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News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

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

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

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

Schools in distress

In Kendall Wallace’s chat yesterday, he sounds a warning alarm regarding the level of cuts the Lowell Public Schools are exploring to meet a projected shortfall of $6-9 million in next year’s budget. Wallace and I have been known to disagree on many things, especially if I am critical of the high school, but on this issue we are steadfastly aligned: Cuts this deep will devastate our public school system.

Perhaps that sounds like a familiar tune to you. Since 2003, when I was prompted to run for school committee because of shrinking school resources, we have continued to reduce programs, eliminate positions and close schools (about 500 positions since 2002). Many of those positions in the early years were absorbed through attrition, but those days are long behind us. Layoffs have become necessary, and last year the district spent about $750K on unemployment costs, which says nothing about the impact on the education of our children.  Lowell is not alone in facing draconian cuts, an example of which is this article about Brockton in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  And while, to varying degrees, other districts are facing fiscal concerns, the solution for Lowell rests with our community. The school committee cannot cut its way out of this crisis without severe consequences to the gains we have made in student performance. Our state legislators must provide the reform tools to save costs without impacting student learning; our city council must allocate the funds necessary to protect one of the city’s most important assets, its schools; our unions must make concessions to save jobs; and yes, the school committee must explore every potential cost savings and efficiency with laser-sharp focus on maintaining student learning. (More on all this in later posts.) In the meantime, please pay attention and be involved because we all have a stake in solving this fiscal crisis without devastating our schools.

posted in Education, Money Matters | 0 Comments

State not awarded federal education funding

Today’s breaking news in the Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts was not named as one of the recipients for the first round of federal education money under Race To-The Top (RTTT) funding. Many folks were surprised to discover that Massachusetts, considered to have the best public schools in the nation based on national test scores, was not included in this first round of awards. The Commonwealth had been selected as one of 16 finalists among 40 state applications; yet, according to the Globe report, only Delaware ($100 million) and Tennessee ($500 million) won in the first round, with another $3.4 billion remaining to be awarded in June.

With the Massachusetts legislature indicating cuts in state aid for schools, the federal money is highly coveted. Lowell has been told it could see a four percent reduction in chapter 70 funds, state aid for education, which means the district will face an additional $7.5 million shortfall for next year. This on the heels of more than $8 million in cuts last year as well as eight years of consistently reducing positions (about 400 less positions) as revenue has not kept pace with costs.

posted in Education, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

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