Public gets its chance to squeeze opinion into tight school budget at Jan. 28 hearing
There’s still time for community input on Cambridge’s school budget, but the window for parents or even the School Committee to have influence is small and shrinking. At a budget subcommittee meeting Tuesday, a public hearing was tentatively scheduled for 6 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 28, with public comment combined with a subcommittee retreat.
Committee vice chairman Fred Fantini was the first to warn that parents should realize “that the amount of discretionary money in the budget is close to nil” and they shouldn’t expect that they can have too much influence on the budget.
As in recent years, the total budget amount the city manager provides for schools is likely to reflect a modest increase (3.8 percent is expected for fiscal year 2015, starting in July) to account for cost-of-living increases, salary step increases, increases in benefits and staffing requirements from higher enrollment. There are no new funds for new initiatives, officials said at a Jan. 7 meeting, and in a December Citywide School Advisory Group meeting of representatives from all public schools, District Chief Financial Officer Claire Spinner estimated that about 99 percent of the budget is pretty set. They are working with a maintenance budget.
“Everything we add needs a cut somewhere else in the budget,” Spinner said Tuesday.
In the budget calendar, meetings with school department staff, the teachers’ union and principals started in October to begin fleshing out budget priorities. The goal is for the superintendent to present a proposed budget to the School Committee on March 11, with hopes of a final adoption in April. The budget is prepared for publication and presentation to the City Council, which needs to adopt a budget by June.
Typically, Spinner explained, the committee forwards its own budget guidelines document to the school department in the fall, but this year it was delayed until after two first-time committee members – elected in November – were seated. Budget co-chairman Mervan Osborne (co-chairman Richard Harding didn’t attend) expressed hope that there would be a vote on final budget guidelines at the second budget subcommittee meeting, Tuesday.
Budget guidelines this late in the process “will still be relevant,” Spinner said, “but the relative impact of them lessens the later we get them.”
Superintendent Jeffrey Young looks to the individual school councils as a major avenue for parent input, and he and Spinner indicated that they expect the principals to be a primary source for understanding what the communities see as budget priorities.
The public comment period Jan. 28 was added at committee member Patty Nolan’s suggestion as another vehicle for community input.
Areas of focus
The school department has identified four areas of focus for the budget:
Alignment of curriculum – that is, making adjustments to ensure the curriculum is consistent across schools and conforms to new common core standards.
Inclusive schooling, which would broaden the meaning of “inclusive” to include “creating welcoming schools for all students, increasing family engagement, providing support for [English-language learners] and students with special needs, which includes discussions about behavioral issues and how the district is handling them.”
Supporting professional development.
“Continuing to define the upper school program” – trying, as Young said in reference to the new schools for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, “to get that right.”
Committee members spent some time parsing budget guideline language, which is typically broad in discussion of overriding principles rather than specific about programs or line items. Things got more specific when Fantini wondered whether this might be the proper time for saying, “for example, that I want all music and art teachers to be full-time?”
The answer, Spinner said, “is this is your document; you can add what you want,” but Spinner and Young stressed that broader guidelines gives them more flexibility in crafting a budget.
Fantini added that he wants to see “accelerated improvement,” focus on direct services to children, focus on improving third-grade reading and math performance, support for children before and after school, more resources for schools that have higher levels of high-need students and Chinese immersion for 3-year-olds.
Osborne wanted to see progress on diversity among the teaching staff, and Nolan added classroom size issues, including ways of keeping some high school class sizes from continuing to trend up, more effort toward improving family engagement and school climate, and K-5 world language. Nolan and Osborne talked about long-term planning and building operations issues.
New member Fran Cronin wanted to see improved communication with families about revisions and policy changes. Mayor David Maher wanted to see an investment in marketing “what we are doing here in Cambridge” to recruit, hold and return families to the non-charter public school system.