Jenny's Recap of the January 6th School Committee Meeting
Updated: Jan 22, 2020
The eighth School Committee meeting of the academic year was held on January 6, 2020. This was my very first meeting after being sworn in. Very exciting! Prior, on Sunday, Medford held its inauguration at the Chevalier Theater. In her address, Mayor Lungo-Koehn called on the School Committee to develop a strategic plan to guide our district, and I couldn’t be more excited about this work.
The meeting was actually three meetings:
Organizational Meeting to elect a Vice-Chairperson and Secretary of the School Committee
Committee of the Whole and Executive Session to discuss ongoing legal matters with the MIAA related to the Medford High Boys Soccer team
Regularly scheduled meeting
The Committee unanimously voted to elect Paul Ruseau as Vice-Chairperson and Paulette Van der Kloot as Secretary. This vote occurred during the brief organizational meeting and was brought out to the regular meeting for the official vote. Congrats to both Paul and Paulette!
Committee of the Whole - MIAA
You may recall that Medford had to obtain a court injunction to allow the varsity boys' soccer team to play its final playoff game back in the fall. This was because the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA ) had ruled that the team was ineligible to continue to play in the playoffs and would forfeit its entire season. This prompted the school department and the city to pursue legal action. The judge at the time granted an injunction that allowed the team to play, and a court date of November 2021 was set. The Committee reviewed the current status of the legal matter in executive session and then reported out to the group that we would be requesting clarification from our attorney about the options moving forward before a decision will be made. Specifically, the Committee has asked that our attorney be present at our next session to review options, including the scheduled court date and other negotiations. We were joined in the public meeting by many students from the soccer team, their parents, and City Councilor George Scarpelli. I also made a motion that passed to have all related policies and procedures currently in place delivered to the School Committee for review by March 23, 2020, which is before the start of the spring season.
At the heart of this issue is a clerical error. We are all human, and this goes for our administrators as well. There are likely many realities under the covers that we will need to determine how to address, including whether we have adequate technical solutions and maintenance of student records in place to make the process effective AND efficient. I look forward to understanding these issues in more depth when the policies and procedures are shared. These issues will be essential to understand as we move forward with our strategic planning efforts as well, because technical solutions and proper staffing, if they are an issue to address in this case, cost money.
Mayor Lungo-Koehn and Roberts 3rd grader Matthew DeMeo pulled the winners for the 2nd annual Disney raffle sponsored by the Citywide Elementary Alliance. The grand prize winner is Jim Granara, Jr., a Medford firefighter. Congratulations to Jim, who won his choice of $5000 cash or a $5000 Disney Gift Card to book a Disney Vacation! The second prize winner of a $250 Disney Gift Card is Quadasha Petit!
The School Committee recognized Medford High Senior Max Stephens. He was selected to represent the United States in the 2019 Winter Deaflympics in ice hockey. Not only did he attend and play in the Deaflympics, but he also won a GOLD medal!
Medford High School Bathrooms
The conditions of the Medford High School bathrooms were discussed. Joey Falco, a Freshman at Medford High School, joined us during community participation and brought pictures of some of the areas of concern with him.
John McLaughlin provided a report of his inspection of all bathrooms, which he conducted during the holiday break. His examination showed no signs of insect or rodent activity. All toilets and urinals are operational. All sinks except for one are also functional. Countertops were replaced years ago, but some need replacement again. The district deep cleaned the bathrooms during the break. There are parts ordered to replace stall locks and heat registers that are broken.
John also noted that the bathrooms are old. They are dated, and they are not aesthetically pleasing. If you have been in the high school complex, you certainly have noted the same. I don’t think there is any disagreement on the need to give attention to the broader issues at the high school complex nor that our bathrooms need more attention than they get. As is frequently the case, the question boils down to money or lack of. But there is a small bit of good news on this front! During the meeting, Dr. Peter Cushing, Assistant Superintendent, noted a free cash award from the City Council on November 26, 2019, which includes $100,000 to renovate TWO bathrooms. TWO. A complete gut and renovate of any one bathroom will cost approximately $50,000. There are 16 bathrooms in the building. We did discuss that the administration will provide an update of the selected bathroom before the start of construction and that we will work with the contractor to provide relevant experience to our Vocational students during the project.
If you were watching the meeting, there was a reference that the bathrooms were on the district Capital Plan. I looked at the plan, and in 2023 there is $800,000 allocated for “Roof, Bathroom Upgrades Phone/Library/ Technology and VOIP Audit.” At least $800,000 is needed for 16 bathrooms alone, so this amount is not even enough for all of the listed issues. Whether we can wait to address these issues until 2023 is another matter entirely.
During this discussion, we also talked about the ongoing maintenance and cleaning processes. Right now, students are asked to alert John McLaughlin, Director of Buildings and Grounds, Mr. D’Alleva, Headmaster, or an Assistant Principal if there is a bathroom that requires attention. He noted that he is working with Mr. D’Alleva to create a cleaning schedule consistent with how the bathrooms are used throughout the day. He also said that the district is waiting to implement an app from Sandy Hook Promise called ‘See Something Say Something.’ The app has widespread use, which he plans to use on both security-related items and maintenance items like this. I am thrilled to hear this because it is not ideal that our senior leaders in the building have to be in the chain of information flow to get a bathroom serviced. They juggle so much, and this is a perfect opportunity to allow technology and an improved process to remove non-value added tasks from their plate AND improve outcomes. We are waiting on information regarding the timing of our implementation from Sandy Hook Promise, and I asked John to provide us an update at our next meeting regarding the implementation timeline.
Outdated Technology Updates
Also in the recent free cash award is $100,000 to continue the replacement of machines currently running Windows 7, which is no longer supported by Microsoft. The funds will replace 56 computers at the middle schools and 49 at the elementary schools. Additionally, equipment for the new Medford High Library Makerspace will be purchased.
There was a significant discussion on this topic. We learned that even with the $200,000 in Free Cash awarded in June and this allocation, we are nowhere near replacing all of our end of life technology. There are well north of 1,000 additional pieces of equipment that are still running Windows 7. We talked about the goal that our budget would ultimately account for replacement of 20% of our equipment annually, but also that this is unlikely to happen any time soon given the district’s budget constraints.
During the discussion, I asked questions to quantify this need so that we can be clear and transparent about where we are. I don’t know what the City Council, for example, thinks the remaining demand is, and I think we should publish the number regularly so that we all know exactly where we stand. Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kirsteen Patterson noted that this information is in the budget. I didn’t recall that level of information in last year’s budget, so I took a peek at the budget posted to the MPS website . The technology budget begins on page 73 and does not note the severity of our dated equipment issue.
I also noted that in my view, we have several technology-oriented needs to contend with. I see the issues as follows:
Do we have enough technology to meet the needs of our learners?
Is our equipment reasonably current and functional?
Does our budget have adequate allocations to maintain our technology so that a large purchase isn’t required in any given year? Large scale purchases inevitably lead to a continued cycle of large scale purchases.
The answer to all three is no. Talking about constraints is essential. As a community, we should name our problems. Assistant Superintendent Patterson noted that data requests like this can be handled in the budget process, which is upcoming. During that time, I will be looking for a clear schedule of our technology inventory and its age. I expect there will be a healthy discussion of where and how we can do more, and whether our infrastructure can even handle more. Budget season is just around the corner, and I look forward to reporting back on our progress in this arena.
Additional Free Cash Awards
In this same Free Cash award from the City Council, the district received the following:
$59,000 to repair and expand the intercom system at Medford High School
$61,000 to purchase a new backup generator for the Vocational wing of the High School. This generator will also support some amount of improvement to our technology infrastructure.
$32,500 to install shade in C building to improve light control and security measures.
Fiscal Year 19 Closeout
Assistant Superintendent Patterson presented a report of the closeout of our 2018/2019 school year budget. During this conversation, we had a fair bit of discussion about the budget in a general sense while we reviewed particular line items. There is so much to learn about school budgets that I’m going to focus on a few key points. If you’d like to know more, please do reach out, and I’m happy to discuss it.
Major organizing principle: The BUDGET cannot plan to spend more than the amount of money appropriated by the city for the School Department. It doesn’t mean that we can’t spend more money than is appropriated by the city. In our case, several revenue sources bring money to the district outside of the city appropriation. At any given time, this could include gifts, grants, payment for facility rentals, vocational tuition, before and after school fees, MEEP tuition, the Circuit Breaker, and Transportation Reimbursement from the State for students experiencing homelessness. In the FY19 budget, many line items were budgeted at $0, meaning that no money from the City appropriation was available to fund the line item. This is where our other revenue sources come in. In the closeout, these line items amounted to $2.663 million in actual spending during the fiscal year.
It’s too simple to say that we used $2.663 million from other revenue sources because, in reality, the line items we planned to spend our city appropriation on never come in precisely at what we budget. The school budget is very complicated. The city appropriation may have paid for some amount of this $2.663 million, but quantifying just how much is not simple. The budget is the starting point, but then “life” happens. And in the life of a school budget, many things are just mandatory by law. For example, a student becomes ill and is hospitalized for an extended time. The district must continue to educate the child. The law requires it, and rightfully so. In this case, we may provide tutors to work with the student in the hospital. It’s challenging to budget for items that genuinely can’t be predicted, but in the case of a school budget, the spending MUST happen regardless of what the budget says.
But here’s what we can say with certainty. Each year, we rely on outside revenue sources to fund things critical to our school system because the city appropriation doesn’t cover all our current (or desired) spending. On paper, specific line items have a budgeted amount = $0. In the case of the FY19 budget, it includes Special Education leads and adjustment counselors. Under current practice, we could pick any line item, really, and assign the $0. What is important is to note that without the outside revenue sources, we would be making hard decisions about how to cut somewhere near $2.663 million from our budget.
Community members question whether revenue from these programs can be spent outside of the program. There are many school finance rules that govern this, and I’m still learning them all, but please be assured that I’m coming up to speed as fast as I can.
Separately, there are some real operational issues with the before and after school programs. When this last came up at a School Committee meeting in November (see my summary here) there was healthy discussion about these issues which include:
A strong labor market where you usually see reduced interest in part-time jobs
High demand due to the strong labor market AND the affordability of the program relative to other service providers of after school care
Low compensation rates for these part-time positions
Based on the commentary on November 18th, meeting, I expect we will continue this discussion in the coming months.
I will continue to keep you informed through this blog as I begin my work on the committee and will also work to proactively alert people when topics that matter to them are on the agenda. During the campaign, I committed to holding regular reviews of the upcoming issues.
Your call to action: Stay tuned for information about the upcoming budget season, which will include several meetings in addition to the regularly scheduled School Committee meetings. It is always enlightening to participate in these sessions, and I hope you will attend one or many. Please also share this blog with friends and neighbors who want to be informed about our schools. Subscribing to the newsletter will ensure you receive these updates as I post them.