After a much-needed Thanksgiving break, welcome back to this week’s LexObserver news roundup, a quick read you can expect in your inbox every Friday.

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Now, this week’s news:Week of Dec. 3: Lexington News Roundup

Reported by Sophie Culpepper

NEWSLETTER SECTIONS:

  • Q & A: How the leaf blower cacophony led to scheduling a special referendum for March 2022.
  • Jewels From the Crown break-in follow-up: Suspect identified, admits to crime.
  • Financial Summit II: Where the town budget process stands, and what to know about local ARPA funds.
  • METCO presentation, small group discussions well-attended at this week’s School Committee meeting.
  • Town and school COVID numbers are up this week compared to previous weeks, but so are ages 5-11 vaccination rates; Lexington Public Health Director Joanne Belanger cautions community about Omicron, but stresses that much remains unknown.
  • Community announcements: Free COVID-19 testing available this weekend


Explainer: How the leaf blower cacophony led to scheduling a special referendum for March 2022

  • If you thought Special Town Meeting was the end of Article 10 — an article regulating the use of loud landscape equipment and, most controversially, phasing out the use of gas-powered leaf-blowers in a few years — you have another think coming. After a petition gained over 1,000 signatures to hold a special referendum about Article 10, the article is back in question, with the referendum scheduled to coincide with annual elections in March next year. You can read our Q&A explainer published today here, on our website. We hope this is a useful, straightforward explanation of where things now stand with this article; we expect to do more reporting about stakeholders’ and community members’ perspectives on related issues over the next few months, before the referendum.

Jewels From the Crown Follow-Up: Perpetrator of break-in last month caught, identified

  • In three previous newsletters (Nov. 5, Nov. 12 and Nov. 19), we’ve covered a break-in at Jewels From the Crown. On Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, a suspect was arrested, according to Lexington Police Lieutenant Christopher Barry; the suspect admitted to the crime, and was arraigned in court Nov. 26. The police now consider the investigation for this specific break-in complete, Barry said. “The prior break [in 2019] does not appear to be related, but nothing’s out of the realm of possibilities,” he added.
     
  • The police were able to identify the suspect, who worked at the VA in Bedford, due to networking and video surveillance in the general vicinity of Jewels From the Crown, Barry said.
     
  • Carrie Thenen, owner of Jewels From the Crown, was very appreciative of the LPD for resolving the case within a matter of weeks. Still, she will continue to remove jewelry from her windows when she closes the store each day as a precaution against future break-ins; “no more temptations — it just has to go away,” she said. Now that the case is resolved, “I just hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else,” she added.
     
  • Is this case an outlier, or indicative of a broader trend in town? According to Barry, “It does seem that there’s very similar patterns of breaks in Lexington [at] the other stores.” For instance, in the past six months, a couple of liquor stores in East Lexington have been broken into by smashing windows, he said, as well as the convenience store Alexandria’s on Woburn St. “A lot of these breaks are happening where people are smashing windows, but as far as connected suspect-wise, I don’t think this one with this gentleman that we arrested [for the Jewels From the Crown break-in] was connected to the other ones,” Barry said. “It is a common thing going on in all sorts of towns, just quick in, quick out… It’s not just Lexington.”
     

Financial Summit II: Where the town budget process stands for FY2023, and what to know about local ARPA funds

At the second Budget Summit for Financial Year 2023, the Select Board, School Committee, Appropriations Committee and Capital Expenditures Committee reviewed updates from the previous summit, and heard a presentation from Assistant Town Manager of Finance Carolyn Kosnoff on the town’s options for determining how to spend nearly $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds by the end of 2026. The funds must also be fully committed by Dec. 31, 2024, two years earlier.

  • Kosnoff presented the current FY2023 revenue projections and allocation model. Some projections may shift slightly before the publication of the White Book, expected Jan. 10, 2022. The changes from Summit I last month to Summit II yesterday include the town refining tax levy projections to reflect actual FY21 new growth, giving the town nearly 600K more revenue to work with from that source alone. The adjustments result in a revenue allocation of $128,254,417 for the FY23 school budget, and $45,124,271 for the FY23 municipal budget. The school budget allocation is just under 300K ($296,654) short of the initial school budget request, while the town’s allocation has a $333,219 surplus relative to their initial budget request. More information can be found in the Revenue Projections and Revenue allocation summary linked on this page.
  • The next summit, Budget Summit III, is expected Jan. 13, 2022; the budget process continues throughout the spring, leading up to Annual Town Meeting, where Town Meeting Members vote on amending and adopting the budget.
  • At yesterday’s Summit, Kosnoff also presented some information about ARPA funds. You can review her presentation linked on the same page, but here are the highlights:
  • How much money does Lexington get? A lot. Lexington’s total ARPA allocation through the Coronavirus Local FIscal Recovery Fund (CLFRF) is $9,903,381 — close to $10 million. Again, the money must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026 — and the funds must be fully committed by Dec. 31, 2024, two years earlier.
  • Has Lexington received any of the money yet? Yes — about half. The town received half of its allocation, $4,951,691, this past June; Kosnoff said the town expects to receive the rest of the funding next June, in 2022.
  • Does this money need to be reported? Yes — the town will be required to report spending annually to the U.S. Treasury; the first report will be due April 30, 2022.
  • What can the money be used for? The main goals stipulated for the funding use are: Supporting immediate economic stabilization for households and businesses; and, addressing systemic public health and economic challenges contributing to the unequal impact of the pandemic. So, the funding can be used in several ways, including:
    • Supporting public health expenditures (e.g. COVID-19 mitigation efforts)
    • Addressing the negative economic impacts caused by COVID-19 (e.g. by supporting households, workers and small businesses)
    • Replacing lost public sector revenue (funding any gaps in the town’s revenue)
    • Providing premium pay for essential workers
    • Investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure
       
  • How does the town know how much public sector revenue the town lost due to COVID-19? For the first measurement period, Kosnoff said the town thinks they’ll have about $2.5 million available as lost revenue, but the formula used by the town will have to be audited to refine these calculations.
     
  • Is there anything the town can’t use funds for? Yes, including contributing to pension funds; replenishing rainy day funds; reducing tax rates; paying for legal settlements or debt services; and general infrastructure spending beyond the designated types of infrastructure (broadband, water, sewer). 
     
  • Does this money go through Town Meeting? No; it’s subject to Select Board approval, because it’s counted as grant money. But, if used as lost public sector revenue, those parts of the funds may be subject to the Town’s regular budget process. Kosnoff said the town is on the lookout for more explicit federal guidance about the necessary process for any public sector use of the funds.
     
  • How should we think about using the money? Kosnoff stressed that spending ARPA money on one-time projects/expenses and short-term/temporary programs makes a lot of good financial sense to avoid overextending the town’s budget with commitments down the line — so, conversely, adding permanent staff would likely be a bad idea, she explained.
     
  • What are some of the expected next steps? And how can community members have a say in the use of this funding? The Town is considering initiating a participatory budget process similar to what nearby Cambridge has been doing for eight years, which would allow residents to have a lot of say in funding use; this would begin early next calendar year, after the Town Manager proposes a project list based on available funding, Select Board priorities and community feedback. It’s expected that new projects will be recommended and implemented annually through 2024.

METCO presentation, small group discussions well-attended at this week’s School Committee meeting

Note: We also post Twitter summaries of School Committee meetings the evening of the meetings: Follow us to get those @ObserverLex.

  • The Nov. 30 SC meeting primarily focused on a presentation and small group discussions about the positive outcomes of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program in Lexington. Approx. 130 people attended Tuesday, per Lexington METCO Director Barbara Hamilton.
  • Prior to the METCO presentation, Superintendent Julie Hackett and Director of Equity & Student Support Johnny Cole noted that after positive results recruiting more diverse educators, retention is now a key focus. Previous reporting on hiring progress here.
  • Affinity groups are a key outlet for diverse educators to have the option to provide anonymous feedback to administrators about their work environment, Cole said. LPS will also begin providing DEI training to food services staff, per Hackett’s report.
  • Re COVID: Hackett also noted in her report that two recent LPS vaccination clinics, Nov. 19 and Nov. 22, were completely booked — meaning over 200 vaccines were given to 5-11 year olds, and over 250 boosters were given to LPS staff and community members.
  • Appointments for upcoming clinics — Dec. 10, 13, and 23, all in the Central Office Gymnasium — can be booked here.
  • Lexington METCO Director Hamilton presented a video celebrating the accomplishments of the 220 METCO students in Lexington. For instance, of 63 at LHS, about one third have straight As, and over half have honor roll or honor roll honorable mention-worthy grades, she said.
  • METCO CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas also spoke prior to the video presentation; she said METCO likes to “brag” that Lexington currently has the third highest number of METCO students statewide, among 33 other participating districts. LPS was also among the first to embrace the program.
  • Among current METCO students is the first female football player at Lexington High School in LPS history, senior Chanaiah Holland. More on academic, community and extracurricular accomplishments of all METCO students + types of program support in the video.
  • Many educators and LPS community members in the video noted that the program enriches the entire LPS community — and that it is critical to acknowledge the impressive achievements of the students from Boston who spend far more hours on the bus every day than most peers.
  • Hamilton called for a moment of silence to recognize a few recent losses to the METCO community, from a dedicated LPS parent to a METCO counselor and former METCO director.
  • Several individual school communities then convened for group discussions on Google Meet; the results of these discussions will be collected and shared later, Hackett said. LexObserver listened to parts of one elementary, middle and high school group each among the groups.
  • Parents in multiple groups expressed appreciation for the opportunity to have these conversations, and asked whether it would be possible to have such discussions more than once per year, e.g. quarterly instead of annually.
  • In one high school group, a parent suggested having METCO alumni return to talk to students about their paths post-LHS. Others stressed active bystander training against racism; making parents and students alike feel welcome; and celebrating + embracing different cultures proactively.

COVID-19 cases up in town and at LPS; vaccinations of 5-11 year-olds continue; Lexington’s Public Health Director discusses Omicron

  • Due to the holiday last week, we’re sharing numbers from the past two weeks today. The news is not great: Cases are on the rise, and Middlesex County currently has the highest case count in Massachusetts. Last week, as of Nov. 26, the town had 38 new cases, 17 more cases than the previous week; this week, as of today, the town had 32 new cases — a slight decrease from last week, but still higher than in previous weeks. 

     
  • Lexington Public Schools also did not publish any COVID-19 information last week due to the long weekend. Before Thanksgiving, the week of Nov. 19, cases and quarantines had gone up after being very low for a few weeks; at that time, 26 students and staff were quarantining, while 8 students and staff were absent who had tested positive. This week, as of yesterday, quarantines are down, but cases are up slightly; 20 students are quarantining, while 13 staff or students are absent who have tested positive. The cases seem pretty scattered across LPS buildings, with most at the elementary school level. 

     
  • According to state data for Lexington, which first began including vaccination rates for 5-11 year olds about a month ago, 65% of 5-11 year olds per capita in Lexington had received at least one dose, and 6% were fully vaccinated, as of yesterday. These numbers are not perfect; population numbers used for Massachusetts municipalities are estimates based on the 2010 census “with estimates updated every year using mathematical modeling,” according to an email from Omar Cabrera of the Department of Public Health Communications Office, as LexObserver previously reported. In that reporting, he explained that while total population estimates at the municipality level “are likely to be relatively accurate, when they are broken down into smaller categories like age or race/ethnicity, the numbers become more unstable,” explaining certain data discrepancies but demonstrating that data for these age-based categories are estimates and should be taken with a grain of salt.

     
  • At the League of Women Voters’ virtual First Fridays event this morning, Public Health Director Joanne Belanger discussed COVID-19, including the unsettling and unwelcome news about the Omicron variant. There’s still a lot to be studied, she stressed, and since Lexington’s indoor mask mandate remains in place, there is no reason to change anything residents are doing at present, as long as existing safety mitigation measures remain in place, she said. Belanger also discussed at-home rapid tests, which President Joe Biden has endorsed as a very useful mitigation strategy. She agreed that the tests are very useful tools, but noted to event attendees that since these tests don’t always carry the same reporting requirements as e.g. PCR tests, there may be less reliable data on case numbers widely available if their use proliferates.

  Community AnnouncementsReminder: Two FREE post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 testing opportunities this weekend

  • As they did post-Halloween, Lexington is partnering with Belmont to offer two dates for FREE COVID-19 PCR testing provided by PhysicianOne Urgent Care tomorrow and Sunday:    
    • Saturday, Dec. 4 (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.): indoor testing at Chenery Middle School, 95 Washington St., Belmont. They may accept limited walk-ins 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., but appointments are “strongly recommended.”
    • Sunday, Dec. 5 (12 p.m. to 5 p.m.): drive-through testing at 173 Bedford St., Lexington. No walk-ins will be accepted.
  • BOTH events are open to residents of Lexington and Belmont alike, ages 1 and up (so if you’d rather go on tomorrow in Belmont than Sunday in Lexington, you certainly can). You must do three things to take advantage of the free testing: Set up an account, make an appointment, and provide proof of residency. You can set up an account and make an appointment here, and learn more here.

That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email in the coming weeks? Let us know, and please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Reach out to sophie@lexobserver.org with tips and questions anytime. As always, you can also check out and share our websiteTwitterInstagram and Facebook pages. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

With gratitude,
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu and Vivian Wang
LexObserver Team

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