Comprehensive District Review for Lowell Public Schools!

The School district owes $2,000,000 to the revolving food service account. The district had a two million budget shortfall, key Administration positions were left unfilled due to having no money, there have been complaints filed with the Dept of Labor and Board of Health due to the lack of building heating and maintenance, two request for investigations with the Inspector Generals office (one by former Superintendent/ one by SC) and the end of year fiscal report filed with DESE for the 2018 School year shows the largest increase in Indirect Cost / Maintenance of Effort charges in Lowell’s history.

A pilot program for 5th grade students that gave them 30 minutes a day less instruction time than fellow 5th graders and didn’t provide the same availability of “Specials” and access to after school programs.

At a time that the Asst Superintendent of Student Support Services , HR Director and Asst HR Director positions are vacant, when we know the former Business Office lacked strong policy and procedures (allowing an alleged $50K embezzlement) and knowing we need to create stronger policies and oversight for student activity accounts and we are potentially facing more layoffs due to the city’s lack of cash contributions, I’m both worried and hopeful regarding this review.

It is both a coincidence and good timing that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is going to be conducting a Comprehensive District Review of the Lowell Public Schools in the next few weeks. This comes shortly after the Coordinated Program Review was conducted and reported to the School Committee in September of 2018.

DESE will be evaluating and assessing the functionality and accuracy of every department and aspects of our operations. Such as curriculum, SSS, Data, Personnel, Business office, also, they will be visiting schools and interviewing School Committee members.

Being in my first term and never receiving a detailed explanation of what this process was, I had to look up what exactly a Comprehensive District Review involved and found this out.

Conducted under Chapter 15, Section 55A of the Massachusetts General Laws, comprehensive district reviews support local school districts in establishing or strengthening a cycle of continuous improvement. Reviews consider carefully the effectiveness of system wide functions, with reference to the six district standards used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE): leadership and governance, curriculum and instruction, assessment, human resources and professional development, student support, and financial and asset management. Reviews identify systems and practices that may be impeding improvement as well as those most likely to be contributing to positive results.

What worries me? – What weaknesses will be identified? How long have some of these oversight issues existed? What can we do to put better policies into place in a timely but responsible manner? Will DESE be able to look at the cash provided for operations compared to the growing cost of Charges for supposed City services even charges Not in the maintenance of agreement?

Given the existing conditions of many of the schools , can the City really justify a 9.5% increase in Maintenance of Effort Charges? I still question how they are going to meet their Net School Spending requirement this year without an 18% increase?

You can bet I’ll be asking DESE to review the existing agreement, the charges from 2018 and ask for a Compliance Audit be done as happened in Pittsfield (keep reading to find out)

I’M Not Asking for MORE MONEY! Just What is Rightfully, Legally required by Law!

What gives me hope is the details and recommendations we will be receiving and be able to use to make our case to the public and City Officials who ignore facts and are willing to ignore the City violating the existing Maintenance of Effort Agreement so they can state they exceed Net School spending.

I was reviewing one such comprehensive review done in Pittsfield in 2017 which gives me hope, by noting these findings

Impact: Inadequate buildings and outdated classrooms are not conducive to student learning. Excessive noise and limited technology also affect learning. And the slow pace of new and renovated schools compromises appropriate updating of facilities.

3. The district and the city do not have an up-to-date written agreement detailing indirect municipal services that are provided to the district by the city, as required by state regulation 603 CMR 10.04.

A. The district does not have an up-to-date, signed written agreement between the district and the city on municipal expenditures in support of the schools, such as buildings and grounds, health insurance, other insurance, Medicaid, payments, unemployment compensation, and snow removal.

1. The agreement between the district and the city on municipal expenditures in support of the schools was last reviewed and approved in 2004.

B. The city submits data to the district for ESE’s End of Year Report, including a list of expenditures that the city has made on behalf of the schools. Some of these are actual costs and others are allocations of aggregate city expenditures. (An allocation is a percentage distribution of a total expenditure that is determined to be a fair representation of the city’s and the district’s shares of that expenditure.) These costs may not be measured accurately.

ESE’s 2016 compliance audit recommends “a review of the agreement be made to ascertain the allocation of expenditures is adequate for current needs.”

The 2016 compliance audit found that the city’s expenditure for maintenance of school buildings was overstated by $92,041.

Impact: Because the written agreement between the district and the city on municipal expenses in support of the schools has not been reviewed or approved since 2004, the city may not be allocating costs accurately or accurately calculating and reporting required net school spending.

If the previously agreed-upon allocations are changed, 603 CMR 10.04 requires that the Commissioner of Education approve the change.

Example: The City of Lowell charged for Crossing Guards, Traffic Supervisor and time spent painting crosswalks and fire lanes allegedly at city schools despite these items NOT being in the current Maintenance of Effort Agreement.

C. If the city and school department cannot agree on a methodology, they should notify ESE. Benefit: The benefit of implementing this recommendation is that the district will be in compliance with the Code of Massachusetts Regulations and the Compliance Supplement for Massachusetts Schools

Having this agreement will provide clarity for the city and school district on how city expenditures are determined and how Net School Spending expenditures are calculated.

What makes me hopeful? these type of recommendations –

The district and school leadership should take the necessary steps to develop the programs, provide the resources, and implement a coordinated tiered system of academic supports for all students.

A. The district should review and extend its approach to providing additional supports to all students with the goal of establishing a coordinated, districtwide system of tiered academic intervention.
1. The district should specify and document all academic interventions available at each level and in every school to better identify gaps.
2. The district should identify resources needed to address those gaps.
3. The district and schools at each level should examine their schedules and time-on-learning to determine if a more effective use of instructional time can provide intervention and/or enrichment opportunities for all students.

The city should develop a long-range plan for the schools that are in need of renovation, replacement, or closing. It should work with the city to update its agreement regarding shared expenses.

Benefits: Developing a capital plan to systematically address buildings that are beginning to fail will help to ensure that the district’s educational facilities do not negatively impact students’ learning and well- being.

The school principals and school councils should work with the city’s building maintenance department each year to plan for the capital needs of each building. Their analysis should be documented in a long-term capital plan.

Hopefully after this Comprehensive District Review there’s some advice Lowell needs to and will follow!

Author: Gerry Nutter's - Looking at Lowell

I'm BACK...! I've followed the finances and issues with the City of Lowell and the Lowell School Dept. for the past 8 years while blogging and contributing to Saturday Morning Live! After serving 1 term on the School Committee I am back with my view on the events, people and politics of Lowell.

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