Monday, June 24, 2024

Patty Nolan was among Cambridge School Committee members asking Tuesday for added financial incentives if there are more buyouts of district employees. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

The School Committee passed the coming fiscal year’s $137.5 million budget unanimously Tuesday.

As the vote was taken — some two and a half hours into the committee’s meeting — there were only a few items members felt had to be handled separately, either discussed after passage or just marked with disapproval by members.

Fred Fantini wanted his discomfort with the budget’s administrative restructuring recorded, and would then vote in favor of the overall budget.

And when it was announced money for the placement of the Special Education Behavior Program would be voted without specifying where the program went, Richard Harding wanted to ensure the same treatment for the Special Education Autism Spectrum Disorder Program. Superintendent Jeffrey Young, in crafting his first budget in Cambridge, wanted students in these programs to be at home in specific schools over their years in the district, not shuttled around from place to place.

But Peabody School community members urged reconsideration of getting Special Education, and it was agreed early in the night they would get it, without that reconsideration affecting the budget vote. Harding wanted the same assurance for the Fletcher-Maynard School getting the Autism Spectrum.

He got it, but Young made it clear that there was no guarantee the programs would not wind up at Peabody or Fletcher-Maynard, just that he would continue looking in the district to see if there were better locations.

“I want to explore possible homes for the program throughout the district,” Young said. “We need to do a better job at addressing certain program changes and allow ample time for people to help us think through proposals.”

There was “quite a bit of community feedback” on the issue, he said, and he was “impressed by the [Peabody School’s] very strong sense of ownership and pride.”

Right now, special education students are at Peabody for grades one through four; at Cambridgeport for grades five and six; and at the Maria L. Baldwin School for grades seven and eight — a total of 18 kids. But Peabody is growing, Young said, and “They worry that the space demands of the program will constrain their ability to grow.”

Autism Spectrum kids attend at least three schools, include Fletcher-Maynard, King and Haggerty, before returning to Fletcher-Maynard.

Drawing even more attention was discussion of the need to lay off about 10 people, which was to begin with an “early out” offer to 10 of the most senior staff — ideally those about to retire but, by the rules of the process, who haven’t begun that process. The program was open to members of the Cambridge Teachers Association Unit C, representing clerical workers, or nonunion workers with at least 20 years in the district, with those who have worked the most years given the package of financial incentives first. The offer consists of $30,000 over three years, but workers would keep retirement pay and benefits.

Committee members said that if the number of layoffs went up, they wanted the offer extended to more people, and, having said that, passed the offers unanimously.

“It’s pretty phenomenal we’re able to offer any kind of above and beyond process” in such difficult financial times, member Patty Nolan said.

“It’s still incredibly painful,” Nancy Tauber said. “People work in schools because there is a sense of security, so I don’t think we can send the message this is a terrific gift. It’s a token.”

The number of layoffs could go up, possibly reaching as high as 19 full-time equivalent positions, said the school system’s chief operating officer, Jim Maloney, but the district is also estimated to be down about 35 full-time equivalent positions when the next school year starts, mainly through attrition.

The budget includes a 2.9 percent increase over the current year, or $3.9 million more, but cuts are necessary because of cost increases; simply carrying forward how the district operates now into next year would actually cost $141.2 million, putting it in the red. Young is also adding programs such as teacher “coaches” and anti-bullying measures, which committee members took another opportunity to applaud Tuesday.

The City Council takes up the budget May 19 at 6 p.m. in City Hall.