Rezoning Unlikely -- for Now -- to Cut Costs
LOWELL -- Rezoning to neighborhood schools isn’t feasible right now, but the district can make changes to save on its mounting transportation costs, John Descoteaux told the Lowell School Committee Wednesday night.
Descoteaux, the district’s interim assistant business manager for transportation, presented a plan that, if implemented, could generate $675,000 to $825,000 in savings by moving 45 percent of students to different schools, he said.
He also proposed seeking different options from experts, including a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who used an algorithm to do similar, controversial work for Boston Public Schools.
Descoteaux’s presentation was a response to a 4-3 vote by the School Committee this summer to develop a plan to rezone the district to neighborhood schools.
In a memo, Descoteaux said a return to neighborhood schools would not be possible on an August 2019 deadline as the Centralville section of the city would not be able to absorb the growing student population.
“With no option to lease or buy space in Centralville at this time, the ‘neighborhood’ schools scenario is not a viable option at this juncture,” he wrote.
The district faces millions in transportation costs -- $11.4 million expected this fiscal year. This figure is expected to rise next year as the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell has requested a change to its bell times, a projected $350,000 to $450,000 increase to the district’s transportation budget, according to Descoteaux.
Under state law the district must provide transportation to charter school students. If the district has any city-wide public schools -- as it currently does -- it must also provide cross city transportation to parochial schools, Descoteaux said.
The plan proposed by Descoteaux would divide the city into three zones, in an effort to save time and, in turn, money. Two zones are south of the Merrimack River and one is north of the river, avoiding the bottleneck traffic around the bridges.
“What we tried to do is eliminate time and time, again, is bridges,” he said.
It also eliminates citywide schools, while staying within the constraints of 1988 federal desegregation decree, which was created to ensure minority students have equal access to education, he said.
The proposal would not change start or release times at schools.
Descoteaux told the School Committee he also met with experts to seek input for alternative options.
He met with the Civil Engineering Department at University of Massachusetts Lowell to discuss the project. He said the professors were enthusiastic, but unable to deliver a plan by spring. If the change goes into effect next school year, as proposed, Descoteaux said the district needs to notify parents and staff by about May.
He said he also met with Dr. Dimitris Bertsimas, a professor at MIT. Bertsimas was involved in the development of an algorithm for busing at Boston Public Schools
The proposal for Boston would have reduced city’s transportation budget and shifted most high school students to later start times, but was scrapped after facing opposition from parents, unions and City Councilors, the Boston Globe reported.
Parents concerned about large shift in start times, some exceeding two hours, spoke against the changes, according to media reports. Meanwhile, supporters defended the algorithm as addressing inequities within the district, pointing out that many who opposed the proposal hailed from whiter and wealthier parts of the city.
Descoteaux said the MIT professor told him using the algorithm, Lowell could see about $1 million in transportation savings.
“When the head of the analytics department at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country tells me he can save a million dollars, I’m going to listen,” Descoteaux said.
In this proposal, students would not need to move schools, but start and end times would see significant changes, he said. Descoteaux said, like the other plan, it would meet the requirements of the federal desegregation decree.
If the district wants MIT to develop this plan, those involved in the six to eight week project would in return receive a portion of the district’s savings, however this exact amount has not been negotiated, according to Descoteaux.
School Committee member Gerry Nutter, urged action on this proposal and suggested scheduling a finance subcommittee meeting regarding the topic on Tuesday.
“If we don’t do anything we’re looking at maybe a half million dollars in transportation costs, because of the charter school, correct?” said Nutter addressing Descoteaux.
Descoteaux agreed, saying the district would need to add four to six extra buses and change one school start time next year, even without rezoning.
Other members of the School Committee cautioned against moving too fast as either of the proposed options would have a significant impact on families and employees.
“Even though we have this pressing issue upon us in the fall with the charter schools, we can’t move quickly,” said School Committee member Jackie Doherty. “What’s good about it is it’s forced us to really look at transportation, which we’ve been needing to do for a longtime.”
School Committee member Connie Martin suggested considering this change for fall 2020 instead of 2019. She referenced the recent controversy over busing in Boston and said she was concerned the district wouldn’t have enough time to communicate with parents or staff regarding the change if implemented next school year.
“I’m sure his algorithm works beautifully, much like it did in Boston and much like the response he got in Boston,” Martin said. “That’s a problem. ... There’s a reason that that was scuttled and that parents had a dramatic negative reaction to it.”
School Committee member Andre Descoteaux said the current system is “unsustainable.”
“People are adverse to changes and some people don’t adjust well to that, but I think we need to really look at this and get as much information as possible to go forward with this,” he said. “It’s time.”
Nutter also requested getting a commitment from the City Council that the savings secured by changing busing will be given to the district by the city as a cash contribution. Currently, transportation costs in the district are paid through a cash contribution from the city.
Mayor William Samaras said he would discuss the request with the city manager and report back to the finance subcommittee.
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