Q: You’ve been on the Lowell City Council for 12 years now. What has been your most important achievement there?
During these 12 years — I served as Mayor for four of them — when I first got involved, Lowell had been in a bad way, suffering from the economic downturn of the late eighties and early nineties. I think what we’ve been able to achieve here in Lowell over the past 10-12 years has a lot to do with the economic development initiatives that we have put through in a real meaningful way. There were certain catalysts that really jump-started some of the revitalization of the downtown — the arena, the ballpark — all of which were tough sells back then because they were controversial projects.
Once those became a reality and they were a success, what we next went to was how do we revitalize the downtown. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do by forming and forging public partnerships: public-public partnerships with the local government and the state in many cases — the ballpark and the arena are prime examples — as well as public-private partnerships. I was instrumental in leading the charge on artist live-work space and developing the Ayer Lofts and making certain that that project became a reality. That was a catalyst for millions of dollars in investment by the private sector because we now have about a thousand market-rate units either online or coming online in the near future in the downtown. So, I’m proud of those achievements.
But if I switch gears, when I was Mayor and I chaired the school committee, those years I learned a great deal about the challenges that not only our school district but every school district faces. Through the challenges that an urban district faces in the day of unfunded mandates, we were able to achieve a lot of success even working with minimal dollars.
I’ll give you an example. One of them has to do with our high school, which is a great high school but it’s one of the biggest in the state. At the time when I chaired the school committee there were about 16,500 students. We had a high school that then was about 36, 3700, now it’s just under 4,000, which is a lot of kids by today’s standards to have under one roof. What we came up during those years and implemented in a very successful way are academies within the high school. The first one was what’s known as the Latin Lyceum academy which is really an exam school similar to Boston Latin, a school within a school. We have a communications academy, we have several academies that have developed so that it gives students an opportunity to go to school, albeit in a very large urban high school, but have a specialized feel and almost a smaller feel, if they choose, in an area that is of interest to them.
So that’s been, again, trying to work creatively, come up with ideas that aren’t necessarily budget-busters, but improving and working with what you have. I think we, in those years, did a good job. I think the school district has continued to do a good job. We’ve implemented programs that we are now seeing some of the kids who went through the school and particularly the tenth grade, their MCAS scores, we’re seeing real improvement now by doing certain things in the lower grades. All of those things are important.
Q: Would you like to see national grants to encourage that sort of education model, at the federal level?
At the federal level, if I’m the representative in Washington, what I would like to see the federal government do is fulfill their duties to the local governments, both state and local, by funding their mandates, starting with the No Child Left Behind Act. They have really shirked their responsibilities. It was underfunded to begin with, and I remember the superintendent of our district saying, “You know, if they don’t fund this, it’s going to be just another drain and an administrative nightmare,” and that’s exactly what happened.
When I was Mayor and chair of the committee, some of the big drain — and it continues to be — is the fact that they don’t fund special education. It had been funded at one point up to 40% of the budget, again, mandates from the federal government, but now in some areas it’s down to 12 or 13%. And the cost is skyrocketing. What I would like to see is the federal government really fund those mandates, and really partner the way they should be doing with us, in every district across the Fifth and across the country, quite frankly.
The other thing I would like to see them do is reinstitute programs like the community school program that they had in effect at one point in time, where we could utilize the resources of the schools to have at least some of these schools open until 9:00 at night. Kids could do homework, computer labs, gym, things that keep them actively engaged in a structured setting. I think those are things that are important to every youngster and to our society in general. …