Talks look at, beyond $183 million budget as City Council, School Committee convene

Free food for all students, new schools in the Alewife and NorthPoint neighborhoods and a debate over whether the city or schools department would lead on developing universal preschool were among the topics at a precedent-setting meeting Tuesday between the School Committee and City Council to discuss finances early in the budget season.

The largely collegial meeting – there was one sharp exchange about why it was not televised – discussed long-term goals and challenges for education, allowing councillors to hear about strains on the school district budget and approaches to goal-setting, and for councillors and committee members to talk about the need to better include school planning in housing development.

The meeting was initiated by vice mayor Marc McGovern, who served on the committee for eight years before joining the council in 2014. He was co-chairman of the schools’ budget subcommittee in 2013 when the council remarkably delayed passage of the school budget with a five-member vote, including those of current members Leland Cheung, Craig Kelley and Mayor E. Denise Simmons. Although reasons varied, the move represented an ongoing cry from councillors that they are not adequately informed about the school’s budget negotiations, priorities and measures of performance before being asked to vote on it.

“Every year,” McGovern said this month, “we talk about how it would have been beneficial for our two elected bodies to have sat down together earlier in the budget process.” The meeting was held about halfway through budget season, rescheduled after school budget subcommittee co-chairs Kathleen Kelly and Richard Harding abruptly scheduled a competing meeting for McGovern’s original Feb. 2 proposal.

Superintendent, city manager presentations

After Kelly described a “comprehensive process” that included multiple roundtables, budget reports and retreats, Superintendent Kenneth Salim gave the council an overview of his approach to creating the budget, though without dollar amounts. First was an account of his “listening, observing and analyzing” entry plan and budget development process. He posted a slide showing his draft budget strategic objectives: equity and access, support for the whole child, innovation and partnerships and implementation and progress monitoring.

He ended with a description of the principles his department heads are using for budget proposals, focusing on a multiyear approach, expected outcomes and how those would be measured. Although his staff handed out the preliminary budget and enrollments projection report, the report was not commented on and discussions were broad.

Few dollar amounts were mentioned the whole evening. Two came from City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, who was thanked repeatedly by committee members for the extra $10.2 million the city produced for schools this year.

“Cambridge’s city managers have always understood the importance of education,” said DePasquale, adding that this was his 35th year in budget negotiations, first as either budget or finance director before becoming city manager this year. Noting that the school department is the largest tax-supported budget in the city, he said he was happy to provide the new superintendent resources to address his “emerging priorities,” as well as cost escalations driven by enrollment and increasing transportation costs.

The $10.2 million property tax revenue jump represents an increase of $6.4 million to meet cost hikes in maintaining services, and an additional $3.8 million after negotiations with DePasquale and Salim. “This gives the [school department] an opportunity to grow,” DePasquale said. The total tax amount for next year, all from property taxes, will be $158.6 million, resulting in a total school budget of $183 million after adding revenues such as state and federal aid.

DePasquale mentioned one other dollar amount, what he called the “biggest thing”: the tax-supported debt service of more than $430 million to pay for rebuilding the Martin Luther King/Putnam Avenue Upper School and King Open/Cambridge Street Upper School. “This [figure] does not have anything to do” with the Tobin/Vassal Lane Upper School building, next in line for a redo – things that do not affect the schools budget but are an indication, DePasquale said, of the city’s committee to education.

High cost per pupil

Councillors Nadeem Mazen and Leland Cheung focused on Cambridge’s $27,000-per-pupil cost – one of the highest in the country – and “what we are getting for that.” Mazen pushed to find out how that money flows to each child, wondering why “we are not having the same results … as some of our peers. How does this budget change the game for the 50 percent of kids who tend to have poor outcomes?”

Committee member Emily Dexter later flourished a report she had just done analyzing how the money is spent, pushing back politely to say she would like to see evidence of comparable urban areas with better performance than Cambridge – because she’s not sure they exist. After years of comparative analysis, she said, she thinks any kid would be lucky to be educated in Cambridge.

This led to a discussion of some of the more striking costs, including, McGovern and Dexter pointed out, small schools. The controlled-choice method of assigning schools instead of having neighborhood schools increases transportation costs, as more buses travel more miles to get kids across the city. Kelly raised the relatively high special education costs and out-of-district costs that, while rising across the state, remain higher in Cambridge in part because of the district’s commitment to providing care based on services provided and not just the cost.

“Every school has coaches and social workers and psychologists,” McGovern added. “If we closed four schools and had large elementary schools, we would have more money,” but instead the district has opted for “small schools where every child is known.”

Dexter and councillor Jan Devereux emphasized looking at smaller classrooms, especially in younger grades, which drive up costs, and Dexter made repeated references to research showing the positive impact of smaller classrooms on achievement.

“I’m not satisfied with what we are getting for our money,” Cheung said. Bringing his experience as a new Cambridge schools parent to the table, he listed some of the things he would like to see, including foreign language or immersion programs for all students, noting people he sees leaving the school system if they do not get into the Spanish or Chinese immersion programs. He also fretted that “moral good” goals are “crowding out the tactical things.” He doesn’t need to have his child learn to be confident or about cultural competency in school, he argued. “I want my daughter to know math and coding,” he said. He and Mazen worried about Cambridge’s ability to prepare students from all backgrounds for “21st century” jobs relying on technology.

Nolan and Salim pointed to the eight “emerging priorities” to be initiated this year – the Level Up initiative de-tracking ninth-grade English classes; elementary school world language; high school guidance staff levels; social-emotional learning; “cultural proficiency”; special education supports; providing Chromebooks to all high school students; and recruitment and retention of teachers of color – as ways Salim hopes to move the needle on performance. Mazen said he “liked” the pushing of department heads to identify and measure programs’ impact.

Overlapping expenses, resources

Many noted the interaction between the district and other city agencies – such as human service after-school programs and the health department, which provides school nurses – and partnership organizations providing tutoring and other activities. This “overlap” enriches offerings to students, they said, but also makes understanding true costs difficult to untangle.

Cheung argued that there are many “nuanced [ways] Cambridge goes above and beyond” in providing services, mentioning full-day pre-kindergarten and a no-fees sports program in middle and high school. “We don’t do a great job of talking about all the things we are doing” that help drive the budget.

Dexter’s report presented comparisons of Cambridge’s expenses to Brookline’s based on state information, but even those figures can be misleading, Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner wrote in an email, with expenses folded into catch-all categories that vary widely across communities.

Simmons suggested the two bodies come together another time to probe the idea of cost-sharing. “I don’t always think the school department has to do everything,” she said, suggesting further collaboration between organizations.

Preschool

Vice mayor Marc McGovern and Mayor E. Denise Simmons discuss preschool and other topics at a Tuesday roundtable. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

The importance of developing a universal preschool program was much discussed, but the two bodies disagree on who should take the initiative.

“It’s great that we are doing the research,” said Cheung, referring to the latest Early Childhood Task Force, begun in 2015. “But it seems like the biggest runaround ever.” Cheung argued that the school department, already providing some pre-kindergarten, should run it, and start immediately. “The schools are already doing a great job,” he said, “let’s scale it up.”

Nolan, though, called it a “city function.”

“We can help contribute,” she said, but noted that for the youngest years, various agencies and home daycare organizations provide the great majority of Cambridge preschool. “We could use your help,” she addressed councillors, to take the lead in expanding and ensuring quality. Nolan has also argued that preschool should be separate from the school department mission, worried that test-prep curriculum replacing “play” in kindergarten and junior kindergarten could trickle down to preschool under school control.

In separate committee discussions, members have struggled with simply providing education for all 4-year-olds. Junior kindergarten is open only to children who turn 4 by April 1 the previous year. Some 3-year-old seats are available in two school programs and a few “special start” classrooms. All of the placements are through a lottery, and parents of youngsters often plead for expanded preschool for all. Lack of space in a pressing concern, especially as Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney wrestles with squeezing in one or two additional kindergarten classes each year in what he calls “already very, very tight buildings.” Simmons is among those who join Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education MaryAnn MacDonald in expressing concern about competing with partner nonprofits and the human services department in providing preschool.

McGovern noted that the city has been committing funds to develop preschool solutions, but warned, “there’s a balance between too cautious and buying 500 trailers tomorrow” to start universal preschool immediately.

The task force responsible for the latest report had no council or School Committee members, instead using administration and community partner staff. Its focus is on expanding the existing broad network of providers, but doesn’t assign leadership responsibilities. Tuesday’s discussion left the question unanswered.

Increased housing

A major theme Tuesday was rising school enrollment and its impact on schools through increased housing, with committee members asking for more recognition of related issues during project planning. Both bodies stressed the need to tie enrollment projections to housing production.

“Higher enrollment is a good thing,” Harding said, “but it causes some conflicts.” Salim said that Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School will move over the 2,000 student mark next year, and the district will again add two kindergarten classes to meet higher enrollment.

Committee members asked councillors for more school-related planning in discussions about increased housing. Bus costs escalate as the NorthPoint and Alewife neighborhoods grow, since controlled-choice school selection has children from those areas going to schools across the city, Kelly noted.

Nolan worried that she doesn’t think there is a “strong commitment to a school building in the quad” – the Alewife area bound by Concord Avenue, the railroad, Alewife Brook Parkway and Brighton Street, now in the midst of major development.

City councillors Devereux, Dennis Carlone and McGovern joined their concerns. Devereux agreed with Cheung’s notion that the Tobin school could be built out, perhaps to include the Armory. “We only talk about units” in development discussions, she said, “never about the people living in those units.” A school in that area, she agreed, “is a logical anchor.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Alewife needs a school, a [preschool] center and at least two squares,” Carlone said. “Without that, it will never be a neighborhood.”

Free food, Amigos and more

Cheung raised anew his wish to see the city invest in providing free breakfast and lunch for all students – not only for nutrition and equity reasons, but also to free up the staff from “typing in 10-digit numbers for each kid” and allow them to interact with the kids, doing things such as encouraging them to eat and opening their juice boxes, he said. (To protect student privacy, each student’s identification number is entered at each meal; whether a child’s family is charged for food or granted reduced-lunch status is invisible to everyone, including cafeteria staff.)

It is an idea Cheung has been raising since March, but on Tuesday it revealed allies in McGovern and Devereux. McGovern said he is in discussions with key figures to determine costs. Devereux called free school lunches “something that could be pretty doable.” She said the “federal government was trying to facilitate that” – though things could be changing since the November election.

Most committee members raised the need for the Amigos School to get an improved building. Its Upton Street building – closed years ago when deemed unsuitable for classrooms, but pressed into service with the beginning of the Innovation Agenda – is becoming tight.

Committee vice chairman Fred Fantini argued for more resources spent to follow and support some students after graduation, such as subsidizing transportation costs for Bunker Hill Community College students.

Councillor Craig Kelley left the meeting before he was able to offer comments, but wrote in an email that his concerns continue to be ongoing attention to classroom management and school climate issues. Councillor Tim Toomey was present, although he did not sit at the roundtable or speak. Councillor David Maher was not present.

School Committee member Manikka Bowman was not present. “A personal matter arose that impacted my attendance,” she wrote in an email afterward.


This post was updated Feb. 17, 2017, to add links to another story; correct capitalization in a name; and remove a sentence that was misleading about vice mayor Marc McGovern’s assessment of class sizes. It was updated Feb. 18, 2017, with a revised graphic showing that March workshops and “special meetings” were always intended to be televised.

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