Only 15 Minutes to Discuss our Kids’ Future?

Posted on September 7, 2010

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Ingalls School from Essex Street one weekend winter morning.

by Jesse Jaeger

Tuesday August 31st the Lynn School Committee held its annual budget hearing. They took just 15 minutes. I almost missed it because I was running late from work. Three people spoke including me. A 15 minute school budget hearing is just unacceptable for a budget line that makes up almost a third of the total city budget. As a community we need to be more engaged with our schools’ budgeting process. And those conversations have to be deeper than what to do about losing 4 librarians and how much is getting spent on administration (the two main topics brought up by citizens in the hearing).

I will admit that until my son started to go to Ingalls Elementary I was one of those folks who did not pay much attention. But two years of his time in the Lynn public schools and my time trying to be involved as a parent at my kid’s local school have opened my eyes. What I have seen is that I should have been paying attention all along.

If we do not work to transform our schools here in Lynn we will never solve the problems we have with gang violence and crime. We could double our police force and it would not matter. Until we raise the academic achievement of our schools we will continue to see 15-year-old kids stabbing other 15 year kids over a bag of weed.

I have spent some time looking over a copy of the Lynn Public Schools FY11 Budget Summary I was able to get from a Lynn teacher who was at the meeting. This is not an exhaustive analysis but here are a couple of my thoughts about this year’s Lynn school budget which clocks in at $106,819,394.

Transparency

I applaud Mayor Kennedy for posting most of the city’s budget online. This is a great step toward transparency. However, the city should post a detailed school budget as well. This should happen at least two weeks before a budget hearing so that an intelligent dialogue can happen. I know it is possible to get the budget ahead of time from the district office but how is the common parent supposed to know that? I certainly did not and I am on my schools PTO and School Improvement Council. Putting the budget right on the front page of the city’s website next to the rest of the city budget will make it accessible to the most people with very little effort on the city’s part.

On a related note the School Committee and the Mayor need to work harder to get parents to these hearings and school committee meetings. I get a recorded phone call from my kid’s school principal every time there is a school event or meeting at Ingalls. These calls are great and there is no reason they should not go out to remind people of School Committee meetings and hearings. Also, there are very cheap email marketing systems like Constant Contact which help organizations send out high quality information via email. The Lynn Public Schools should be collecting the email address of every parent who has an email address and communicating with them that way. You would be surprised how many Lynn Public School Parents have email or are on Facebook. These tools should be used to help get more people out to these meetings. It is shameful how few people are showing up.

Inequity Between Schools

I have done an Elementary School Comparison comparing the money spent per student between the different elementary schools. I focused on the elementary schools because that is where my kids are. Most is spent on the kids over at Washington Day School. That makes sense because they are serving special education students. However, why is it that Shoemaker spends $7200 per student while Brickett and Cobbet are down around $3000 per student? We average about $4500 per student across all the elementary schools. As I look closer at the budget it seems that Shoemaker is spending an awful lot on gas and electric bills (combined over $70,000) compared to Brickett which spends just $6800 on gas and electric bills. Is there some deferred maintenance over at Shoemaker that if fixed could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years? If so the city should take care of that. That is money that could be spent on educating our students and not being sent up the smoke stack.

Administrative Cost and School Librarians

At the hearing the two main topics related to the administration cost being high (about a third of the school budget at $36 million) and push back on losing 4 librarians. These two topics are actually related. Librarians are a key component in raising literacy levels at our schools. We have way too many kids who are not passing the English Language Arts MCAS and good librarians are one of the keys to solving this problem. And we need to think critically about the administrative costs in the school district. Between the Network / Technology, Data Processing and Attendance sections of the school budget we spend just over $2 million. These are all technology dependent sections of the budget.

These are also areas where many of the innovations that are happening in technology now could gain some tremendous savings for the school. Google, one of the largest technology companies in the world, has a service called Google Apps that they offer to organizations, including schools. We should be exploring if Google Apps, or one of the many other services like it that are out there, might be implemented in the Lynn Schools and save hundreds of thousands of dollars in our technology expenses. I am not a privatization person but there are things, like technology, where the private sector is much more efficient than a local government ever will be. Let’s look into those ideas because we are likely to save real money in those areas and be able to spend that money to hire more librarians who will be working directly with the students.

So the take home message is this; Madame Mayor and the School Committee, you need to continue to work to become more transparent, the school budgets need to be more easily available ahead of hearings and more work needs to get done to inform parents of when meetings will be happening. Parents, we need to show up and ask more questions. We need to look at the budget and ask why some schools spend more on their students then others and how our tax dollars can be spent in such a way as to raise the achievement level of our children.
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Jesse Jaeger is the parent of a 2nd Grader at Ingalls Elementary School and is actively involved in the PTO and School Improvement Council there. He is also a new board member of the East Lynn Community Association.

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Posted in: Education