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

Campaigning uses all your skills

Running for a local seat often requires a candidate with communication skills that go beyond simply being able to stand in front of an audience and deliver pithy sound bites. In addition to being a good public speaker, a local candidate must have the skills to write and design their own print, online and broadcast campaign materials, the funds to pay others to create their copy, or a campaign staffer who can do it.

Fortunately for me, my entire career has been focused on writing using creative communication as a tool for personal branding, information and marketing, so this aspect of being a local candidate was a natural fit. It also helped that Margaret, my campaign manager, was a gifted writer, editor and graphics designer. Together, we put together some quality campaign materials.

Over the years, my favorite ones to write and produce were the radio ads. Several times, we did mini skits with children around various themes connected to education and my candidacy. When my daughter was in the fourth grade, she performed an entire radio ad, which I wrote, that went something like this: “Many of my friends will tell you the schools would be better if we got out early, had less homework, and spent more time playing instead of learning. Thank goodness, my friends aren’t old enough to vote! They don’t understand that Jackie Doherty is working hard to make our schools better at teaching us what we need to learn…. Vote for Jackie Doherty and you’ll be making a great choice.  I should know; she’s my mom!” Jovanna was fantastic.

My latest radio venture was to change the words of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to fit my candidacy and focus. (Writing the lyrics was a new challenge.) I called it “Somewhere Over Mill City” and my dear, college friend Martha sang it for me. I taped the below video on my porch, so the sound quality does not come close to when she sang it at the WCAP studio and it aired on the radio.

posted in Campaign, Local Politics | 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

Thursday night events

If you happen to be downtown tomorrow night, perhaps visiting the opening reception for the new exhibit at the Brush Art Gallery - Fluidity, through August 6th, featuring new work by the Brush artists, reception from 5-8 p.m., you might also want to stop in at 73 E. Merrimack St for the official opening of the Donoghue for Senate campaign headquarters. I understand that there may be a barbecue going on as the space has a backyard patio, so time your visit accordingly. I also just noticed that Eileen’s campaign has a facebook page where you can see some pictures from the campaign party at Jackie’s house on Monday. (They also have Twitter and a Youtube video of Eileen speaking to the Greater Lowell Area Democrats back in April). You definitely need to be proficient at social media to run a campaign these days!

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Highlights from the garden party

Last night while listening to State Senate candidate, Eileen Donoghue, (nice website, by the way) speak to a convivial group in Jackie’s back garden, I had an uprecedented urge to tweet. It would have been a perfect way to capture some of Eileen’s comments and the positive reception, indicated by nods, smiles, clapping, that greeted her words. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my phone with me, don’t really know how to tweet, and to whom does one tweet anyway? So, in lieu of twitter, some impressions of the evening: Eileen is a great speaker, relaxed, confident, and concise; her priorities are “jobs and education”; her years of public service on the Lowell City Council, four of them as Mayor and Chair of the School committee, give her the experience to “hit the ground running”; she knows how state mandates play out on the local level and wants to make sure these are realistic and funded; she is not cynical about politics and believes she can make a difference at the state house. Later, in conversastion, she stated that she is willing to make unpopular choices if needed and that her decision-making process is not based on electability, something that I think is of the first importance for a politician. In short, I was impressed. In other news, it didn’t rain too much, many old friends showed up, the food was excellent, and the Kousa dogwood was in glorious full bloom. It was a great evening. Going forward, we’ll be tracking Eileen’s campaign, who knows, maybe even tweeting, and periodically reminding everyone that the primary is September 14th.

posted in Local Politics, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Hosting a garden reception to help elect Eileen Donoghue

In the old days, my idea of being an active participant in democracy was to pay attention and vote. Of course, that all changed 11 years ago when I joined the board of the Citywide Parent Council and began organizing parents and community members to support the schools, eventually writing letters to the editor, initiating petitions, and speaking before the Lowell City Council. In 2003, my level of involvement reached new heights when I put my name on the ballot and ran for school committee. Since then, I have learned a few other things about being an active member of the political process:  No one does the work alone. We need many good people to run for office, and we need to support those candidates, not only with our votes, but with our funds, and our voices. And so, four years ago, I knocked on doors and spoke to neighbors in support of Deval Patrick, the first candidate other than myself who I have ever done that for, and I wrote checks. Tomorrow, I am reaching a new plateau in active involvement in the democratic process by hosting a garden reception at my home to support Eileen Donoghue, candidate for state senator. A smart, competent, hardworking woman, Eileen has more than proven her mettle as a Lowell City Councilor, two-term mayor and chair of the school committee. Although I never served directly with her, I have watched her service over the years, and I know she will represent First Middlesex and my values well at the State House. If you’re around the Highlands tomorrow from 6-8 pm, please stop by and meet Eileen, joining us in my garden amid the most astounding dogwood tree in full blossom—absolutely breathtakingly spectacular—no exaggeration. (If it’s raining, we’ll take the party inside and see the tree from the window.) Please join us. It should be fun, and besides, you’ve got to do more than just vote to make sure we have good leadership. You have to get actively involved and help those candidates get elected!

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Council budget review for resilient, nocturnal residents only

If you wanted to watch your city council address the manager’s proposed budget, you had to have the patience of a saint and the stamina of a night owl. The city budget hearing began as scheduled, Tuesday at 5 pm, and ended 7 ½ hours later with an approved budget of $296 million (includes Enterprise Fund). From the beginning, several parents, students, and four school board members spoke in support of more funding for the schools. (See my remarks here.) UTL President Paul Georges also spoke, telling the council he was prepared to ask his members to make concessions, save on health insurance, and work with other school unions to save about $800,000, but that he expected the city to show movement. As Georges noted, “I have 1,400 members. You have 105,000 people.” After public comments ended at about 6:30, the hearing recessed for the regularly scheduled council meeting, and I headed home to watch the rest on television. When I turned on my television, however, the council chamber was empty and a bulletin noted the council had gone into executive session. After about an hour, the council meeting resumed, adjourning at 9:20.

By 9:30, the budget hearing began again with about an hour of discussion that included a motion by Councilor Caulfield to send the budget back to the manager for “tweaking,” which failed (Councilor Broderick asked Caulfield  to ”define tweaking”), as well as a motion to accept the budget as presented, which also failed. There was a lot of discussion about the budget being based on a 2.5% tax increase, which the manager explained would increase taxes an average of $60-$75 for a single family home, depending on its assessed value, and provide $5 million in additional revenue. On several occasions, both councilors Mercier and Caulfield wanted to know “when the tax increases would end,” to which the manager replied, “when people don’t want services.” At one point, CC Elliott suggested simply cutting each department 2.5%, noting “We need to make cuts. The schools are taking cuts.” His idea gained little support, however, and he did not make it in the form of a  motion. 

For more than an hour, the council went line by line over the budget, with the majority voting to accept nearly all the manager’s recommendations. (There was one $6,652 cut.) Councilors Caulfield and Elliott consistently voted no on each line item, but did not make specific motions to cut any expenses. Most surprising to me were comments by former school committee member Councilor Mendonca. Mendonca noted that when he was on the school board, he was fighting to get the city up to its minimum requirement which it had now surpassed for the second year in a row:  “We can only do so much” to support the school department,” he said, adding that in “seven years, enrollment is down 2100 students,” and “there’s a reason for the formula.” Finally, by 12:18, it was over.

posted in Local Politics, Money Matters | 1 Comment

What makes a good Democrat?

Yesterday, I was one of thousands of delegates who spent the day in Worcester at the State Democratic Convention to vote for candidates for the primary this September: nominated for the ballot were Grossman and Murphy for treasurer; Glodis, Bump and Lake for auditor.  This morning, I couldn’t help but feel the irony as I read “The Column,”  where The Sun’s latest conflict is a version of “Who is a better Democrat?” pitting state senate candidates Chris Doherty (no relation) against Eileen Donoghue. According to the Column, Doherty was “puzzled and disappointed” by Donoghue’s past donations to two Republican candidates, actions, which she explained in the paper, that were based on personal friendships. I thought Donoghue’s defense was credible, and she is quoted as saying, “I’m an independent person… a good Democrat. Always have been, always will be. But I’m also a good friend.”

Being a good friend is something we all can value. What didn’t ring quite so true, however, was Doherty’s assertion that he was somehow a better Democrat than Donoghue, especially considering his absence at roll call when it was time to vote.  As every good Democrat knows, delegates are elected representatives of their neighborhoods whose primary function is to vote at the convention.

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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

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