School district problems: $2.3 million budget gap, no state aid for King Open construction (update)

The state has turned down aid for the $81 million reconstruction of the King Open School, according to discussion Tuesday by district officials at a School Committee meeting. (Photo: Watchdog New England)

The school district is short $2.3 million for fiscal year 2014, and along with looking in a budget roundtable at various other ways of closing the gap, School Committee members raised the possibility Tuesday of asking the city for more money.

Estimated funding for the year is $149.5 million, and the district is on track to spend $151.8 million, according to district Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner.

Members also talked about the state’s rejection of aid for reconstruction of the King Open School, which would leave the city with responsibility for the full $81 million renovation of a building not just hosting two populations for the first time – a K-5 and upper school – but in significant decrepitude.

“Talk to those principals and they would tell you space is very tight. It’s also one of those first baby boom-generation buildings, built after the war in the 1950s, and it’s not well constructed. It’s old, and it’s not old the way the Fletcher-Maynard and Cambridgeport buildings are, which is sturdy brick, but old with some pretty cheap materials. The city wasn’t wealthy in the ’50s and it built schools that were cheaper than were built way back and are being built now. Without question I would argue that as important and perhaps more important as our focus on operating dollars is knowing the future of that project,” said district Chief Operating Officer James Maloney during the roundtable, describing a “ripple effect” that could stall plans for capital projects throughout the district.

In remaking the district this year with an Innovation Agenda that created shared campuses for middle-schoolers, the city planned to spend $84.5 million remaking the 100 Putnam Ave. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School over three years, then get state aid to help with the King Open School, at 850 Cambridge St., and Tobin School, 197 Vassal Lane.

Unfortunately, the state has a long list of projects seeking money, making its verdict – known in the city for a couple of weeks but talked about publicly for the first time Tuesday – understandable, Superintendent Jeffrey Young said.

Solution: The Foundry building?

By a City Council estimate, borrowing money to take on the full cost of school projects would add about $5 million a year to the city’s debt service for two decades. Debt service for the 2013 fiscal year was identified in the budget submitted in April at $47.5 million out of a total $488.2 million.

Based on School Committee talk Tuesday, when three of six members raised the possibility, the council could see calls for more money for the schools budget at the same time it would have to decide on funding a second school campus renovation without state help.

The Foundry building in Kendall Square was mentioned Tuesday as partial solution for district money woes.

Worse, while raised only in passing, the council could face yet another competing call for the use of the city’s Foundry building: a sale to benefit the school district. The 52,000-square-foot Kendall Square structure switched to city ownership in January, traded for a developer’s right to build up a dense, 15-acre biotech lab and office campus, and there has been a cacophony of claims on it – everything from tech space to day care. Councillors have been wrestling over uses for months.

“I think sell the building and set up a debt stabilization fund,” proposed committee vice chairman Fred Fantini.

“Good idea,” said Richard Harding, a fellow committee member.

“One reason I voted for the Innovation Agenda was that the capital plan was going to get done,” Fantini said, noting that the implementation of the agenda also demanded more staff, whose salary and benefits account for 82 percent of the district budget. “This is a year we may have to go back to the city. This is a year I’m real nervous about.”

Toward the end of the last budget process a proposal to ask the council for an additional $500,000 to pay for literacy coaches and guidance counselors for the new upper schools was considered briefly, then withdrawn. In the words of Mervan Osborne, who proposed and withdrew it with Patty Nolan, it was “a precedent we don’t need to set, we don’t want to set.”

Solution: Go back to the well?

“We are a very well-funded district. Some people in this community don’t think that, but I defend what this city has done for the public schools, I think it’s a tremendous amount,” member Marc McGovern said Tuesday. “We’ve managed to not go back to the city several years in a row because of our fiscal discipline.”

Yet with various goals and pressures on the table, including a collective bargaining agreement with teachers, McGovern said this may be the year to plead the case for more money. Harding agreed, so long as the specifics showed a real benefit to the students.

Mayor Henrietta Davis, who leads the committee, said it was “very early in the process to be even thinking” about going back to the city. A good-faith effort to work within the proposed budget would have to be made “before any return to the well,” she said. The district has handled budget gaps before.

The proposed budget of $149.5 million is up $4.6 million from the fiscal year appropriation of $145 million, which is about 30 percent of the entire city budget. A presentation by Spinner showed the proposed money is made up of 84 percent property taxes, 14 percent state aid — less than half of which comes directly from the state, with the rest passed on by the city — and 2 percent from other sources.

In addition to the 82 percent (or $123.7 million) spent on salaries and benefits, which increase in fiscal 2014 because of cost of living increases and step pay raises, the district plans to spend 5 percent (or $7.8 million) on out-of-district tuition; 4 percent each on student transportation and utilities, fuel and facilities maintenance ($5.9 million and $5.8 million, respectively); and 5 percent on other costs.

The $6.8 million in increases seen by the district, putting it $2.3 million over budget, is to go to those step pay and cost-of-living raises ($3.8 million); health insurance and pensions ($2 million); special education tuition ($600,000) and special education service contracts ($500,000); equipment, debt service and energy costs ($400,000); and student transportation costs ($300,000).

“There’s very little flexibility in moving money around, because of the way we budget,” Spinner said. “We don’t really keep large pots of money at a district level. All of the money is disbursed into smaller pots. The only way to make a change of any significance is in staffing levels.”

Staffing, though, is determined by committee priorities such as keeping schools and class sizes small. And district enrollment is at 6,393, up from the previous academic year by 169, and the next year of enrollment is expect to jump to 6,499 — a total 10.3 percent jump from six years ago, according to Spinner’s figures.

(If nothing else, the enrollment figures shows that enacting the Innovation Agenda didn’t propel families who opposed it out of the district, as several suggested would happen. Maloney said the several-student difference in attendance at the upper schools was like what was seen in any other year. “There was no exodus,” he confirmed Tuesday.)

Solution: Cut school absences?

The work of looking at the district budget as a whole and how to make up the $2.3 million shortfall begins in January with a committee budget retreat and public hearing and leads up to an April budget-adoption vote before a final figure is presented to the council in May.

Several parents spoke in favor of asking for more city money last May, and one was back before the committee weeks ago on the same theme, noting that City Manager Robert W. Healy had been boasting in a flier sent to residents that the financial picture was rosy, including “actual revenues [that] far exceeded projections and prior year collections.”

“So I hope the city will be generous with us this year,” said Emily Dexter on Dec. 4, passing forward a graph that she described as showing that “over 10 years, nonschool city spending has increased by 59 percent, while school spending has increased by only 28 percent, so we’ve really fallen behind as a percentage of the budget.”

She also noted that the district’s student absences seemed far too common, with each day a student goes missing costing the district money. She calculated the total as being $44,000 per day, or $8 million per year.

Note: Dexter sent along the following graph on Dec. 20, 2012, for inclusion in this story.

This post was updated Dec. 19, 2012, to correct the address of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School.

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One Response to School district problems: $2.3 million budget gap, no state aid for King Open construction (update)

  1. HeatherHoffman

    Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 8:47 am

    It’s nice to see how much Mr. Fantini respects how hard his East Cambridge neighbors worked to get the Foundry Building. Of course, several city councillors made sure to limit how much benefit we might get from it. To their credit, Councillors Cheung and Toomey have been seeking our opinions on what we’d like to see there. It remains to be seen whether that will have any effect whatsoever.

    This is just the latest illustration of how Cambridge works: community benefits are temporary, no matter what was promised and no matter what the residents gave up in return. Our city government as a whole has no interest in serving the residents, although some individuals within it do what they can to buck that trend. If the voters continue to support the status quo, they have no one to blame but themselves when that’s what they get. At some point, relatively low residential property taxes won’t be enough to make up for living in a tightly packed office park interspersed with giant condo and apartment buildings, but it will be far too late by then.

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