The First of a Few Thoughts
I recently ran, unsuccessfully, for Lowell School Committee. It was quite a ride. I learned what my friend, Matthew Donahue once told me, that running for office was like being a marathon runner who could not choose to quit, despite what the winds of fortune told you. I now know intimately what he was talking about. There is a vast difference between being the candidate and being volunteer. One says you can never get off the horse, while the other gives you plenty of opportunity to do exactly that. That is the crux of the task. You have to give everything your all if you are going to be the candidate.
Not all of this will be formed with the milk of human kindness, as Shakespeare called it. Some of it is just of barnyard variety politics. But, I will endeavor to be as kind as possible. Even when I am reciting things that I found distasteful. Some things cannot be glossed over.
I have three aspects of the political condition. One incorporates the historical period. The next, the personal aspects of molding into our times and lives. The final will be an assessment of the school system as it is currently involved. The third is the joint effort of two teachers, of which I am one. It is about the difficulties involved in the assessment of the testing and other aspects of the system that currently makes our statistics marvelous.
The First of a Few Thoughts is our primary pass at telling the beginning of the story. In it, Dr. K. is the former superintendent, the School Committee is the current School Committee, and I am myself. I have plenty to say about what transpired in the days of April. The folly of the past days will be discussed as will the efforts to gloss the story over with what I believe were false and incendiary tactics by a number of persons.
Lowell’s school system is formed of solid truths which emanate from the first days of the school system. Lowell was a minor town when the school system was formed. Few saw the need to educate the workers, who were young women. Fewer still saw how or why or when the school system would be formed. One who did envision the school system was the President of the School Committee, a young priest named Theodore Edson, the pastor of St. Anne’s Parish. He strongly wanted the women to be educated, and he did his best to make sure that they were educated. His group of mill owners and representatives voted to incorporate a school system using the votes of the progressives in the schools. Their first vote was close but their second vote was 11 to 3, a marked increase in persons wanting to see the girls educated.
The first location for a school was at the Merrimack Mills, located to the north of the current 1922 building of the high school. Inside that building the management of the Merrimack Mills, including Francis Cabot Lowell (Frank to his friends), was for the education of not only the women but the children of the millworkers.
One person who was not in favor of the vote, or the school system, was the infamous Kirk Boott. He was the owner of the Boott Mills, a building which still stands to this day. He got into many arguments with Dr. Edson, and felt the strings of hatred so greatly that his death is still a matter of history and story. One day, after many arguments with Dr. Theodore Edson, he got into a fight that ended with his passing down Merrimack Street in front of St. Anne’s Church, a church he helped build. As he was passing the front of the church, witnesses saw him rise in his chaisse (carriage) and raise his hand towards the open doors of St. Anne’s. Suddenly, he jerked forward and fell off of the chaisse into the muddy ground of Merrimack Street. He died as he lay on the ground, of a bout of arteritis or a heart attack, or something. Either way he breathed his last. He was buried in Charlestown because he did not want to be buried in Lowell. That is one of the finest deaths in Lowell’s long history.
Lowell has a long record of working with strong School Committees. Up until a few years ago, the School Committee was responsible for all taxes inherent in their carrying on of the business of the school department offices. Dr. Theodore Edson fit into this pattern perfectly. He designed the early curriculum. He visited the schools, he was an integral part of the school system. At one point he even visited the North Grammar School in Centerville repeated times, working on problems at the school. It was one of his favorite schools.
The strong educational system designed by Dr. Theodore Edson continued. By 1934, long after his death, the school system was admonished « No book or apparatus but such as the Committee approved be used in any of the schools. » By 2019, the School Committee voted to break a contract for a Superintendent without a reason given. It was a political move at best. It was illegal at the worst. It opened the Lowell School Department to a lawsuit for violation of a contract. The case is still in court. My feeling is that little was proven until after the vote. Then a minor attempt was made to eradicate the School Committee’s position. It was not called an audit, but that is exactly what it was.
In my opinion, the audit was designed in order to make the School Committee look good and the former Superintendent look bad. So what did the audit say, well I carry it with me everywhere. It said that the previous Superintendent was weak in budget matters, that he was incompetent. It even attacked the owners of PrideStar busing. It even attacked the owners for building a long overdue Special Education building, which is over the line in Chelmsford. The audit does point out a couple of areas which are weak and properly places part of the blame on the School Committee. But the School Committee is responsible for the Superintendent and they shirked that responsibility, I believe.
The firing of the Superintendent was done in an amatuerish way. The former Superintendent was probably not good, but my feeling is that we should have given him a warning and then moved to get rid of him. By not giving him a warning, we opened the school department to his lawsuit for breaking his contract, and that was inexcusable. We were amphibolish, which means that we threw doubt on our motives and effort.
The Forensic Audit was a mild audit designed, in my opinion, to make the Superintendent look bad. It does that. He was not good on budgets, he should have been cautioned that he was not the person who should be running the budget. That audit was designed, as I have stated, to make the School Committee look good. I have written audits like that.
A Comparison of Lowell Compared to Similiar Towns and Cities
The MCAS figure of Lowell being 263rd. in ranking across the state bothered me to the point that I worked on a comparison of Lowell and its fellow cities and towns. We did not use towns, as there was not a fair comparison. We did use a number of cities. Thirteen to be exact. Not dissimiliar from Lowell. Those cities did not include Boston or Newton. Boston was too large for the examination, while Newton was too small. Lowell is currently the fourth largest city in the state, although it is said that in the latest census, Cambridge will overtake us. But for right now Lowell is fourth. I looked at populations greater than 60,000 persons.
Cambridge and Somerville were significantly more wealthy. But Lowell is often compared to Cambridge and Somerville was similar in demographics to Lowell. I determined that 28.6% or more than a quarter of our students come from homes where English is not the first language. Dr. Joel Boyd EdD. is the Superintendent and he is determined to even that playing field. Nine of the thirteen cities have higher rates. Lowell is in pretty good shape.
As far as ELL is concerned, five of the listed cities have higher rates of ELL and 7 are lower so that puts Lowell in the middle. Lowell’s assimilation of ELL shows that it has much to be proud of, and we are. I suggest that we find out how many children have joined the high school in the past five years.
We are in the middle with high needs students. An incredible 72.4% have high needs. 27.6% are not high needs. All of the communities have high needs. Lawrence has 84.4%. Parental support would be helpful with high needs students. Some parents, a significant number are intimidated by schools.
A high attrition rate follows the school department. 44.3% leave the eighth grade and do not go on to Lowell High School. We do not know if they are scared of the renovations. We honestly do not know where they are going. Absenteeism is a problem. 40.3% are absent ten or more days. They are missing a full year to absenteeism. Cambridge has 9.4% absenteeism. Kind of high. In cost per student, Lowell pays $14,077.01 per child per year. 12% are paying to go to Charter Schools.
Our graduation rate is 79.6%, not the 85% we brag about. The state average is 87.9%. We are significantly below that. It is determined that the greatest assests are parents. It goes to reason, however, that if the students are there we cannot teach them.
Firing of Khelfaoui
On July 3, 2019, the Lowell Sun promised that the School Committee’s reasons for firing Dr. Khelfaoui would be released. They were not. In fact, Executive Session was used quite often by the School Committee to not tell what happened to Dr. Khelfaoui. The rumor that he was in over his head as the head of the school budget was frequently mentioned but the facts seemed to be in abeyance.
Dr. Khelfaoui was frequently seen at this point. He was part of Lowell’s politic, and given that his firing was, I feel, blatantly political, he was not really allowed to state his case to the fullest extent of his rights. Again, that is my opinion.
I saw him once during this period, and he and I had been pretty good friends. So his appearance was no surprise to me. But it seemed to be a surprise to his captors. He did not make a statement as reported by the Lowell SUN, at least not to my knowledge. He and I had a television show, « Peters’ Principles, the Superintendent’s Session. » He did this show once per month. It was a wide open show but at no time did one of his detractors ask to appear on it, even though the invitation was open. None of them asked to point out his failures. They ignored the opportunity of the show.
So, in my opinion, he was shunned.
The School Committee Election
The election was exciting. I enjoyed Michael Dillon, Bob Hoey, Dominick Lay, and Andre Decoutaux. I believe that I spelled Andre’s last name incorrectly. There were eleven candidates and only two people on the Committee were discharged. One was Gerry Nutter, a member who voted to get rid of the Superintendent. The other was Dominick Lay, who I believed should have been re-elected. They were replaced by two new candidates. One came in first and one came in sixth.
Going door-to-door was invigorating but not easy. If people knew how sick I was, I would have received no votes. As it was, I got close to three thousand or seven percent. The first place finisher got eleven percent. A four percent difference was not that bad.
The biggest mistake I made was printing too many words on my brochures. I had a lot to say, and I made sure that I said it. Even if it cost me. Which it did.
I worked very hard. I enlisted the help of my friend Phil Shea, the former State Senator and Congressional finalist. He was very helpful and very nice. I really enjoyed his company. He was my Campaign Coordinator. Others helped but I enlisted my son’s bicycle to more quickly deliver door-to-door. It greatly sped up my delivery of my brochures. I used one with me wearing David Herrel’s World Series ring because it felt right. The only problem I had was when football season started. I could not get Tom Brady to loan me a football. So I came out with a new brochure which accented my status as an auditor at Wang, where I found millions of dollars in an audit of Personal Computers and their Maintenance Contracts. It did not do me any good. It was a hard lesson to learn.
Finally, there was my fundraising. My first effort was depressing. One of the reasons I asked Phil Shea was because he was so good with my brother-in-law Paul Tsongas. We raised a great deal of money in my second fundraiser. We raised so much that we did not need a third one. It was a tough year for some people to raise money. Not for me, but for some people. It was a common complaint.
I finished out of the money but I had fun. The entire experience was enjoyable. I made a lot of good friends. People were very kind. I thank that couple who worried that I was sweating too much and offered to have an ambulance come and help me. I remember the man who looked at the baseball brochure and said, « My father is sick in bed but he is going to love this. » Or the guy who looked at the baseball brochure and said, « I wasn’t going to but I will vote for you based on your brochure. » It was nice.