Friday, April 19, 2024

School Committee member Richard Harding asks Cambridge school officials about the proposed budget at a Tuesday hearing. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

Amigos, Ola and now the Cambridge School Volunteers. Whether the threat is the creation of a middle school or budget cuts, each group has felt the need to come forward at a School Committee meeting to plead to continue their mission.

There will be a middle school, but the Spanish-language program Amigos is likely to stay K-8. There will be budget cuts, but the Portuguese-language program Ola was taken off the table.

At a Tuesday budget hearing with the committee and Superintendent Jeffrey Young, though, the volunteers organization found less reassurance, and the doubts that emerged over keeping it whole — coming up hard against a budgetary wall and the realization not everything can be saved — were reflected in the questions of committee members and testimony of officials.

Replying to worried questions about layoffs from Mayor David Maher, who lead the committee as well as well as the City Council, the superintendent went further than in last week’s rollout of the budget in discussing jobs that will be cut.

“In the aides category, the paraprofessionals, most of those could be handled by attrition. There are other areas where there are reductions, both within RSTA, for example, as well as in the administrative reorganization which is still taking shape, where there is a potential for individuals to lose jobs,” Young said, using an acronym for the technical high school program, the Rindge School of Technical Arts. “Our aim always is to try to do it through attrition to the greatest extent possible.”

“Having said that, we also have begun and will continue to try to help any individual whose position might be at risk to support them through any kind of transition and to make what is never a good situation have the least possible adverse impact,” he said.

Maher stressed that he hoped to affect the least number of people.

That might come down to about a dozen, said Claire Spinner, the district’s chief financial officer, who expanded Wednesday on Young’s answer. That’s an administrator, teacher and technical assistant at RSTA who know their jobs are being eliminated; one or two from among operations people such as custodians, with other losses being handled through an existing vacancy and retirements; and eight from district offices where “there may be some retirements we don’t know about yet, but not enough” to prevent actual layoffs.

As Young suggested, reduction to one hour of aide time per 13 students instead of nine over a school day might result in no layoffs, considering the amount of changeover in aides each year. “We don’t anticipate many if any” layoffs among aides, Spinner said.

Level means a drop for partnerships

The Cambridge School Volunteers home page at

The Cambridge School Volunteers situation is more complicated.

In the district budget, they are being level-funded, Young said, meaning “there have been no cuts. Any time something is level-funded, of course, to be fair, just because of inflationary pressures usually some reductions have to be made. But the budget has not been cut. That was an intentional judgment.”

“The choice we made was, we’re going to put our funds into the classroom, into the schools. We’re certainly not going to do it on the backs of these very, very important partners and others we’ve mentioned, certainly,” he said, referring to the CitySprouts gardening project and Breakthrough Cambridge, an academic support program that features student-to-student learning. “But we didn’t feel this was the year economically to make a significant, incremental allocation to them.”

The district has $137.5 million for fiscal year 2011 — a 2.9 increase over the current year that, because of inflationary pressures to which Young referred, still leaves the district in the red. All told, and with the introduction of teaching-coaching and anti-bullying initiatives, the district must cut $4.7 million. (Saving Ola cost $55,000.)

But the three programs listed by Young are not school programs, but partnerships. The district is giving $100,000 to the Cambridge School Volunteers, a nine-staff nonprofit that places 900 volunteers annually throughout the district to provide more than 45,000 donated hours of tutoring. But the district’s contribution is less than half the program’s annual budget and already a decrease from last year, and another $45,000 in corporate and foundation grants will be lost this year, according to estimates announced Tuesday by Sondra Peskoe, the program’s vice president.

“We have reduced expenses through a 10 percent reduction in staff salaries, without a commensurate reduction in hours worked, and a 20 percent reduction in other expenses by deciding not to replace a departing employee for the time being,” Peskoe said during the hourlong public comment period.

“We already operate on a limited budget. Cutting costs further cannot be achieved without a reductions we provide to the CPSD,” Peskoe said, referring to the city’s public schools district. Then:

“We understand these are tough economic times. However, we also appreciate that the School Committee and the superintendent recognize successful education programs that achieve CPSD’s goals and objectives and want to preserve these programs and organizations. We are asking you to join with us in our efforts to fund continuation of our valuable contributions and help CPSD students achieve academic success.”

Her statement was followed by those of volunteers — Alison Stewart, a Harvard doctoral student who has donated her time for four years, an emblem of the link with academia idealized by many in the city, and rejected offers to tutor for pay in favor of her experiences in the district; Ruth Goodman, a project consultant at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the New England Journal of Medicine who has coached a student for five years and seen a problem reader become an avid consumer of poetry, biography, science and fiction.

School Committee member Alice Turkel was among those Tuesday hoping to find more funding for the Cambridge School Volunteers. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

The testimony seemed effective. Responding to a comment by Maher about whether federal stimulus funds for mentoring could be applied to tutoring, committee member Alice Turkel asked him to apply his mayoral powers to find funds for the volunteers.

“I’ll help write the letter to build up that case,” she said, but Maher didn’t want to raise hopes on a long shot.

Other questions

There were other budget questions and concerns from audience members, including a constructive proposal for more science funding from Dan Monahan, speaking as a science teacher although he is also vice president of the Cambridge Teachers Association; critiques from city councillor candidates Lawrence Adkins and Charles Marquardt — the latter is an economist and accountant — over the lack of specifics on closing the achievement gap; and questions from councillor and Baldwin School parent Craig Kelley on how to keep people from leaving the district because “their kids can’t learn. The classrooms are just too disruptive.” He too sought more answers from Young. (There was also a parent who wondered about the transition of special-needs children from kindergarten classes with teachers’ aides to first-grade classrooms with only a teacher; instructional aides to special education are not being cut, Spinner said.)

Committee members did, too, raising issues such as the lack of data on high school class sizes, the decentralized nature of budgeting in the past and whether such things as before-school basketball could truly be considered to be contributing to student achievement. They also asked about plans to fold the Transition Program into the High School Extension Program; the Transition Program educates students younger than 16 who are troubled in some way and can’t be in the high school itself, and has served as few as six students over the course of the year. A merger would mean the district could cut another 1.45 full-time equivalent positions, Spinner said.

Young asked committee members to alert him to any other questions so he could arrive with the proper research to the next meeting — March 23, which is to serve as a more general question-and-answer period about the 2011 budget.

The committee votes on the budget April 6.