Schools budget cuts $4.7 million, adds teacher ‘coaches,’ anti-bullying
A $137.5 million proposed schools budget was unveiled Tuesday to the School Committee and a crowd of watchful parents and educators.
In presenting his first budget for Cambridge, Superintendent Jeffrey Young explained that simply carrying forward how the district operates into next year would cost $141.2 million, putting it in the red. Although the money he has to work with is $3.9 million more than the current year, or a 2.9 percent increase, he must still find $3.7 million to cut from the budget.
Instead of simply paring that money, he said Tuesday, he hopes to restructure some of what the district does and add programs — $1 million in initiatives including “coaches” for teachers and an anti-bullying program — that raises the amount to be cut to $4.7 million.
“The choice is really this: You can continue to do all the same things but less well, or try to do some things differently and maximize the resources that are at our disposal,” Young said. “In this case, this year, we aim for the latter.”
One math coach and another language-skills coach would be placed in every elementary school building, putting an emphasis on consistent best practices without enforcing “a robotic approach” to teaching. The anti-bullying efforts would mean spending $40,000 on the introduction of the Positive Behavior Intervention System, an academic collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education that has been instituted in about 10,000 schools nationwide. “We want to be able to nail this problem,” Young said. “So kids are not distracted or afraid, thinking about something else — what’s going to happen in the hallway, or what’s going to happen in the gym, or at the bus stop. If they’re worried about that,” he said, learning will suffer.
A small amount of money would be set aside to implement structural changes in the system itself, including if a middle school is created, but all but 0.1 percent of the spending increases is due to contractual salary obligations.
Staffing is a significant source of cuts — $1.7 million in all, including the equivalent of 19 full-time instructional aide positions for students in grades 1-8, saving $484,000; about 16 in support positions, administrative support for reorganization, at the Rindge School of Technical Arts and in operations for more than $1 million; and an assistant principal at the King Open School for another $100,000. Three cut teaching positions, one from Technical Arts and one from the high school, mean another $180,000 in savings, and merging the library and technical education curriculum coordinators saves $102,000. There is an addition to staff, a “project manager of sustainable practices,” but the person taking the $75,000 job is to pay their own way by cutting the district’s energy bill.
Much of the staffing cuts will come from attrition, Young said, so “we’re not looking at significant numbers of layoffs.”
Almost $3 million in cuts falls into the “other” category, including use of a $586,000 stimulus grant for out-of-district tuition; and revising estimates on transportation needs ($500,000) and health insurance for staff ($453,925). There will also be less training for teachers, saving $300,000; and materials, maintenance and equipment, including in the technical program, will decrease to save another $402,000. Enrollment has been dwindling in the “redundant” Jump Start summer program, and cutting it will save $200,000.
The largest increases in spending are in special education, where Young has put an emphasis on consolidating programs and giving kids a single educational home. “Students are in one school typically for grades K-4, then those students are moved to another school for grades 5 and 6, then they’re moved to a third school for grades 7 and 8. From my perspective, that says we are taking some of the most at-risk students in the district and putting them through the most transitions. That doesn’t compute. Our aim here is to say, let’s house these programs in one building and give these kids the stability they need in order to succeed. Let’s not shove them all over the city, let’s give them some sense of continuity,” Young said. In all, about $273,000 will be spent in special education.
Another $146,000 is to be added to spending on closing the student achievement gap. In breaking down the budget for fiscal year 2011, the largest amount — $86.3 million, or 63 percent — are school expenditures.
A budget section has been added to the top of the district’s Web site for the public to look through, and the documents were applauded Tuesday for their simplicity and clarity.
“I was actually enjoying reading it,” Fantini said of Young’s budget.
Young was also congratulated by committee members on the “inclusive” process that created the budget, and vice chairman Marc McGovern noted how impressed he was it wasn’t simply a list of cuts.
“I see the struggle that other districts are going through financially — districts that have had to fire all their teachers and hire them back at salary decreases, and only 80 percent of them will be back, all kinds of programs being cut, ” McGovern said. “And you see a budget in Cambridge where we have to cut $3.7 million, which would have floored other communities. And to see those reductions happen but, in addition, to see the kinds of things that are being added … those are things you just don’t see in other communities.”
While all committee members approved of Young’s presentation, the proposed budget still had areas of concern. Richard Harding, for instance, worried that consolidation of special education programs — the SPED Behavior Program at the Peabody School and the Autism Spectrum Disorder Program at the Fletcher Maynard Academy — would be stigmatizing or result in a drop in attitude and achievement. “Fletcher-Maynard has been getting beaten up over a number of things,” he said. “I’m very, very concerned about just the perception that putting this class in this building may cause for that particular school. When it comes to test scores and every other thing around student achievement, they’re judged by everybody in the building.”
The audience was crowded with parents of students at the Fletcher-Maynard Academy and in the Ola Portuguese-language program, who wore red carnations to express solidarity in their fight to ensure Ola survived budget cuts. When Young told them in introducing the budget that Ola was off the table, the relief was palpable. And at the end of his presentation, when they left, the group hugged and smiled anew.
Odete Silva, an Ola parent, said they’d been worried because the Spanish-language Amigos program is larger than Ola, which has only about 80 students. Over the past two weeks, though, the group created a Web site and rallied support. “We wanted them to understand,” she said, referring to the committee and superintendent. “They were reading the numbers the way they wanted to read them.”
She also praised Young as having “different ideas we needed as a city” and for really acknowledging the people he serves. “He asks our view. You don’t feel he’s just there because you asked him for an appointment,” she said. “He’s really listening to you.”
Desmond McDowell, the father of an autism-spectrum child, felt Young was “very good” and admired the clarity of his budget. But the reduction in aides called for in Young’s budget concerned him, and he said he would probably return in a week to say so.
He and other members of the public get a chance to weigh in on the budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall.
Young’s plan to create a middle school as part of the district continued to draw public comment, with a few parents using their time at the lectern to say they and their kids were “quite happy and would like to keep it as it is.”
But when student representatives Josiah Bonsey and Ariane Berelowitch spoke, the view from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School seemed a little different.
“There were kids who loved going through the public schools and the K-8 model, and kids who hated it,” Bonsey said. “There’s a consensus the system doesn’t work for every single child. It works very well for many students and not very well for some students. I think people realize at school a compromise is a good option.”
Young’s plan calls for a 450-student middle school, leaving about 600 in the K-8 model.
“I was actually frustrated with a lot of aspects of the K-8 model,” Berelowitch said, while Bonsey said he enjoyed being at Baldwin for nine years.
But her summation from speaking with other high school students was the same: “A compromise of having both options available was very strongly supported.”