News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Reporter’s view of budget hearings

I was listening to WUML this morning and caught Mike LaFleur from the Lowell Sun giving his impressions of the budget hearing.  Mike’s been reporting on the city budget since 2003 and made some very perceptive comments about the budget process in Lowell.  He also gave the clearest explanation of the politics of taxation that I’ve heard. The council’s position seems to be that taxes should never be raised, despite the fact that Lowell has what is called “excess capacity” which means that we (unlike surrounding towns) have not been taxing up to our levy.  (I’m not sure how the levy is determined, but the excess amount is calculated by the state.) Lowell’s excess capacity is currently $5 million, which means the city could raise taxes by that amount without having to do a 2 1/2% override.  He pointed out that only about 12,000 people vote in Lowell’s local elections and of those, the overwhelming majority are over 55senior citizens on fixed incomes are fearful of tax hikes, and rightly so.

What stood out for me was Mike’s comment that “the schools have been getting whacked for five years and so far there’s been no consequences at the ballot box.” When the schools make layoffs, the council typically feels no painnot like the proposed 11 layoffs from city hall. He said that maybe an advocacy group like “U-25″ of Tewksbury may be needed in Lowell to draw the correlation between what happens in the city council chambers and what goes on in classrooms. Well, now Lowell has Stand for Children and their presence made a big difference at the budget hearings; whether that can translate to the ballot box remains to be seen.  In the meantime, Stand members will be lobbying at the state level for support for the governor’s Municipal Partnership Act and the telecommunications tax in particular, which could provide relief to taxpayers and added revenue to cash-strapped cities and towns.

posted in Education, Money Matters | 1 Comment

Council compromises on school cuts/layoffs

I am grateful that at last night’s city budget hearing, the council voted to fund the schools $800,000 more than the city manager’s original plan to cut $1.6 million. The council hopes to fund this adjustment by additional revenue that will come to the city if state legislators support the governor’s plan to tax telecommunications companies for use of public lands. For the schools, cutting another $800,000 from the school budget won’t be easy (reducing or reorganizing departments, leaving more positions unfilled etc), but it will not be as devastating or require as severe cuts to already lean staffing. The school department is in the process of examining its original budget to determine where to make those cuts so they will have the least impact on direct services to students, and a public hearing will be held to address those issues in the next few weeks. 

Last night the council also reinstated seven of the 11 staff slated for layoff. Funding for this move will come from money the manager had set aside for salary adjustments with city unions. It is clear that finding the funds to make these compromises was not easy, particularly because of the council’s insistence on keeping the tax increase to a bare minimum. The 2.5% tax increase in this budget will cost taxpayers an average of $60 more a year. When I think about that number and how the costs for everything keep going up (I’m probably paying $60 more a month in gasoline alone.), I am reminded of a citizen who spoke at the hearing and suggested the council pledge no new taxes for 10 years. If our personal costs keep rising (clothes, groceries, utilities and heat) how can the cost for government services stay the same or even go down—especially when those services, such as our schools, police, fire and public works, are so essential to the quality of life in our community?   


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Mixed feelings from the budget hearing

I have to admit I think Bernie Lynch is doing a great job. As I said at the budget hearing last night, it was refreshing to see a budget presented with that degree of clarity and transparency. And, as Councilor Milinazzo pointed out, he inherited a real mess when he took over as City Manager. That said, I still think that the proposed cuts of $1.6 million are unfair to the schools for the following reasons:

  • The schools sustained massive layoffs in 2003 and 2004, when the city cut its contribution to the schools to about $12 million (it bears repeating that that is half of what the city budget for the schools was in 1992).
  • The schools have still not recovered from these cuts.  Maybe if we had 1000 schoolchildren turn out to picket city hall, it would get some attention to the fact that art, music and enrichment programs are important; that more, not less paraprofessionals are needed in the elementary classrooms; that the loss of science teachers in our younger grades and preschool transportation for the children who need it the most are hurting our youngest students every year.  more »

posted in Education, Money Matters | 0 Comments

Council delays vote on layoffs, school cuts

Tonight’s hearing on the city budget was a grueling affair, but for decisions on layoffs and school cuts, voters will have to stay tuned tomorrow night (same time, same place). No doubt the city’s in tough fiscal shape and there’s not a lot of money, especially since the council is loathe to raise taxes more than the 2.5% in the manager’s budget—despite cost increases that impact every service. Tonight, the council determined it did not have the stomach to actually layoff 11 city employees as the manager proposed, although the 11 municipal positions cut through attrition are gone. The council also decided to delay its vote regarding the manager’s plan to cut $1.6 million, or nearly 8 percent, from its contribution to the schools—a cut that would undoubtedly require school layoffs. Instead, councilors directed the city manager to meet with the superintendent and develop a compromise—the number $800K was mentioned, which might appear fair except when you consider two facts: First, the Mass. Dept. of Revenue in an April 2007 document reports the city has not met its fiscal contribution to the schools for 11 consecutive years, and the carryover requires an additional $3 million in local aid—never mind cuts. And second, an $800K cut reduces the city’s contribution to its schools by 3.8%: I don’t think any city department is taking that percentage of cuts. To be fair, the city’s contribution to its schools should be cut the same percentage as other city departments (more on that tomorrow). 

Also tonight, for the first time at a council meeting, more than 25 local members of Stand for Children, the citizen group gaining momentum statewide and in Lowell, showed up in support of more »

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

Support schools at public hearing TONIGHT!

Attend the City Council meeting tonight, 5 p.m. at City Hall, and stand with us in silent support or better yet, take the opportunity to state your thoughts (in five minutes or less) about the manager’s proposal to cut $1.6 million from the schools. I will be there, along with other advocates for good schools, to make our case why the Council should not cut so deeply (nearly eight percent of the city’s $21 million contribution to its schools). Note: the city gave $22.5 million to the police budget last year and is proposing $22 million for police this year. The city’s contribution to the fire department actually went up about 100K from last year’s budget, and yet the manager proposes the city cut $1.6 million from the schools, which would bring the city’s funding for education well below $20 million. We haven’t seen the city contribute less than $20 million to educate its children since 2005. Cuts that deep will have a negative impact on the quality of education our children receive, as well as the district’s ability to continue to make progress on initiatives around class size, interventions, and student support services.  


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

No surprise local paper doesn’t support schools

No surprise that yesterday’s Lowell Sun sang the merits of the manager’s budget, especially his plan to cut $1.6 million from the schools. Anyone paying attention to past editorials and recent blog posts knows there’s an editor on a mission to denigrate our public schools—especially our teachers. It’s clear, however, that this person never spent a day in an urban classroom teaching anything to anyone—never mind 25 students, many of whom do not speak English as their first language. More importantly, the editorial failed to give historical perspective, such as the hits the schools have been taking since 2002, especially the budget cuts of 2003 (the year I ran for school committee). That year and the following, the city’s contribution to its schools was $12.7 million—its lowest since before 1992 when it funded the schools $25.5 million. Note that number: $25.5 million—the amount the city funded its schools in 1992. Taxes have been going up (about six percent over the last five years) but those tax revenues have not been for the schools. In 2003, the City Council cut the school department’s budget by $10 million, and 12% of school staff (more than 100 people) were laid off. And yesterday, this editor writes: “It is incumbent upon the teachers’ union and school administrators to participate in the efficiencies and cost-savings being implemented on the municipal side of government.” Pleeese!  Although I’m saddened to hear of layoffs on the city side, I don’t recall any municipal layoffs in 2003 or any year in recent memory. Meanwhile, the school department continues to look for efficiencies. The current school budget is based on 25 trade-off positions—17 eliminations at the middle school level alone—as a way to use attrition to prioritize staffing needs. The schools are using data to better meet students’ needs and that requires staffing and programming support. That said, I agree the current city budget is comprehensive and includes actual expenditures, going back five years. Once you break out state support for education, chapter 70 funds, the city’s history of funding its municipal departments has been steady while its support for its schools has not. 

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Paying taxes like getting your teeth cleaned

I heard a caller on the radio ask a city council candidate what he would do to reduce taxes if he got elected. I don’t remember his answer because at that point my morning mind was filled with its own questions: Why does this caller expect anyone to be able to lower taxes when costs keep going up? What services is he willing to do without? Trash collection? Recycling pickup—not an absolute necessity (my sister lives in Maine and has to drive her recyclables to the dump)—but a helluva convenience. Safe neighborhoods and clean drinking water? How about nice parks and paved streets? What about schools where every child, regardless of income, ethnicity or social status, gets a good education that enables him to read, write, do math, and best of all, get a job so he can pay taxes too. How much is that worth? 

The thing is I’ve been paying taxes since I got my first real job at 16, my first car (a very used 1967 Cougar) at 17, and my first home at 26, and believe me, I don’t enjoy giving up my hard-earned money anymore than you do. But I do enjoy the services; they directly impact my quality of life (and yours), and they provide us all with a community that has a future. It’s like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned: you don’t want to go (that horrible scraping), but you do because you’ve got one set of teeth and you have to take care of them. We pay taxes to take care of our community. The way I see it, people would feel a lot better about paying taxes if we felt government was efficient and transparent with our money. More on that later.   


posted in Local Politics, Money Matters | 1 Comment

Rowing on the River

Today was the Spring State Finals for crew, with 20 public schools participating on the Merrimack River during what turned out to be a glorious, albeit windy, day. The Lowell High School Crew Team was in excellent form, going head-to-head in competition with teams from Wayland, Weston, and Brookline, and some of the other wealthiest communities in the state; yet Lowell held its own, earning gold, silver, and bronze medals. The boys second varsity 8 team, which last week made the nationals, won a silver medal, and the boys first varsity took third place, winning a bronze. The girls varsity also took second place, winning a silver medal. But it was the boys second novice team, many of them the newest members of crew, who caused the greatest upset of the day by winning a gold medal and earning the title of State Champions in their category. Last year, despite all kinds of trouble, from flooding to a boathouse in total disrepair, the team showed it had heart and stamina and continued to perform. (The state provided funding and UMass Lowell took over ownership, so the boathouse is once again functioning, which enabled today’s competition to be held in Lowell.) This year’s results demonstrate the LHS Crew Team not only has heart, it’s got stamina and depth from its youngest to most seasoned members. And it’s not over yet–the boys second varsity team will be heading to Ohio in June to compete nationally–so stay tuned! Check their website for more information on LHS Crew

posted in Youth | 0 Comments

New project shows beauty in diversity at LHS

At Lowell High School, the Cultural Welcome Wall speaks to me, saying: We are the world and we are beautiful! Funded by the Behrakis Foundation, this project was a collaborative effort that included teachers and students from graphic arts, photography, and communications, as well as a photographer from the Lowell arts community (Meghan Moore). On display in the lobby of the high school, the Wall includes 42 student portraits and the word welcome listed in 32 languages and sizes that correspond to the diversity of the school. For instance, graphic design students researched, created and drew Arabic, Khmer, and Chinese symbols for welcome. Other languages represented include Swahili, Japanese, and Spanish, which you can see in the photo below. (Bienvenido is written in large font because of the many Latino students at the high school while Swahili is much smaller in size.) In addition, students and staff created a powerful video-documentary that juxtaposed student interviews about experiences from their families’ past and being part of the high school, with acclimating to the weather or simply saying welcome in their native tongue. “The wall reminds us that although our faces and languages and cultures are very different, we share a common bond: we are members of one community,” notes summary text. The entire project is a living testament to why Lowell High School—175 years after it was founded as the first co-ed, integrated, public high school in the country—continues to be an amazing place to get an education.  Do yourself a favor and check it out before school ends on June 12.





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Great day for a graduation

I attended Middlesex Community College’s graduation today along with 700+ graduates, their families, MCC staff and faculty, and some elected folks. Notably absent was State Rep. James Miceli, who had a vacant seat waiting for him in the front row of the stage and was listed as a speaker on the program. Councilor Eileen Donoghue gave welcoming remarks from the City of Lowell and made a point of thanking the college for their great partnership and the role model of service they provide to our community. President Carole Cowan couldn’t help getting a bit political and urged students to “work as strong vocal supporters of public higher education,” but it was Professor David Kalivas who passionately challenged students: “Why does this state rank towards the bottom of funding for public higher education? Your communities need input, people to participate…work for yourselves but within the community spirit.” 

As usual, the college landed an excellent keynote speaker: This year, teacher Erin Gruwell, who started the Freedom Writers Foundation and compiled a book of her students’ writing, The Freedom Writers Diary (now a film starring Hilary Swank), spoke about how words and sharing experiences can be life altering. Gruwell taught at an urban high school in Long Beach, California—our sister city with the largest Cambodian population on the West Coast while Lowell has the largest on the East Coast. Gruwell also challenged the audience when she asked: “What happens if you tell a kid again and again and again that they’re dumb and not worth it? What happens if they believe it?” She began and ended her remarks with an inspiring quote from Gandhi that I leave you with now: “May you be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

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