It Isn’t Just the Cuts

undefined Budget season is going full tilt in Lowell and the outlook is definitely not very palatable.

The School Department is running on fumes: no K-8 libraries this past academic year, proposed cuts to fine arts positions, proposals to cut services for students in guidance, behavioral supports, Special Education. Who knows where it will end?

Well, here’s where I get off:

I think a question should not be just about what services and positions will need to be cut. I think the big questions is this: Why isn’t the Commonwealth of Massachusetts adequately funding schools so our children receive all of the services they need to succeed? 

By all, I mean: why are schools going without libraries, or technology, or nurses, or social workers, or paraprofessionals, or class sizes that enable an educator to address the needs of the students in front of them in a consistent, thoughtful, reflective way? Why are these and other services that enable our English Language Learners, our Special Education students and our students living in trauma and poverty to be better supported on the chopping block?

Today, across Massachusetts, educators, parents, students, community members are gathering in both Boston and Springfield to SHOW our Legislators that we are not willing to accept the flimsy excuses that have left public school funding scratching for scraps for the last 25-plus years. We are showing up to let you all know IN PERSON that it is beyond time to fix the Foundation Formulas and that our Commonwealth needs to fund our schools so that all of our youngest citizens get an equitable and adequately funded public education.

So even though I could be doing about a million other things today, I will show up, not only for the Rally at 5, but also to engage any Legislator who will agree to speak with me about the importance of funding our future through supporting the Promise Act and the Cherish Act. This is for all the students I’ve taught, the ELLs, the SpED students, the children living in poverty – and for my baby granddaughter, who just might be able to attend a fully and adequately funded school when she enters Kindergarten five years from now if the Promise Act is passed this year.

And that is why I’ll be attending today’s Rally to Fund Our Future on the Common. Will you?

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.


What Are YOU Missing?

We are about a week beyond the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) disappointment. Last evening, as I listened in to a conference call sponsored by Mass Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), this question was posed:

What we are missing because of underfunded schools?

When I left active teaching in 2015, I know that underfunding was impacting the public school in which I worked in many ways. Paraprofessional staff had been severely reduced as had ELL support teachers, Reading Specialists, and Science specialists. Library Media Specialists and Instructional Technology Specialists were eliminated. GoFundMe and Donors Choose were the new “normal” for obtaining necessary school classroom supplies. Teacher out-of-pocket expenses climbed (at the time I was spending nearly $1,200 per year on books and paper goods), new curriculum often meant more personal expenditures on trade books and resources for the classroom.

But, as I write this, I know my experiences are three years post-retirement. So I ask you, if you are a Massachusetts Public School teacher, how has underfunding impacted you?

25-year old calculations do not make equitable access to schools

Screenshot 2018-06-08 06.17.46

If a picture is worth a 1000 words, this one, courtesy of Colin Jones of Mass Budget is one of the most compelling reasons why we need to implement the Foundation Budget update (S.2525) which is currently languishing in Committee.

Communities with greater wealth have the luxury of adding to the grossly under-calculated “what it costs to educate a student” (Chapter 70) calculation. Here’s an Screenshot 2018-06-08 07.05.05example: in neighboring Burlington, MA, the per pupil cost calculated $9,940. In Lowell, that base number is set at $11,734.  Based on the economics of each community, the Commonwealth determined that Burlington’s state aid be set at $1,724 leaving the remainder, $8,341, for the Town of Burlington to provide. Recognizing that Lowell’s community economics are different from Burlington, the numbers look quite different: state aid is $8,875 and the City’s required contribution is $2,859. In an effort the keep this “simple”, which it is not, I’m ignoring the whole cash vs. “in kind services” debate.

Burlington’s per pupil costs are enhanced by the Town’s ability to add $8,409 to what Massachusetts has determined is the cost of educating a student in that town. Lowell, with many more demands on its municipal budget, adds $518. So, in the end, Lowell is able to spend $12,252 on every school student (public and charter) while more affluent Burlington can allocate $18,474.

This is not just a simple numbers game; it gets worse. Those per pupil determinations that the Commonwealth starts with are based on 1993 (yes, that is correct) formula calculations. So in 2018, the data determining how much each community is expected to expend and raise for each student is already 25 years out of date.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission tackled this issue 2 years ago, but the recommendations were not implemented. It was not forgotten by everyone, however, and a refreshed bill, S.2525 unanimously passed the Massachusetts Senate last month. Now it’s the Massachusetts House’s turn. And this week, with some strong advocacy by Rep. Vega, House members are appealing to Speaker DeLeo to move this legislation out of the House Rules Committee and on to a floor for a vote.

Locally, because state funding in education has been whittled away Lowell’s kids are on the losing end of budget roulette: our K-8 students will no longer have school libraries, for example.As of this morning, only Rady Mom from the Lowell Legislative Delegation has signed on to Rep. Vega’s letter asking that Speaker DeLeo move the FBRC bill (S.2525) out of committee for a vote.

I cannot understand why our other two representatives are hesitating to embrace a reform that would – over time – provide Lowell’s children with equal access to educational services. Maybe one of them can explain that to me.

If your Representative is either Mr. Golden or Mr. Nangle, please call, fax, or email them today. We need to fix the funding formulae in Massachusetts so that every child, no matter the ZIP code in which they reside, has equal access to education in the Number One Schools in the Nation.

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.

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.

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.