 with the University. At that time, Ms. Durkin hopes to have some of the questions about the feasibility study answered and receive some more specific recommendations for moving forward.

2016/380 Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan Revision and 2016/376 Home Education both passed on roll call.

New Business

There were five items under New Business:

  • 2016/362: Approval of an Educational Research Request. Ms. Martin requests further information (would like to see the survey instrument). Passes (1 absent, 5 yea, 1 present-Ms. Martin).
  • 2016/364: Vote to accept Grant award of $2,000 to Bridge Program (1 absent, 6 yea)
  • 2016/373: Approval of Expenditure Transfer. See p 92-93 of Meeting Packet (transfer to make year-end correction for FY2016. (1 absent, 6 yea)
  • 2016/377:  Reclassification of Position. See p 95-97 of Meeting Packet. Substitute Motion made by Ms. Doherty to delay until next meeting in order to receive further description of the position and update the position description. (1 absent, 2 no-Mr. Hoey & Mr. Descoteaux, 4 yea).
  • 2016/381: Vote to Approve Title Change. DESE requires a School Business Administrator to hold license in school administration; when a replacement for the prior business administrator was being sought, there was an effort to (locally) use the title CFO in order to attract strong business administrators who may be from out-of-state. Mr. Frisch, current holder of this position, applied for and received all the requisite licenses; the SBA title can be restored without changing salary or job description. The School Business Administrator is the title to which DESE refers. (1 absent, 5 yea)

Convention and Conference Requests (3) were all approved.

Meeting Packet can be found here.

07 September 2016: School Committee Meeting

IMG_0794School Committee Meeting, 7 August 2016

6 present, Ms. Martin Absent

Tonight’s meeting, the first after the start of the academic year, is the beginning of the regular twice-a-month meeting schedule.  The agenda was short and to the point – under 1 hour. Some of the Superintendent’s remarks were lost due to a faulty microphone. However, from what I could surmise, the topic will be revisited at a future meeting.  

Permissions to Enter

Contracts for both Deputy Superintendent Jeannine Durkin and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Robin Desmond were approved.  $56,000 to SEEN collaborative for out-of-district Special Education service was also approved.

Public Participation

Jonathan Richmond,  Chief Executive and Founder of the charitable organization Takeoff Space spoke to the School Committee regarding the decision process and communication resulting from a proposal he had brought to Lowell High administration, and ultimately, to the School Committee. The program, Takeoff Space, is meant to encourage and mentor top performing disadvantaged students to matriculate to top tier colleges. Mr. Richmond formally registered a complaint that his program was dismissed without due consideration. The High School made the decision not to participate in Mr. Richmond’s program because this need was being addressed through another previously established initiative.

Subcommittee Reports:

  1. Facilities Subcommittee: Approval of Meeting of August 11, 2016. The content had be discussed at the August 17 meeting. Minutes accepted as report of progress.
  2. Finance Subcommittee:  3 topics were on the agenda:
    1. Fiscal 2016 year end financials (including Apple hardware purchases and transfers to make up for loss of state funding for Kindergarten grant (paraprofessionals))
    2. Schedule/timeline for independent audit
    3. Fiscal 2017 year to date financials.  A motion was made and approved to develop a timeline for dealing with year-end surpluses so that the School Committee can decide how to allocate such funds.

3.  Lowell High Subcommittee meeting to discuss 4 motions by Mayor Kennedy.

Reports of the Superintendent

There were 12 reports from the Superintendent in response to requests and motions.  Two of these prompted short discussion:

2016/338 Lowell High School Graduates Attending College.  During this report, most of the discussion could not be heard because of a faulty microphone.  The District provided a report stating that 83.5% of Lowell High graduates are attending either a 2-year or 4-year college this Fall.  That compares favorably across the state.  The Committee had a couple of lingering questions. One of these was the data presented show that many students are attending either a 2-year school such as Middlesex Community College or a state 4-year college (University of Lowell).  There was a question from Ms. Doherty as to whether students are receiving sufficient guidance and encouragement to apply for “reach” schools, such as the Ivy Leagues.

I attended state schools through post-masters work and have never for one moment thought that I didn’t get a superior education. It was “on me” to take advantage of classes and study, the value of my degrees came from the hard work I put into school, not from the name on the front gate. I also understand, on a parental level, what a financial burden attending a private university poses. Attending post-high school is a decision that only the student and his/her family can make, and while I would hope that Lowell High students are given information about grants and opportunities to attend their school of choice, I would hope the value of a public college or university will not be lost.

2016/346 Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan Revision. There has been significant revision to this plan due to new regulations implemented by the Commonwealth. One new feature is that the incident report will be available online and includes drop-down selections which will make reporting more efficient.  Ms. Doherty suggested that some clarification is needed regarding the timeline of responses. The Plan was approved and changes to include more precise language will be added at the next meeting.

New Business

There were four items under New Business:

  • 2016/340: Permission to Post: PALS Program Head Coach. As explained by Ms. Durkin, the PALS program is funded through the university. University students provide mentor support for high school students.
  • 2016/341 Permission to Post: Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) Data Manager
  • 2016/342 Permission to Post: PALS Program Assistant Head Coach
  • 2016/353 Approval of a Study Grant

All passed.

There was no Executive Session and the meeting adjourned at 7:27 pm (noted by Mayor Kennedy). Meeting Packet can be found here.