AP NEWS

Tough Budget Choices Ahead for Lowell Schools

May 12, 2019

LOWELL -- A $9.9 million boost to state aid over last year won’t save the “threadbare” school district from more cuts this upcoming school year, according to a preliminary budget presented by school administrators last week.

In the days since, the proposal to cut four, later reduced to three, band directors became a rallying cry among students, parents and educators who opposed the reductions.

During a budget hearing Monday, opponents argued cutting the three band directors, a savings of about $270,000, would essentially end the middle school band program, even if it was replaced with an after-school program as administrators suggest.

Though the fourth band director, who works at the high school, would stay under this plan, advocates for the program, including members of the School Committee, said a halt to the middle school program would take away an important feeder for the high school band.

“The bands, they help with the emotional health of the children,” said Enrique Raudales, a student at Wang Middle School who is involved in the program.

Following the hearing, members of the School Committee also expressed opposition to this cut, including School Committee member Andre Descoteaux, a former choir director for Lowell High School. He recalled the effect of music on a student he taught who had autism.

“When he was on stage, he came alive and was at home performing,” he said. “If we didn’t have that opportunity for him I don’t know what his high school experience would have been like.”

Several people at the hearing spoke in opposition to the proposal to cut one board certified behavior analyst, two evaluation team chairs, two social workers and one psychologist.

A psychologist and board certified behavior analyst employed by the district said people in their positions already serve far more students than the recommended student to staff ratio. Deena Meli, a evaluation team chair or ETC, said her job keeps the district in compliance with legal requirements.

“Failure to adhere to compliance may result in the withholding of funds to the city of Lowell and the school department,” she said.

According to Superintendent Jeannine Durkin, the grant funding the salary of a social worker serving the district’s refugee population expired at the end of last school year. If the district had the funding, she said she would advocate for the other social worker position on the chopping block to be replaced with a coordinator of social emotional learning and mental health. A person in this position could provide professional development for all staff in the district, she said.

Durkin said one of the ETC positions was added under the previous district administration and “not part of the original team structure.” She believes a board-certified behavioral analyst, ETC and psychologist positions would be cut by attrition, not layoffs.

Assistant Superintendent of Finance Billie Jo Turner said given the district’s large class sizes and history of reductions, there is nowhere else to cut.

“These decisions are not easy,” she said. “We’re not asking to do this. We just don’t have other ideas.”

School Committee member Gerry Nutter proposed cutting the adult education program, a savings of about $648,000, to save these positions, which cost the district about $760,000. The proposal did not receive a second Monday night.

Nutter said he is hopeful a proposed budget before the state Senate, unveiled Tuesday, would provide the district much-needed additional funding. According to preliminary estimates by the state, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means budget could offer the city nearly $3 million more than the budget proposed to the house.

However, since the state’s budget likely won’t be finalized by the time the Lowell School Committee needs to sign off on the local budget, the committee must still make cuts with the possibility of reinstating later, Nutter said.

In a budget document provided to the School Committee last week, Turner describes a $208.3 million foundation budget, or the minimum amount of spending required by the state. Of this, $158.6 million will be provided by Chapter 70 funding from the state.

With increased state funding comes a $2.2 million boost to required local contribution, bringing the city’s bill to $49.6 million.

This year the city has agreed to increase direct-cash funding by $623,148, raising the city’s total cash funding to $16.4 million or about a third of its required spending for the district, according to the document.

The remainder will be provided to the district through charge-offs, like snow plowing and maintenance. This is per the maintenance of effort agreement between the two entities, which has drawn criticism from a School Committee eager for any additional funding.

These sums are subject to change as the state settles its budget for the new fiscal year starting July 1.

The School Committee is expected to dig in deeper on the budgeting process during a meeting Thursday night.

It has requested additional information about the rationale behind some cuts as well as a presentation of tiered cuts to indicate what would be cut first.

Though the potential cutting of band instructors and support position drew the most attention last week, the budget also includes a number of other changes including reductions to the tutoring budget and a shuffling of paraprofessionals between schools in an effort to address inequities within the district.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.