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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

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

Check school travel policy yourself

Like most folks, I take my news with a grain of salt; this learned response was strengthened since getting elected to the school committee and having seen, on occasion, my own words taken out of context, misrepresented, or used loosely to support some agenda in the newspaper. But even before running for office, as an active member of the Citywide Parent Council involved in issues reported in the press, I had experienced slanted coverage firsthand. Recently, a number of examples of this come to mind—perhaps the most blatant is the headmaster search stories which focused on one candidate, implied a political choice that devalued the work of the search committee and its process, and ignored comments to the contrary. (I can only attest to what I said that did not make it into print regarding confidence in the process and the superintendent.) That agenda seems to have taken a back seat now that the search committee has released the candidates for interviews. Another recent example is this story faulting the school committee travel policy (“Policy change chills Lowell school trips”). If you read to the end of the article, you’ll see the intent of the policy is consistent with other districts. Also, it’s worth reminding folks that the two most important changes to the policy, approved unanimously one year ago, were: 1. Receive school committee approval of a trip before any money is collected; and 2. Require written notice of the learning standards and justification when students will miss school. As I posted here then, the policy is not meant to detract from student trips, but to make sure money is not collected without approval and any sanctioned absence from school is with good reason. The policy is not excessive, nor is it contradictory to what other school districts expect–despite the story’s slant.

posted in Education, school committee | 0 Comments

School committee to meet on local charter school issue

Yesterday’s Sun had an article regarding Wednesday’s discussion among school committee members of the Commissioner of Education’s indication that he would recommend revoking the license of the charter school on Jackson Street in Lowell. The Mass. Board of Education will vote on that decision later this month. In the meantime, the Lowell School Committee will meet on Wednesday, Jan. 20, at 5:30 in Council Chambers, to explore the district’s options should the 800-plus students in grades K-8 be returned to its schools. Factors to be discussed included the breakdown of students by grade and the impact on classroom size, options regarding school building facilities and costs, information regarding the possibility of creating a district-controlled Horace Mann Charter School, as well as funding for the returning students. (It is possible funding for those students would require special legislation in order to avoid a year lag time.) Although the state board of education is the ultimate decider regarding the future of the charter school, if those students return to our district schools, it is in their best interests as well as the city’s that we have begun the process of exploring our options. The meeting will be televised live and can be seen on cable channel 10.

posted in Education, State Concerns, school committee | 1 Comment

School board group votes on charters and more

As the Lowell representative and one of about 350 delegates from districts across the state, I’m headed to the annual meeting of the Mass. Association of School Committees (MASC) today to vote on 11 resolutions regarding education reform. With controversy around removing the cap on charter schools (see yesterday’s Sun), the association’s position has added importance as lawmakers look to enact reform that makes sense for kids and communities during tough fiscal times. In terms of charter schools, the MASC resolution asks the state to restructure charter-school funding and student enrollment before lifting the cap. The resolution also requires charter schools to enroll student populations that reflect the overall community of students at risk—economically disadvantaged, English language learners, varying special needs, etc. (Current legislation only recommends charter schools recruit diverse populations.) In addition, the resolution requires charter school enrollments be audited to make sure their projections, on which funding is based, are accurate. Much of the debate is about money, as this quote from yesterday’s article illustrates: “The bill already appeared headed for troubled waters before debate began when the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association said a proposal to create a separate budget line item to fund charter school expansion would expose charter schools to uneven funding cuts in tight budget years.” (Welcome to my world.) The latest word from Boston is the legislature will not vote on education reform until it reconvenes in January, giving MASC and others time to vote, organize, and plan their advocacy. Check here for the delegate manual, and stay tuned!

posted in Education, State Concerns, school committee | 0 Comments

Thank you to the voters

It was a long day today, standing on achy feet outside the polls for hours with incumbents, challengers and supporters, watching and hoping for voters. At times, I admit, I was concerned about the turnout, concerned about how I would feel about my community if we didn’t see positive change, if people didn’t bother to come out and vote. Although the numbers still seem disappointingly low, the results for change were significant. The Choice Vote initiative may not have gotten the support it needed to pass, particularly in terms of a substantial increase in voters, but the message from the 5,174 who voted yes on the ballot question demonstrated that many people in this city want a government that is more representative, inclusive and accessible. Perhaps Choice Voting is not the answer, or perhaps now is not the time, but the conversation this initiative began will continue; some change is inevitable, and I predict it will happen soon.

In terms of the candidates, my congratulations to everyone who had the courage to put their names on the ballot and run. We saw several upsets on the council, the school committee, and the vocational board as incumbents Armand Mercier, Alan Kazanjian, Regina Faticanti and Michael Hayden lost seats to challengers Franky Descoteaux, Joe Mendonca, Patrick Murphy, Alison Laraba, and Fred Bahou—good hardworking, thoughtful challengers who earned the voters’ trust. As candidates, all we can do is work toward our goal, knowing we have given our best effort, but at the end of the day, the voters get to decide. Today, the voters decided I will continue to serve on the Lowell School Committee. For that honor and privilege, thank you.

posted in Campaign, Local Politics, school committee | 1 Comment

Equal time? Depends who asks

Not one to shirk media criticism when it’s warranted, I take space here to express my disappointment with WCAP Radio. Last week was a pretty exciting news week for me. House Bill 481—a bill I helped initiate a year ago—was heard before the Joint Committee on Education on Tuesday, Oct. 20. When I contacted our two media outlets, The Sun and WCAP, to cover this issue, which currently impacts our school budget by $1.3 million as well as the lives of 23 children forced out of district, I was told by our local radio station that it was too close to the election for me to come on-air. Mind you, this was only days after station co-owner Sam Poulten, a member of the Nashoba Vocational School board familiar with the bill, suggested I contact WCAP to discuss the issue, as well as only days after Councilor Kazanjian went on the Warren Shaw show to discuss his news—regarding a subpoena—for an hour!

Okay, they’re different issues—one is a hearing about changing a law to protect kids and save money while the other is a legal mandate to appear in court and give testimony to determine if any laws were broken. Most would agree, however, that House Bill 481 is as newsworthy as a subpoena, which leads me to conclude that getting on WCAP these days isn’t about equal time or even newsworthiness, but rather, it is about who is asking. Perhaps I should feel better that when I mentioned the unfair treatment to co-host Teddy Panos, he admitted to having to “tip toe” around the newsy-enough issue regarding time for the councilor. But the fact is, the more I think about it, the more annoyed I am.

By the way, The Sun did cover the issue before and after the hearing. Besides being news with far-reaching impact on costs and kids, House Bill 481 is not done yet; we now need speedy passage, which is where the bulk of my energy will be invested next.

posted in Campaign, In the News, Local Politics, Money Matters, State Concerns, school committee | 7 Comments

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