MSBA invites Lexington into Feasibility Study process
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts School Building Authority invited Lexington to conduct a Feasibility Study, a significant next step toward the Town receiving a partial state reimbursement for a new high school likely to cost $400 to $500 million. The Town hopes to receive a reimbursement of about 25% of the total project cost.
“We have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Superintendent Julie Hackett said at Tuesday’s virtual School Committee meeting.
The invitation follows Lexington’s successful completion of several requirements within the eligibility period the school district entered one year ago, including forming a School Building Committee, certifying a design enrollment and appropriating feasibility funds at last year’s Annual Town Meeting.
A fifth grader advocates for School Committee to make Diwali a school holiday
In a detailed presentation, 10-year-old Nikhil Shah asked the School Committee to consider making Diwali – a major Hindu holiday that celebrates the festival of lights and triumph of good over evil – a school holiday.
Shah, a fifth grade student at Bowman Elementary School, began organizing to advocate for this change about a year ago. He has knocked on doors in his Liberty Heights neighborhood, visited other elementary classrooms at his school and collected more than 200 signatures on a petition supporting the additional school holiday.
“I see myself both as an Indian and an American,” Shah said in his presentation. Diwali is “by far [his] favorite” of the Hindu traditions he celebrates. “Diwali is a fun time of year where you eat some of the best food ever; you celebrate with family and friends and you go to temple and do religious ceremonies. But I think the best part is when you get to celebrate with family and friends.”
In his presentation, Shah noted the increase in Lexington Public Schools’ Asian population over the past 20 years from about 12% to over 40%. He pointed out that adding this holiday to the school calendar would exemplify the LPS core value “we all belong.” And, he noted that Littleton and Acton-Boxborough already recognize Diwali as a school holiday.
“My Jewish and Christian friends…can invite me over for Rosh Hashanah or Christmas, and I would like to do the same,” Shah said.
Lexington’s school calendar currently numbers 182 days – two more than the state requires. That means district leadership could choose to add up to two additional school holidays while remaining in compliance with state requirements.
In her superintendent’s report, Hackett noted that the school district is in the process of revisiting and refining its school calendar to better reflect Lexington’s diversity. Prior to the current school year, the calendar listed three religious holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday – “based on a School Committee decision many years ago,” Hackett said. But because “many members of our community felt that listing those three religious holidays on the calendar highlighted the important observances of some members of our community while invisibilizing others” district leadership opted to list all cultural and religious holidays important to the community on a list on the district website separate from the school calendar.
“All of this must work in tandem with ongoing discussions about which dates we close schools beyond the federal holidays,” Hackett said, adding that some community members have proposed eliminating Lexington’s three additional religious holidays, while others have proposed adding holidays – in particular, the Lunar New Year, the start of Diwali and the end of Ramadan.
School Committee members praised Shah’s presentation and expressed support for the sentiment behind it, though they noted that the School Committee will have to continue a bigger-picture discussion about how to add, acknowledge and celebrate holidays equitably.
“As someone whose family celebrates both Christmas and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and benefits from school being closed on those days, I think you can count me in as one of the people who doesn’t think the status quo…of having school closed for those days, and not closed for other people’s holidays [feels] right,” School Committee member Kathleen Lenihan said.
Vice Chair Deepika Sawhney added “I’m actually hoping that this will open the floodgates of having a lot of our younger children, students come and present what is important to them to us so that we can learn from them.”
The School Committee did not vote on Shah’s proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.
Educators share comments about financial stress, need for higher pay
During opportunities for public comment, educators spoke up to support increased pay and continued elementary half-days as the School Committee continues to negotiate a new contract with the Lexington Education Association. The two parties have been negotiating for the past year, and educators have advocated for these and other changes in several recent School Committee meetings, as well as by picketing outside of some school buildings.
Katrina Roscoe, a fifth grade teacher at Estabrook Elementary School, said that she was in her 12th year of teaching and 10th year working in Lexington. Last year, she said, was the first time she felt financially comfortable relying on teaching as her only job, in part due to the enormous burden of student loans she had to take out to earn her teaching qualifications. Previously, Roscoe worked in second jobs including retail and after-school programs, also supplementing her income with Lexplorations in the summer, as she will do again this year.
“I have rushed from school to retail jobs where I would work until 10 o’clock, come home, sleep and do it all again,” Roscoe said. “I worked these jobs because as a single person, even without children, I needed them to survive.”
Roscoe added that she lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, because she cannot afford to live in Middlesex County. Roscoe, and a few other educators, said they wanted to speak up about pay in response to a School Committee contract negotiation update addressing educator salaries and work hours.
During her superintendent’s report, Hackett noted that the Town had recently received over $2 million more in state aid than previously anticipated. She plans to incorporate the school department’s portion of that aid toward hiring additional staff to meet community needs, as reported here.
Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis also drew attention to the financial challenges educators face, but praised the Town for taking quick action to put the state aid to use in the FY24 budget.
“I want you all to know that everybody on the School Committee, and I and the administrators and leaders in our district, value you, believe in what you do, see the hard work you do every day,” Hackett said following some public comments, thanking educators for speaking. “The most important thing I want to say is that I’m optimistic that we will hopefully have a contract done soon and…be able to make sure that we are taking care of each other and our students in the ways that we need to be.”