Tuesday, April 23, 2024

As co-chairmen of the Budget Subcommittee of the School Committee, we are writing to express our complete disappointment in the actions taken by councillors Leland Cheung, Craig Kelley, Denise Simmons and Minka vanBeuzekom who, on Thursday, voted against next year’s school department budget. The school department budget process began over eight months ago. During that time, numerous public meetings were held to gain community input. Meetings were also held by school councils made up of parents, teachers and administrators who made recommendations to the administration regarding budget priorities. Meetings were held with principals, the teachers union, the special education parent advisory council and others to gain budget insight. Many difficult and challenging conversations were had over these months culminating in a balanced budget that was voted unanimously by the School Committee.

It should be noted that these councillors did not express their reasons for voting against the budget at the time of the meeting. Some of the councillors asked only a few questions, never indicating that they would take such action. Since the meeting, three of the five councillors have provided information as to their concerns, none of which relate to the budget itself. The two major concerns expressed were controlled choice and charter school enrollment. These are two important issues and we do not question that they are worth discussion. What is confusing to us, however, is how will voting against the budget help better understand either of these issues? The truth is, it won’t. Families send their children to charter schools for various reasons. Every public school district in the country is aware of this issue and works to keep students in district, Cambridge is no different.  In regard to controlled choice, the School Committee, the administration and the public have been working hard on this issue for the past two years, starting with a working group led by Patty Nolan and Richard Harding and now a subcommittee of the whole led by Alice Turkel and Fred Fantini. More than 20 meetings have been held, and as recently as Tuesday the School Committee held a public meeting to review more than a dozen recommendations as to how to improve controlled choice. If this issue was of such concern to these councillors that they took this unprecedented step, why didn’t they come to any of these meetings? Why didn’t they raise this concern sooner? Why didn’t they write an e-mail, make a phone call or sit down for coffee to discuss these concerns? Their lack of communication makes us wonder if these are real concerns or just political posturing.

Let us be very clear, the political maneuvering that was carried out at this meeting will do absolutely nothing to help address these concerns. The councillors have done nothing to help bring us together as city leaders. What they did do is drive a wedge between the school community and the city community. What they did do was potentially damage contract negotiations. What they did do was show that making a political statement was more important than insulting, disrespecting and undermining several months of work by parents, teachers, principals and school administrators. If that is not bad enough, they did it all without any communication, warning or chance for the superintendent or School Committee to be prepared. This was a complete and utter blindside to all who worked so hard.

What is also confusing is that since the School Committee passed the budget several weeks ago, not one of these councillors contacted us with any concerns or questions. Even before the meeting, none of these councillors pulled us aside and asked for explanations or gave any indication that they might vote against the budget.

It is important for the public to know that the City Council does not have the authority, nor is it their role, to vote specific budget allocations up or down. The council must vote on the budget as a whole. So to make a political point these councillors voted down the entire budget, which included funding for an additional autism classroom for our autistic children. They voted down adding additional school psychologists, inclusion specialists, athletic trainers and additional staffing for our new upper schools. They voted down adding an additional Special Start classroom and funding the Wrap Around Zone at the Fletcher Maynard Academy modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone. They voted down funding for professional development for our teachers, for paying our teachers and for providing school improvement funds. They voted down funding for additional community outreach and against our partners: Cambridge School Volunteers, City Sprouts, Science Club for Girls, and Breakthrough.

We stand with our parents, teachers, superintendent and School Committee colleagues who worked so hard on the proposed budget which we believe will help move our district forward.

Hopefully, with some time to catch our collective breath, more rational heads will prevail and these councillors will see that their actions were more damaging than helpful.

Marc McGovern and Richard Harding, co-chairmen of the Budget Subcommittee of the Cambridge School Committee