Welcome to this week’s LexObserver newsletter. We hope you’re looking forward to spending this weekend huddled under every blanket you can get your hands on.
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Now, the news:
Week of Jan. 14: Lexington News Roundup
Reported by Sophie Culpepper and proofread by Harry Forsdick
- On Monday, the Select Board authorized spending over a million dollars — $1,215,000 — of Lexington’s allotted federal American Rescue Plan Act funds on several relief initiatives. How is the money being spent, and do local businesses feel supported by the economic relief initiative approved?
- On Tuesday, the Board of Health — surprise —voted to extend Lexington’s indoor mask mandate, which it will next review by or before March 15. The vote was unanimous, but a couple of public commenters still spoke against the decision.
- Also on Tuesday —this week’s School Committee Meeting: Debates about school COVID-19 policies; a step toward electric buses; a public budget hearing.
- Highlight from Budget Summit III: A balanced budget, and how the town plans to use its small surplus.
- Weekly COVID-19 update: Cases are still soaring.
- Community announcements: MLK day events in town; Police Chief to be announced “very shortly”; Community Endowment of Lexington announces $20K in grants.
How is the Town spending the first of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds?
The Select Board authorized spending of over $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds in two separate, unanimous votes at its meeting Monday evening, representing about 11% of the total funds the town has received. The remaining $8M remains unallocated. The town received the first half of its ARPA allocations in June 2021, and expects to receive the rest of the funds this June; all ARPA money must be committed by the end of 2024, and spent by the end of 2026.
Prior to deciding and voting allocations of $990,000 in ARPA funding in their second vote of the evening, Select Board members discussed their strategy in balancing public input and a deliberate process with the urgency of distributing the funding. Member Suzie Barry noted that all members had been contacted by the Lexington Retailers Association (LRA) over the previous week, “imploring [the Select Board]…to act on Monday night…the businesses are hurting.”
Vote #1: Testing and masks
- The Select Board’s first vote authorized spending of ARPA funds on three elements of COVID-19 mitigation: $175,000 to be spent on hosting PCR testing clinics; up to $25,000 to be spent on rapid tests for both town staff and for residents, as demand permits and as Director of Public Health Joanne Belanger sees fit; and up to $25,000 for the provision of high-quality masks, as Belanger sees fit.
- Omicron “has impacted the town pretty dramatically,” Town Manager Jim Malloy said during his Monday report. As of Monday, about 25 employees were out with positive COVID tests, he said; the previous week, they had considered closing one of the town offices.
- $25,000 for rapid tests: At least some of this funding would be used to purchase approximately 500 rapid test kits for Town staff, so that each staff member has testing kits at their disposal, and can have their kits replaced when needed. Any additional funding could be used to purchase rapid tests for the public.
- Malloy and Belanger had discussed a few different testing kit options available for bulk purchase from the state including Ellume and on/go, with most of the cheapest reliable options consisting of two-part rapid test kits, Malloy said; according to the prices they have reviewed, while Ellume is more expensive, if they chose the on/go test, which includes the benefit of an observation component, the $25K in funding should suffice to purchase 1,000 or more rapid test kits for the community, in addition to roughly 500 for town staff. Most of the available sources for tests have one-week lead times, with arrival anticipated one week from date of order; other tests recommended by Belanger, such as the Flowflex test, have four-week lead times.
- The remaining funds would be spent on a ballpark number of about 1,000 tests, a good number of tests to gauge public demand – “I’d hate to buy 35,000 of them, and then, when the pandemic is finally over, have 30,000 of them sitting in a back closet somewhere,” he said. While Select Board members ultimately voted unanimously to approve this funding, multiple members expressed some concern about the possible decreased reliability of rapid testing, but acknowledged the demand among community members and concluded that the funding was worth approving.
- $175,000 for weekly PCR testing clinics: With 300-350 spots each over the next seven weeks for members of the public, these clinics could be held throughout the rest of January and February.
- $25,000 for high-quality masks: More research is required, Belanger said – but, authorizing the funding now allows quick action once this research is done, a necessity given the snarled supply chain and skyrocketing demand, she added. But, “if it looks like something that is beyond our reach, we don’t spend the money,” she said.
- Belanger could not be reached for comment by phone or email by press time.
Vote #2: Affordable housing, economic relief, public health, food security
Later in this meeting, between about 10 and 11 p.m., the Select Board chose several initiatives they considered to address the most time-sensitive community needs from a list of recommended ARPA uses compiled by the Town Manager. They ultimately approved $990,000 of funding in several areas:
- $315,000 for LexHAB to allow for housing acquisition: Lexington Housing Assistance Board (LexHAB) requested $1,254,400 to purchase four homes “appropriately priced and well suited for the needs of LexHAB tenants.” The Select Board, acknowledging that home prices are soaring right now and the hot housing market means that affordable homes disappear as soon as they are put on the market, determined that providing funding for one house rather than four was an appropriate immediate allotment, and would revisit the rest of the request as it continued to approve ARPA fund allotments. “It’s not that we have a project in front of us right now to acquire a home, but that’s the problem; when a home comes up ready to be acquired, it’s too late by the time we’ve had a meeting and tried to act on it,” Select Board Vice Chair Doug Lucente summarized. LexHAB could not be reached for comment by press time.
- $115,000 in design funding for a LexHAB affordable housing project at 116 Vine St.: This affordable housing project has been in the works for a few years. LexHAB requested this funding so that they can bring a well-developed plan and request for construction funds to Town Meeting this spring and move the project forward as quickly as possible.
- $20,000 for an affordable housing trust support: This funding would allow the town to hire someone to support the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Study Committee in drafting a proposal for a Municipal Affordable Housing Trust and a Housing Development Corporation. The challenges of hiring in the current environment, a topic that came up multiple times during the ARPA funding discussion, made authorizing this relatively small amount of funding now to begin the hiring process worthwhile, per the Select Board. Still, regarding town hiring overall, “we’re both hiring and losing staff at pretty much the same rate as we have in the past, although recruiting is more difficult and candidate pools are smaller,” Town Manager Jim Malloy wrote in an email to LexObserver Thursday.
Business and economic relief:
- $250,000 for small business assistance requested by Lexington’s Economic Development Office: This is grant funding available to local businesses in need of economic relief – see below.
- $50,000 for cultural and nonprofit grant incentives: Also to be overseen by the Economic Development Office – see below.
- $100,000 for ongoing support to the Office of Public Health including e.g. contact tracing, food inspection: Health Office staff is stretched thin right now, and contact tracing is one of the most urgent needs, according to Malloy; the town currently has two who are “at their wits’ end,” and needs to “double the number of people or even more” as soon as possible, he said. But, this departmental funding is not restricted to contact tracing – it can be used for any of the department’s ongoing needs this year. Separately, in the budget for FY2023, the town already plans to take the public health nurse from a part-time to a full-time position.
- $90,000 for a mental health clinician for the Department of Human Service: This funding would allow for hiring for a clinician to help “triage” the Town’s current mental health support needs, Malloy said. This cost could become an operational expense incorporated into the town budget in the longer term, but the Select Board voted to authorize the town to begin the hiring process for someone immediately in light of the challenging labor market – they will revisit whether this will be a long-term addition to town staff at a later date. “[We should] start tomorrow because it will take forever,” Chair Jill Hai said.
- $50,000 for food insecurity requested by the Select Board: The Human Services department will be charged with putting together a program for distributing these funds, Malloy said; he anticipates that some of the funds might need to go directly to the residents with dire needs, and to the Lexington Food Pantry, he added.
How will business and nonprofit relief be distributed?
- Economic Development Director Sandhya Iyer expects to open the town’s two separate grant application process for local businesses and for nonprofit organizations next Tuesday, Jan. 18, she told LexObserver. The grant process will remain open until all $250,000 in business economic relief funding, and all $50,000 in funds for nonprofit organizations, have been distributed, she added.
- It will likely take about a week to review all grant applications, she estimated, though depending on the volume and detail of applications, it could take longer – and then another two to three weeks to process applications and distribute funds, she said.
- Businesses can apply for several different categories of aid – from mortgage, to rent, to utility payments, to outdoor dining equipment, to PPE. Businesses will also be able to show receipts and request reimbursements for pandemic-related expenditures they have already made, Iyer added.
- “Rent assistance definitely is one of the top priorities that we’ve been hearing,” Iyer said; in particular, after many months of rent relief, some businesses are now being asked to pay all of the rent they owe. Educational institutes and restaurants alike have also brought up buying lots of outdoor equipment, Economic Development Coordinator Casey Hagerty added.
- Business requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, Iyer said; a rubric developed by her office in response to community requests for aid will also provide businesses with a score to help determine need, but “the rubric will help us guide us through how we actually review the applications more than anything else,” and each application will be holistically considered. The application is “pretty easy,” Iyer said, but businesses will be asked for documents supporting their case for funding, and the Economic Development Office may have to circle back and ask for more information in some cases.
- This rubric includes categories such as COVID-19 impact and detail and quality of plan, with scores possible from 0 to 10. The Select Board reviewed this rubric, which was drafted several months ago, during their meeting Monday, and suggested two changes which are being implemented by Iyer’s office.
- First, while the rubric originally included a category for “Lexington Character” privileging local businesses which are not part of national chains, some Select Board members expressed concern that this category would disadvantage national chain stores which function as central gathering hubs for the community – as Panera Bread on Mass. Ave did before closing in October. The Economic Development Office is removing this category from the rubric; instead, they’ve added a more open-ended question to the grant, asking business owners to describe how they contribute to the Lexington community, whether they are a chain or not.
- Second, the grant criteria originally required applicants to “have a physical, commercial presence in Lexington” – but this stipulation is being expanded in order to also be able to provide relief to businesses which operate out of community members’ homes, Iyer said.
- The rubric also includes a category for taking into account negative impacts to some businesses of the construction for the town’s Center Streetscape Project, which Iyer has observed in receiving community feedback.
- Businesses also receive three points each if they fall under one of three “disadvantaged business owner” categories and are minority-owned, woman-owned, or veteran-owned.
- The Economic Development Office has been planning economic relief efforts using ARPA funds for several months. Shortly after the town received a portion of its allotted funding in June 2021, Iyer began working to draft a plan for distributing funding to businesses. The Economic Development Office works with many businesses day-to-day; they received several requests and sat through many meetings across town departments to understand where major needs lay. “We collected a lot of feedback from the businesses and other membership organizations to [determine]…where’s the immediate need for economic recovery.”
- For nonprofits hoping to access some of the $50,000 in approved grant funds, the Economic Development Office is creating “a smaller…pretty open” separate rubric, Iyer said. The application process will resemble that for businesses, but organizations will be asked questions based on their organizational structure about pandemic impacts, and there will be a $10,000 limit on funding requests.
- More information about the grant application process will soon be available on the town website, Iyer said. The office will also do outreach through the Chamber of Commerce and Lexington Retailers Association to alert as many businesses as possible to these funding opportunities.
- Iyer feels good about the timing of this funding distribution. In previous months, her office has focused on helping businesses access state and federal relief grants; now, with Omicron, “the Select Board is giving us the money during this time when we need the funding the most,” she said.
How does the business community feel about these relief efforts? “Thank goodness they took action at that meeting”
- Lexington Retailers Association President and Michelson’s Shoes owner Eric Michelson was relieved and appreciative of the Select Board acting Monday night to support businesses through this allocation of ARPA funding, he told LexObserver. “For those businesses who need economic relief, they need it now – they don’t need it three months from now,” he said. “Thank goodness they took action at that meeting.”
- This time of year, post-holiday shopping, is tough for many retailers in the best of times, he explained. Frigid weather isn’t exactly conducive to shoppers walking down the streets; now, between staffing shortages, testing shortages, supply chain issues and a hyper-contagious variant disincentivizing in-person shopping, “just getting your doors open… is a real challenge,” he said.
- A shoe store is a perfect example of the concrete impacts of supply chain delays on profit: “A lot of my spring shoes aren’t going to show up until May or June, though they’re supposed to be here in February or March,” Michelson noted: “These have cascading effects on our ability to offer the right products at the right time.”
- The businesses don’t necessarily need the money in hand next week, Michelson said – rather, immediate action was necessary because it gives business a guarantee to bank on in weeks ahead – “even if somebody knows the money’s coming, they can plan on that.” By the end of January and in early February, owners will have been paying rent and paying their employees for a full month of Omicron drastically reducing business; by the time these grants are processed and distributed, “a couple weeks from now, people are really going to need [this funding].” There was never any doubt in Michelson’s mind that funding local businesses was a priority for the Select Board, but the timing of this funding authorization was critical, he stressed; waiting even a week or two longer, for a later Select Board meeting, “it would have been too late for those who really need it.”
- Though the town has had over $4 million in ARPA funding since last June, Michelson doesn’t necessarily feel that the Town should have acted any sooner. “If we were living in a world where we weren’t having these remote meetings, I think a lot of this would have been in place slightly sooner,” he said. “But it’s not possible right now.”
- Every business is different, and perhaps “a small number” of businesses might have benefitted from receiving funding sooner, but the increased transmissibility of Omicron dramatically exacerbated most businesses’ needs, Michelson said.
- Michelson called the Economic Development Office’s grant application process “a great plan.”
- In the spring, as businesses hopefully emerge from “the dark months” of the season and of the pandemic, Michelson plans to bring a request for additional ARPA funding to the Select Board in April or May to consider establishing an employment incentive program of bonuses for the retail and restaurant industries in town to be implemented in fall of 2022.
- Customers and workers are the main things that local businesses need from community members right now, Michelson said – and for community members to convince their neighbors and family members to support businesses by word of mouth, “the most effective advertising.”
- Omicron is striking at the heart of Lexington’s business community at a time when town debates in the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) and elsewhere are emphasizing a desire to bring a more vibrant town center to Lexington. At the end of the day, Michelson thinks this change will require community members to decide “it’s worth coming out and not just having the blue truck pull up in front of the house and drop something off….those are big changes that have occurred with COVID, and have to be unlearned.”
- Still, from Michelson’s perspective, “there’s more people committed to shopping, and eating, and servicing themselves locally than there’s been in a long time – so the message is getting there, it just hasn’t reached all the way through,” he said. “It does come down to walking through doors.”
Board of Health Extends mask mandate to mid-March
- At their meeting Tuesday evening, the Board of Public Health unanimously voted to extend and amend the local indoor mask mandate originally imposed Aug. 12, 2021. They will next review the mandate on or before March 15, about two weeks after Lexington Public Schools students’ February vacation, with hopes that cases will be trending down by then.
- The Board also added “enforcement wording,” calling for punishment of violations by a civil fine of up to $300 per violation after verbal education and a written warning.
- Cases are at an all-time high in Lexington, with nearly 500 new cases this week alone as of yesterday (see COVID-19 case update below for more). The hypercontagious Omicron variant was the main impetus for the Board’s extension of the mask mandate. Previously, the Board extended the mask mandate to Jan. 15, 2022 in part to remain consistent with the guidance of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; this Monday, DESE extended its masking requirement to Feb. 28, 2022.
- A few members of the public spoke up during public comment. One spoke in favor, but expressed concern about seeing an outdated sign in town recommending cloth masks, given the importance of high-quality masks to avoid Omicron. Another spoke in favor, but commented on the challenges of obtaining high-quality masks right now. Two members of the public spoke against the mandate extension.
This week’s School Committee Meeting: Debates about school COVID-19 policies; a step toward electric buses; budget hearing
We always post Twitter summaries of School Committee meetings the evening they take place; follow us to get those @ObserverLex.
- Concerns with new COVID-19 guidance: Though not originally included on the agenda, the School Committee began the meeting by discussing questions received from community members about recent COVID-19 school guidance. SC member Sara Cuthbertson, who is also an LPS parent, shared some concerns she was hearing at the elementary school level about schools no longer communicating classroom cases, especially when students have immunocompromised or multigenerational family members.
- Hackett reiterated that it is logistically near impossible to communicate classroom cases because of the huge jump in cases and already heavy burden on nurses of vaccine clinics and other tasks; she referred parents to the COVID-19 case dashboard, and repeated that exposure should be assumed.
- SC student rep Sara Mei voiced some student concerns about the 10-day isolation period, which is longer than current CDC guidance of five days; some students feel a ton of stress about the amount of work they need to catch up on due to missing that much school, she said. Hackett said that as frustrating as this situation is, she felt the 10-day isolation is necessary to minimize cases since some students have tested positive on Day 6 or later.
- For staff, however, especially given high vaccination and booster rates, Hackett feels comfortable providing the option to return to school with a negative test as early as day 6 if they wish, she said.
- Sara Mei also acknowledged a communication Monday from LHS Principal Andrew Stephens in response to student concerns about COVID-19-related absences and making up work, which emphasized the importance of rest and recuperation above all else.
- Update: Today, Stephens sent another communication announcing a change in absence policies starting next Tuesday. Students currently have the option to listen to their classes via audio if absent, and could previously be marked ‘present’ for doing so. But “accurately keeping track of which students are out, but ‘present’ for reasons related to COVID has become unmanageable for teachers, nurses, and administrative assistants,” Stephens wrote. While previously, ‘absent-excused’ marks were changed to ‘present’ for students listening to audio of class, this practice is too challenging for staff to continue, and creates a safety risk since it is harder for deans to know from attendance sheets which students are actually in the building in the case of an emergency. From now on, even students tuning into classes by audio will be marked ‘absent-excused,’ which will result in all attendance violations being waived. This should alleviate student concerns about being penalized for COVID-19 absences, because no such penalization will happen, Stephens wrote.
- More subs for LPS: After broadcasting the district’s need for substitute teachers, the district had gone from 8 to 25 being fast-tracked to get into the classroom, a hugely helpful increase, Hackett said. Still, there is always room for more: “If we had 100, we wouldn’t be sad,” she added.
- Participation in pooled testing still too low: Some School Committee members asked whether percentages of student participation in weekly pooled testing could be included in the testing dashboard or otherwise publicized. Last school year, these were publicly posted; this year, they do not appear to be.
- Hackett said that student participation percentages are “lower than they should be” but that she did not have specific numbers with her at this time, and added that they had markedly increased last week.
- Sara Mei said she recalled hearing from Principal Stephens that roughly 40-60 kids per week (in a 2,000+-student school) had been participating at the high school level, but that participation had jumped into the hundreds last week.
- Students forgetting to take the test can still be an issue, Hackett said, and they are considering developing a process for students to take the tests at school if they forget but have consented to testing.
- A step toward electric buses: The SC unanimously approved awarding the new LPS school bus contract to C&W Transportation, Inc. from July 1, 2022 until June 30, 2027. This contract will begin the LPS process of transitioning to an electric bus fleet, with the goal of adding one to a few buses per year for the next several years until all 36 necessary buses are replaced. If interested in (dense) contract you can find more here.
- Reviewing YRBS results: In discussing Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, which have already been presented in another SC meeting, a few School Committee members asked about ways to make resources such as a family/caregivers support group more widely known to the public.
- SC members asked wide-ranging questions about these results, from how to lower reported rates of electronic bullying and suicide ideation in some student subgroups, to how to ensure all students know where to access condoms.
- In particular, members discussed concerns with a continuing culture of widespread stress about school and work, even during the pandemic, at the high school. Lenihan noted that it remains a joint SC- superintendent goal to review grad requirements, including in context of student stress.
- During community speak, LPS parent and special ed rep Mona Roy requested more attention for special ed students in the YRBS survey breakdown. Hackett said that LPS is currently working with a consultant to address this need.
- Budget season continues: Finally, Hackett and Assistant Superintendent for Finance David Coelho presented the projected FY2023 budget in a public hearing. The budget had already been presented in the previous meeting, but this was one of multiple chances for public feedback. Presentation here.
- Only one member of the public, SEPTA/SEPAC Chair Carissa Black, spoke, asking about the impact of any staff decreases on special ed students and student-teacher ratios.
- Hackett said that the district could share clearer special ed enrollment numbers and/or the percentage of the budget dedicated to special ed to try to clarify any concerns about insufficient resources.
Highlight from Budget Summit III: A balanced budget
- Last night, the Select Board, School Committee, Appropriations Committee and Capital Expenditures Committee met to review and discuss the White Book, or the preliminary recommended budget for Lexington for Fiscal Year 2023.
- The summit covered a lot of ground. But, a few big-picture highlights:
- It’s a balanced budget. At Budget Summit II, there was an approximately $300,000 shortfall between the initial school budget request and the school budget allocation; now, that shortfall has been addressed. The overall preliminary recommended budget comes to $258,574,183, a 3.2% increase from FY2022 – including $128,254,447 for Lexington Public Schools, a 4% increase, and $44,802,554 for Town Departments, a 4.4% increase.
- The town is using its surplus to fund some program improvements. A total of $446,313 of the town’s program improvement requests are being recommended, which will be funded by the budget surplus and $127,000 in funds from the Recreation Enterprise Fund “to restore services to pre-pandemic levels,” Assistant Town Manager for Finance Carolyn Kosnoff said. The program improvements include:
- Supporting the Police Department, due to the need for a temporary increase in holding cell shifts while they are located in the temporary police station (connected to the developing project to build a new police station), and required training to maintain accreditation;
- Increasing the Public Health Nurse position from part-time to full-time;
- Supporting advanced life support training in the Fire Department;
- Adding a crossing guard at Hastings Elementary School;
- Purchasing electronic poll pads to modernize elections;
- Paying a facilitator to assist with Select Board goal setting;
- Increasing the hours of two part-time administrative staff to full-time hours, in the Department of Public Works and Facilities, with one position also becoming benefits-eligible.
- What happens next: From now until Feb. 4, municipal and school staff will respond to questions on operating and capital budgets; on Feb. 7, the Select Board plans to vote the recommended FY2023 budget, which will then be introduced at Town Meeting this spring.
COVID-19 Weekly Update: Cases still soaring.
- Lexington continues to see its highest case numbers ever. This week, the town broke last week’s record of 328 new cases; as of yesterday, the town saw 478 new cases this week.
- Lexington Public Schools also set a case record this week. As of yesterday, 314 staff and students were absent who had tested positive, while 35 staff or students were quarantined. LHS had the highest number of students absent of any individual building, at 90 students — that said, LHS is also the largest school building. There were cases in every LPS building.
- In better news, LPS vaccination rates also continued to rise: As of Jan. 11, 80.2% of all students K-12 are fully vaccinated.
- Abundance of MLK Day Volunteering and Community Opportunities: You already know Monday is MLK day, and it’s also Lexington’s 9th annual Day of Service: There’s a comprehensive list of local events you can participate in, both virtually and in person, here.
- Police Chief announcement maybe coming soon? The permanent Police Chief was originally expected to be hired last month. A formal announcement on the new permanent Police Chief is expected “very shortly,” Malloy wrote yesterday in response to LexObserver’s inquiry. “We’re just finalizing the contract,” he added.
- The Community Endowment of Lexington announced the recipients of its 2021 Capacity Building Grants yesterday. The Lexington Arts & Crafts Society (LexART) will receive $10,000 “to underwrite the design and execution of a market research survey targeted to new audiences and to design programming to expand its user and donor base.” The Special Needs Art Program (SNAP) will receive $10,000 “to undertake a strategic analysis of its mission, vision, and
activities as part of a plan to buoy the organization’s fundraising and programmatic
infrastructure for the future.” You can learn more about CEL funding here.
That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email next week? Let us know, and please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with tips and questions anytime. As always, you can also check out and share our website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages. Thanks so much for reading and have a great weekend.
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, Sarah Liu, Vivian Wang and Seiya Saneyoshi