Board resorts to scare tactics with city


LOWELL — Cut varsity and junior varsity athletics. Nix adult education. End preschool. Rezone the school district.

After all that, how much would Lowell Public Schools save?

The question posed by School Committee member Gerry Nutter last week was less an actual proposal than a tactic to pressure the city to commit additional cash funding to the district.

It comes amid souring opinions among School Committee members on the existing funding agreement with the city, which allows the majority of state-required local funding for the schools to be provided, not in cash, but as services the city does for the schools.

“This motion is a wake-up call, I hope, to parents, I hope, to people who are involved with the schools,” said Nutter, who said he is not asking for these programs to be cut.

“Get a hold of your city councilors, get a hold of your city manager and tell them what we’re looking for is a fairer distribution of the required net school spending,” he said. “And that means sitting down with us and hammering out a new maintenance of effort agreement.”

According to Superintendent Jeannine Durkin and Assistant Superintendent of Finance Billie Jo Turner, school administrator met with city officials to discuss changes to the maintenance of effort agreement in advance of budgeting this spring.

“We did get some confirmation back from the City Manager, but we have yet to have that second meeting so that needs to happen,” Durkin told the School Committee last week.

City Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin said on Tuesday he believed the city and the schools left the meeting on the same page and did not know whether there would be a follow-up. During the discussion with the schools, Baldwin said the city showed the way it charged expenses and its practice of documenting every “penny” charged to the schools.

“These are not numbers that are estimates,” he said. “These are numbers that are expenditures for certain things.”

Turner said the schools are asking for the city to implement a new methodology for state-required funding increases that would guarantee a certain percentage of the funding comes to the district in cash.

“If we had the flexibility we would spend less on the snow removal and more on the special ed teachers,” Turner said.

Turner used fiscal year 2018 as an example. State funding, or Chapter 70, went up $11 million that year, but cash funding from the city decreased by $4.1 million, she said.

“We got an increase in the Chapter 70 money, which automatically increases your net school spending, your required spending” Turner said. “When they increased that, the city decreased the cash they gave us toward education and increased — I’ll give examples — toward snow removal or they charged things like the treasurers office, auditors office.”

In the 2017/18 school year, the state required $44.6 million in local spending for the schools. Lowell ultimately provided $45 million, exceeding the requirement.

In a memo to the School Committee, Turner said only $15.7 million of this sum was provided to the district in cash. The remaining $29 million was charged to the maintenance of effort agreement in non-cash contributions.

In the 2017/18 school year, about 35 percent of the city’s contribution was in cash. A motion by Nutter made earlier this month requested the city provide at least 42 percent of its funding in cash.

Baldwin said the city charges the schools for a variety of different services since the current agreement was signed in Dec. 2007.

Prior to this agreement, the expenses charged to the district had little documentation, he said. Even with the agreement in place, Baldwin said these charges have caused controversy before, most recently in 2013, but that time from the city side, which was unhappy with the setup.

“It kind of ebbs and flows depending on the funding,” he said.

According to Turner, the maintenance of effort agreement includes 44 percent of operating costs for the city treasurer’s office, purchasing department and city auditor’s office. The city also charges the schools 57 percent of insurance administration costs, she wrote in a memo.

Baldwin said without the agreement, the city could charge more in this area, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines.

A large portion — $21.9 million — went to charter schools, according to Turner. Another $8.5 million went to Greater Lowell Technical High School and another $41,000 to Essex Agricultural High School.

Other charges include medicare tax, pensions, school nurses, school resource officers, building maintenance, snow and ice removal, trash pick-up, utilities, non-employee insurance, interest on city bonds, public safety inspections, parking fees, principal on debt, interest on projects, school choice and payments to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Baldwin said some of these costs are fixed, others are calculated through formulas using percentages, making the reasoning for the total sum complicated and difficult to simply convey. For example, the total for snow and ice removal charged to the schools is 4.5 percent of the city’s total cost, as defined in the agreement.

“Without that level of detail it might not be so easy to see the things the city provides to the school on an annual basis,” he said.

In recent years, the city has charged more for school resource officers, an increase some on the School Committee have noted. Baldwin said this increase came after the school district announced it would stop funding these positions in spring 2017, so the city covered these costs and charged them to the district.

School Committee member Robert Hoey Jr. said he supported Nutter’s motion and effort to secure more funding from the city, but would not be in favor of eliminating any of the programs Nutter listed.

In Nutter’s estimation rezoning the schools and cutting athletics, preschool and adult education would save the district $2.2 million, short of the $3 million deficit described in early estimates of next year’s school budget. The School Committee approved a motion to request school administrators draft a report showing the savings if these programs are eliminated.

“I don’t expect (school administrators) to put in any time or answer this report,” said Nutter. “My point is to inform the public that without more funding or an equal distribution of the required funding we are facing still $3 million in cuts that would be a lot worse than what I suggested tonight.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins



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