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The Great Divide

Dead mice, crumbling concrete: Education reform won’t fix the sorry state of some schools

The Pickering Middle School in Lynn, emblematic of the district’s challenges. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

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LYNN — Step into Kaitlyn Lausier’s basement classroom, and years of financial neglect in this once-prospering city can be seen everywhere: the long fluorescent tube lights, the bare brick walls, the flaking radiator that warns in English and Spanish not to touch its scorching sides.

Students have been burned by these iron-ribbed heaters at Pickering Middle School, where cramped underground quarters like Lausier’s have been pressed into service to relieve overcrowding.


Gateway cities like Lynn, midsize urban centers whose lower property values are a draw for lower-income households, are slated to be among the big winners in the sweeping school-funding reform bill signed into law last week by Governor Charlie Baker. Such districts are expected to see millions in fresh spending from the new law — a down payment meant to reverse yawning student achievement gaps fueled by years of underinvestment.

But Lausier’s basement classroom alone shows just how far Lynn has fallen behind. And even as city officials celebrate passage of a law that will dramatically increase spending on students, they must face a sobering truth: The extra money will probably do little to address Lynn’s tumbledown schools, complicating efforts to improve services to its surging ranks of low-income students.

One of Lausier’s most pressing concerns, for instance, emanates from an adjoining room that she said houses the century-old school’s ductwork.

“I would like to have that room cleaned out so it doesn’t smell like dead mouse in here all the time,” she said.

Hailed as a transformational overhaul of the state’s outmoded school-funding formula, the so-called Student Opportunity Act is poised to pump an additional $1.5 billion into school districts across Massachusetts over the next seven years. It specifically targets disadvantaged students in poorer urban districts like Lynn’s.


“This legislation is about making sure that every kid in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, regardless of where they live, where they go to school . . . has the opportunity to get the education they need to be great,” Baker said when he signed the bill at English High School in Boston.

While legislators have so far declined to estimate the projected increases for individual districts, state Senator Jason M. Lewis said the law would likely double per-pupil spending in many Gateway cities, a majority of which spend less per pupil than the state average. He added that Lynn’s spending is likely to increase from around $13,000 today to roughly $26,000 per student when the law is fully implemented.

The increase “is going to be much greater for districts with large numbers of low-income students and English learners,” said the Winchester Democrat, who helped craft the legislation. “Lynn is going to receive tens of millions of dollars more.”

But in the midst of an effort lauded by many as a once-in-a-generation push to close opportunity gaps that cleave the state’s poorer students from their more affluent peers, one glaring disparity has garnered scant attention: Gateway cities, home to many of the state’s poorest students, are significantly more likely to have very old schools, an enduring inequality in plain sight.

Statewide, fewer than 10 percent of schools are more than 100 years old, according to a 2016 survey. But that figure doubles to nearly 20 percent in Gateway cities.


Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Aging facilities are particularly common in places like Haverhill, New Bedford, and Lawrence, where roughly a third or more of all schools have crossed the century mark.

The problem is even worse in Lynn, where roughly 40 percent of schools date from 1920 or before. Meanwhile, thousands of students have entered the district over the past decade — including more than 400 high-schoolers this year alone, according to school officials — pushing antique buildings to the breaking point.

Reports of execrable schools in Gateway cities are legion: mold and rodents in a New Bedford elementary school, classrooms with no windows in Holyoke. Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed this year alleged a host of other ills, including leaky roofs, faucets that tested positive for lead, and classrooms where the temperature can reach 90 degrees.

And that’s to say nothing of Boston Public Schools: A report found a majority of the city’s schools need substantial renovations or repairs.

But unlike in Boston, where enrollment has declined over the years, many of the Gateway districts have experienced dramatic student growth.

In Lynn, where overcrowding mixes with deplorable building conditions, kids are being placed in danger. City officials say crumbling bricks crashed to the ground near a play area at the 121-year-old Tracy Elementary. Someone attempted to mend a rusted chain-link fence with duct tape at the 122-year-old Aborn Elementary. A 1907 window at the Pickering simply “fell out” during the school day a few years ago. No one was injured, but documents filed with the state warned that “if a class had been in the room, the results would have been catastrophic.”


Lewis, who noted the law promises the largest increase in state spending on school facilities, acknowledged it won’t address all of the urgent building needs across the state’s roughly 300 districts.

“It’s going to help, but we know that’s not the sole answer,” he said. “There are challenges here . . . particularly for Gateway cities and their ability to fund their school building projects.”

The law will add $200 million to the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s annual spending cap. The authority helps finance everything from construction projects to roof repairs.

But with its previous cap of $600 million, it has lacked the capacity to meet the needs of the state’s roughly 1,800 public school buildings, approving just one-third of all applications in 2018. The law also calls for a reassessment of school construction financing, Lewis said.

“We know that there’s more of a need than we have the funds to remedy,’’ said the authority’s executive director, Jack McCarthy. “If we had unlimited amounts of money we could build all the new schools. But we don’t.”

In an era when school construction projects can exceed $300 million apiece, state aid goes only so far before municipalities must kick in a hefty contribution, usually via property tax hikes. That’s often a tough sell to voters, particularly in cash-strapped communities, which routinely strike down proposed projects.


While Lynn did manage to partner with the state on a new middle school in recent years, voters rejected a 2017 bid to build two more — despite a state pledge to reimburse the city for up to 80 percent of eligible costs. The failure at the polls underscores Lynn’s hardships but also widespread voter reluctance to finance new school facilities.

The district’s building needs alone, as outlined by Lynn Mayor Thomas M. McGee, could exceed $400 million — a figure that would potentially drain much of the authority’s current $600 million cap.

“We need to build eight schools,” said McGee, who was elected in 2017. “We don’t really have the ability to build one.”

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Bounded by the affluent towns of Lynnfield and Swampscott, Lynn has long been a city of immigrants. A thriving shoe industry once offered steady work to the city’s newly minted Americans, and the General Electric plant promised a berth in the middle class.

But as Lynn’s fortunes turned, the city found itself deep in debt and many of its residents mired in poverty. The city recently borrowed $14 million to avert a crippling budget crisis, which left it short-staffed in a variety of departments, including police and public works, McGee said.

Lynn schools are no exception. The city has struggled in the past to pay its share of the district’s budget, he said. Meanwhile, the previous funding formula, which dated to 1993, hadn’t kept up with inflation, and, according to one analysis, underfunded the district by $47 million last year alone.

“There just weren’t sufficient [resources],” said Lynn Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Tutwiler. He added that although best practices call for one social worker for every 250 or so students, Lynn has more than double that ratio. “Students were the ones that paid the price.”

But even with an unprecedented cash influx to come for educational programming, if not facilities, substantial questions remain about whether the district will be able to climb out of a hole wrought by decades of underfunding and, some say, mismanagement.

Lynn’s schools have struggled in recent years with basic compliance in areas like special education and instruction for those learning English. Officials have cited the district for a variety of issues such as running unapproved day programs, failing to provide services, and, in at least one case, not completing a timely evaluation for a student with special needs.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that [the money] would make a difference,” said an attorney who works with Lynn families, but declined to be identified for fear of retaliation by the district. “[But] there needs to be some significant institutional changes. Otherwise, I think it’s going to be a long time before they get things moving in the right direction.”

District officials said special education services have improved since an $18 million bump in state aid earlier this year enabled the district to hire a number of special ed staffers.

“We prioritized special ed just because that was a place that hadn’t received the attention it really needs in the past decade or so,” said Tutwiler, who’s now in his second year as superintendent. “Staying compliant in special education is challenging when you don’t have the appropriate staffing.”

But if the hires have improved services, it comes as a surprise to Chandra Slattery, who said her son Tyler has rarely received the speech therapy Lynn schools are obligated to provide.

“I get no communication from the school at all,” said Slattery, a cashier at Home Depot.

Now 16, Tyler arrived in Lynn as an eighth-grader from Wakefield, where he regularly got therapy for his speech impediment.

But Tyler, a sophomore at the vocational high school, said his therapy sessions have come to a standstill. “He never received it,” Slattery said.

Tutwiler said funding from the new law will help the district address many shortcomings, enabling it to provide better services and fill positions in special ed and English-language instruction, as well as hire more guidance counselors, social workers, and other staff.

He added that the district’s future spending is difficult to predict until Lynn gets more detail from the state. Even so, he added, there’s one thing the district needs if it’s ever to be truly made whole: “New schools. I mean, like, that’s obviously the solution.”

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Kaitlyn Lausier’s basement classroom in the Pickering Middle School. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In her basement room, Pickering math teacher Kaitlyn Lausier prepared for her next class one fall morning. An American flag hung between a floor fan and a pair of sparsely populated bulletin boards. It was a quiet moment without the children she worries may get hurt during class.

“I would love to have students not sitting on top of the radiators,” she said, indicating the rear row of desks. “I won’t let them go near them, but it’s hard when their seats are right there.”

During a quick tour of the school, Tutwiler said the facilities challenge has forced the district to think strategically because nearly every available space is in use. The district is looking to purchase additional portable classrooms, and it recently turned an annex at the vocational high school into a place to house a program for eighth-graders.

The physical state of Lynn’s schools is especially fraught for parents like Joy Bartlett, whose son, Joseph, is a fifth-grader at the packed Sisson Elementary. The school does not have a gym, dedicated cafeteria, library, or art room, a number of parents said. Without much extra space in the building, Joseph, who has cerebral palsy, must often receive physical therapy in the foyer, she said.

“There’s no space for anything,’’ said Bartlett, who’s already dreading when Joseph goes to the Pickering next year. “All the kids know his business. They know he’s in therapy.”

It also troubles Tom Dobbins, who recently moved home to Lynn with his family from Windham, Maine, where, he said, his son had plenty of outdoor activities at school.

Joy Bartlett picked up her 10-year-old son Joey from the Edward A. Sisson School in Lynn. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

But at the Sisson, Dobbins said, his son’s first-grade class spends most of the six-hour school day in the same overcrowded classroom. His son Cole receives speech therapy in the back of the class, which Dobbins said can be distracting.

“They’re caged up like wild animals,” said Dobbins, who’s contemplating removing his kids from Lynn schools. “It’s such a shame when you see the faces in the schoolyard of the first-graders. . . . It’s almost like they’re being defeated.”

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Partial funding for this initiative is provided by the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based foundation that has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The foundation has no special access to Globe reporters and the Globe has complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @meghanirons.