Work together to save our schools
Op ed written by Jackie Doherty and published in The Sun on June 2, 2010
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. We had higher math growth scores than any neighboring community. Overall, our median student scored five points above the state average in mathematics, and our sixth graders were sixteen points above the state average. This growth proves the work in our classrooms is making a difference despite the socio-economic challenges many of our students face.
Good schools matter and directly impact Lowell’s desirability as a place to raise a family, locate a business, work, or visit. Today, we face a crisis in terms of being able to sustain our educational progress. Although the school committee approved $4 million in budget cuts and eliminated more than 60 positions, we still face a budget gap. Clearly, we cannot cut our way out of this fiscal crisis.
During these difficult times when government revenue is down and taxpayers are struggling, the only way to provide a decent education to our children is to work together. Those with secure employment and generous benefits must make concessions to save jobs. School staff can immediately impact the budget by changing from Master Medical by this Friday when the open enrollment period ends. Not only will employees reduce their monthly premiums, the district will realize significant savings. For every 14 people who switch, the schools save about $50K to keep staff.
Changing health insurance is not a trivial matter, but both the value and the savings make sense. From my experience when my son battled cancer, the HMO offered us exceptional coverage and the opportunity to be treated by the best doctors. By switching health insurance this Friday, employees can do their part now to avoid more school layoffs.
Other ways staff can help include working one day without pay, which would save $500,000, and agreeing to freeze step and lane increases, which would save an additional $775,000. These savings would go a long way to reduce the budget deficit and save jobs. The reality is we cannot continue to eliminate positions: staff must be part of the solution.
Since 1993, the state has provided more than 85 percent of Lowell’s school budget, but state revenues are down and so is education funding. In addition to funds, the legislature should provide cities with the tools to control costs, particularly around health insurance. Legislators must also enact charter and vocational school funding reform, and give districts a voice in the education of its special needs children who are under DCF care. (This change alone could save Lowell $1 million in out-of-district tuition.)
The city must also provide adequate resources to educate its children. For nine of the last 10 years, Lowell did not meet its required school contribution, a dismal record unmatched by similar communities statewide. Since 2006, however, the city has come closer to its required contribution, and last year, it surpassed the minimum for the first time ever.
The city manager’s FY11 budget increases local funding for the schools by $1.1 million; this amount, however, does not close the gap and should be increased. Like police and fire services, Lowell’s schools are integral to the city’s success.
Since 2002, we have eliminated more than 400 positions from our schools, cutting $8 million last year alone. For years, we have made reductions at all levels, and we continue to search for efficiencies, but to cut further would do lasting damage.
Staff concessions, state reforms, and additional local funds are the only way to prevent more cuts to a desperately lean school system. We must work together to protect our most precious asset: our children and our collective future.
Jackie Doherty is a member of the Lowell School Committee and chair of the Urban Division of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. She can be reached at www.jackiedoherty.org.