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Tobin Montessori school parents and teachers are concerned over teaching coaches being cut to half time next year, but Superintendent Jeffrey Young said last week that the staff cuts weren’t “etched in stone.” (Photo: Gal Tziperman Lotan)

With the next school year bringing dramatic change to the school district, including the creation of four upper schools for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and curriculum, administration and teaching structures to match, Superintendent Jeffrey Young was happy to point out a key feature Tuesday in introducing his next budget:

A 3 percent increase in money is expected from the city, $4.2 million more than last year that is to bring the district to $144.9 million it can spend in fiscal year 2013.

A public hearing about the budget is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday with the School Committee at 459 Broadway.

“We’ve been averaging 2 percent increases for the past decade. This increase really is reflective of the city manager’s understanding of what we’re trying to do,” Young said, referring to City Manager Robert W. Healy, who taught English at Tewksbury High School before changing careers in 1969 and eventually becoming Cambridge’s 32-year top executive.

(Young’s figures don’t quite match an analysis by the Cambridge Family Information Network. Its data show that, while the 10-year average increase is 2.2 percent, two years ago the increase was 2.9 percent and in the 2003 and 2005 fiscal years there were 3.2 percent and 3.6 percent increases, respectively. The district budget, as a percentage of the city budget, has decreased from 34 percent in fiscal 2003 to the current 30 percent, the group says, noting that “CPS annual percentage increases have been smaller than city annual percentages every year.”)

From the perspective of city government, education is the biggest single expense, accounting for 29.8 percent of the city’s total budget in the current fiscal year; of that, property taxes make up 83 percent (with state and federal aid making up 16 percent and miscellaneous revenues the remaining 1 percent), or $121.8 million of what’s proposed for next year.

The Cambridge Family Information Network has analyzed city and budget data dating back to the 2000 fiscal year. Click on the image for a full-size PDF.

In the education budget, salary and benefits are as always far and away the biggest chunk: 81 percent is what’s projected, or $118 million, up 4.4 percent from the current year. The next largest expense, out-of-district tuition for special education students, is a sizable drop to about 5 percent of the budget, or $13.2 million. Still, it’s a figure that drew the attention of Young and School Committee members when they discussed the budget Tuesday, since Cambridge sends about 3 percent of its students out of the district while most other districts send closer to 1 percent.

But along with the upper schools prescribed by Young’s Innovation Agenda come changes in how special education is handled in the district: Special education students will no longer be moved from school to school, and administrators are reworking the programs serving them.

“Our aim is to build these programs from the ground up so … they choose to stay,” Young said.

Coaches in question

 The most contentious aspect of budget discussions last week, though, was about the redistribution of teaching coaches, especially at the Tobin Montessori elementary school, as the district replaces what was once a K-8 model with coaches on a single campus with K-5 and 6-8 models that need coaches on both — but with fewer classes at each. The Cambridgeport, King Open and Fletcher Maynard schools would also see their coaches go to half time. “It’s a redistribution or reallocation, not a reduction in the aggregate. I know that’s cold comfort, I get it,” Young said. “If you see a reduction at your school, you don’t much care.”

Young was correct: Parents and educators at Tobin were unhappy to see a system working well be dismantled, especially since their school — with coaches observing students and passing on professional development tips to teachers — seemed like a model for the kind of mixed-class “differentiated learning” wanted throughout the district, and since Tobin might wind up with less coaching time for 13 elementary classrooms while those with 14 keep theirs at full.

Alanna Mallon, a parent co-chairwoman of the Tobin School Advisory Council, was frustrated the coaching model was being dismantled only two years after it was put in place, “just as it was beginning to take root. At Tobin, our coaches are part of our school leadership team. Our entire staff’s organization has been overhauled” to include them.

“With all the emphasis on differentiated learning at the middle school level, surely this isn’t the time to cut the model supporting differentiated learning at the elementary level,” Mallon said.

Looking at the cut to half-time coaching, Cambridgeport parent Susan Shelkrot acknowledged the number of students at her school would likely be fewer, “but not by half.”

When it came time to present the budget, Young assured the parents that on coach staffing, “we realize we have not yet hit the exact, right formula.”

“Do not take these formulas as etched in stone,” he said. “We’re pretty committed over the next week to pin down a strategy” — a timeline that could have him describing newer thinking on the matter Tuesday. A letter reported to have gone out Friday to committee members suggested no coaching time would be cut.

After that budget hearing comes an April 3 budget vote by the committee, a May 16 hearing by the City Council and a May 21 council vote.

“I’m really proud of the budget we’ve been able to do here. I think we’re well positioned for the Innovation Agenda,” Young said, acknowledging district Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner for her work producing it.

Promotions and IEP conflict

Other issues dealt with by the committee ranged from the pleasant — interim principals Martha Mosman and Damon Smith being promoted to principals at the Tobin and Cambridge Rindge & Latin schools, respectively, on March 19 and 20 — to the worrisome, including concerns that students in the Individualized Education Program, which include those on the autism and developmental delay spectrum, were being told they couldn’t be in honors classes at the high school.

“Who are these people, teachers, giving advice that runs counter to the mandate?” committee member Mervan Osborne asked. “We need to end this right now.”

With eighth-graders choosing classes even as the committee met, Young told the members he was aware of the urgency and had spoken with Smith that morning about correcting the problem.

Amigos wait list changes

The committee also took a 4-3 vote to change the rules for the wait list at the Amigos School to ensure a better balance of students from a range of socioeconomic statuses — a change affecting only a few people, but important to parents of children at the school who have seen it slide “so far out of whack” despite years of hearing the committee say it would be addressed. “It was identified as a priority by the controlled choice team, but the imbalance has not only continued, but worsened,” said member Patty Nolan, referring to a subcommittee looking at the issue districtwide before the implementation of the Innovation Agenda. “I remind everyone that every other school is SES balanced. I agree this is only for a few students, but when you have only 20 students, two make a big difference.”

Members Fred Fantini, Alice Turkel and Mayor Henrietta Davis, who leads the committee, said they opposed the change mainly because controlled choice issues had been dealt with only recently and, in Fantini’s words, they couldn’t “support changing the rules after the fact.”

This post was updated March 26, 2012, to report the sending of a superintendent’s letter indicating coaching time would not be cut, and March 27, 2012, with the table and accompanying information from the Cambridge Family Information Network. The headline was updated April 1, 2012, to eliminate the suggestion of an increase.