News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Washington legislators in Lowell to talk jobs

If you’re around this weekend, you’ll want to attend a  meeting with Senator John Kerry and Representative Niki Tsongas on Saturday, Jan. 30, at 9 a.m. at Middlesex Community College’s Federal Building, 33 Kearney Square in Lowell. State Senator Steve Panagiotakos, chair of ways and means, will also be there along with civic, business and labor leaders. The purpose of the meeting is to share information, and discuss jobs, the Merrimack Valley, and ways to invigorate the economy. Attend this public meeting to learn firsthand from people making decisions that will impact our recovery rate, and take the opportunity to have your concerns and ideas heard.

posted in Local Politics, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

Supreme Court decision bad for democracy

It made me sick to read today’s front-page headlines in the Boston Globe and the New York Times about the Supreme Court decision to allow corporations unlimited contributions in federal elections. The Times also ran an editorial that puts the impact of this decision in perspective. As Marie reports here, UMass Chancellor and former U.S. Representative Marty Meehan had a similar reaction. While supporters and the prevailing justices tried to frame this as a free speech issue, this ruling has opened the floodgates for undue influence from special interest groups with deep pockets—a decision that will seriously impact the number and diversity of candidates able to run viable campaigns as well as the effectiveness of incumbents to enact reforms that big business doesn’t like. Also, be prepared for the domino effect because state and local election rules likely will be next. One of the reasons I supported the Fair Vote Lowell campaign to change the city’s charter for electing local candidates was the money issue. It is already difficult for a good candidate to run an effective campaign without friends with deep pockets. In local elections, we have seen some candidates spend $100K in a state representative race, upwards of $40K for city council, and nearly $20K for a seat on the school committee. (Not that spending money always equals victory, but money buys visibility to reach voters, which becomes even more critical in larger races.) No matter how you twist it, this issue is NOT about free speech. It is about rich special interest groups having undue influence on a person’s ability to stay in office or get elected. Unchecked, this ruling will result in incumbents who cannot challenge special interest groups without serious consequences, candidates who will not be able to win without befriending big business, and many good people who will not even try. It is tough enough to get people to run for office. Making it all about the money is the exact wrong way to go.

posted in In the News, Local Politics, Money Matters, National issues | 2 Comments

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

Advocacy at the state level

People who know me, know I’ve spent about 11 years working to improve our schools, first as an outspoken parent on the School Site Council at my son’s elementary school (he’s now a junior at LHS), then as a leader on the Citywide Parent Council, and finally, for the last six years, as a member of the Lowell School Committee. But yesterday was a first for me. Yesterday, I spent four hours in a crowded, hot room at the State House, listening to citizens express their concerns regarding 12 special education bills before the Joint Committee on Education. I was there to testify in support of House Bill 481, the sixth bill on the agenda, and although it was not the first time I had travelled to Boston to talk to lawmakers, it was the first time I spoke on a bill that I helped initiate. Today’s Sun has an article on the hearing, so I won’t go into details here except to add my perspective as someone with a vested interest in changing the law. There were lots of interested parties who spoke at the hearing—many special education advocates, parents, lawyers, and representatives from associations such as special education administrators, school committees, and superintendents. Each speaker was given three minutes, and it took four hours just to get halfway through the agenda. (We didn’t stay to hear the remaining six bills.) While waiting for my turn to speak, it struck me that as tiresome as it was to live through, the public hearing process was a significant part of a democratic society. Our right as citizens to address our government is a key component of representative government. It is not as important as voting, obviously, but definitely instrumental in shaping the type of government that results. Over dinner, I was happy to share my firsthand civics lesson with my children, who I know will become engaged and informed citizens themselves one day. Whether they will spend a day at the State House fighting for education reform, however, remains to be seen…

posted in Education, Money Matters, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Taking it to the State House

The Sun has an article in today’s paper about a hearing tomorrow at the State House before the Joint Committee on Education. I will travel to Boston with Assistant Superintendent Ann Murphy to speak in favor of House Bill 481. It won’t be the first time I’ve testified on issues before the state legislature that impact our public schools, but it will be the first time I support a bill that actually originated from Lowell—a brainchild of our own school administrators at my request for a suggestion for change that is good for kids and makes fiscal sense. (As the Lowell delegate for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, I took the request to their convention last fall where it passed unanimously and became part of MASC resolutions before the legislature.)

Today, support for the bill reads like a Who’s Who list of local lawmakers. In addition to lead sponsor Representative Pam Richardson who formerly served on the Framingham School Committee, other sponsors include: Kevin Murphy, 18th Middlesex; Dave Nangle,17th Middlesex; Tom Golden, 16th Middlesex; College Garry, 36th Middlesex; Jennifer Callahan, 18th Worcester; Bruce Tarr, First Essex and Middlesex; and Thomas Conroy, 13th Middlesex.

Despite the fiscal crisis facing schools across the state, I wouldn’t be going to Boston tomorrow if I didn’t believe House Bill 481 is in the best interest of our most vulnerable students regardless of the savings. The cost in mandated private tuition has been significant, but more importantly, the current practice has stripped school districts of their right to have a voice in where their children should be educated once the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) takes custody. Without that safety net, the true victims are DCF children unnecessarily forced to leave their friends and teachers behind. House Bill 481 gives districts the opportunity to advocate for keeping a child in his home school when that is appropriate, as well as reducing out-of-district costs significantly. (More on the bill after the hearing.)

posted in Education, Local Politics, Money Matters, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Campaign rally for me TONIGHT!

Of all the things I must do to run for elected office, by far, the one I dislike the most is asking people for money. It is difficult, especially during tough financial times, but funding is absolutely necessary to run a good campaign—to pay for palm cards, lawn signs, ads, direct mail, and postage. Without funding, it is very difficult to get your name or message out to voters. My committee will host a fund-raising event at the Mambo Grill on Thursday, Oct. 15, from 5-7:30 (suggested donation $25) to benefit my campaign for re-election to the Lowell School Committee. Please join us. Even if you can’t make the event, you can still help.

One way I feel better about asking folks for money is to remind myself how hard I’m working to improve our schools. Whether it’s in the form of recent motions (so far 28 this term), or working with our state association (Mass. Assoc. of School Committees) to improve laws and regulations governing public education, or seeking to resolve concerns as I learn about them from parents, students, teachers, administrators, and neighbors, I am working hard and my efforts are making a difference. (More on that later.)

posted in Campaign, Local Politics, Money Matters | 2 Comments

About the cost of health care

I’m not an expert on the health care issue, only a consumer who fortunately has spent most of her life with health insurance without ever really needing it—until recently—which has certainly changed my perspective on the whole debate. The primary reason opponents give for not supporting universal care is the expense. If it’s true, as I’ve heard, that health care premiums have gone up 119% over the last 10 years, while payments to doctors have remained fairly stagnant (rates set by private insurance companies), who is getting all the money? An article in Sunday’s Boston Globe got me thinking about cost from another perspective, such as how U.S. spending on health care compares to France:

“…the outcome is relatively cost-effective in comparison with the situations in other industrialized nations, according to tracking by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. France spent about $300 billion for the health needs of its 64 million people in 2007, the last year for which reliable statistics are available, the organization reported. That amounted to about 11 percent of gross domestic product for a system covering an estimated 99 percent of the population, well below what Americans pay for a system that leaves out tens of millions of people. On a per capita basis, France also ranked well below the United States in health expenditures. It was eighth on the organization’s list, while the United States ranked at the top. Despite the lower spending, French people have for years had a longer life expectancy than their counterparts in the United States, currently at 80.98 years compared with 78.11.”

In Lowell, rising health-insurance costs continue to be our biggest budget buster despite efforts to reduce expenses by encouraging employees to switch to less-expensive plans. During these tough fiscal times, the need for health care reform has never been stronger.

posted in In the News, Money Matters, National issues | 1 Comment

Will more school cuts be necessary?

By the end of last week, the results of the state budget via the Conference Committee’s Report were public although we’re still getting final numbers on what that means for the Lowell Public Schools. (See Dick’s post for a breakdown.) Because our school budget was based on $4.2 million from the stabilization fund and that number was reduced by $500,000, it’s not clear if the shortfall will have to come off the backs of Lowell schoolchildren. By the end of the day on Friday, we still didn’t know final numbers but heard that the superintendent was in conversations with the city manager regarding whether a state increase to the city would impact the school budget. (School administrators indicated that the city’s increase was $1.5 million, but I’m not sure what that’s based on or if it’s a final number.) Besides the possibility of the city providing additional school funds, there still exists the potential for concessions from school unions. After eliminating positions and programs worth more than $7.5 million, it’s safe to say there isn’t a committee member who wants to cut any deeper into the education of our children.

posted in Education, Money Matters, State Concerns | 2 Comments

Keeping the children in the forefront

Cutting millions of dollars from the school budget is not my idea of a good time, nor is it the reason I ran for school committee. But if there has been a bright glimmer of light in this whole dark process, it has been the people—especially the students—who have come to the podium and spoken so eloquently in support of our schools, staff, and programs. Last night was no exception. When Patrick Chhoy, a recent LHS graduate who will attend UMass on full scholarship, spoke last night, there wasn’t a dry eye in the chambers. Chhoy’s emotional plea was in support of the high school overall, but particularly his guidance counselor who helped him and many of his friends with the college application process. Chhoy’s point about the difference his guidance counselor made in his ability to attend college speaks volumes about how important a good education is to our children, not only for the individual lives that are impacted, but for the future of our community. One caring adult can save a child, and that is the work being done every day in our schools. As school leaders, it is our responsibility to make sure the structure that allows that to happen continues despite tough financial times. The fact that our young people, from current middle school and high school students to alumni, were active members in this process makes me incredibly proud and hopeful. I am proud of their willingness to engage and how well they represented themselves, proud of the people in our schools who gave them the skills and motivation to be involved, and proud of the support network that is our community. In the end, those students keep me hopeful that despite these tough times, this important work will continue.

posted in Education, Money Matters, school committee | 2 Comments

My take on the city budget

Here’s what I heard last night from Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch: We’re facing unprecedented cuts in state aid while dealing with skyrocketing health insurance costs. I get it—a similar situation exists on the school side. While local aid for the city is down $15 million and health insurance has increased $4 million, the manager presented a budget that asks for $11 million less than last year. (That alone is mind boggling when you consider how most everything, including the price of milk and eggs, has gone up.) I sat through only 3½ hours of this marathon council meeting, so I wasn’t there when the vote was made to cut the manager’s assistant and I’m not privy to details on the decision, but when looking at the entire organization, cutting a key management role during a fiscal crisis seems shortsighted. For more on this, check LiL.

The manager’s assurance that if more state funding comes in for the schools, it will go there, and the fact that he based the $5 million cut to the district on a $3.2 million state shortfall is appreciated as the schools face their own fiscal nightmare. His approach with his budget was to cut positions, raise taxes 2½ % which will cost the average homeowner $65 more annually, and adopt a 2% meals tax when it’s available. Since his budget is based on these revenue options, I support them because to cut deeper would severely hamper our quality of life and our ability to bounce back from this fiscal mess. (The schools will need to find an additional $400,000 without the meals tax revenue.) With that in mind, I am determined not to cut so deep into the schools as to completely erode the progress we’ve made or dismantle the programs with proven results (more on that later). The school budget hearing is tonight at 8.

posted in Local Politics, Money Matters | 0 Comments

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