Keeping Things Real

The Group Insurance Commission or GIC here in Massachusetts is at it again. Fellow public employees, active and retired, will recall last year’s efforts by the commission to bring health costs under control. I’d like to think attention was paid to questioning spiraling health care increases, particularly from pharmaceuticals, when the GIC set last year’s rates and policies. However,  the cost controlling aspect of last year’s adventures in rate setting became less about holding-the-line on increased costs,  and more about shifting all the increases to the subscribers.

Last year, subscribers found deductible increases doubling, retirees had co-pays in medi-gap insurances doubling, and some drugs were removed from formularies.  We survived that one, although as a retiree, I noticed my health insurance premium increased 13% over 2016. That cost change does not include increases from raising the deductibles (a 67% increase for individuals last time around) or increases to co-pays, particularly targeted toward retired members last year.

The GIC held a meeting last year and seemed shocked that GIC members from across the Commonwealth were upset by these increases.

Now before anyone goes all “you should be glad you have health insurance at all” on me, yes I am glad to have this benefit. I too, have experienced private sector insurance increases and realize that health coverage increases are pretty steep no matter whom you work for. Unless of course, you happen to be a member of Congress and get something pretty sweet for practically no cost – but that’s another story for another day.

So fast forward to 2018. In fact, let’s go right to January 19, 2018 and the GIC Commissioner’s regular monthly meeting.  This time, the Commissioners decided to eliminate some of the plans and offer fewer health care choices.  Read about which ones here, but interestingly three plans that were eliminated from the GIC’s offerings are ones that serve half of the GIC’s 442,000 members (that would be Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts, and Fallon). Read the Boston Business Journal article to get more specifics on which plans made the cut and which did not. If you believe Governor Baker, “practically everybody” will be able to keep the same trusted doctors and hospitals with whom they have an established relationship. On behalf of the 50% of us who are going to need to change plans, I say we shall see.

GIC members may have an opportunity to find out more as the Commission takes this information on the road around the Commonwealth. In Lowell, that opportunity presents itself this Thursday evening, January 25 (5 pm) at UML’s O’Leary Library on South Campus (Rom 222). That address is

UMass Lowell

O’Leary Library*, Room 222 (South Campus)

61 Wilder Street

Lowell, MA 01854

Parking: Wilder Lot/Visitor Metered Parking Lot

You must RSVP to attend the meeting. Please be sure to do that by emailing the GIC at gic.events@massmail.state.ma.us. The link below should take you to the GIC’s flyer for other venues across the state.

GIC PUBLIC HEARING – 2018_FLYER

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Lost in the shuffle

flipoutThe Lowell High School project is, without a doubt, the biggest thing going in Lowell. I mainly stay out of the discussions about siting this project, mainly because, aside from being a taxpayer, I have very little skin in the game – no children/grandchildren in the school system. I do have an opinion, however, that is not based on tradition or the often-cited “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. That is one of the advantages of being a Blowellian.

In my opinion, soliciting community support for this massive project has been ass-backwards from the start. My recollection is that, until there was some blowback from community groups like CBA and CMAA, there was very little effort to include all the stake-holders in the decision-making.  Did the rush to get the project in front of Mass. School Building for project approval preclude the necessity for a referendum vote on where to put the school? I think it has.

But while decisions and debate about where to put a new high school have become the focus point, there are other equally important issues that are getting pushed aside.  One of those issues is the inadequate school funding support coming from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Thanks to cuts in the state budget and cuts coming from the Federal government, Lowell Public Schools needs to cut the previously approved 2018 budget by nearly $1 million.  At the last School Committee meeting, there was plenty of debate surrounding the cutting of positions. Some of those proposed cuts are positions that directly impact students.  The loss of anticipated Chapter 70 funding is somewhat complicated, but in my mind, these are the issues:

  • The lowering of  tax revenues at the State level has resulted in the need to make last second reductions in school budget line items.
  • The state’s budget and funding formula for Chapter 70 has not been fully funded (currently presumed to be underfunded by over $1 Billion) for many years.
  • Education funding formulae are based on 23-year old calculations. The Foundation Budget is is dire need of updating (see TracyN Foundation Analysis).
  • The continually increasing expenditures for charter schools.

Brockton, Worcester, and other gateway cities, those who are impacted most critically by Chapter 70 underfunding and under-calculations, have joined together in an attempt to force the Commonwealth to rectify Chapter 70 funding issues through a lawsuit to address the inequities of funding. Because of Lowell’s focus on the high school, the effort to fix the funding, and possibly get some relief for our local school budgeting, isn’t even a blip on the radar.

Yes, the high school facility and a building that will serve the students in this community is important, but it is not the only thing.

This wasn’t Mozart, and it ain’t no jungle

My favorite weekend of the year is always the last weekend in July. The Lowell Folk 2017-Jul-29_Folk-Festival-2017_1195_edited-1Festival – a free (!) and frenetic amalgam of music, food, and culture – is worth planning around, which is, exactly what we do.

2017-Jul-30_Lowell-Folk-Fest-2017_1323Over the 31 years that the festival has been here, it seems to me it has developed into a better and better version of itself. This year, with stellar weather, not too hot and most definitely not too humid, was one of the best.

The music is naturally one of the biggest draws. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1031Where else can you go to sample everything from Armenian to Zydeco? I mean that literally.  When we first started coming to the Festival, we would carefully plan out which bands to listen to, and that’s not a bad strategy, really. But what we’ve done in recent times is move from place to place listening to music that is not necessarily in our cultural comfort zone. Doing so has been a great way to get some exposure to music we wouldn’t necessarily listen to on Pandora or iTunes.  Great stuff.

 

Over the years, we’ve also come to appreciate Friday nights, the first night of Folk Festival. While the crowds and 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1036excitement of Saturday and Sunday of Festival weekend are energetic, there is a different kind of vibe to Friday. There is a goodly amount of community pride when the 6:30 parade kicks off. Representing many – not all – of the cultures of Lowell, it causes this Blowellian to realize what a special community we have here in Lowell. The diverse cultures making up our community fabric is a great source of pride for all of us. Long-established cultures that immigrated here during the hey days of the mills or newer immigrant groups establishing homes – all were represented in the kick-off to the weekend. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1039

But there was a little something more this past Friday: there was a feeling of kind togetherness and consideration. A festival-goer, a stranger to me, insisted I take a cushion as I knelt down on the grass of Boarding House Park to photograph the parade. Random concert goers started up and 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1100_edited-1carried on conversations, enjoying the music and the collegiality.  I think this shift in attitudes must have become contagious. One of the Park Rangers we spoke with on Sunday was delighted to point out his radio had been 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1153very quiet all weekend because, in spite of large crowds, everyone was well-behaved.

An event of this size takes lots of organization and many, many dedicated volunteers – from fundraisers to recyclers to people who run the cameras for broadcast.  If you were at this year’s festival, you may have run into a few of them from the Bucket Brigade. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1111In order to put on a festival of this size, there is a huge financial commitment from community partnerships to donations large and small.  You can continue to donate to the Lowell Festival Foundation’s fundraising efforts and, in doing so, get ready for the next festival.

Next summer, on the last weekend of July, the dedicated volunteers and sponsors who organize Lowell Folk Festival will do it all again for the 32nd time.  I know where I will be, and I hope you’ll join in the fun too.

2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1067

 

What happens if….

flipoutToday, May 23, is the “official” announcement of the federal budget proposal. “Official” because the numbers have been floating around in the ether for a while now.  Within the proposal from the White House budget is the idea of cuts impacting education to the tune of  $10.6 Billion less.

Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post, has analyzed the proposed cuts to education and details them here. The Washington Post also carries another story of overall education cuts proposed in the Trump FY18 budget. According to the Post article, the reduction in federal education spending will be used to fund the voucher program DOE Secretary DeVos is so enamored with.

Reductions to federal grant programs will have a great impact on our local schools and the services provided to students. Here is what the proposal might mean in terms of local education:

21st Century Community Learning Centers, $1,164.5 billion

Lowell’s FY18 lists several grant funded items

  • $587,232 funding for LHS, Shaughnessy, Morey, Robinson, Greenhalge, Stoklosa after school programs,
  • $104,777 funding for after school programs Bartlett, McAuliffe and additional funding for LHS
  • $ 91,600 funding for Lincoln School after school programming
  • $ 94,200 additional after school programming, McAuliffe School

Total for after school programming $877,809

21st Century Out of school programming (summer programs) $179,600

21st Century funding for Special Education inclusions $ 93,720

This means the potential lost of funding impact totaling $1,151,129 (FY18 budget numbers) and, more importantly, the loss of before and after school programming for Lowell students at 9 schools.

A quick once over reveals additional grant cuts from a reduction or loss of Title IIA (Teacher quality, including mentoring of new staff), $1,170,759 (FY18),  and Title III (Limited English Proficiency support programs), $691,283.

If you, like I, think this could be a hugely negative impact on our children, please consider contacting Representatives and Senators. To find local House representatives, click whoismyrepresentative and enter your ZIP code. The list of Senators  and contact information is here. And, if you are curious as to what happens when a staffer picks up, here are some terrific tips.

17 May 2017: Budget Hearing and Regular School Committee Meeting

12022015ClockAll Members present for both meetings.

Budget Hearing, Part 3

Somehow in the flurry of budget activities over the last week I lost track of last night’s Budget Hearing which preceded the regular School Committee Meeting.  So if you were hoping to add a public comment to the funding proposals, you are out of luck.  The Hearing portion has ended, but there are still revisions and corrections being made to the final document. That will be voted on at the end of the month, sent to City Council and (hopefully) approved.

At the start of the Budget Hearing, Mayor Kennedy announces some positive news: the Senate version of the Commonwealth’s budget includes a $611K increase for Lowell. Additionally, Mayor Kennedy has received word that the City will increase its contribution to the schools by $257K. This additional funding should enable the Schools to restore the library aide positions.

The two positions that had been put in abeyance (a school psychologist and a clerk – both potentially eliminated as personnel retirements which the Schools propose not to replace), were discussed. The essence of these discussions is that, while the School Committee is appreciative of the additional funding by the City, these positions also need to be restored. Ms. Martin brings up the re-classification of the School Resource Officers (SRO). There are 3 SRO positions that are not being eliminated, but the expenses associated with them are be reclassified (for lack of a better term). Under the proposed budget, the expenses associated with 3 of the SROs will shift back to the City in order to maintain consistency.

Ms. Martin reminds the members that she has placed a motion on the upcoming meeting agenda (Item 7.VIII) to requests both City and School Finance Subcommittees meet to discuss the FY18 Budget and also to review Maintenance of Effort and contracts. She advocates for leaving the budget as it sits until the discussion can take place.

Superintendent Khelfaoui brings up 2 corrections to be made to budget proposal. One is a line item correction to a previous calculation and the other is to add $257K addition from the City.

Mr. Gignac makes 2 motions:

  • Amend line item in Account 2300 Library to reinstate Library aides (7 yeas, approved).
  • Amend 5100/5200 Benefits to include the costs benefit restorations for the Library Aide positions. (7 yeas, approved)

Mr. Gignac makes a motion to fund the school psychologist position (placed in abeyance in the previous meeting) by reducing the proposed budget for substitutes (p 18 of budget, Line 207). Lots of discussion here. During the regular school committee meeting which will follow, a Report of the Superintendent details suggested substitute teacher pay increases (Item 9.I), and Ms. Doherty is concerned that the budgeted amount for substitutes in FY18 will not be enough if Mr. Gignac’s motion carries. Mayor Kennedy cautions that the City will not be favorably able to provide the additional $150K (estimated) to restore both the School Psychologist and the Clerk positions currently in abeyance. Mr. Gendron notes the potential for “salary adjustments”. After much discussion, including commentary by school psychologist, Sheela Pyles, the motion does carry. (7 yeas, approved)

Ms. Martin returns to topic of Maintenance of Effort and potential impact on School FY18 Budget. Mayor Kennedy suggests that the discussions with City re Maintenance of Effort will be long and perhaps spill beyond the start of Fiscal 18.  Therefore, waiting for any impact resulting from discussion with the City side about Maintenance of Effort is not advisable.

In the end, amounts in the budget book were adjusted as follows and the Public Hearing closed.

  • Suspense Account increased to include Senate proposal and City increase. I believe that the new amount is $1,000,377 (in Suspense).
  • Page 18: $59,700,560 (reduction in substitute account)
  • Page 29: $4,501,964 (increase of 1 school psychologist)
  • Total on p 11 is now $162,942,846 (7 yeas, approved)

Budget hearing adjourns and regular meeting begins.

Regular Meeting

The discussions during the Regular School Committee Meeting were quickly dispensed with. Three budget-based items to note:

  1. Motion 7.VIII [Connie Martin]: Request that the Mayor facilitate a joint meeting of the Finance Subcommittees of both the Lowell City Council and the Lowell School Committtee for the purpose of discussing the FY18 Budget and the current review of Net School Spending and ongoing contract negotiations. (approved)
  2. Report and Approval of the Minutes of the Meeting of Wednesday, May 8 2017 [Robert Gignac, Chair]. Accepted as a report of progress. Link here.
  3. Report of the Superintendent: Proposed Substitute Salary Increases. After a short disucssion to explain the research Ms. Sheehy conducted to reach the rate increases proposed, the Report was approved (7 yeas).

The agenda and supporting documentation can be found of the Lowell City Agenda and Minutes web page.

Are we just getting by?

newbasketsTuesday evening, I spoke before the City Council to encourage that body to meet with City of Lowell school administration before approving the budget that was before them. You read that correctly, I was advocating that the Council not approve the budget. Why? I don’t believe that the City’s contribution to the school budget adequately considers our public school students.

Here are my remarks:

Former Presidential Advisor Paul Begala once stated, a budget is a “profoundly moral document” in that it enumerates those things that we view as priorities. We fund those ideas and things which we value.

As a retired elementary teacher with 30 years experience, it was my privilege to teach in the Lowell Public Schools for 20 years. And while I appreciate the City’s efforts to meet minimum Net School Spending requirements during the last several years, that effort should not stop at the minimum. We should not expect to just “get by”.

The educational challenges to communities such as Lowell are deep and sometimes complicated. Children attending our City’s public schools often have needs complicated by language, by poverty, and by culture. Stagnant computations of Chapter 70 aid, based on 20 year old formulae mean our schools operate with fewer resources to support these students. Increasingly, funding is redirected to charter schools in the City and this complicates the fiscal picture even further.

Tonight, the City Council considers a Home Rule petition, and I applaud you all for insisting that the Commonwealth meet its obligations for fully funding charter school tuition reimbursement. It is unacceptable for the Commonwealth to shrug off that reimbursement promise and leave urban communities like Lowell with fewer and fewer resources.

Yet however complex the issues may be, it is still the responsibility of our community to ensure that funding for schools is adequate. Those funds must guarantee that students and public schools in Lowell continue to be a reflection of what we, as community value.

Over the span of my teaching career, there were often years when that minimum contribution was not met. During those times, our students lost out on opportunities as positions such as Science Specialists and Librarians were eliminated.  Our school buildings delayed repairs or improvements that now loom ahead as major undertakings.

Is education is important? Is it something that Lowell values? Or is it sufficient to minimally fund the schools and just get by?

Doing the minimum does not suffice for our children, and it should not be okay for our school budget either.

A reduction in personnel is felt when positions are eliminated and other staff members pick up the slack. We get by. More often than you realize, supplies and resources needed for classrooms are funded out of teachers’ pockets, sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars a year. And once again, we get by.

The Lowell Public Schools is an asset to our community for which we can all be proud. It is not sufficient to just “get by”. Our City leaders need to envision the schools that will fully serve our children and fund that vision. Instead of beginning with a minimum budget number and fitting school expenditures to that amount, what if we look at what is needed first and then worked together to fund that?

We need to move beyond the “just getting by.” We need to strive for more than a minimum.

And so, I urge the City Council to increase funding for the 2018 proposed school budget. I urge you not to vote to approve the budget before you until both School and City administrations have met to discuss solutions to this fiscal crunch.

Let’s demonstrate that here in Lowell, we value our public schools and that our schools and our children are a priority.

 

10 May 2017: About the Proposed Budget

2013fielddayaIt’s budget time in Lowell and the predictions look a bit grim. I won’t second guess (most) of the reasoning behind proposed budget amounts, but I am dismayed that the belt tightening has been mind numbing. 

As a former educator in Lowell, even without children (or grandchildren) in the City Schools, I feel compelled to speak up. Those are “my” kids who are moving along through a terrific urban district and they deserve as many opportunities as we can provide. Here’s a letter that I sent to our School Committee Members this morning. I plan to attend tonight’s Budget Hearing (Butler School, 6:30 pm), LISTEN and then advocate for them as best I can. I hope many of you will do this as well. Let’s work together to ensure that Lowell Public Schools meet our students’ needs.

Dear School Committee Members,

I am writing to you today in support of one of the budget proposals, and also in hopes of engaging your support of another.

As Mr. Gendron said at the last Committee Meeting, the good news is that the budget is balanced and that there has been a herculean effort to preserve current school department employees.  That being said, there is much to reflect on.

I fully support the effort to create a CSA Day School to accommodate Lowell students needing services as outlined in IEPs. Bringing services that had been contracted through out-of-district placements is not only expensive, but worrisome for parents. Students receiving these services at collaboratives and other placement agencies often are on buses or vans for lengthy rides out of their community. By tapping in to talent and expertise in the area of Autism within our own education community, not only are parents and students able to eliminate long, tiring rides to service agencies, then the schools can ensure that education funding is spent judiciously in support of the children.  In my opinion, the School Committee should support this effort as a long-term solution to meeting the needs of children right here in Lowell.

I am, however, deeply disappointed in the effort to eliminate Library Aides from the K-8 public schools.  As a former educator, now retired, I am concerned with the short-sightedness of this action. Library Aides not only check out materials for staff and for students, they maintain the school libraries as a welcoming environment in which to pursue literacy. Books that are in need of repair, are fixed and reshelved. New and replacement materials are added to school libraries. Weekly book exchanges are a time when students can explore new reading genres. The Library Aides also assist students using electronic card catalogues, a research skill that will be necessary as a student moves from grade to grade.  Without the assistance provided by Library Aides will these valuable literacy and library skills still exist in the coming years? I do not think they will and I wonder if in a few years, the School Committee will be decrying the loss of library skills.

The budget prepared by the School Department has been trimmed, and is a representation of consensus by school administrators as to what can be done with the reduced funds coming from the City.  These fund are not adequate.

I implore the School Committee to engage the City Manager and City Council in a further discussion for funding. While the loss of available funds to a larger-than-anticipated transportation bid is understandable, the loss of monies due to expansion of grade levels at local charter schools is not.

Last evening’s City Council approved funding to fix the roofs at three schools. My questions are: a) will these repairs become part of the City’s in-kind contribution charged back to the school department and b) would these repairs have been needed had the City met Net School Spending amounts in prior years when those repairs may have been minor ones? And finally, c) should our current students “pay” for reduced opportunities at schools because of short-sighted budgeting that occurred in years past.

I urge the School Committee members to meet with the City Council and City Manager and demand increased access to funding for one of the greatest assests in the City of Lowell: our public schools.