Spending

An election year exodus

Lynn Ward 2 City Councilor William Trahant Jr. appears to have set in motion an exodus of veteran elected officials from the City Council and School Committee.

His decision not to run for reelection is sparking a potential return to politics for former committee member Rick Starbard. A popular citywide vote-getter, Starbard probably won’t have an easy walk into the Council Chamber, but he has to be viewed as a favorite to succeed Trahant.

On the committee side, dean of the committee Patricia Capano has decided not to run along with Maria Carrasco, the vocal opponent of Superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham, who leaves ally Donna Coppola on the committee.

A relatively small field of newcomers is vying, for now at least, to grab committee seats but the double exodus from the committee could see candidates teaming up to jointly campaign and ask voters to “bullet” their names on the ballot in the fall.

Asking voters to cast ballots for a pack of candidates instead of individuals running for elected office is risky in an era of clearly-stated voter discontent. Voters turned national electoral politics on its proverbial ear last year when they rejected a broad field of established Republican candidates for a political outsider and kept a firebrand upstart alive in the Democratic primaries even as the party’s favorite kept her rendezvous with the party nomination.

Extra Play produces a winner in Peabody

But national politics means little at the local level and the exodus in veterans from city service is a tribute to their collective commitment to serving the city in an age when people find plenty of reasons not to enter politics.

Trahant is better known for his family’s multi-generational roofing business than his council service. Most Ward 2 constituents would agree Billy Trahant readily shunned his Council Chamber seat for a chance to climb behind the wheel of a pickup and plow their driveways during a blizzard.

Finding a candidate to replace his type of hands-on, nuts-and-bolts service to local residents as a councilor isn’t a guarantee this election year.

Capano alternately guided and chided committee colleagues, including mayors serving as committee chairmen, to evaluate public school policies and tackle complicated issues like net spending and new school construction. Her frustration over school spending seemed to grow in the last several years but her commitment to improving local education will not end when she leaves the committee.

Lynn city elections have always been defined by dramatic wins and losses: Brian LaPierre’s resounding councilor at large win in 2015; Judy Kennedy’s razor-thin 2009 victory; the late Pat McManus’ giant-tumbling win in 1991. In that tradition, the exodus of veteran elected officials this year could usher in victories bent on redefining city politics.

Saugus ready to leap

The town is wasting no time in launching one of the most ambitious local public school building projects undertaken in Massachusetts in recent years.

With a price tag of $186 million, the three-school project rivals the unsuccessful attempt by Lynn public officials three months ago to build two new middle schools. Like their Lynn counterparts, Saugus officials are asking town voters to approve the school projects and the spending associated with them.

Unlike Lynn officials, Saugus leaders hold an ace when it comes to convincing town residents why the massive school project makes sense. Saugus has a AA+ bond rating that local officials claim “will save the taxpayers of Saugus an estimated $7.2 million” in borrowing costs.

But that estimated savings is only part of the equation officials are presenting residents in their bid to win voter approval for the school projects on June 20.

Town leaders are asking voters to endorse a school building plan that harnesses the town’s advantageous borrowing position with a state reimbursement formula that has residents investing 30 cents on the dollar into school construction.

Meeting to consider Saugus school vote

The city of Lynn’s uneasy financial situation, including worries about layoffs, put city leaders behind the proverbial eight ball even as they attempted to show voters why building two new middle schools made sense.

A small fraction of Lynn residents went to the polls in March and squashed the two-school proposal and a tax increase to pay for it. Saugus town leaders aren’t showing any signs they are worried about bringing their three-school plan with its mix of state and local funding and new construction and renovations to the voters.

It’s not a huge stretch for municipal leaders sitting on a stellar bond rating to tell voters top-notch schools will improve their town’s already-rosy financial picture. The easiest analogy is spending money on a home in anticipation of bolstering the property’s market value.

School spending critics — and it’s never hard to find a critic in Saugus — will crow about tax hikes and spending money on a school megaproject. But Saugus isn’t just planning to build a new middle-high school and renovate Belmonte and Veterans Memorial schools. The town construction plan is based on a bold concept for realigning public education in the town.

The plan calls for a pre-kindergarten to second grade school and a grade three to grade five school called an “upper elementary” school. Those primary school education ideas combined with the middle-high school concept give Saugus a chance to tailor education programs to the phases children and adolescents go through on their way to young adulthood.

The message town leaders are delivering to residents in advance of the June 20 vote is that Saugus stands on the threshold of becoming a top-flight school district. They are asking residents to take a quantum leap into the future and it’s a safe bet town residents will make the jump.

McGee nurses senior health spending

By KATIE LANNAN, STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON — State Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) is pushing to increase state spending to help pull Massachusetts’ nursing home industry out of a budget crisis.

One of every seven direct care staff positions in Massachusetts nursing homes is vacant, the number of deficiency-free homes has dropped since 2013, and half of the facilities have less than four days of cash on hand, according to advocates seeking more state support for nursing homes.

“We are seeing an erosion of financial support for nursing facility care that is beginning to impact staffing as well as quality resident care,” said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association.

McGee wants the state Senate to match the $362.9 million appropriation in the Massachusetts House’s budget to fund nursing facility Medicaid rates. The Baker administration and the current state Senate budget plan allocate $345.1 million for the account. McGee has filed an amendment to match the House amount.

Gregorio, whose organization represents 417 nursing homes that care for an average 40,000 residents on a given day, said strained finances have brought the industry to a “crisis point.” Around two-thirds of nursing home residents have their care paid for by MassHealth, leaving nursing homes dependent on state funds, she said.

The gap between the cost of care and the MassHealth reimbursement rate is $37 per day, according to the association, which is backing bills (S 336/H 2072) that would bump up rates based on the size of a facility’s MassHealth population. The bills, sponsored by Sen. Harriette Chandler and Rep. Thomas Golden, also fund leadership training and scholarship programs for nursing home staff.

Saugus in the zone

The effort comes as the state is facing a $462 million revenue shortfall so far this fiscal year, and as Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers are seeking to rein in rising MassHealth costs — the largest spending area in the state budget — that crowd out other priorities.

“We sink and swim together, and the state hasn’t been able to make the investments needed to really ensure investments in staff as well as resident care programs,” Gregorio told the News Service. “It’s been a difficult fiscal recession for Massachusetts and so during that time we were either cut or level-funded, yet at the same time costs went up for nursing facilities, and we weren’t able to make investments in staff wages.”

The vacancy rate among registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants in the state’s nursing homes has more than doubled in the past seven years, rising from 6.4 percent in 2010 to 15.8 percent in 2016, according to a senior care association survey.

Gregorio said funding and staff levels affect the quality of care a facility can provide, pointing to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data that show 32 percent of Massachusetts nursing homes scoring deficiency-free on annual inspections. That number has since fallen to 16 percent, she said.

According to an analysis by the association, 18 percent of Massachusetts nursing homes have enough cash on hand to cover more than a month of operating expenses, while 43 percent have enough cash for two days of expenses, and 7 percent have between two and four days worth.

“If they suddenly cease to have any payments from government, they have no more than four days of cash on hand. That’s an indication of a distressed system,” said Gregorio, who said an “optimal number” for cash on hand is anywhere from 60 to 90 days or more.

An outside section in the Senate’s fiscal 2018 budget, teed up for debate this week, calls for the Center of Health Information and Analysis to “examine the cost trends and financial performance” of nursing homes in the state, including revenues, costs, trends in payer mix, and operating margin.

 

LaPierre launching re-election campaign

COURTESY PHOTO
Brian LaPierre is seeking re-election.

LYNN — City Councilor at-large Brian LaPierre  launches his re-election campaign Wednesday, May 17 at the Knights of Columbus in Lynn from 5-8 p.m.

LaPierre, a 43-year-old father of two, said he has carved out a spot on the council as a problem solver and an effective voice for the city over the past two years.

“I feel like I have been an outspoken and effective advocate for anyone who requests city services and will continue to work with my colleagues in city government to keep Lynn moving in a positive direction,” he said.

He said Lynn “is in a unique position to really accelerate over the next two years.

Push for 2nd charter school renewed in Lynn

“I am asking Lynn residents to join my family and I on this journey again so we can reach new heights as a community,” LaPierre said.

LaPierre lists as his council accomplishments: Responding to more than 1,000 constituent requests; making Lynn a more pro-business friendly city; creating new sources of revenue with medical marijuana dispensaries; combating the opioid crisis with Narcan-equipped emergency vehicles, and fighting to solve the net school spending crisis that still looms over both the city and school budgets.

“I look forward to building on the success of our first campaign two years ago, as I continue to meet new residents and reconnect with long-time Lynners, I am honored and privileged to serve the city I love so much,” said LaPierre.

 

School spending boost under mayor’s budget

By STEVE FREKER

MALDEN — The Malden Public Schools will get $2 million more in its budget for Fiscal Year 2018 under a proposal submitted by Malden Mayor Gary Christenson.

The mayor presented his school budget to the School Committee totaling $69,218,947 for the spending year that starts July 1. That amount represents a proposed $1.99 million increase over the $67,388,193 the schools received last year.

Christenson, who serves as the School Committee as chairman, did note the city would have to use funds from its cash reserve “rainy day” funds to make the overall city budget proposal work this coming fiscal year.

“We should not be using what we are using to balance the budget,” he said, adding, “but we should be able to avoid this method in the future.”

He said continuing revenue from real estate growth “shows that Malden is growing and Malden is alive.”

In a change from past city practice for school budgets, the spending plan proposed by the mayor this year has the school superintendent’s endorsement. In past years, superintendents presented separate budget figures.

Spring cleaning in Nahant

During all five years of former Superintendent David DeRuosi’s tenure, the school budget proposal number from the superintendent came in higher than the figure proposed by the mayor.

Interim Superintendent Dr. Charles Grandson IV said cooperation was the key to getting a meeting of the minds with Christenson on school spending.

“We worked together to get to the figure we feel is needed (for the school budget),” Dr. Grandson said.

The School Committee’s budget subcommittee will meet three more times in the next three weeks to review the mayor’s budget proposal before submitting it for approval to the Malden City Council.

Christenson said the proposed school budget includes one large budget line item that was unexpected and factored into the budget.

He explained that $1.7 million had been budgeted for special education transportation expenditure. But that contract had expired with local provider Malden Transportation and the company’s new proposal was a three-year contract at $3 million per year.  The mayor said as a stopgap, a one-year, $2.55 million contract had been been negotiated with that company.

He told the committee on Monday that the school spending proposal follows state-mandated net spending guidelines.

Tradition comes to a ‘head

By GAYLA CAWLEY

MARBLEHEAD — The town clerk position will remain elected, as Town Meeting rejected a proposal to change the position to an appointed one on Monday night.

Town Meeting was dominated by the citizens petition centered around the town clerk position, and was relatively routine before the proposal was up for debate.

The petition was defeated 389-166, keeping the position elected, but the matter wasn’t easily resolved.

A petition from 12 voters before Town Meeting requesting that the vote be conducted by secret ballot was honored, meaning that hundreds of members voted individually by paper ballot, which then had to be counted.

Town Clerk Robin Michaud was against the proposed change, which if approved, would have then went on the town election ballot as a referendum in May 2018. It would have gone into effect in May 2019, if it had passed Town Meeting and a ballot initiative.

Michaud also spoke against the article at Town Meeting, saying that if the position was appointed by the Board of Selectmen, the clerk would be pressured to do what they want in order to keep his or her job.

She had previously argued that the position is the chief election official for the town, and should stay independent. Michaud said previously that elected town clerks have served Marblehead and towns through the Commonwealth for hundreds of years, and in a town full of tradition, “we should keep this tradition too,” one that has stood the test of time because it works.

Several Town Meeting members spoke against the proposal, with one urging a “no” vote in order to preserve the history and tradition.

Charles Gessner, the sponsor for the petition, said he thought the change would improve the efficiency of the town clerk’s office.

Saugus Town Meeting is at play

Without any discussion, Town Meeting members approved an $89.2 million budget, including a $36.5 million figure for the schools.

Three other citizens’ petitions had also garnered some attention leading up to Town Meeting.

Voters gave their approval to accepting Tioga Way as a town or public road. Only public ways are eligible for state Chapter 90 funds to repair and resurface local roads, Town Administrator John McGinn said previously.

Another petition requesting funds for holiday donations was indefinitely postponed, after the sponsors withdrew their motion, citing the recent approval by the Board of Selectmen to create a donation fund, upon the request of the Chamber of Commerce. With the fund, people can make freewill donations payable to the town of Marblehead, which would go into that fund and be available for the purchase of holiday decorations.

A fourth citizens’ petition passed, which was asking the town to support a resolution supporting state and federal legislation that provides greater transparency in political donations and limits the influence of money in politics, and requests state and federal representatives to pass such legislation.

The effort is part of a larger movement by Represent.Us, a grassroots campaign based in Florence, that is aimed at stopping political bribery, ending secret money and fixing broken elections.

Bonnie Grenier, one of the sponsors of the petition, said previously the resolution is nonbinding and doesn’t become law, but would represent the voice of the people, and would strongly encourage elected officials at the state and local level.

Speaking in favor of the article on Monday, she said it would enhance transparency in political fundraising and campaign spending, and is aimed at restoring government that truly represents, we the people. If there’s going to be change, she said it falls to the people to act.


Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

Signs of the times in May Day march

ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Marchers move down Andrew Street.

By THOMAS GRILLO

LYNN — In what was described as the city’s biggest May Day rally in years, more than 200 protesters lined City Hall Square on Monday to support immigrant and workers rights.

As Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” blared over speakers, activists held signs that read: “Everybody is an Immigrant,” “Nobody is Illegal,” “Housing is a Human Right,” and “No to Gentrification.”

“We have an administration in Washington who does not treat us with respect,” said Maria Carrasco, a Lynn School Committeewoman. “Silence is not an option. We must demand respect with dignity. We are human beings who are here and we are staying here.”

The annual May Day celebration had its roots in Chicago in the late 19th century, as unions lobbied for fair working conditions, better wages, and the eight-hour work day with strikes and demonstrations nationwide. People from all backgrounds celebrated Lynn’s history as a home for immigrants and as a leader in the fight for dignity, respect and a living wage for workers.

Carrasco said without immigrants, many service industry jobs would go unfilled.

“Nobody will do the jobs that we do,” she said. “Nobody will clean hotels or work in restaurants if we don’t do it. At the same time, we must demand that employers respect us with good pay.”

Jeff Crosby, president of the North Shore Labor Council, told the crowd that today’s worker challenges are about fair wages and embracing immigrants.

“In Chicago in 1886 workers dreamed of justice and eight-hour day so they could have time for their families and church,” he said. “Today, workers dream of a $15 minimum wage and a city without hatred where everyone is welcome regardless of where they’re from. We dream of fair pay for our teachers who educate our kids. They should not have to compete with police and firefighters for crumbs.”

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Among the marchers were dozens of Lynn teachers who protested the lack of a contract.

The three-year deal, which expired last summer, called for a two percent raise annually for the last three school years.

“We are celebrating our students and protesting the lack of progress in the negotiations,” said Brant Duncan, president of the Lynn Teachers Union.

He acknowledged that these are tough times for the city as Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy has asked department heads to trim their budgets.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing different organizations in the city being pitted against each other,” Duncan said. “The city is obligated under law to meet the minimum spending requirements and we are very mindful that the city has reached agreement with other unions this year with raises of between 2 and 2½ percent.”

In February, the firefighters reached a $2.5 million deal that provides a retroactive 2 percent raise for each of fiscal years 2015 and 2016, a 2.5 percent hike for 2017, another 2 percent for 2018 and on June 30, 2018 they will collect another 1 percent.

Last year, the $2.2 million four-year police contract called for an 8 percent retroactive pay, a 1 percent boost for 2014, a 2 percent increase for 2015, 2016 and 2017 and a 1 percent raise for 2018.


Thomas Grillo can be reached at tgrillo@itemlive.com.

Immigrant-worker march set for Monday

By THOMAS GRILLO

LYNN Days after a federal judge blocked President Donald Trump’s effort to withhold funding from sanctuary cities, nearly two dozen groups are organizing a May Day rally.

The “May Day March for Immigrant and Worker Rights” is scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday at City Hall. Before the march, organizers plan a teach-in at 1 p.m. at 112 Exchange St.

Activists are inviting people from all backgrounds to celebrate Lynn’s history as a home for immigrants and as a leader in the fight for dignity, respect, and a living wage for workers. “People from other parts of the state are bringing their own histories of resistance,” said the invitation. “Let’s all come together to carry the struggle forward.”

Dozens of members of the coalition, which includes labor, community and faith organizations from the North Shore, are expected on the downtown march.

The annual event, which will take place in cities nationwide, comes on the heels of a federal judge’s ruling in San Francisco that rejected the administration’s argument that the executive order applies only to a small amount of money. The judge ruled Trump cannot set new conditions on spending approved by Congress.

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The president has targeted sanctuary cities, ones that refuse to cooperate with U.S. immigration officials. But the judge rejected the order.

“Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the president disapproves,” said U.S. District Judge William Orrick.

The injunction will stay in place while the lawsuits work their way through courts, which could include the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reince Priebus, the president’s chief of staff described the ruling as another example of the “9th Circuit going bananas.”

“The idea that an agency can’t put in some reasonable restriction on how some of these monies are spent is something that will be overturned eventually, and we will win at the Supreme Court level at some point,” Priebus told Associated Press.


Thomas Grillo can be reached at tgrillo@itemlive.comMaterial from Associated Press was used in this report.

 

Police and fire chiefs ask for more resources

By THOMAS GRILLO

LYNN —  The city’s police and fire chiefs sounded the alarm Tuesday night about the budget crunch that is impacting public safety.

“The police and fire departments have been ignored money-wise for years,” said Fire Chief James McDonald.

“The schools are not the only city department experiencing growth, what about us? We are doing what we can with less, but it’s not safe.”

Police Chief Michael Mageary said his department is operating with 181 officers, down from the peak of about 193 in 2010. Based on next’s year’s budget that include contractual obligations for raises, he said they will continue to move in that direction.

“We’ve already had to absorb $1 million worth of cuts, reduced many of our preventive programs, cut our investigative services to the bone and reduced patrol officers to maintain our budget,” he said. “There’s no money to be found. Given retirements coming up this year, we could be down 24 officers and that’s significant.”

The chiefs appeared before the City Council’s Public Safety and Public Health Committee.

McDonald said the cuts are not just impacting firefighters. He said Lynn’s eight fire stations need work and some must be replaced. The most recent fire station was built in 1968 and the oldest was constructed in 1898, he said.

“Any repairs or improvements that have been made in the stations, like fixing leaky roofs, have been done by the firefighters on their own dime,” he said.

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McDonald said he has sent letters to Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy and Peter Caron, the city’s chief financial officer, about the state of the fire stations, and has not received a response.  

“It’s time for them to get off their ass and do the right thing,” McDonald said. “Someone has to say we can’t fix the city’s financial troubles by taking from public safety.”

In response, Kennedy said she has been urging lawmakers to change the rules on Beacon Hill about school spending to allow more money to go to police and fire.

“Every department head in the city has know for years that I have been asking for support to put an effort together to get the net school spending formula changes because it’s inequitable in the way it impacts cities like Lynn that have a growing school population,” she said. “This year, I am required by law to commit another $3.4 million to the schools. I can’t spend it on any other department. It is beyond my ability to give more money to public safety.”


Thomas Grillo can be reached at tgrillo@itemlive.com

 

Getting Revere in the pipeline

It will be interesting to see how much effort Mayor Brian Arrigo and City Council members put this year into ending Revere’s water pipe breaks. It seems like a break has occurred every month since last December, forcing the city to shut off water service for varied time durations and inconvenience residents.

To the city’s credit, Public Works crews responded quickly to breaks, including a major one downtown in February, and pushed to get repairs completed. But the frequency of breaks and the nuisance involved for residents points to a significant problem requiring a well thought-out solution.

Arrigo knows the tools he needs to run an efficient city department. He claims his administration has been successful in reducing wasteful spending and has “rooted out systemic abuses,” including overtime that didn’t need to be paid and city spending unregulated by financial oversight.

He has taken aim at past city spending practices and said millions of dollars were spent on major projects without proper planning and budget calculations. The Arrigo administration used a state grant to contract with the University of Massachusetts to assemble what Arrigo called “a realistic list of long-deferred projects.”

By late May or early June, according to a statement released by the mayor’s office, a five-year capital plan for undertaking major investments aimed at improving the city will be unveiled.

The statement lists upgrading City Hall technology and street and sidewalk repairs as some of the items to be included in the plan. Water pipe repairs should be on the list, beginning with Suffolk Avenue and the section of Broadway where businesses and residents endured a major break Feb. 22.

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It is easy to say water pipe breaks are to be expected during cold weather months. But that explanation does not offer much in the way of assurance for local property tax and water and sewer ratepayers who have to go hours without service.

Revere faces several challenges in undertaking major water pipe repairs. Like most older cities, it has an aging pipe network. A major section of the city is hilly, providing additional expensive challenges to repair planners.

Replacing water pipes is not the type of municipal service initiative that captures the public imagination. The city’s water service system is out of sight and, by definition, out of mind until a break inconveniences residents.

Replacing pipes means tearing up streets, disrupting traffic and water service, and prioritizing pipe repairs over more eye-catching projects like fixing up schools or buying new public safety equipment.

Spruced-up parks put smiles on kids’ faces and shiny fire trucks are a great photo opportunity. Torn up streets and mud-covered pipes tend to make people gripe and grumble.

But Arrigo has already staked his claim to being a progressive mayor and he wants to build on it by fixing up Revere. It’s a worthy goal and a smart one for a mayor who wants to get reelected, and Arrigo will be wise to remember to include water pipe replacement on the to-do list.

Ruggiero put her best foot forward

She didn’t get picked to be Peabody’s next school superintendent, but Harrington School Principal Debra Ruggiero’s bid for the job reflected brilliantly on her and on Lynn public schools.

Ruggiero is a smart, committed, tough and ambitious educator who brought talent and experience to Peabody’s quest for a new school leader. She was the last candidate standing when the Peabody School Committee voted Wednesday to scrap its current superintendent search and keep Interim Superintendent Herb Levine on for another year.

Levine is an experienced superintendent with a steady hand and people in the know anticipate he will mentor an experienced veteran educator now working in the Peabody school system to become a superintendent candidate once a search resumes.

Committee members said they wanted candidates with collective bargaining and budget-building experience. At least one member pointed out the challenges of overseeing a school system with more than 6,000 students, 1,000 employees and a $72 million annual budget.

The Lynn public school’s enrollment, staff size and budget dwarfs the Peabody schools and Ruggiero is well-versed in the school system’s operations. She has literally sat in the front row at Lynn School Committee meetings and listened carefully as committee members and Superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham discuss school spending, personnel needs, enrollment and dozens of other topics.

Ruggiero denied Peabody superintendent post

As Harrington School principal, Ruggiero and fellow educators have made the big Art Deco school on Friend Street a place where pride dwells. Ruggiero has fostered a strong sense of school spirit during her tenure. She has supported an annual reading initiative and she takes a no-nonsense approach to education that puts a priority on kids and learning.

She is a strong, maybe the strongest, example of a Lynn principal embracing a principal’s responsibilities as defined by state law. She is clearly in charge at the Harrington and the school’s state assessment test scores speak to Ruggiero’s accomplishments and her ability to expect the best from her colleagues.

Peabody committee members made the safe choice in passing on Ruggiero in favor of continuing with Levine until a superintendent research can resume again in late 2018. Picking Ruggiero would have been a bolder move on the committee’s part. It would have also been a smart one.

Ruggiero has a strong connection to Peabody. She has hands-on leadership experience and it would be hard to find Lynn educators who do not think Ruggiero is a quick study when it comes to learning and mastering skills.

It will be interesting to see if Peabody’s next search for a superintendent yields a strong candidate crop. One or two candidates with superintendent experience are sure to be a perfect fit for Peabody. An associate or deputy superintendent will probably apply and bring strong budget and bargaining skills. Then again, a strong principal like Ruggiero will apply and seek an opportunity to show off his or her leadership skills.

 

School spending ‘thorn in our side,’ mayor says

By THOMAS GRILLO

LYNN — Five months after the state threatened to withhold millions in school funds, the city is on the hook again as they face a spending shortfall, The Item has learned.

On Thursday, the Department of Education is expected to tell Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy that following a review of the city’s finances, school spending is off by about $826,000. As a result, the state may withhold that amount from Lynn’s $11 million monthly allocation of Chapter 70 school payments in June.

Peter Caron, Lynn’s chief financial officer, said the city is again working to get school spending back on track.

“It’s challenging,” he said. “We are trying to guess how much money we will spend on schools, but the state doesn’t do the accounting until six months after the fiscal year is over. It all goes back to the health insurance; we don’t know in May how much we will spend on it. It’s a crap shoot.”

Kennedy said she expects the school spending issue to be resolved, but she’s not sure how.

“Overall, net school spending has been a thorn in our side for a number of years,” she said. “When you increase the number of students in the schools by nearly 20 percent over the last six years, it causes problems on how to pay for it.”

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Lynn is the fifth largest district in the Bay State with more than 16,000 students.

“Until we can slow the increase in school population or look to possible federal assistance, we will not be able to meet the threshold spending for the foreseeable future,” she said.

The city’s finances came into focus last year when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told the mayor that the city’s contribution to school funding was short by $7.5 million and the state threatened to withhold its $11 million November payment in school funds until City Hall came up with more cash.

Since then, the school deficit has been reduced to less than $1 million and the state money was released to the city.

John J. Sullivan, DOE’s associate commissioner, declined to comment until the letter is issued to the mayor.


Thomas Grillo can be reached at tgrillo@itemlive.com.

 

Bridging a danger

The state’s decision to give Saugus $500,000 to start the Water Street bridge’s replacement is a positive step in the right direction to eliminating dangers above area roadways.

The bridge is more than a century old and the state money will initially pay for what will probably be an expensive and time-consuming process to replace the bridge on the town’s border with Wakefield. It is hoped the Water Street bridge project is a hint at an accelerated state and federal effort to get aging and decaying bridges across the nation fixed or replaced.

Bridges in Massachusetts and other states were built, in many cases, to accommodate traffic from a simpler time when fewer vehicles moved across bridges and mega-trucks carrying enormous loads had yet to be invented.

New England weather and proximity in the case of coastal communities has hastened the demise of many bridges to the point where they have become dangerous potential disasters.

Bridges are never an easy fix. Anyone familiar with town bridges spanning the Saugus River knows the amount of time and traffic detouring required to get those bridges replaced and the work continues.

Bridge projects require detouring drivers or shutting down lanes and contributing to traffic tie-ups on already-overcrowded roads. They involve engineering and structural work that takes time and money to accomplish.

But bridge repairs cannot be ignored. News reports periodically highlight horror stories about concrete chunks or metal falling from elderly bridges onto vehicles. More than one bridge in the state has been closed down or posted with state warning signs prohibiting truck traffic.

Focusing on violence

Ironically, the same strategy that set the stage for bridge construction across the nation 80 years ago makes sense today. The Great Depression spawned federal project agencies that built bridges and put the unemployed to work.

A new national commitment funded by federal dollars to fix up thousands of bridges needs to be entertained and launched. More exciting transportation projects or alternate energy endeavors should be put on hold in order to channel money into bridge building.

Municipal spending, even state dollars, don’t come close to covering costs for pricey bridge projects — even ones as relatively small as the Water Street bridge. Failure to repair and replace bridges will lead to an economic injury caused by detours and traffic tie-ups around closed bridges.

Mayor: All departments should be level funded

By THOMAS GRILLO

LYNN — Chief financial officer Peter Caron appeared before the City Council’s Budget Committee Tuesday night to explain how the city found itself $8 million in the hole.

“The fiscal year 2017 budget was about $4 million out of balance because expenditures exceeded projected revenues,” he said. “That budget did not reflect pay raises. So we started the fiscal year 2018 budget with a structural deficit in that expenditures exceeded revenues.”

The bottom line, he said, was that to fully fund all city positions with raises would be a 7 to 8.5 percent increase in payroll line items.

“We are not in a position to do that,” Caron said. “So, the mayor has asked all departments be level funded. We are encouraging managers to be creative and we’re looking for suggestions. Once we get those budgets, we’ll see how the department heads will address their shortfalls.”

Hallmark Health: We’ll ‘work with’ Malden

Ward 1 Councilor Wayne Lozzi wanted to know why Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy failed to anticipate the pay hikes and figure out how to pay for them.

Earlier this year, firefighters won a new four-year contract with a 9.5 percent raise, costing $2.5 million. Last summer, the police received $2.2 million over four years.

“These raises were anticipated,” Lozzi said. “When you settle a contract, it calls for pay raises in a certain time frame with retroactive pay.”

Lozzi asked what assurances the city has if department heads overspend and ask for supplemental cash later.

Caron said, “There is no additional money for supplement budgets.”


Thomas Grillo can be reached at tigrillo@itemlive.com.

Swampscott plugs school spending gap

By GAYLA CAWLEY

SWAMPSCOTT — After months of scrambling to bridge a significant spending gap, and with the help of an 11th hour increase in town allocation, the School Committee approved a balanced $30.41 million FY18 budget Wednesday night.

The FY18 budget represents a 2.2 percent change over last year’s amount. School officials struggled to achieve a balanced budget, and initially faced a $1.722 million spending gap.

Officials were able to reduce the gap to $275,000, a figure they had been working with for weeks, after $726,000 in salary reductions and $721,000 in expense reductions. Still faced with a substantial gap to fill, the option of eliminating free full-day kindergarten was floated, much to the ire of many parents in town. A tuition full-day model was proposed with a free half-day program.

Superintendent Pamela Angelakis and other school officials spent part of their public budget discussions lobbying town officials for more than the projected $750,000 increase in town allocation, arguing that the figure wouldn’t even cover their anticipated salary increases.

The school committee is currently in contract negotiations with the Swampscott Education Association, the teachers’ union, which has rejected a proposed contract, and is potentially seeking higher raises.

Their lobbying was answered, as the Board of Selectmen approved a $67.63 million town budget last week, opting to allocate an additional $200,000 to the schools, or a $950,000 increase over last year. The selectmen approved allocating $28,197,500 to the schools.

Saugus school head defends budget

To bridge the remaining $75,000 gap, Evan Katz, school business administrator, said the town will take over the school’s snow removal costs, which allows that $40,000 be allocated elsewhere, and expenses have been further reduced by $35,000. He said that included custodial supplies and utilities.

Angelakis said last week the additional town allocation will be used to continue to fund the full-day kindergarten program for the next school year.

Katz said the increase in town funds is actually $1.2 million, rather than $950,000. Other town support includes taking on $100,000 of the school maintenance expenses, paying half, or $46,000 of the shared facilities director salary, and allowing the schools to hold onto the $64,000 that would have gone toward the 53rd week of payroll for FY18. There are only 52 weeks in that year, and the funds will be allocated elsewhere.  

Katz said the town support allows the schools to meet a $400,000 maintenance goal, which is sorely needed for aging buildings.

The budget reserves $200,000 for high growth programs such as high school science, English language-learners and special education, Katz said.

Some cuts have included eliminating about five teacher positions. The special education teacher position at Hadley School has been eliminated, elementary health content is being moved to the physical education program, the middle school red, white and you class is getting the ax, high school Mandarin is moving to online-only in the midst of being phased out, a METCO clerical position is being absorbed into an existing staff person and one-third of the middle school reading program is being curtailed, Katz said.

An unpopular decision among the school committee is the decision to raise athletic fees by $75 for students. But Angelakis said fees have not been increased for nine years, and the $80,000 it would generate was necessary to balance the budget.

The town budget is subject to further conversation with the Finance Committee before ultimately coming back to the selectmen for final approval. Town Meeting members will vote on the budget, which is still subject to change, in May.


Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

Saugus getting read on Chromebook spending

ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
First-graders Josean Ortiz and Giuliana Patricelli use a Chomebook at Oaklandvale Elementary School.

BY BRIDGET TURCOTTE

SAUGUS — Saugus officials are hovering over the keyboard when it comes to finding funding for Google Chromebooks for students.

Earlier this year, the panel approved a $29.6 million spending plan for fiscal year 2018, up from $28.1 million last year. The amount includes an allocation of $82,000 to fund the Chromebooks. The request will be considered by the Finance Committee in the spring.

School Committee member Peter Manoogian said in a meeting earlier this month that the board also voted to submit a request for Town Meeting to fund the purchase. He drafted an article and presented it to the committee on Feb. 16. Manoogian complained that his peers hadn’t yet acted on the article. But a few members questioned whether it was too soon to ask the town for more money.

The new technology will be necessary next year when MCAS testing will require a computer, according to committee member Arthur Grabowski. Eric Jones, principal of the Oaklandvale Elementary School, said his students are already there.

Children in grades four and five are using Google Docs for the majority of their writing assignments, he said. All students are completing assignments using the tool and teachers are using the comments feature to provide feedback in real time. The open line of communication has motivated students to complete quality work — many of them are checking for corrections and making improvements after school hours, without being asked to, said Jones.

“Our goal is to have the kindergartners learn how to log in to Google Docs so that by the time they’re in the first grade, they can jump right into it,” Jones said.

Council makes a house call for school

The Oaklandvale School has about 130 Chromebooks for 220 students to use, he said. Each year, money is donated to each school by the Saugus Business Education Collaborative. Jones said for the past five years he has used every penny, $2,000 to $3,000 each year, on Chromebooks.

“This was my vision five years ago and it’s finally happening this year,” Jones said.  I can see it happening. The biggest hurdle was getting the tools, getting the technology. We’re getting to the point where we need more. Teachers want one for every student.”

Gianna Ferace, a fourth-grader, worked on a letter to a book author over February vacation. Her teacher, Joy Wright, was able to follow the changes made to the document and communicate with her on feedback through Google Docs’ comments feature.

“I think it’s helpful,” Ferace said. “If you make mistakes, you can see it.”

A search online revealed Chromebooks range from $149 to $499 each, depending on the model. The amount of cash included in the budget would fund the purchase of between 164 and 550 laptops.

“(Superintendent) Dr. David DeRuosi’s recommendation was to keep $82,000 in the budget and then figure out how we’re going to do it,” said chairwoman Jeannie Meredith. “We don’t know how much money we’re getting from the town, we don’t know how much we’re saving with the soft freeze — where’s the fire? Let’s see what we get, what we need and where we’re at before we ask for more.”

DeRuosi implemented a budget freeze, which he calls a “soft freeze,” to save the district money by the end of the school year.

“About halfway through the school year, we put a freeze on the budget and we start to go in and check and look at utility run rates, maybe resignations or retirements — we basically look at cost centers,” he said. “It’s a practice that the committee here has done before. You begin to look at your projections versus your budget line items. A school budget is fluid, it moves all the time. There’s always a cost differential.”

DeRuosi said he has been honest with the committee and asked members to meet twice a month to discuss the freeze and how and where it could be beneficial to the district.

Manoogian said DeRuosi never mentioned the possibility of paying for the Chromebooks with the savings from a soft freeze when the board met with the Finance Committee on Feb. 14.

“I have learned that the superintendent is telling members, of which I am not one, that he has the money and does not need the special article,” said Manoogian.

But DeRuosi argued that that was not the case. He said in an Item interview Tuesday that he couldn’t predict whether there would be ample savings to fund the entire one-time cost.

“I believe it’s premature,” said committee member Elizabeth Marchese, who requested that the board rescind the earlier motion to ask for the money in both the budget and a town meeting article. “We have not yet received any monies or know what monies we’re going to receive from the town.”

Marchese later changed her motion and asked to revisit the matter on March 23, the final meeting before the Board of Selectmen close the Annual Town Meeting warrant. The request was ultimately supported unanimously.


Bridget Turcotte can be reached at bturcotte@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.

A long view on an immediate problem

No one was surprised on Wednesday to find state Sen. Thomas M. McGee listening attentively as a state long-range transportation planner talked about Massachusetts’ transit spending goals over the next 23 years.

McGee has sounded the alarm about insufficient statewide transportation spending for years and called on state, federal and local officials, as well as Massachusetts residents and business owners, to get serious about improving roads, bridges, rail networks and other infrastructure.

“We can’t just continue to play catch-up,” McGee says when he talks about the cost to the economy and public safety of delaying or pushing off to the next generation the billions of dollars needed to be spent on transportation.

State transportation officials are touring the state, with Wednesday’s stop in Lynn, to get ideas about how to shape a transportation investment plan for 2040. Looking ahead 23 years on transportation investment is fine with McGee. But he says now is the time to plan and adopt serious spending strategies.

McGee said Gov. Baker didn’t spend a lot of time talking about transportation in his Tuesday night State of the State speech to McGee and fellow legislators. Not one to wait around for others to grab the reins and get the horses galloping, McGee has filed legislation creating a Metropolitan Transportation Network focused on improvements in the region lying inside Route 128.

Baker states his case

The big highway circling Greater Boston is an antiquated testament to the days when cars were king and climate change wasn’t a household phrase. McGee’s vision for the Network includes looking at opportunities to add more tolls and generate the money that must be spent on infrastructure work.

No one wants to pay tolls but McGee consistently points out how North Shore drivers pay an unfair share of tolls while suburban drivers, with the exception of ones who use the Massachusetts Turnpike, are not burdened by tolls.

Tolls and other spending answers like gasoline tax hikes are not popular. But Massachusetts, in McGee’s view — and ours — cannot wait a quarter century to get highways, rail networks and bridges in a state of good repair.

There are short term improvements that can be tackled. State Rep. Brendan Crighton on Wednesday said existing rail networks, like the Rockport-Ipswich commuter line, could conceivably run lighter train cars at more frequent intervals to handle ridership more efficiently than existing commuter lines.

The long-term answers lie in a Blue Line extension to Lynn similar to the extensions to Somerville that helped revive that community. No innovative transportation idea can be discounted, McGee said, if the state and its residents want to avoid gridlock and even catastrophe.