AP NEWS

Prospects of New Funding Helps Lowell School Board Avoid Major Cuts

May 17, 2019

LOWELL -- Only 10 days passed before the first and second hearing for the Lowell Public Schools budget, but circumstances changed, dramatically.

In the meantime, the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means introduced a budget that would increase funding for the district by about $3 million over the state’s House of Representatives budget.

This funding is not a guarantee and the district likely won’t know the final sum for weeks -- Gov. Charlie Baker didn’t sign the current year’s budget until nearly a month into the fiscal year, which started July 1, 2018. But for now the School Committee is banking on receiving at least a portion of these extra funds, foregoing several unpopular position cuts.

“I would say it’s a 80 to 90 percent possibility that we get the money, but there’s also the chance that what could happen, could happen,” Mayor William Samaras said. “But the issue is the School Committee has the choice.”

The School Committee chose, in a unanimous vote, to follow this plan.

The proposal first raised by Assistant Superintendent Billie Jo Turner as “bad accounting,” but a way to avoid unneeded stress and alarm, would cut a 5 percent increase to out-of-district tuition in order to fund six positions that were otherwise on the chopping block, including three middle school band directors.

One evaluation team chair, one psychologist and one board certified behavioral analyst would also be maintained in this plan. Last week, students, parents and district employees advocated for keeping these positions during a budget hearing.

Altogether, the six positions cost the district about $570,000. Once the state approves its funding -- which the School Committee hopes will be more than the amount before the House -- this sum will be added back into the out-of-district tuition budget, administrators said.

“All of us have been talking with people and the hope is we’re going to get somewhere between $1 and $3 million more,” said School Committee member Gerry Nutter, who made the successful motion.

Turner said the district will not be able to cut positions if the state’s approved budget falls short of expectations, because the district would not have enough time to notify employee unions of these reductions.

The $188.9 million budget approved by the School Committee would still cut one evaluation team chair, or ETC, and two social worker positions. According to Superintendent Jeannine Durkin, the ETC position was added by the previous administration last year and is currently vacant.

One of the social worker positions specifically serves the district’s refugee population. About 155 students officially recognized as refugees have entered the district in the past five years, but only five have enrolled in the district during the current school year, she said.

Durkin said school-based social workers and the coordinator of English language education will continue to serve these students. The employee currently in this position will have the opportunity to move into a different social worker position within the district, she said.

A second social worker dedicated to the district’s refugee population departed in August 2018 when a grant funding the position ended, according to a memo from the district.

The other social worker position to be cut in this version of the budget had a district-wide position, coordinating crisis responses, providing professional development and writing grants. The employee in this position was moved to a grant funded position, coordinator of safety for the district, mid-year, according to Durkin.

Administrators have suggested providing a stipend to one of the current social workers to take on planning, professional development and supervision duties, according to a memo.

Some positions cut mid-year were not re-instated in the current budget, such as the director of accountability and a data analyst position.

Administrators said they hope to reinstate some of these positions or introduced modified positions if funding allows.

School Committee member Dominik Lay asked to add translation services to the priority list if the district receives extra funds. School Committee member Jackie Doherty requested adding the unfilled Lowell High School director of curriculum position to this list as well.

Earlier in the meeting, the School Committee voted 6-1 to reconfigure the middle school band program. Only Doherty voted in opposition.

What this entails is unclear, as the administration’s proposal for the reconfigured program did not include the band directors, which were still slated to be cut at the time of the vote. After the meeting, Durkin said the district will draft a new plan. A memo presented to the School Committee, detailed several scheduling issues with the district’s current program.

Decisions on the district’s budget followed concerns expressed by members of the School Committee on cutting these positions. Turner said, given the district’s limited finances, the district needs to focus on its core mission: educating children.

“I know as someone that’s doing athletics it seems impactful, but do you know we spend several hundred dollars per child on football, but we spend the equivalent of one pencil on each child for reading?” Turner said. “So my thing is, we are a school system.”

Next, the budget will be sent to the city, but Samaras the document may still change.

“Our work is not finished until we get the bottom-line figure,” Samaras said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins