News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Summer Afternoon

Has June this year been too beautiful? What is, after all, “so rare as a day in June..then, if ever, come perfect days.” These words come to mind when viewing cloudless blue skies, rosebushes in bloom, along with daylilies, peonies, pinks and more. The poet who penned that perfect phrase, followed by “Then heaven tries the earth if it be in tune, and over it softly her warm ear lays” was James Russell Lowell, in case you were wondering. I think I think those words every year, in June, yet never knew who wrote them. Other poets I think of in summer include Virgil: “Steep thyself in a bowl of summertime.”; or the very early English verse, “Summer is Icumen in,” or Marvell who advocated: “Annihilating all that’s made; to a green thought in a green shade”, or the novelist, Henry James, who said, “Summer afternoon–summer afternoon…the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Hope you’re all enjoying your summer!

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Sorry, Friends!

How could I list fun events on Thursday night without mentioning the first Friends of Tyler Park concert of the summer, also happening tonight, 6-8 pm?? The opening act is an A Capella group, from 6-7, then a Jazz/fusion band will play from 7-8. If the weather holds out, it should be a nice evening. The Tyler Park concerts are wonderful family and community events in a park that has become a jewel of the Highlands, thanks to the efforts of the Friends. They have three free concerts each summer which include hot dogs, crafts for kids, and raffles. If you can’t make tonight’s concert, mark July 15th on your calendar where the main event is the popular guitar duo, Two Mikes, and the opening band is the up-and-coming Funk group, Jochemo (full disclosure: my son is the drummer).

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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.

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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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April, 1865

I finally finished my Lowell Reads Lincoln book, April, 1865, by Jay Winik (my three online classes are cutting into my reading time), and I ended up liking it despites some reservations about his repetitive, often hyperbolic prose style. (I really think there are not enough good editors around). His reasearch does seem to have been extensive, and his book is a useful consolidation of many scholarly points about the end days of the Civil War. His thesis seems to be that the month of April, 1865 was a turning point in the nation’s history, and that it didn’t have to turn out the way it did. He mentions several times that the words ‘nation’ or ‘national’ appear nowhere in the Constitution and that prior to the Civil War, the country was invariably referred to in the plural as “these United States” or “the United States are” with the emphasis on the plurality, the independence and the sovereignty of the individual states. Indeed, there were many secessional movements before the Civil War, including one engendered in New England over the War of 1812. Who knew? So, the Civil War itself seemed to create, out of bloodshed and carnage, a national identity where there was none before; in fact, it appears that “the Confederate national identiy in 1861 was actually far stronger than any collective American identiy alive at the time of the Constitution” (47). Winik cites many historical examples where a civil war left a country ripped apart, beset by partisan acts of terror and guerrilla warfare, the fear of which haunted Lincoln’s last days, and he highlights the magnanimity of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman and others in settling the terms of peace so that there were no vicious reprisals against the losers. What he does well is restore the tension and suspense of those last days, where it was by no means certain that the war would end, that Lee wouldn’t have a lucky break and get away from Grant, that partisan bands wouldn’t take to the hills or to Texas to continue the fight as was urged by the Confederate president. He ends by noting one of the first uses of the United States in the singular when, after the war, a noted historian’s 1834 work was edited to read, “the United States is…” Pretty remarkable.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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