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Council OKs LHS TV Studio Funds, Balks on Other Bills

March 6, 2019

LOWELL -- With an infusion of funds approved by the City Council Tuesday night, the TV studio at Lowell High School will have the money to buy new parts and, leaders hope, get back to broadcasting.

As for the other funds the school district requested from the city?

Not so fast.

The unanimous approval to allocate funds to the TV studio came amid a meeting where councilors were otherwise critical of the school department’s financial practices.

A request for $255,940 from the city to pay the school district’s “bad bills” -- debts charged to the district last fiscal year, but not paid -- was characterized as “misleading” by Councilor Vesna Nuon and lacking “accountability” by Councilor John Leahy.

A report on the cost of contracts between the school district and its unions also drew heat from councilors, particularly a $10.2 million increase in spending on salaries between 2016 to 2017.

“The end of the day we only have a certain budget size that can only be divided in so many pieces of a pie,” said Councilor James Milinazzo.

City Manager Eileen Donoghue recommended to the council the transfer of $117,313 for the TV studio, also known as the Colleen Creegan Media Studio.

“There’s plenty of needs on the city side, believe me, for these funds, but ... the School Department has made it clear they don’t have the money in this budget to replace this. ... The students would be without the ability to use the TV studio,” Donoghue said.

The approved funding will be used to replace a server used to broadcast from the studio, which leaders say has been non-functional for a significant period of time, possibly months. Without the server, educational programs involving the media production curriculum have continued, but without the broadcasting component, district Assistant Superintendent of Finance Billie Jo Turner wrote in a memo.

Certain meetings, Red Raider reports and school events, like the Knowledge Bowl, could not be broadcast without this equipment, she wrote.

The City Council vote authorizes the transfer money from PEG funds, also known as Public Access, Educational and Government Programing. These funds are raised through an agreement with the city and Comcast.

Donoghue said the city has gone “above and beyond” allocating funds for education from this account.

This expenditure would bring the city’s allocation of PEG funds to education up to $381,646 this year. Of this, $156,435 was allocated by City Council last summer to update the studio’s van. The city also allocated $108,000 to cover the salary of two employees in the school’s broadcasting program.

The latter drew the ire of some members of the School Committee and former Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui, who said they believed they would receive more than double that sum during budgeting. Over the summer, two of the program’s four employees were laid off.

City officials have disputed this characterization, and said the funding mechanism had changed.

Clashes over funding continued at the City Council meeting Tuesday night.

City administrators said they asked Turner to resubmit the School Department’s request for both the authorization and funding to pay the district’s bad bills.

According to Donoghue and city Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin, not all the funds submitted by the School Department were “bad bills” under the legal definition, as some had already been paid this fiscal year.

“Ms. Turner did say that she wanted to put forward all the total number of what were from the prior fiscal year that they had to pay in this fiscal year,” Donoghue said. “That was her attempt to be transparent, but also they were requesting us to pay them.”

Baldwin said it’s unclear what portion of the $255,940 requested by the school district are actually “bad bills.”

Councilors questioned both the way the School Department presented this request and the expectation the city should pay this sum.

“I think whenever they ask for a reasonable request I think we step up to the plate and do that, but to say at the last minute, gee, we owed all these bills and now it’s your obligation to pay, I’m a little bit taken aback by that,” said Councilor Rita Mercier.

Donoghue said this matter needs to be addressed before the bills roll over into the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

A report requested by Councilor Milinazzo regarding increases in spending on School Department salaries spurred harsh comments from some councilors.

Milinazzo said over the same period the city has been cutting staff, school salaries have been increasing.

In 2015, the schools spent $107 million on salaries. By 2018, it spent $121.7 million. The most significant increase was between 2016 and 2017, when total salaries increased over $10 million.

Councilors questioned the reason for this increase and requested a follow-up report.

Councilor Rodney Elliott and Mayor William Samaras said this was likely due to a combination of retroactive contracts and step-increases.

Following conversations about the contracts and bad bills Leahy said many of the current school district administrators started their jobs less than a year ago and walked into a “mess.”

“Even though some of the comments tonight are kind of harsh, we appreciate that they’re straightening out the mess over there,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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