Monday, May 20, 2024

052113i-schools budget graphicThe city’s $473 million budget was adopted Monday, along with its largest single component: A $151 million schools budget made controversial when four city councillors voted to keep it in committee for further questioning of district officials.

While citizens and even current and former city officials expressed alarm and dismay that the councillors had voted May 9 to hold the budget, others pointed out that the move was simply part of the regular budget process.

Councillor Tim Toomey was among those taken aback by the furor over the hold, which took up nearly all of a three-hour, 15-minute meeting.

“I think we all just have to take a step back, take a deep breath, relax,” Toomey said, explaining that the questions were part of an annual process. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone here … city councillors have the right to ask any questions we want of the superintendent of schools. That’s the purpose [of the hearings]. Why don’t we just do away with the hearings, then? Do away with them if we can’t ask questions.”

Councillor Denise Simmons agreed it was “the purpose of the budget hearings,” and noted a judgment from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees solicited since the scandal arose as supporting that view.

Anxiety and outright panic

There were some residents as well, including some long active in city politics, who acknowledged the temporary hold on a budget item as business as usual.

“I’ve been somewhat appalled at the rhetoric that’s been flung around,” resident Heather Hoffman said during public comment at Monday’s council meeting. “Nobody voted the budget down. Nobody has voted no. The only thing they voted no on was sending it to the full council yet. And that has been misrepresented, and it’s been misrepresented both by people who know better and people who don’t … I am so disappointed at the way people have behaved, scaring people, scaring parents who have enough to worry about.”

“It’s so damaging, raising so much anxiety that didn’t have to be raised,” said resident Emily Dexter, soon afterward.

Yet despite attempts to make clear that the budgets remained on schedule, and that councillors merely wanted to ask questions within a previously set timeline, other commenters and officials continued to express worry and even panic. Among the more than 15 speakers were Chris Colbath-Hess, president of the Cambridge Education Association, who said a delay in approving the budget could affect contract negotiations with teachers; Marc McGovern, vice chairman of the School Committee and co-chairman of its budget subcommittee, who said it “impacts our ability to plan and move forward”; and two parents who thought it was an immediate risk to their children’s educations, including those with special needs.

“Don’t do this to our children, please do not do this do our children,” pleaded parent Mollie Sherry of Rice Street.

The budget schedule

The May 9 budget hearing of the Finance Committee, which is led by councillor Marjorie Decker, was one of a few scheduled to look at any section of the budget that caught councillors’ attention. After each line item had a chance to be examined, the budget as a whole was intended to be voted Monday – but had a fallback vote date of June 3 and a drop-dead date of June 5. When four councillors voted to hold the schools budget in committee, there was a May 16 date set for a budget hearing to be held only if necessary.

Councillors Leland Cheung, Craig Kelley, Denise Simmons and Minka vanBeuzekom voted against the proposed budget. Toomey voted “present.” Ken Reeves left for another appointment before the 4 p.m. Finance Committee’s public hearing reached a vote. “The city councillors that voted against moving this proposed school budget out of committee did so with the understanding that another Finance Committee meeting was tentatively scheduled for May 16 … to allow for any further budget discussions that might be needed,” Cheung, Kelley and Simmons wrote in a policy order.

The May 16 hearing never happened because schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young and Chief Operating Officer James Maloney were out of town that day, Decker said.

School Committee member said she had confidence the vote would take place regardless. “I have complete faith all nine of you intend to vote a school budget,” she told the council Monday. “I don’t for a minute think your message is that you want schools closed, or contract negotiations disrupted or summer programs put at risk. I don’t think anyone thinks that.”

Questions about the questioners

Initially, there was rhetoric from Decker that councillors “orchestrated” the hold and conspired in private meetings and that their questions at the May 9 hearing had come without warning, but the charge of private meetings was generally denied and the other was walked back one by one, with Decker acknowledging that Simmons raised questions before the hearing;  Toomey pointing out that his questions on socioeconomic disparity (resulting in schools, he said, made up of about 95 percent black students) and vocational education have been the same for years; vanBeuzekom testifying that she sent her questions Tuesday; School Committee member Richard Harding said Reeves gave them a “heads up”; and Kelley arguing that, far from being absent from School Committee meetings and withholding his questions and concerns, he’d done everything “short of staking out their houses.”

Decker and others argued that the councillors had been absent from long processes in which committee members had discussed such things as the budget and issues for which they demanded answers, including the district’s controlled choice policy. Decker also argued that “because we don’t like the answers, doesn’t mean that’s a reason to say you’re not going to support the budget” – and that some of the councillors’ complaints didn’t even have anything to do with budget issues.

While there was disagreement about that as well – with a quarter-billion dollars in school building expenses on the way and $10 million annually lost on kids attending charter schools – it isn’t unheard of for tangentially related issues to be tied to a vote. A recent example that provoked no dissent from Decker or other councillors was in April, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pursued a zoning change for Kendall Square redevelopment: Simmons said she wouldn’t vote for the zoning until the institute had resolved a longstanding issue over a Cherry Street parking lot it was neither maintaining, building on or allowing the community to use.

While on Monday councillor David Maher was livid over the councillors’ holding of the schools budget, in April he pursued a deal on the Cherry Street lot eagerly.

“We’ll be in this exact position a year from now”

The long meeting included policy orders to accept the budget but continue discussion – and answer councillors’ questions – June 10 at a roundtable with School Committee members. Other roundtables may be added.

“It’s not going to be solved by some unspecified set of roundtables,” Kelley said. “I will bet anyone anything we’ll be in this exact position a year from now.”

The vote to take the schools budget out of committee and send it to the full council was 7-2, with Cheung and Kelley in opposition. The vote to adopt the entire $472,820,685 million budget was 8-1, with  Kelley in opposition. The vote to ensure there was no reconsideration of the adoption was 7-2, with Kelley and vanBeuzekom opposed.