Sunday, April 21, 2024

City councillors approved $465.4 million in funding for the city Monday in nine swift votes, including the city’s operating budget. The school district’s portion of the budget sparked impassioned comment and words of warning for officials there seen to be acting too slowly on issues of race and unequal achievement.

Councillor Leland Cheung was missing from the nine-member panel, but the votes for approval were unanimous among those remaining — save for the vote on the operating budget of $426.6 million.

Craig Kelley stood against it, making that tally 7-1-0.

“The council personal health program is not worthy of support, I think the mayor’s office should be cut in some funding and I think we handled the school budget abysmally,” Kelley said. “Next year is going to be a lot tougher. A lot, lot tougher. Hopefully we can learn to ease some of that pain, but we can’t go through these hoops again.”

The votes, in descending amounts, were:

$426.6 million in operating budget funds;

$16.4 million in water funds;

$9.9 million for the public investment fund;

$5.3 million to continue sewer projects in the Harvard Square, Cambridgeport and Alewife Watershed areas;

$2.5 million for the first phase of reconstructing the Harvard Square Tunnel, also known as the Cambridge Street Underpass;

$2 million for reconstruction of JFK Street between Eliot and Brattle streets;

$1.5 million for improvements to buildings including the East Cambridge and Inman Square fire stations, the Public Works department’s Ryan Garage, the Central Square Library and several elementary schools;

$700,000 to replace the soccer field’s artificial turf and resurface the 400-meter running track at Danehy Park;

$500,000 to pay for design of restoration in Kendall Square between Broadway and Ames Street.

City councillor Tim Toomey voted in favor of the Cambridge operating budget after words of warning over racial imbalance and achievement gaps in city schools.

Although he didn’t vote against it, councillor Tim Toomey also spoke out about the school district portion of the budget and comments made in the past weeks by Kelley and fellow councillor Ken Reeves.

“It really raised a lot of concerns to me, especially where we are in racial and socioeconomic dysfunction of the school system. To have a school where 90 percent of the students who graduate are African American and other schools seem to be exclusively white, it really concerns me,” Toomey said. “As a former School Committee member, I always value that separation in the role of the council and committee, but in this case, [the district] deserves some attention from this council. Because the achievement gap is unacceptable, and it’s growing wider. And the racial divide is unbelievable. It’s unacceptable.”

The committee is independent, and the council can only approve or reject the district’s budget, not weigh in on specific line items or make policy. That line has already become blurred in recent weeks, though, as senior school clerks feeling victimized by a district reorganization went to the council to protest potential layoffs. Councillors and committee members have been working together to keep the reorganization on track but the clerks on the path to retirement, possibly with employment elsewhere in the city. The alternative for 10 employees is an “early out” buyout program.

Committee members have spoken throughout the school year about the achievement gap and racial divide, and the city’s controlled choice program — which has been shown to enable self-segregation — was put on the fast-track for a solution March 30 by first-year Superintendent Jeffrey Young. Before then, fixing controlled choice had been part of larger plans to create a middle school.

“The new superintendent and committee said they were going to tackle it, and I hope they tackle it soon,” Toomey said Monday. “We’re fooling around with the numbers and making it appear we’re less segregated than we are. That is something I’m definitely going to be paying close, close attention to.”

Councillors were complimentary of Marjorie Decker’s handling of the budget process, and she in turn had praise for the city staffers for whom the budget was essentially a year-round process and City Manager Robert W. Healy, whom she said had shepherded the city to good fiscal health by ignoring tricks such as using a one-time shot of federal stimulus money to fund vital services.

But she made it clear she planned to be even more active in the budget process a year from now, including scheduling budget roundtables and getting policy recommendations from community leaders far earlier.