Lowell Politics Newsletter: May 12, 2024

Two weeks ago the Lowell City Council rebuffed an effort to revisit the 1989 court order that continues to control how students are assigned to the Lowell Public Schools. In my coverage of that meeting, I suggested some historical context of that court order might be of interest to readers. Today’s newsletter will take on that task. The starting point for this story comes long before 1989.

Lowell burst on the American scene in the 1820s as the first large scale integrated textile manufacturing center in the country. However, the city’s dominance was short-lived. After the Civil War, newer manufacturing centers emerged and overtook Lowell. By the early 1920s, the textile industry had mostly departed from the city. It’s been said that in Lowell the Great Depression came early and stayed late. It was only in the late 1970s with the emergence of computer maker Wang Labs and the arrival of Lowell National Historical Park that the city’s fortunes seemed to improve.

However, Lowell’s renaissance was not universally experienced. While downtown was remade with the help of millions of dollars in federal funding, just across Dutton Street conditions in the Acre neighborhood worsened with little done to alleviate the poverty of those living there. By the 1970s, many of those living in the Acre were Latino.

A small number of Puerto Ricans settled in Lowell in the late 1950s but their numbers grew in the following decade. Through the 1970s, more Puerto Ricans and increasing numbers of Dominicans and Colombians, many drawn here by jobs in the temporarily revived textile industry and now departed businesses like Joan Fabrics. By 1987, Latino residents made up more than 10 percent of the city’s population. Most of the Latinos settled in the Acre and almost all enrolled their children in the public schools.

Lowell’s rising economic tide of the late 1970s bypassed the public school system which housed students in ancient and inadequate facilities that dated to before the Civil War. There were some newer schools, but these had mostly been constructed in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.

Although Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to mandate transitional bilingual education and was seen as a national leader in the field, Lowell lagged, failing to provide equitable facilities and opportunities to all students. Early efforts to desegregate the Lowell schools were frustrated by political opposition. For instance, in 1982, Superintendent of Schools Patrick Mogan proposed a magnet school system to help achieve integration, but the school committee rejected the plan. Mogan, who was about to retire, accused the school committee of “deliberately resisting the integration of city schools.”

In the succeeding years, parents of Latino students became more active and better organized. Their demands for improvement in the school system became more powerful. Pressure also came from the state department of education which pushed Lowell to integrate its schools.

Even more pressure came from a new group of immigrants. Changes in US foreign policy in the late 1970s allowed large numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia to come to the United States. The federal government identified “settlement zones” around the country to receive the new arrivals. Lowell was one of these. At first, the number of Southeast Asians who came to Lowell was fewer than 1,000. However, during the 1980s, the economy of Massachusetts boomed in what became known as the “Massachusetts Miracle” while much of the rest of the country was mired in recession. The early-arriving Southeast Asians found ample job opportunities and adequate housing and soon created a thriving cultural infrastructure that featured Cambodian grocery stores, Khmer language video outlets, and perhaps most importantly, a Buddhist temple in neighboring North Chelmsford.

This all prompted a secondary migration in which Cambodian people who had settled elsewhere in the United States relocated to Lowell. By the late 1980s, the Lowell Public Schools were enrolling an average of 50 new Cambodian students each week. While the 1980 census counted fewer than 100 Cambodians in Lowell, the 1990 census identified nearly 20,000.

By early 1987, it seemed clear that Lowell had to radically change the way it ran its schools. How to do that proved to be a huge challenge.

School Superintendent Henry Mroz first proposed reopening the Riverside School on Woburn Street, an older building that had recently been closed, and pairing it with the newer J. G. Pyne School that was one-third of a mile away. Rather than assigning mostly minority students to the reopened Riverside, Mroz proposed combining the new students with the existing students at the Pyne and balancing all the students between the two schools. (At that time, 3 percent of the students at the Pyne were minority while the school system was 40 percent minority.)

Parents of the existing Pyne students vigorously opposed this plan and brought their protests to a receptive school committee which rejected the proposal. Next, Superintendent Mroz proposed renting “portable classroom” (basically, trailers configured as classrooms and placed on the grounds of an existing school so other facilities could be shared). However, minority parents opposed this plan out of fear that the portables would house bilingual classes, further isolating their children from their mainstream peers.

A special school committee meeting held at Lowell High School and attended by nearly 100 parents, mostly Latino or Southeast Asian, abruptly ended when School Committee member George Kouloheras refused to participate because of the involvement of Spanish and Khmer translators (who were needed by the parents, many of whom did not speak English). The ensuing chaos spilled out onto the street with parents calling Kouloheras a racist who was “fomenting a divisive atmosphere in the schools” and Kouloheras responding that “Hispanics are the worst of all in this city.”

Days later, on Saturday, May 16, 1987, the Boston Globe published a story titled “Lowell students learn bitter lessons” which reported how Latino and Cambodian students enrolled in the Lowell public schools were being educated in hallways, boiler rooms, bathrooms, and in “tiny and poorly ventilated rooms” in the YMCA and the Boys Club. Appearing on the top of the first page of the Globe’s Metro section and illustrated with compelling pictures of the children in abominable conditions, the story shined a region-wide spotlight on the situation in Lowell and led state education officials to turn up the pressure on Lowell.

At a special meeting at City Hall on Friday, June 5, 1987, representatives from the state Department of Education and the state Attorney General said, “we haven’t been as close as we are today to taking a school system to court to convince a school committee about equal opportunity for education.” The officials added that the School Committee must go beyond portable classrooms and urged the adoption of a centralized enrollment plan. The Assistant Attorney General at the meeting added that “the state will file a lawsuit against the city and begin court proceedings this summer if School Committee members do not decide to expand the school housing plan by next week.”

Until then, the School Committee had consistently rejected centralized enrollment by a 4 to 3 vote, mostly on the grounds that it would “destroy the neighborhood school system.” The four voting against central enrollment were Kouloheras, Kathryn Stoklosa, Gerald Durkin and George O’Hare. Voting in support of central enrollment were Regina Faticanti, David Allen, and Mayor Robert Kennedy.

The admonitions of state officials had their intended effect because on June 11, 1987, George O’Hare changed his vote. As reported in that day’s Lowell Sun, O’Hare explained why he changed his position:

“I have always fought for the neighborhood school concept and I always thought it would work, but that’s not what the state Department of Education and attorney general are telling us. I am not going to jeopardize $2.5 million of bilingual education funds and the reputation of Lowell schools to prove a point. We are faced with the dark specter of legal conflicts looming on the horizon. The result of these proceedings could create an atmosphere of discord and distrust in Lowell that may take a generation to heal. There are a few points in the plan I disagree with but ultimately it is going to provide an equal education to every kid in the city of Lowell.”

O’Hare then joined Allen, Faticanti and Kennedy in supporting the central enrollment plan. Kouloheras, Stoklosa and Durkin all voted against it.

Even under the best of conditions, implementing a new citywide school assignment plan that utilized a substantial amount of school buses would be a difficult, complex task. In Lowell, with just two months to prepare, the transportation plan in place when school opened in September 1987 was woefully inadequate. There were too few bus drivers and the routes that did run were off schedule. Children were late getting to school and late getting home. The problems were magnified by busing opponents who highlighted every shortfall and stoked discontent among parents and voters.

The transportation problems persisted through September and October, right up until the November 3, 1987, city election. Just days before the election, the Lowell Sun editorialized “Nowhere in Lowell is the collapse in leadership more evident than on the School Committee and in the School Department. After years of sleep-walking, the committee came alive this past summer only to erupt into bigotry, rancor and exploitation.”

In the School Committee race, George Kouloheras topped the ticket. George O’Hare lost. However, the newly elected School Committee was evenly split over central enrollment, with Kouloheras, incumbent Kathryn Stoklosa, and newcomer Sean Sullivan firmly against it, and newcomers Mary Anna Sullivan and Kathleen Janas joining incumbent Regina Faticanti in support of the plan. (School Committee incumbents Gerald Durkin and David Allen had both run for City Council with Durkin winning and Allen losing.)

Although Mayor Robert Kennedy was reelected to the council, his term as mayor and his presence on the school committee would end in January. The new mayor would be the deciding vote on the continued viability of central enrollment in Lowell. On January 4, 1988, longtime City Councilor Richard Howe (my father) was unanimously elected mayor by the City Council.

Back in August 1987, after the School Committee had voted for central enrollment but before implementation had begun, a coalition of parents commenced a class action lawsuit against the city of Lowell on behalf of all linguistic minority students in the Lowell Public Schools. The court filing alleged that the Lowell School Committee and the City of Lowell had engaged in unconstitutional segregation of the Lowell public schools and a denial of equal educational opportunities to students of limited English proficiency in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.

As the chaos of Lowell’s school transportation plan played out through the fall and with the city election results leaving the future of central enrollment in doubt, the lawsuit made its way through the US District Court in Boston. The US Department of Justice joined the suit in support of the parents and at a court hearing in January 1988 urged the judge to take over and run the Lowell Public Schools.

At that hearing Mayor Howe, accompanied by City Solicitor Tom Sweeney and Superintendent George Tsapatsaris, explained to the judge that he had just been elected mayor and asked for additional time to negotiate with the parents. Over the objection of the Justice Department, the judge granted a continuance and serious negotiations commenced.

The issue for the parents was not just central enrollment. Even if their children were in a racially balanced school, if the proper support systems were not also in place, the children had little hope of succeeding in school. What that support system should be was the subject of the negotiations between the city and the parents.

Frequent meetings made progress and an agreement was reached late in 1988. The main provisions of the agreement were:

  • “The school district would reach out to the hundreds of students who had dropped out since 1986 and offer them renewed educational opportunities, both bilingual and standard education programs.”
  • “A school that used bilingual instruction for all students would be established with a ratio of 60 percent white and 40 percent minority students. The school would emphasize American and Hispanic cultures.”
  • “All school notices would be translated into the native language of parents and interpreters would be available at all school committee meetings and disciplinary hearings.”
  • “Special counselors and tutors would be available to help students who left the bilingual program.”
  • “The school department would hire more administrators, teachers, guidance counselors and other specialists to help implement the program.”
  • “The Federal court will monitor the plan indefinitely.”

On February 24, 1989, US District Court Judge Edward Harrington entered a judgment in the case in which he “ordered, adjudged, and decreed” that the agreement negotiated by the parties would be “entered as a Consent Order in this case binding upon the organizational entities on both sides of this matter, their successors in office, agents, employees, and all persons in active consent or participation with them.”

It would be nice to say that everyone lived happily ever after but that is not the case. On the positive side, the school settlement pushed Lowell to the top of the list for the Massachusetts school building assistance program and through the 1990s the city built nearly a dozen new schools with 90 percent state funding. Also, some of the provisions of the plan, particularly those that ensure racial balance in school assignments and the provision of translation services have become commonplace.

But the city didn’t have to wait long to see a negative reaction to the settlement. That came in the following election when George Kouloheras sponsored a ballot referendum that would declare English as the Official Language of Lowell. In a pre-election query, the Lowell Sun found that the measure was opposed by just six of eighteen city council candidates and four of twelve school committee candidates.

Those running for council who opposed the English Only referendum were Richard Howe, Kathleen Kelley, Fred Doyle, Larry Martin, Christos Mavraides, and Robert Moriarty. Those who supported the English Only referendum were Edward Bud Caulfield, Gerald Durkin, Brendan Fleming, Curtis LeMay, Tarsy Poulios, George Anthes, Francis King, Michael McLaughlin and Raymond Rourke. Robert Kennedy and Leo Nolan were undecided.

Those running for school committee who opposed the English Only referendum were Regina Faticanti, Ken Powers, Mary Anna Sullivan, and Ray Riddick Jr. Those who supported the English Only referendum were Mary Cullen, George Kouloheras, Kathryn Stoklosa, Sean Sullivan, Sam Garas, Kathleen Janas, George O’Hare, and Steven Panagiotakos.

The English Only referendum passed with 14,875 voting YES and 5,679 voting NO.

Lowell Sun editorial the next day (“A sad symbol in Lowell”) wrote that the measure “was a terrible symbol for Lowell to adopt after its long history of welcoming people of other lands and languages. The campaign brought out a level of civic meanness and ethnic bigotry that should have no place in any American city.”

The measure was non-binding and nothing official ever came from it but the lopsided vote in favor was a clear reminder to the parents of the minority students and to those who supported them that their hard-won achievements were constantly in jeopardy of being erased. Although the open bigotry that characterized much of the opposition to school equity 37 years ago has mostly subsided from public view in Lowell now, national politics and a quick dip into any Facebook feed will show that such sentiments are alive and well in America today. That recognition also helps explain the passion on display at the Lowell City Council meeting two weeks ago when several dozen Lowell community members spoke in opposition to undoing the 1989 school consent decree.

One Response to Lowell Politics Newsletter: May 12, 2024

  1. Elden Kurt Phaneuf, Jr. says:

    Most edifying and uncomfortably familiar within the current context of school and curricular reform. Sadly, even communities not obviously defined by ethnic, linguistic or socioeconomic borders (like here in Central New York) are beginning to FEEL like some retrograde “Wild West”…

    Thanks for your research and concise rhetoric, Mr. Howe.

    Looking forward to seeing you while I’m in Lowell for LCK 2024 in October–

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