Give the schools a break
Op Ed piece by Jackie Doherty published in the Lowell Sun on June 15, 2005
It seems the schools can’t get a break in Lowell. Two years ago, the city wouldn’t fund school contracts saying the committee had overspent in negotiations with its unions. The schools were required to cut $1.2 million more on top of the $10 million already slashed, which resulted in layoffs totaling a 12% reduction in staff as well as cuts in programs and services for children.
The schools are still dealing with those losses, such as less paraprofessionals, part-time librarians and computer teachers, limited funds for technology, and no preschool transportation. And yet today, with a proposed school budget asking for only what’s needed to cover increases in fixed costs and contracts, City Manager John Cox is again telling the schools to cut more—two million dollars more.
The difference is, this time the school committee listened to what the city had to say when it met with its unions. As the newest member of the school committee, I was present for those meetings. I was there when the city manager’s representative on the negotiating team, T.J. McCarthy, and Mayor Armand Mercier told us that the city manager suggested three percent increases over the next three years for school employees, which was the mirror image of what he was offering city unions.
I didn’t support the teachers’ contract for several reasons, primarily because I was afraid we couldn’t afford it despite the manager’s advice (rightfully so, it turns out). I also was determined to never see the degree of layoffs the schools had been forced to undergo in previous years. Because of my no vote and that of a colleague, the contract with the teachers’ union would not have passed without support from the city’s representatives. Their input changed the tenor of those meetings and was vital to making the deal we must now fund.
So why does the city manager claim he cannot fund the contracts negotiated by his representatives? What was his motivation in advising the school committee to negotiate these contracts in the first place? Perhaps he thought if we negotiated for less than he did with the city unions, it would not look good for the city? Perhaps he wanted to blame any potential tax increases on the schools rather than city employee raises? It seems unlikely or at the very least mean-spirited to think he advised the schools to negotiate for contracts that he never intended to fund, and yet that is where we are today.
The school budget submitted to the city asks for $3.3 million more in funding from last year’s adjusted budget. That number takes into account $2.9 million more in contracts, $300,000 more in healthcare costs, and $200,000 in increased out-of-district special education tuition and transportation fees. We are essentially asking for a level service budget.
The city manager has submitted his budget to the council. In it, aside from recommending that the city not fund the amount the schools need to pay for their negotiated contracts, the city manager is fully funding salary increases to city employees, as well as increases to city health insurance and pension benefits.
So where does that leave the schools?
In a city that has just recently reached its required contribution to school spending after seven years of not contributing its full share, a city where the state pays 89% of the costs of educating its students, a city that is not at 2½ percent while other communities struggle with overrides, Lowell schools need a break. The requested school budget asks the city to pay for the contracts it helped negotiate and if funded, the city’s contribution to its schools will be $19 million. Given that this amount is six million dollars less than the city spent on education in 1993, the time is right for Lowell to invest in its future and the education of its children.