Speech to City Council regarding FY08 Budget made 5/29/07
Good evening mayor, city manager, and members of the city council. My name is Jackie Doherty and I live at 77 Tyler Park in Lowell. I realized as I began to prepare my comments for tonight’s meeting that this is the fourth year in a row that I have stood before this council asking for fair funding and the city’s support of its schools. This realization underscores the fact that the city of Lowell has consistently not met its obligation to support the education of its youngest citizens. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I refer to this document from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, dated April 2007, and entitled: “City of Lowell, Financial Management Review.”
The document reads in part and I quote: “In December 2006, the city received correspondence from the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education that Lowell had not met its FY2006 spending requirement, thus failing to comply with the Education Reform Act of 1993. An estimated $2.47 million in carryover amount was added to the city’s FY2007 spending requirement. This resulted in a FY2007 shortfall of over $2.96 million (or 2.1 percent) and marked the eleventh consecutive year that the city failed to budget its net school spending requirement.”
That means since 1996, for 11 straight years, the city has not met its spending requirement for the schools, with a FY2007 shortfall of nearly three million dollars. Yet I stand here tonight because the city manager’s budget proposes to CUT $1.6 million from the schools, representing nearly an eight percent reduction in the city’s $21 million contribution. The school budget before the city tonight represents a reasoned effort to live within our means—an effort we have been sustaining since the drastic cuts of 2003. For those who seem to have forgotten, only four years ago, in 2003, the city cut $10 million from the school budget, requiring a reduction of more than 100 school positions and representing a loss of 12% of the school staff; those positions have not been restored to this day. The school department and its elected board do not live in a vacuum; we are members of this community, and we know our city has struggled financially for years to provide adequate services to its constituents—which is why this year’s budget was based on the same funding commitment from the city as last year—a commitment that according to the DOE does not even meet the state’s requirements for the city’s fair share contribution.
The school department continues to look for efficiencies as we have been doing for the last five years. Over the last few years, in transportation alone we have been able to save nearly half million dollars while transporting the same number of children. In addition, our principals have been running their schools with the same per pupil allotment for supplies as 2003, and many of our computers are more than five years old. 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. The extra state money this year, after covering our fixed cost increases—health insurance alone is up nearly $2 million—will enable the school to invest further in proven successful software programs to help struggling readers as well as expand staffing at some of our alternative schools and programs for special needs students.
Regarding tax increases and the chart we saw earlier during the city manager’s presentation. The last five years the city’s contribution to the schools appear to be going up—especially since the chart began in 2002—when 2003 and 2004 were the lowest years fro the city’s contribution to its schools ($12.7 million—half of what Lowell contributed in 1992). There was no place to go but up. So even though taxes have gone up, the city manager stated about six percent each year over the last five years, today the city contributes $4.5 million less to its schools, so those tax revenues have not gone to the schools. The school department is working to better meet the needs of its students in a tight fiscal climate. And from my perspective, the school battle is one I have willingly taken on each year, even before running for school committee, because the education of our children is key to our city’s future success. It must be a priority with this council as well, and I respectfully ask you to fund the school budget as it was submitted. Thank you.