Friday, December 17, 2021

What happened last night at Worcester School Committee

The upshot, not in order, of what happened last night at Worcester School Committee (full agenda):

  • Superintendent Binienda gave us an update on COVID, of which she said there has been "a great increase" in cases. For the week ending on Wednesday--the state measures from Thursday to Wednesday--there were 197 positive cases among students (up 10), with 33 quarantining (up 16). Among staff, there were 35 positive cases (up 8), with 2 quarantining (down 3). She gave us the test and stay numbers, but I missed one, so let me update that.
    There is a significant amount of contact tracing going on, as a result, which means the school nurses, who make these calls (which, can I just say, is really amazing, because it means that families are being contacted by someone who can actually answer their questions!), are working a LOT of hours. Our director of nursing, Debra McGovern, noted that we were being asked to approve a grant last night--which we did, and reconsidered it, so it can be spent immediately--which increases the dollar amount per hour nurses who are working those extra hours receive. 
    The district is emphasizing that all students need working devices that are going home. THIS DOES NOT MEAN CLASSES ARE GOING REMOTE.
    The superintendent was at pains to note that, per the Commissioner's meeting with superintendents this week, any remote decisions would be done ONLY for classes or schools--not entire districts---where positivity was "more than a half or three quarters" (that's quoting the superintendent) of the students. That would then need to be the recommendation of BOTH DPH AND the Commissioner's COVID group (?), and it would be for no more than eight days.

  • We took up the report from the City Manager's office on the removal of School Resource Officers from schools and the move to a liaison position (starts on page 113 on the agenda). A few additional notes on the report, which was referred to Finance and Operations for further discussion and updates with the City Council's Education Subcommittee:
       I would say that the Committee in general is supportive of the major change, which is removal of the police from the buildings. Mrs. Clancey rightly noted that the timeline on this--the report coming to the respective public bodies the week of December 13, with removal of the police happening at the end of the calendar year--left questions as to implementation of the plan regarding training and staffing in the buildings. While there was a response that some of that training will happen during January (if I was understanding that correctly), this is concerning.
      Though the liaisons will not be the schools, and this largely moves towards a neighborhood policing model, the liaison positions will still count as "police" in the Worcester Public Schools budget as a city contribution. The--I guess?--positive point here is that this removal doesn't put us any closer to plunging below required net school spending than we already were (remember, we're only $14K over this year, which isn't much of a margin for a budget of any size), but it does mean that, yes, we're still going to be spending $700K+ on police in the schools budget, which I know was something many advocates were hoping was going to be over.
       (This is reminding me that we probably are overdue for an explainer on Net School Spending around here, again. I went on at some length about this during the meeting, because I am beyond exhausted--it's been three city administrations now--of being lectured to about what the schools need to find money for, and how the schools need to be grateful for capital spending, in city where the municipality barely meets the legal requirement for operating costs, in a state where the average is spending a third more than required. In any case...)
       The joint MOU between the police department and the school department we asked to come back to us, in part because this will involve the devotion of resources (which is under our purview). The initial one is due the end of January (I hear some indications that some language already exists) for the next six months, for reconsideration this summer for an update.
       There were four focus groups. In total, those involved 12 students and 4 parents. While those weren't the only ones involved, it's...less than compelling. And, as I noted, having a school safety plan created by the city manager's office left us light on details on the "inside the school building side," which...would seem to be key? Thus this didn't appear to have a lot of voices of those inside our buildings every day.
       I should note that SROs are part of the survey that the student reps are collecting responses on, so that will be useful to have back--in January!--as well.

  • Last night our student reps--Adalise Rivera Lugo of UPCS, in addition to our ex officio Stacia Zoghbi of Tech--updated us on their student survey efforts (Students, if you haven't: take the survey! Check your emails!), their work on a social media policy for the student advisory council, and the Zen Den at Worcester Tech, which is something they'd like to see expanded to more schools.

  • The report out from Finance and Operations--agenda here, remember this includes transportation updates!--sent me down a line of questioning that I want to explain a bit here.
      The first thing to note is that our grants department is currently under the Deputy Superintendent, which is a change from prior administrations. Much of the current committee flagged that as of concern during our budget deliberation, particularly due to the influx of ESSER spending coming to the district, but it remains as it is.
      The ARP special education grant for $1.7M that came before the Committee at the end of October had 18 positions in it. I asked that we send it to subcommittee because it wasn't clear to me how we were going to fund what, from what one could discern from the grant backup, were new positions, once the grant, which would fund then for 18 months, ran out.
       Once it got to subcommittee, it became clear that these were not, mostly, new positions. When we received the September update on the budget, the IDEA grant (the usual one) came back $58K more than was budgeted. All to the good.
       However, between then and the end of October, the funding in IDEA that we as a district can spend fell by $313K, partly due to the money we're required to set aside for private schools, and partly due to a DESE program (that I'd never heard of before) called 3M, which is a required set-aside for turnaround work.
       Thus our federal IDEA grant, which funds the salaries for 192 people in the FY22 budget, was $313K short. 
      The School Committee didn't receive an update on this in the first quarterly report--grants, remember, aren't part of the finance office--so we had no idea that we suddenly had no funding for the salaries for quite a number of employees.
      Those, it turned out--and this we only gathered in subcommittee--is most of what was being carried by this ARP IDEA grant, with the intent once the grant runs out being to pick up the positions in the increased funding through SOA (which I am beginning to think that we are overcommitting, but one thing at a time).
      In any case, I'm not sure that was clear in my line of questions last night, but it's worrying to me to have a drop in revenue that funds positions that we don't know about and have to kind of stumble across.

  • Both ESSER II and III were approved, but remember, there's a lot of scope in there for application (and grants can be amended), so you should please attend our public hearing on ESSER on Monday at 7; that's the agenda with the Zoom link, so please share! 

  • I asked for a report on our access to the Massachusetts Immunization Information System, which is a statewide datebase for, yes, immunizations. I know other districts have been using this access to have up-to-date information on how many of their students are vaccinated; we do have this access, so we're getting a report on how that works and, moving forward, should be able to have those percentages as part of our COVID updates.

  • Mrs. Clancey requested an update on open teaching positions and what is being done to fill them. I hope we get this back soon.

  • We had a boatload of items come back as requests to be filed (that starts on page 59 of the agenda). I did ask to pull a few back out, including the request to put the homeschooling form on the website; we now have the PowerPoint about homeschooling, but not the actual form, and I asked that this be fixed before the end of the calendar year. 
    We also aren't following our own fundraising policy (GBEBD), which requires that all such efforts be approved by principals, first to keep the school moving the same direction, but also, because sometimes (believe it or not!), we can actually pay for things. Also, if the principals don't know, we never hear about it, and we can't fix it. With over 200 projects currently up on Donors Choose from WPS, I'm going to bet that most of them didn't follow this process.
    (And yes, I know this is a pain, teachers. But I also want us to actually fix the problem.)
    The other thing, incidentally, is we're not following is the part that doesn't allow for solicitation among those to whom someone is directly answerable; there should not be solicitation coming from any administrative office, thus, nor should solicitation go from teachers to families in a specific fashion. That section reads: 
    Employees shall not use a crowdfunding source, or set up their appeal in such a way, that they are asking for donations directly from people over whom the employee making the request has authority, or with whom the public employee is having official dealings (such as parents of student's in a teacher's classroom - the solicitation can say "Classroom X needs tissues and crayons," but it shouldn't be directed to parents who have shared email addresses with the teacher for purposes of communicating about their student).

  • We did also honor our outgoing members, and I won't try to summarize that. I do want to note that Mayor Petty had each of the outgoing members chair part of the meeting, which was a very nice gesture. 

Important note: the city inauguration is on January 3 at 5:30 at Mechanics Hall, and the public is MOST welcome!

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