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News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Why community service matters–a study in hair styles

It’s been a few months now of not having to attend school committee meetings since my term ended in January 2012. I’ve had a chance to reflect on the last eight years, specifically the reasons I ran, our accomplishments during my terms in office, and the work still to come. I first ran in 2003 because I felt needed and that I could make a difference. I remember thinking, my whole life up to that point seemed to have been in preparation for running. In some ways, it was true:  my education as a writer, my work experience in teaching and corporate communications, and most significantly, my activist role and leadership on the Citywide Parent Council—all helped shape me to become a successful candidate and then a member of the Lowell School Committee.

Serving on the school committee was draining, exhilarating, exhausting, and meaningful.  It aged  and inspired me.  I was honored to do the work. If I knew then what I know now, would I still have done it? Absolutely. There’s something to be said for 20/20 hindsight; certainly there were things I would have done differently—most of all,  I would not have taken myself so seriously.

Clearly, the biggest takeaway is what I learned and what I was able to contribute to my community by being involved.  Campaigning successfully for four terms tested my stamina, communication skills, and courage. Serving for eight years taught me how to build consensus, take public criticism, and persist in reaching my goals. Through it all, I modeled for my children what it means to be an active, contributing member of a community.

I’m not saying everyone must run for political office, but each one of us must find a way to contribute to a world outside ourselves and our families–not only because we’re needed, or because it will challenge us to  personal growth, or even because it will make a difference although it will–and all those reasons are valid. We step outside our safe circle and get involved because that is how we connect to others and a purpose beyond ourselves, and that is how we make meaning of our short time here.

Below is a snapshot of a video created by Jack Pinard, at LHS Channel 22, to commemorate that service. If you can get past the crazy and varied hair styles of the last eight years, you can see me—one woman trying to make a difference. I urge you to find your way to do the same.

posted in Campaign, Local Politics, school committee | 0 Comments

School board decides whether to spend or save while city manager spins

The Lowell School Committee will meet tonight to discuss, among other things, what to do with new $4.8 federal money earmarked for the education of Lowell’s children (Obama’s Education Jobs Funds). The meeting will be televised live at 7 p.m. on cable channel 10 (also available on streaming video through LTC). Today’s Sun has an article highlighting the board’s finance subcommittee meeting on the issue where school administrators recommended saving the $4.8 million because the district will face a $9.5 million hole next spring when it plans its budget for the school year ending in 2012. That prediction is based on fixed cost increases (health insurance, step and lane changes) as well as the loss of one-time funds used to balance the current budget (stimulus money primarily, but also savings due to a lease reduction and contract settlement). The predicted $9.5 million gap in next year’s budget (FY 2012) assumes level funding from the city and state.

Meanwhile, this morning on WCAP Radio, City Manager Bernie Lynch discussed the city’s position regarding its allocation last spring of an additional $1.17 million to the schools. The budget for the current school year (FY 2011) was based on a total cash contribution of $16.6 million from the city that included the additional $1.17 million allocated last spring. According to the city, that $1.17 million was based on pension reform that has not resulted in the expected savings. Lynch’s point on the radio this morning (as I heard it) was that the schools should use the federal money now to let the city off the hook until next spring… (When presumably the city will provide additional funds for education???) This part was never clearly stated.

It’s interesting framing, and you’ve got to hand it to Lynch’s skill as a “spin doctor” that he takes the city’s $266 million operating budget, which included new jobs, raises, and no layoffs on the municipal side, and attributes the additional $1.17 million earmarked for the schools as being under-funded. Last night, CFO Tom Moses told the school board that from the outset, the manager indicated savings from pension reform was how he would fund the education earmark; he also noted that the city has other options to meet the funding requirement, such as raising taxes….

Either way, it’s spinning at the genius level. Despite 17 straight years of under-funding education and only a very recent history of actually making its minimum contribution to its schools (the FY 2011 commitment exceeds state requirements for the first time ever), it appears the city manager would now like to delay that commitment, make it look like taxes are going up because of the schools, or at the very worst, renege on it completely…And on that issue, I’ve got a spin of my own–more on that later.

posted in Local Politics, Money Matters, school committee | 2 Comments

Nutter’s attack on me simplistic, lacking facts

If it wasn’t such a serious and complex issue, it would be laughable: The idea that I am too pro-union to act in the best interests of our children’s education. That seems to be the general rant in Gerry Nutter’s blog against me, in particular, as well as other members of the Lowell School Committee. I speak for myself here and I’m going to do it carefully because we are under rules to keep details of union negotiations confidential—not my rules, mind you, but state law requires both parties agree to negotiation terms, and our terms are that negotiations are confidential.

Here are some facts I can address: I have voted on two new teacher contracts since joining the school committee in 2004. (We are currently without a new contract.) During my first term, I was the lone vote against the teachers’ contract. (Regina Faticanti, former school committee member, also voted no initially and then changed her vote.) I voted no because I didn’t think we could afford the wage adjustments, and sure enough, during our next budget year, then-City Manager John Cox recommended the council not fund the amount required over the three-year contract despite the fact that his representative and the mayor had voted for it. At that time, I argued successfully to the city council that we would not have had that contract if it had not been for the city’s support, which included votes from then-mayor Armand Mercier and T.J. McCarthy, former assistant city manager. The council ultimately provided the funds.

 During my second round with the teachers’ union, I supported the contract we negotiated after about 18 months of meetings and mediation, including one marathon, eight-hour session that lasted until 3 a.m. I supported the contract along with my colleagues, including then-Mayor Bill Martin, because the wage increases were moderate—the last one percent increase went into effect June 2009—and because we got adjustments in school start/stop times that enabled us to save a quarter of a million dollars on transportation and another parent-teacher meeting, which we desperately needed.

Mr. Nutter and other folks who comment on his blog can’t possibly know about the hours and hours of frustrating negotiation meetings because, as I mentioned earlier, they are not privy to those details. What they should know, however, is that generous benefits were put into the contracts decades ago. To simply demand the committee “stand tough against the union” is simplistic and completely lacks understanding of labor law in this state, the mindset of union leadership, and the impact poor labor relations has on student learning. The union will not give up these benefits easily, and we do not have the resources to take them back.

I do my best to “stand tough” with our unions while looking to find consensus around our shared goals and investment in student achievement. I support our good teachers because they are the backbone of what we do, but my allegiance always is to the students and their parents who elect me to do my best to make sure our children get a good education: That means I work with the unions not for them, and at the end of the day, every vote I take is measured against its impact on our students.

posted in Education, Local Politics, school committee | 0 Comments

Community to discuss city budget tonight

Talk on the street is that tonight’s hearing on the city manager’s proposed budget will be exceptionally contentious with lots of folks voicing their unhappiness with rising fees and salaries, as well as concern for school funding, among other things. The budget hearing begins at 5 pm in Council Chambers and will be televised live on LTC channel 10. For my part, I will make my annual pilgrimage to the council to plead for school resources. Despite the fact that the city manager’s proposed budget increases school funding by $1.17 million and assumes $1 million in school-building energy costs, it still leaves the district with a $1 million shortfall even after the school committee made deep cuts in the system.

The manager’s proposed budget includes significant adjustments for the schools, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but it is not enough considering the $4 million in cuts we’ve already made and the continued shortfall we face. The reality is the schools have been cutting staff and programs for years, including an $8 million cut last year. Historically, Lowell does not have a great record in terms of supporting its schools although it has made improvements in that direction since 2006. Last year was the first time the city met its minimum required school contribution since education reform 17 years ago. This year’s contribution surpasses the minimum but is not enough to close the deficit, and while the schools will layoff more than 60 people, the city has no layoffs in its budget and is giving raises. Where is the shared pain and commitment to protecting the education of our children, one of our community’s most important assets? It will not matter how many renovated buildings, new businesses or increased energy efficiency we gain; if our young people are not educated adequately, our community will not thrive.

posted in Education, Money Matters | 0 Comments

Health insurance enrollment period extended

I just learned that the city has extended its open enrollment period to June 18 for employees interested in changing health insurance plans.  The enrollment was orginally scheduled to end today, but due to a high volume of interest from employees and the significant savings generated when people switch off Master Medical (depending on the plan, savings of about $1,200 a year per family), the city manager decided to give it a few more weeks. On the school side, for every 14 employees who switch, we save about $50k, which will enable us to reduce layoffs and keep more staff in our schools. For information, contact Stephanie Vinas, benefits coordinator, at 978-970-4105 or check out the city’s website here.  Please note: it appears the website has not been updated about the extension, but I got my information directly from Ms. Vinas, so it should be accurate.

posted in Education, Healthy Living, Money Matters | 0 Comments

A tale of two health insurance plans

With the enrollment period ending tomorrow, there has been much talk regarding savings in health insurance costs and how those funds could be used to keep more people employed, especially on the school side where we have eliminated 60+ positions and still have a deficit.  Aside from government savings, what do these health plans offer our employees in terms of care and cost?

For the purposes of simplicity, I will compare some differences between the most-expensive Master Medical (MM) health insurance plan with the least-expensive Blue Cross Blue Shield Network (HMO) currently offered to Lowell employees. The city also offers Blue Cross Blue Shield Preferred (PPO). For a detailed comparison of all three in terms of costs and covered benefits, check here.

The HMO costs an employee about $1200 less annually than the MM for family coverage. The HMO requires a primary care physician and referrals for specialized care while MM does not require referrals but also does not cover any routine visits, such as annual checkups and tests. Any doctor’s visit with the HMO costs the employee a  $5 co-pay while with MM, employees pay 20% of the cost for the visit. With MM, an employee easily could be required to pay $350 for an annual checkup as well as all costs for preventative tests, such as a colonoscopy and gynecological exams, while an HMO employee pays $5 for everything.  For prescription drugs, HMO-covered employees pay $5 per prescription while MM-covered employees pay 20% of the drug’s cost, which also can get very expensive.

Aside from costs and preventative care, which clearly lands in favor of the HMO, some may have concerns regarding the HMO referral process. As a long-time subscriber, thankfully through decades of wellness and routine visits, I can tell you I have never had a problem getting a timely referral for any complaint. Nothing tested this coverage more than last year’s cancer diagnosis for my son, where the HMO coverage was exceptional. Another difference is that MM has no cap on stays in a skilled nursing facility or rehabilitation center, while the HMO provides 100 and 60 days respectively for each calendar year. This, however, does not include hospital stays where both offer complete coverage as needed.

Clearly, changing health insurance is a complicated and personal decision. For my family, the HMO has provided excellent coverage through years of good health and our recent life-threatening diagnosis. The savings to employees and the city are significant, so please examine your options closely. It’s worth a second look.

posted in Education, Healthy Living, Money Matters | 2 Comments

Work together to save our schools

When I think how much Lowell has changed since I moved here in 1993, it fills me with pride because we have all worked together to improve our city. Together, we have supported new businesses, cleaned parks and neighborhoods, renovated buildings, become safer and greener, and strengthened our schools.  Last year, Lowell schools ranked number one for large urban districts in student growth in mathematics and number three in English Language Arts…

And so begins my op-ed in today’s Sun where I took a stab at most everyone charged with funding or delivering educational services to our children.  After two nights of horrendous cuts to our school system totalling $4 million, others must do their part so the cuts go no further.

One huge ray of light in all this occurred last night at the budget hearing (after my deadline for the newspaper had passed) when the school committee was told that based on conversations between the city manager and school leadership, energy costs will be transferred to the city side of the ledger, thus reducing the school deficit by an additional one million dollars. (The city anticipates significant savings and grants due to its “greening efforts,” which include solar panels on school buildings and other investments in energy efficiency.) Not only do the savings come at a crucial time for the public schools, but any savings generated by energy efficiency is a win for everyone. As mentioned in my op-ed, the city manager’s fiscal 2011 budget increases the city’s contribution to the schools by $1.17 million. Combined with the energy savings, the city effectively has shaved $2.17 million off our deficit! Now, where to find another million…

posted in Education, Environment, Local Politics, Money Matters | 0 Comments

Fifty pounds of flesh

I just got home from another marathon school budget hearing (4.5 hours) with the words of speaker Sharyn Hardy Gallagher, president of the Friends of Lowell High School, ringing in my ears: “It’s our kids who have lost 50 pounds of flesh in this process.”

Sharyn was speaking to the school committee “as a concerned taxpayer” about the steady erosion of school services, programs and staffing over the last five years. Like me, she has witnessed the decline firsthand through the eyes of her children, with the younger child experiencing less school programs and staff than the older sibling.

Saddest of all are the student speakers, who simply ask us to provide them with a good education, not understanding the power plays, grandstanding, and eleventh-hour machinations. Whatever language you use to describe the adult game of chicken about who is going to give up what or pay how much to make sure our children get a decent education, it is the students who bear that pain firsthand. Collateral damage, of course, is for those who lose their jobs, and those who continue to live in a community that does not make educating its young a priority.

posted in Education, Money Matters, school committee | 0 Comments

Sad day for schools

Last night, as I listened to nearly three hours of impassioned pleas from parents, students and staff to save our “sports, fine arts, librarians, clubs…” I couldn’t help but feel dangerously close to tears of frustration and sadness. Here we are again, trying to provide a high-quality education for our children in the face of declining revenues. When the speeches were done, the committee stood united and voted to reduce the budget by $4 million, woefully shy of the projected $7-$9 million shortfall, and yet, our best attempt to meet a continuing crisis in funding without decimating our school system.  (The line-by-line discussion and cuts will occur at Tuesday’s budget hearing, June 1, which begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers.) We absolutely cannot go further than $4 million in cuts without doing lasting damage, which is why I am preparing for battle with the same-old players: city, state, staff, so stay tuned for more in a later post.

An article in today’s Sun gives some specifics about what the $4 million in cuts entail, based on the superintendent’s recommendations, with one major exception at the high school level: the cuts of $249,000 for athletics, $71,000 for clubs, and 13 full-time teachers do not address specific programs or staff, but simply state the amount to be reduced. The specific teacher cuts will be determined based on student course selection, which will  happen before June 15 to meet our contractual obligation regarding layoff notification. The club and sports cuts will be made based on discussions through the summer with the teachers’ union regarding stipends, as well as information regarding parity in funding for these programs. As much as I loved the passionate speeches of our students, in particular, it was a truly sad way to spend  a Thursday evening, knowing the revenue just wasn’t there.

posted in Education, Money Matters, school committee | 0 Comments

Link to LHS student’s award-winning video

As mentioned in an earlier post, here is the link to the award-winning public service announcement about the dangers of driving impaired created by Ryan Palmer, a student at Lowell High School. The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving sponsored the competition. Palmer was announced the winner in a presentation with Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone on Fox25 news yesterday morning.

posted in Education, In the News, Lowell High | 0 Comments

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