Lowell Politics Newsletter: April 28, 2024

Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting was dominated by the debate on a motion jointly filed by Councilor Kim Scott and Mayor Dan Rourke requesting “the Council, through the Mayor, bring forward a motion requesting the School Committee to begin the process of vacating the consent decree to accommodate changing of the school zones.”

By way of background, in the mid-1980s, a coalition of parents of Lowell Public School students who were members of minority groups filed a lawsuit against the city alleging discrimination in the allocation of school resources and school assignment practices. The U.S. Department of Justice joined in the suit on the side of the parents. In 1988, the city and the parents negotiated a settlement in which the city changed how students were assigned to schools. Specifically, enrollment was centralized for the city and while students might be assigned to the school closest to their homes, other factors, particularly achieving racial balance in all schools, were also factors. This resulted in an increase in the number of children who rode buses to school. The U.S. District Court judge hearing the case issued a “consent decree” that incorporated the settlement and retained jurisdiction over the matter indefinitely. Consequently, any change to how students are assigned to schools must be approved by the court, otherwise the city would be in violation of the court order.

From time-to-time since that settlement, a few elected officials have raised the possibility of modifying the agreement but thus far none has succeeded.

On Tuesday, several dozen community members spoke in opposition to this motion. They cited many reasons for their opposition. No member of the public spoke in support of the motion.

As co-maker of the motion, Kim Scott was the first Councilor to speak. She acknowledged the historic need for the consent decree but said the Lowell school system in 2024 is much different than it was in 1988, citing a long list of resources meant to bring more equity to the schools. She said this motion was meant to begin a conversation and that any change would have to be supported by data and extensive planning. Among the reasons for considering a change, she cited the cost and unreliability of school buses, the traffic congestion at every school at arrival and dismissal, the premise that if a child is able to walk to school, attendance will improve, and the benefits of money saved on busing being spent elsewhere on education.

Erik Gitschier spoke next. He said he would vote against the motion and that the Mayor could have brought this to the School Committee first. Gitschier said he made a motion nearly two years ago which asked the School Department for information on how the consent decree might be modified but has yet to get a response to that motion. He took that as an indication that the School Department was not interested in changing the system so on this motion, he would “listen to the educators.”

John Descoteaux spoke next. Significantly, his full-time job is transportation director of the Lowell Public Schools so he has been intimately involved in school busing for many years. Descoteaux asked Scott to amend the motion to instead ask the Mayor to create an ad hoc subcommittee of both the Council and the School Committee to investigate the possibility of modifying the consent decree. Scott assented to this change. Descoteaux said he had investigated the busing issue many times. He said he’d like to keep the consent decree in place but would like it modified so that it had more “assignment zones” than the two created in the settlement. He’d like the new zones to better reflect existing neighborhood boundaries. He also stressed that everyone – not just elected officials – “must be at the table.”

The next Councilor to speak was Wayne Jenness. He said the Council should not be leading this effort. It should originate with a parent group or the School Committee. If either group launched such a discussion, Jenness would participate in it but he won’t be the one starting that conversation. He said the City has made many strategic decisions over the past 35 years based on this consent decree so simply undoing it will have many unintended consequences.

Corey Robinson said when he first ran he supported neighborhood schools. They seemed like a good idea that would help with community building but that is not the intent of this motion, he said. It’s just intended to save money and it will lead to unintended consequences. He also cited studies that show that children from poor households perform better when they attend schools that include children from middle class households, suggesting that the current method of school assignment helps achieve that.

Vesna Nuon said the speakers made clear they want community engagement on this issue. He believes it’s wise to revisit the consent decree but that it should not be rushed. He’d prefer asking the School Committee to create an ad hoc committee to discuss it.

Paul Ratha Yem said he’s talked to many residents in his district about this motion. The concept of neighborhood schools sounds good at first but when they realize it would deprive children from a poorer neighborhood of exposure to children from a wealthier neighborhood, they see the neighborhood school concept to be harmful and oppose it.

Rita Mercier said this meeting was “an eye opener” for her. She came to the meeting with the assumption that parents would prefer that their children not have to ride a bus to get to school but based on what the speakers said that is not their primary concern. Mercier said that in the past if a constituent came to her with an issue related to the schools, she would file a motion with the Council with the expectation that the matter would be forwarded to the School Committee. Her approach was not to pre-empt the power of the School Committee, but to try to assist the constituent. On this issue, however, she now felt it more appropriate to leave it to the School Committee to initiate any action themselves so she would vote No on this motion.

Sokhary Chau asked for some clarification of the wording of the motion they would be voting on. Before that happened, however, Mayor Rourke relinquished the chair to Vice Chair Yem and spoke from the floor. Rourke said he “thought progress had been made tonight” and that he heard the desire of the speakers to proceed with full community engagement and to proceed with caution. He closed by saying the city has made much progress thus far but there is always room for improvement.

With that, Clerk Michael Geary read the amended motion as saying something like, “Request the Mayor to create an ad hoc subcommittee of the Council and School Committee to begin the process of vacating the consent decree” but almost before he finished saying that a chorus of Councilors interjected to remove “vacating” and replace it with “studying” or something like that.

Here’s how the voting went:

  • Nuon – NO
  • Rourke – YES
  • Scott – YES
  • Yem – NO
  • Chou – YES
  • Descoteaux – YES
  • Gitschier – NO
  • Jenness – NO
  • Leahy – NO
  • Mercier – NO
  • Robinson – NO

The substitute motion failed with seven voting against and four voting in favor.


Although this motion failed, the idea of “neighborhood schools” is enticing for reasons good and bad. To fully understand this issue requires some knowledge about the conditions in the Lowell Public Schools in the 1980s including opposition to earlier attempts to integrate the schools, the details of how the lawsuit arose, how the settlement was negotiated, the consequences that flowed from the settlement, and many other things that were going on in Lowell at the time. For that reason, I plan to devote a full newsletter sometime in the coming weeks to telling that story, so please watch for that.


Had this motion on the school consent decree not been on Tuesday’s agenda, the lead story would have been a joint motion by Councilors Gitschier and Robinson to have the City Manager “start the process of notifying Lupoli Companies LLC of our intent to terminate the current agreement per Section 23 of the Land Disposition Contract for failure to meet Section 11 (Project Schedule) and Section 10 (Description of Improvements).”

As I’ve written about before, the city and Lupoli Companies LLC entered into an agreement whereby the city conveyed three parcels (some consisting of multiple lots) in the Hamilton Canal Innovation District to Lupoli Companies on the condition that Lupoli would construct a 12-14 story building on one parcel, a 50,000 square foot building on another, and a parking garage on a third. Another condition of the conveyance was that work on each structure would begin by a set calendar date. Other than the parking garage, which is up and open for business, work on the other two parcels never began despite the deadline for the start of construction passing many months ago. The Lupoli Companies has proposed modifying the agreement to scale back the size and type of buildings it promised to construct. That has yet to happen. Rather than agree to the proposed amendment, this motion seeks to exercise a clause in the contract which would permit the city to take back the land due to the developer’s nonperformance.

Shortly after Councilor Gitschier began speaking on this motion, he was interrupted by the City Solicitor who urged the discussion take place in executive session since it might become the subject matter of litigation between the city and Lupoli. Gitschier and Robinson disagreed with this advice but a majority of Councilors seemed to feel obliged to follow it. A substitute motion was made to refer this motion to executive session but because of some procedural maneuvering, the original motion was voted on first. Only Councilors Gitschier and Robinson voted Yes (to send notice of default to Lupoli now) but notably, Councilors Jenness and Leahy voted Present which I took to mean they were not opposed to sending the notice but felt the need to first discuss that in Executive Session. Although the remaining seven councilors voted No on this motion, some of them may have done so only because they wanted to go into executive session first.  That motion was voted on next and it passed unanimously.


I have a couple of walking tours coming up. On Saturday, May 18, 2024, at 10am, I’ll lead a walk on Veterans Buried in Lowell Cemetery. This walk will begin at the Knapp Avenue entrance, is free, and will take about 90 minutes.

Then, on Saturday, May 25, 2024, at 10am, I’ll lead a tour of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. This walk will begin at Lowell National Park Visitor Center at 246 Market Street and will last about 90 minutes.

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