Sunday, August 30, 2020

What happened at this week's meeting (including a few things that maybe you missed?)

Thursday evening, our Worcester School Committee meeting started at four, and we got out of executive session at close to 11, so forgive, if you would, the delay in posting anything here. I did want to make a few notes here on what happened, as I've generally been behind in posting here, and these are my notes as much as anything. These are not in agenda order, for what it's worth, though the agenda is here


First off, of course, the Committee approved on a 6-1 vote the budget cuts as proposed by administration. Understanding that wrangling with a full agenda can be a bit much, I put just the budget cut memo here so you can see what it is. We can't say this enough:

 The bill was passed last summer; the Governor signed it in November; we had our first proposed budget starting to incorporate it in January; the pandemic hit Massachusetts in March. 

That is colossally not fair. Among the many, many ways in which the pandemic is hitting communities--that are more poor, that have more people of color, that have more immigrants, that have more front line workers--unequally, the lack of implementation of the Student Opportunity Act really must be included. This was already true, but as I catch pieces of discussions of what some districts can do and what some districts can't, from the basic things like spending on buildings--

Allen said that the district has talked at length about the age of its buildings before, working to submit renovation projects to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, but that the district is underfunded in areas of materials and building maintenance.

“The Student Opportunity Act, once it actually gets funded, really we should look at the areas of the chronic underfunding,” Allen said, “so that would be additional funding for each of those areas: instructional supplies, materials and technology, staff development and operations and maintenance of buildings.”

--to some of what other districts are offering (district-sponsored testing, childcare for staff, outdoor spaces and on and on), the already-baked-in equities are coming home to roost.
So when I say, as I did Thursday, as I did subsequently in interviews, that it's really important to note that we didn't cut staff positions, that doesn't mean I'm underplaying the impact (both educationally and financially) of cutting extended day at four schools, or of furloughing crossing guards. It means that I recognize that $15.5M is something like 200 teaching positions, and, in any other year, we'd be having to do at least some of that. The reason that our facilities and our professional development and our student supplies and even our administration is underfunded is because Worcester has pushed to keep as many teachers in classrooms as possible. 
And we were still over 700 short last year.
We didn't cut teaching positions in part because we can cut our Durham contract for transportation, because the students are beginning the year remotely. Now, will Durham lay off drivers? Possibly. Keep in mind, though, that Durham is A): a national company that is B) the U.S. arm of a multinational corporation National Express, that last year gave shareholders a 12.4% return on capital, with a profit over over $300M, reporting they were "particularly pleased with North America achieving a 10 per cent margin." Some of that profit margin, of course, was from Worcester Public Schools' dollars. If they want to keep their staff, that is up to them. Keeping our teachers in front of students is up to us, as we can.
Also, we could zero out utilities, and we'd only save $6.1M.
As you may have seen, there was some concern raised around the cut to the extended day program, with the Committee voting 6-1 (I voted no) to prioritize that should additional funds come back. Count me as dubious that they're working as planned and if they are the best use of the funds. One thing I flagged was the cut to the per pupil instructional materials account. With the approved curriculum last week, we learned in response to questions, the district has essentially spent the district instructional materials (not a surprise given the time of year); that means there isn't additional district resources to backfill per pupil materials, which we had been told would be provided. It appears they won't be, unless--this is the ongoing 'unless'--we see a better budget after October.

Speaking of instructional materials, important note: we have a district policy on online crowdfunding. It is really really not being followed. Before I have a swarm of angry faculty, let me say here what I did Thursday: policies are designed to protect the innocent, not to convict the guilty. There are so many ways in which online crowdfunding can (and probably is) being abused; having this process which gets others involved and leaves a trail works to avoid some of that. Thus:

  • online crowdfunding projects have to be approved by the principal prior to posting
  • the superintendent (or central admin) lays out what projects might require approval at her or the Committee level
  • teachers and other staff cannot appeal to those over which they have any degree of authority for funding; this explicitly includes families of students
  • technology projects must be pre-approved by the tech department
  • periodically, teachers need to report the names of those to whom they have appealed for funding, which is a matter of public record. 
  • materials received have to go to the school, and they become the property of the school (which means they should be accepted by the School Committee) unless there is a written release of the materials to the teacher
If you work for Worcester, please review and follow the policy. 

A few other things of budgetary note: we had received a memo delineating our legal expenses, which may be of interest. Mr Foley noted (again) the spending on homeschooling legal issues; I called out the spending on public document requests, which should be handled by the City Solicitor, which the Mayor agreed with. 

We did have an item asking about an early retirement proposal. Those require legislative action. It's also pretty dubious on if the district actually saves any money on them. We are, though, getting a report on it. 

We also accepted a grant for $6000 to put three of those bottle filling fountains in one of our schools. They are needed but not cheap!

RACISM-FREE WPS and related:

The petition from Racism-free WPS, which, as of the meeting had collected over 800 signatures, came before the Committee, after Mr. Monfredo made a (probably out of order) speech to try to stop it as he argued it was anonymous, gathering quite a bit of public testimony, nearly all of it supportive. As I noted via video before the meeting, it's against our rules (keeping us on the right side of the Open Meeting law) to comment on public petitions at the meeting, but the Committee made what I'd classify as supportive action by sending the petitions individually to different, relevant subcommittees, which in some cases already have similar or related items before them. The referrals are:

  1. Cop-free schools: Governance
  2. Restorative Justice: Governance
  3. Dress code: Governance
  4. Health class/sex ed/informed consent: Teaching, Learning, and Student supports (TLSS)
  5. Cultural competency: TLSS
  6. Mental health training: TLSS
  7. Ethnic studies: TLSS
  8. Diversity counselors: TLSS
  9. Environmental action: Finance and operations
Our subcommittee agendas live over here.

There were several other items coming in from the Mayor that were related to some of the above. Black Families Together had an online town hall the first week of August. They'd asked that the 1993 Affirmative Action plan and the 1999 Recruitment and Retention Plan of Minority Teachers and Administrators be brought back before the Committee. I have to confess: they make for depressing reading. Mayor Petty asked that these be sent to administration to be updated, keep an eye on. 

Also (bit of a crossover on the budget): I asked what the schools would have as charge-backs on police in schools, given that the buildings have been closed and will be closed. While it sounds as though the End of Year report for FY20 went in with the full charges with police, the city plans on actual use charges this coming year. No buildings? No school resource officers.

There's been an ongoing back and forth around the issues related to back to school (and some of that is also in negotiations, so can't be discussed). A few things to note:
  • Teachers went "back" (from home for the most part) this past Thursday, the 27th. Students start September 15, entirely remotely. 
  • We sent a whole list of policies off to Governance that will need alteration (including attendance), as well as a proposed mask policy. 
  • Schools are again contacting families about getting students Chromebooks. All schools are setting up times for pickup, but if you cannot make it, call the school and arrangements will be made. Remember, the plan here is to bring the district to 1 to 1 (one device per student, younger students on iPads), so take us up on it! The district does still have hotspots, so if you need one of those, please let the school know.
  • Relatedly, the district did have awarded a $2.5M technology grant last week (announced but not received) of which some will further go to Chromebooks. 
  • If you were listening, you may have heard some possibly confusing discussion on bus drivers. By state law, public districts are required to transport in-district students to in-district schools, public, private, parochial, or otherwise. As Worcester does have some schools opening for in-person classes, we are required to provide those schools with transportation. The district itself does have the capacity to provide that without going to an outside contractor, but that is why there is current discussion with our own bus drivers (which is in negotiations and so, no more from me on that). 
  • There's been a flurry of athletic related guidance, from DESE with MIAA, and then further from MIAA. Worcester as a city is currently shaded yellow on the statewide COVID contagion map; we also have all of our high school students learning remotely this fall. This led to a requested vote Thursday night to allow field hockey, boys and girls soccer, cross country, and golf to play; football, cheerleading, and girls' volleyball to practice without contact; and football, unified basketball, cheerleading, and girls' volleyball to play during the "floating" fourth season the MIAA has added. 
    The vote, which was altered from approval to something more like 'further explore' passed 6-1. I think my objections (yes, I was the 1) are well summed up in that article: first, it seems to me as though the state is pursuing this with some degree of heedlessness; we also don't have students actually at school, so they have to get there, in a city where many don't have cars and public transportation is limited; and why sports only? Why not theater or chorus or robotics or any of the other 'not the same' activities? 
    This will be back on our agenda again this week, as the further rules came out Friday.
I tweeted this out Friday, but I wanted to also note it here, because in not taking action, we did something pretty good Thursday evening. We were asked to update our Title IX policy. This is as a result of the federal Department of Education updating their regulations regarding investigations of sexual assault, harassment, and such. It is, to be frank, a mess. If you search "DeVos" and "Title IX," you can read much more, but note that it's such a mess that 18 attorneys general are suing in federal court over it (including, yes, Maura Healey, thank goodness). However, the judge did not issue a stay of the regulations while the case moves forward, so colleges and districts were directed to move forward with new policies in line with regulations. 
It turns out, though, that not having updated policies in this case will simply give you a finding when the next review of your policies go through. I argued Thursday that this change was not a good one, and the Mayor made a motion to hold it, pending further federal action (legal or electoral). The hold passed, 6-1, Biancheria against. 

TO NOTE:  We do have a meeting again this week, with what right now is a short agenda, but will include further discussion of back to school. NOTE THAT WE ARE BACK TO OUR REGULAR 7 PM TIME. 

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