Friday, May 24, 2024

School Committee members Mervan Osborne and Patty Nolan crafted a motion seeking $500,000 more for the district’s next fiscal year, then withdrew it Tuesday before a Wednesday budget hearing with the City Council. (Photo: Rachel Offerdahl)

The City Council passed the schools budget on Wednesday to a final vote, resisting calls and even some inclination to raise it for a year that will see the introduction of the Innovation Agenda’s separate schools for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in a system that has been largely K-8.

But the School Committee resisted it first, with two committee members making a surprise withdrawal Tuesday of a motion asking for another $500,000 “for ensuring successful implementation and for full academic, emotional and professional support for teachers, families and students and [because] the school district has not been able to fund full-time literacy coaches or guidance counselors in the new upper schools now.”

The crafters of the motion were Patty Nolan and Mervan Osborne. It was Osborne who asked to speak Tuesday even before the public comment period that usually begins meetings. He addressed his unscripted remarks to people in the audience who’d come to the committee meeting to support the request.

“It is our intent tonight to pull this motion and not put it up to a vote,” Osborne said, looking out into the audience. “It’s a difficult decision, but for very good reasons it’s the correct decision at this time. I will only say this: The content therein is not what’s at issue, but it’s a precedent that I in my neophyte status have been made to understand is a precedent we don’t need to set, we don’t want to set, it will not help us. Suffice to say, the issues therein will be vigorously and rigorously pursued by me and my colleague in the budget process for the next fiscal year.”

“I understand there will be some disappointment,” he said. “I am taking responsibility. I have spent a week going back and forth, and this is the decision we have come to.”

The public comment that followed was, indeed, filled with support from parents and educators, including recent committee candidate Joyce Gerber. “I do not disagree with those who say the city has been more than generous with the school budget, however I continue to believe the School Committee must ask for additional funds for staffing,” Gerber said. “I understand there are many other funding requests that are not being considered. I understand this is not proper procedure. I understand the School Committee needs to ensure good relationships with the City Council … I still believe support of this motion is the right thing. We are in a unique moment in history, in the midst of a cultural and academic transformation.”

Resident Emily Dexter argued that the committee shouldn’t have to ask the council for money. “They don’t need to have you ask. They should come to you and say, ‘Look, we hear what you’ve been saying. We heard what you said last spring, we heard what you said last week about your list of priority buybacks.’ … We’re all here just to help the kids. So I really hope the City Council’s listening. I hope tomorrow’s really a hearing, in which they hear what you’ve been saying all year and they will take it upon themselves of not putting you in the position of going against protocol.”

At the hearing, there were again parents on hand to back a budget increase the committee was not formally seeking, and councillor Ken Reeves was the first to support giving the budget another $1 million.

A potential tradeoff

Ultimately the budget went through, as officially moved by Tim Toomey, at the original request level: at about $145 million for a system with 6,224 students, reflecting 3 percent growth. (“It amounts to a cost-of-living increase in a year that is anything but cost-of-living-increase-worthy,” parent Mary-Ann Matyas said.) The motion came after the council’s finance chair, Marjorie Decker, gave a reminder that the council sets goals for the city budget, which is crafted by a team appointed and overseen by the city manager. The council does not actually set the budget.

Reeves clarified that he wanted concerned residents and officials to know he would have supported such a request as Nolan and Osborne had contemplated; councillor Craig Kelley seemed to go further, saying simply at one point, “I don’t think the Innovation Agenda is sufficiently funded. The city has money.”

Superintendent Jeffrey Young, though, keying off a council question about professional development for teachers, expressed a philosophy of restraint. “It’s more a matter of spending money well and wisely rather than just assuming more is better,” he said.

But he suggested penny-pinching now should be remembered as a tradeoff when it comes time to plan and pay for the years-long rebuilding of city schools, when the district “really will turn to the city for support.”