School Committee Meeting, 18 May 2016

School Committee Meeting, 18 May 2016

All present

12022015ClockBetween Tuesday’s City Council Meeting and Wednesday’s School Committee Meeting, Mayor Kennedy has done a yeoman’s job of navigating through some very highly charged Public Comment sessions.

The agenda included a Public Hearing on Inter-District School Choice which quickly morphed into comment on Item 10, the Policy Subcommittee’s Report of Monday, May 16, 2016.

Special Order of Business

Mayor Kennedy mentions there are 10 speakers registered to speak about Item 2016/134, Inter-District School Choice; however, after the first speaker, it was pointed out to him by Robert Gignac that many of the speakers were here to advocate for/against the policy of allowing out-of-district children of Lowell Public School staff to be educated by the Lowell Schools. I would urge anyone interested in both sides of this issue to find the LTC meeting replay (tape) and listen to the first hour of the meeting for yourself.

In the end, the School Committee adopted a substitute motion. They have decided to keep the current number of students (grandfathered) for one year and allow them to attend the schools they have been attending. There will be no increase to the out-of-district student pool (freezing the incoming) and the basic policy stands until Fall 2017 when the School Committee intends to have a new/revised policy in place, possibly attaching allowance of out-of-district children of staff based on a still to be developed contractual policy.

Discussing the placement out-of-district (OOD) students of employees in Lowell’s public schools is one that has long been overdue. The issue has been percolating since it first came to wider attention last Fall.  According to the meeting discussion, in 2010 when Dr. Chris Scott was Superintendent, a written policy was floated and referred to Subcommittee. What happened after that seems to be a mystery. I have reviewed the list of open motions submitted by Dr. Khelfaoui in October 2015 and there is no specific mention of an open motion of this nature (although there were at least 2 motions calling for reports investigating changes to School Zones and possibly vacating the School Desegregation Plan).

The current policy seems to be more “past practice” than formal policy.  According to several speakers at this meeting, the practice goes back more than 20 years. If that is true, it was not well known, at least by this Blowellian. So why would it become a more prominent issue at this time? Here’s why I think this issue has bubbled up: funding, space, and a intra-district school choice plan that needs an overhaul.

Money: With the Commonwealth’s habitual underfunding of Foundation Budget calculations, the monies available from Chapter 70 (the Commonwealth) to educate students are well below reasonable. Significant shortfalls put undue strain on local school budgets in cities like Lowell where the difference is unlikely to be made up through increased property taxes (nor should it when the Commonwealth purposefully calculates expenses like Health Benefits of teaching staff at 140% under actual cost). Just an FYI, that each area of the Commonwealth’s Chapter 70 calculations are similarly off. 

So right away, Lowell starts out without adequate financial assistance from the Commonwealth and the penny-pinching begins. In the words of Cindy Lauper, “Money changes everything”. If the Lowell Public Schools had plenty of money to work with would educating 36 out-of-district students be so contentious? Probably not.

Space The space crisis at the Middle School is highlighting the need to accommodate increasing student population – there’s not enough room for everyone and the District is in crisis mode trying to figure this out.  Class sizes at the Middle School level are going to be very challenging for the next 4-5 years.

There also exists competition to ensure students are placed in a “good” school – the waitlist for the Daley School is reported to be about 70 students per grade. The lack of enough space for everyone which will likely lead to ridiculous class sizes is compounded by wait lists at plum school placements.

School Choice/Wait Lists And finally, the Intra-District School Choice policy is overdue for a major review.  There have been several comments over the process of adopting budgets and reducing costs regarding the creation of new neighborhood school zones.  I believe there is a pending motion to explore the legalities and options to do so.  In addition to looking at zones and placements, though, the School Department needs to get a firm handle on where students reside and the use of false addresses (using a grandparent or daycare/afterschool care home address as student residence when the student resides in another town for example). This is a link is documents about the School Desegregation Plan are found on the LPS website.

One aspect of School choice that should be looked at immediately is the Wait List. The list process is confusing and so that confusion and lack of transparency can make the process seem rigged.  Mr. Hoey himself has admitted he has advocated for someone’s placement himself. I am sure he was not alone in this.

One additional thought. It makes me wonder why ALL Lowell Middle Schools, or elementary schools, aren’t as sought after as the one or two perceived to be “the best”.  What is it about the Daley Middle School (culture? leadership? student demographics? parent support?) that creates the demand? Can the Daley’s Success be replicated and how? 

I sincerely feel for the children caught up in this whether they are children from a neighborhood unable to attend their Zone School or are students of staff from out of district who are now acclimated to their current school placement. As Mr. Gignac pointed out, they haven’t done anything that was not allowed.

The second Special Order of Business was recognition of Onotse Omoyeni as the 2016 Princeton Prize recipient for the Boston Area. Given her role as a leader for Lowell High School during this year when racial tensions have been at the forefront, this award is well deserved.

Motions

2016/196 (Mayor Kennedy) was to appoint Steve Gendron to be a member of the Lowell High School Designer Selection team.

2016/199 (Ms. Doherty) was to request a report from the Superintendent on short-term and long term student population trends possibly providing insight into population trends, class sizes, building capacity and transportation needs.

Reports of the Superintendent

2016/190 Interdistrict School Choice. For 2016-17, Lowell High (only) will participate. The program will involve no more than 30 seats at Grades 9-12.

You may be wondering why Lowell does not just apply School Choice to all grade levels and “solve” the issue of non-reimbursement of employee OOD students.  A legal ruling clarified this: if School Choice is invoked, there is no “special category” of students (i.e., students of employees) that can take precedence over any other out of district applicant.  If more families apply for School Choice in Lowell than are allowed seats, there must be a lottery. This does not ensure the employee’s student would have a seat at any Lowell School.  

Meeting adjourned. Meeting notes can be found here.

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.

School Committee Meeting, 16 March 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, March 16, 2016

2016-Mar-01_0051 All members present.

Item 19, a motion by Ms. Martin meant to highlight innovative curricula in the Lowell Schools, was taken out of order.  The featured school, The Pyne Arts (link here), is a Grades PK-8 magnet school. It is unique because of the grade span that the school includes (most Lowell schools are PK-4 or 5-8) and its focus on integration of the arts into their curriculum.

What makes these types of presentations particularly powerful is when the school articulates what makes them unique. During last evening’s presentation viewers were treated to a great performance by a choral group and a video of the students engaged in drama and other arts programs. The Pyne Arts is known for their parent engagement as well. They have an excellent Math Resource page (view link herewith a rich collection of explanations and information helpful to parents supporting their children, as well as up-to-date and well-written parent information (click on Parent and Student link in the banner).  

My only suggestion for scheduling featured school presentations in the future is to give a timeframe (15, 20, 30 minutes?). Devoting almost an hour to a spotlight presentation made last night’s meeting quite lengthy. Providing a time limit might be useful in distilling presentations to the uniqueness of each school.

Motions

There were 5 motions on the agenda. The motions included:

  1. 2016/118: A request that the Transportation Subcommittee address bus contract and safety concerns (Mr. Gignac).
  2. 2016/119: A request for a joint meeting of the Facilities Subcommittee (School Committee)and Municipal Facilities Subcommittee (City Council). Parent Tim Blake spoke about a recent issue at the Sullivan School illuminating concerns about the building. (Mr. Gignac and Mr. Gendron)
  3. 2016/120: A request for an update from the superintendent on standard-based report cards (Ms. Doherty) 
  4. 2016/127: Request Subcommittee meeting to consider making a museum of educational history at the former Elliott School (Mayor Kennedy)
  5. 2016/128: Request for review of the safety policy by Subcommittee on Safety & Discipline, Alternative School Program, and Student Support Services & Special Education.  Parent Laura Ortiz spoke about the need to review and update the current policy (this policy mainly refers to food allergens) to provide safety measures and access to needed medication (inhalers, epi-pens) for all students who may be anaphylaxic regardless of the allergen.

Subcommittees

Mr. Hoey reported on the Policy Subcommittee meeting (15 March 2016) during which the policy for placing children of staff who live out of district in Lowell Schools was discussed.  Currently, there are 32 students (I also heard the number 35 mentioned at one point in this discussion) who live out-of-district but are educated in the Lowell Schools because a parent is a Lowell Public School staff member. This policy has been regarded as a means of retaining staff. A problem happens when a out-of-district child of a staff member is placed in a school for which there is high interest and a waiting list. There have been some instances where a resident requesting the same school as a “first pick” is put on a waiting list. Additionally, there are concerns with regard to availability of space as the district experiences growth a particular levels (Middle School in particular) which may impact space available and class size.

Mr. Hoey’s subcommittee discussed three options during their meeting Tuesday night and brought forward one in which the committee would adhere to the state law regarding school choice. This option includes giving Lowell residents first choice in school seat openings (children of staff placed as space allows), engaging the funding options of School Choice, and making the Wait Lists transparent.

After much discussion, the motion was amended to include a timeline for reviewing the policy with school department, school committee, and law department input by the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.  Questions were raised about how to phase in any change in policy fairly, and the importance of reaching out to affected staff so they can plan accordingly.

Reports of the Superintendent

School Year 2016-2017 calendars as well as the budget deliberation calendar/schedule were approved. Lowell Career Academy reported on their efforts to provide education and support for disengaged students.

New Business

  • Budget transfer
    • $800,000 (from School Committee Suspense Account to Salary Account for recent settlement of grievances), and
    • $82,217 (from School Food Revolving Account to General Fund as a result of a DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools) audit)
  • Acceptance of Grant ($2,5000) from Kronos for IDEA camp
  • Permission to post Interim Grant Manager Position

Following approval of Convention Requests and Civil Service Requests, the School Committee went into Executive Session to review Collective Bargaining proposals and positions. Meeting adjourned from Executive Session.

The meeting packet can be found here.