THE SAGA OF ADULT LEARNING CENTER
By Dalia Diaz
Watching the Lawrence City Council meetings is the best way to ascertain what’s going on in the city and I try to watch them on television as much as possible. The discussions about next year’s budget are the most important meetings to attend because you can learn not only what the mayor is proposing, but where the councilors stand on the issues.
One of the campaign promises that Mayor Brian A. De Peña made was to hold fiscally accountable any department or agency that receives funding from City Hall (the taxpayers’ monies). Asking questions about how someone is using somebody else’s money will be always uncomfortable, particularly if they are not providing outstanding results.
This is the case with the Adult Learning Center (ALC). They are twitchy because they are now under the radar of the municipal administration. That was obvious by the number of residents who spoke before the council in defense of the work they do.
In a recent conversation with Mayor De Peña, he explained that the budget presented by the Superintendent Cynthia Paris was incomplete. He needed specific numbers to justify the expenses, instead of totals. “I’m not questioning the quality of their work.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552, I received the public record about the problem with Adult Learning Center. This is what I learned about it.
I found that the Mayor is not, by any means, questioning the importance of the programs that the ALC offers, but the results, which has to do directly with the historic waiting list of the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.
The City of Lawrence created the Mayor’s ESOL Task Force in 2014 to reduce the outrageous and long waitlist that prevents many people from learning English timely. At first, many local agencies signed up to help solve the problem. Still, some small agencies eventually stepped down when they realized that the monopoly did not allow them to eat a piece of the pie (funding) since the biggest agencies were engulfing most of it.
Today, there seems not to be a light at the end of the tunnel because the problem persists. As of today, the participating agencies of the Mayor’s Task Force are: The Adult Learning Center, Northern Essex Community College, Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, Lawrence Community Works, Notre Dame Education Center, International Institute of Greater Lawrence, the Merrimack Valley Immigrant Education Center, and Olive in July. This last non-profit receives funding from grants and donations.
The Task Force has come up with different ideas to improve the system, such as creating a centralized list to share the names of enrolled students to prevent duplication in the list. People can be enrolled in the ESOL program, but this does not mean they will start off classes quickly. Instead, they are entered into a waiting list. The agencies can take weeks or months before they call someone to start the program. Sometimes, people are never contacted. Since ALC receives state and federal monies, they are considered regional agency, which means that any resident from Andover, North Andover, Haverhill, Methuen, Lowell, and other surrounding communities can register in the ESOL programs. We discovered that even people from the State of New Hampshire have used the program in Lawrence. All the above agencies can receive state or federal monies to support their programs. They can get from $2,500 to $3,500 per student each fiscal year.
Waiting list Current Status FY22 at the Adult Learning Center
|Total ESOL and ABE students on the waitlist in 2022||1,014|
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) administer state and federal funding. In Lawrence, the school district is the department that has complete control of monies received from all sources. Out of these agencies, the Adult Learning Center is the only agency that receives funding directly from the local taxpayers, $1,300,000. But no state law mandates a municipality to allocate money for adult education.
ALC argues that they have a long waiting list because of a lack of space. But this is far from being accurate, and this is an excuse to request spaces at no cost for ALC. It is my understanding that ALC has been using part of the Lawrence Public Library, the Arlington School, the Leahy School, and I believe the Wetherbee School.
Early in January of 2022, the Mayor visited ALC. After seeing the poor conditions of the building located on 147 Haverhill Street, he decided to relocate ALC to a safe and ADA-compliant building located at 255 Essex Street. The move is expected to occur in September of this year. I learned that the negotiations with ALC started when someone from ALC wrote a document and posted it on Facebook, accusing the Mayor of defunding the program when in reality, the funds have been put on hold until ALC provides a full report of their finances and how they were utilizing the money.
Mayor De Peña wanted to find out if the program was giving the expected result considering the considerable amount of funds we, the taxpayers, have been giving them. Since ALC has been using the monies to fund other programs that exacerbate the problem of the long waiting list. The Mayor asked them to create an action plan to resolve the problem. In addition to state and federal grants, all the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts receive funding from the state earmark line item 7035-0002 for Adult Basic Education (ABE). This fiscal year Massachusetts will provide $60,000,000 for adult essential education services.
FY23 BUDGET FOR THE ADULT LEARNING CENTER
In this FY23 Budget of $2,570,655 (variance $180,722 in increase) ALC reported twenty (20) employees in payroll. However, after we requested a detailed spending report, we found that the current staffing is sixty-nine (69) employees: forty-two (42) employees are paid with state monies, and twenty-seven (27) employees are paid with local monies. Five (5) out of these employees are receiving local and state payments.
ANNUAL REPORT FROM DESE ABOUT THE QUALITY OF INSTRUCTION AT ALC
On March 2, 2022, DESE visited ALC to assess the quality of instructions. They found that the teaching-learning process is inconsistent across the board.
In the end, three things are happening from this dilemma: 1) The Adult Learning Center will be funded. But guess who is paying over $500,000 to support it? The School Department, of course, because they are fiscally responsible for the agency; 2) City Hall is generously providing the rest of the money, but under the condition that the Adult Learning Center has to present the Mayor with an action plan to solve the problem of the long waiting list, and 3) The Adult Learning Center will be under watch for many years to come.
Who is the biggest winner in this situation? We, the taxpayers because we finally have someone at City Hall that is holding people accountable.