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Technology instructor Ingrid Gustafson, seen at a Massachusetts Computer Using Educators event where students praised her for help with their project. (Image: YouTube)

Technology instructor Ingrid Gustafson, seen at a Massachusetts Computer Using Educators event where students praised her for help with their project. (Image: YouTube)

Discussions about proposed staff cuts dominated the School Committee meeting on Tuesday, but in the end the committee’s general support made it unlikely there would be significant changes to the superintendent’s proposed budget when it returns next week.

Assistant Superintendent Victoria Greer and her proposed reorganization of special education staff got strong support from committee members at the special budget meeting. But members clearly were not pleased with the manner in which the news was delivered to that staff.

Each committee member expressed full support for Greer’s changes in how special education services will be delivered and communicated to students and their families, and also expressed confidence in having a new person at the helm.

“Since I have been elected, I have had more complaints across the board over time” on the district’s handling of special education services, said committee budget co-chairman Richard Harding, echoing comments of the other members, “and I welcome a strategic, well-thought out attempt to fix” these problems. Greer’s plan is in part based on a 2010 West Ed consultant’s report recommending changing from a staff structure that compartmentalizes functions to one based on fully integrating special education services into general education.

032614i SC quote 1But the committee members said that they and district staff were “blindsided” by the resulting job losses, a point made in last week’s committee budget meeting at which several staff members spoke passionately against the job changes. Staff were told about the changes within hours of voting to accept a new employment contract after working nearly two years under interim contracts.

Committee member Fred Fantini was particularly vehement in his feeling that the staff was not given due respect, noting that some recently hired staff had recently moved their families, only to learn they were now let go. He said that these staff members “specifically told people who wanted to come speak tonight [on their behalf] not to do that because they are the caliber of people in that department who are thinking of the children.”

“So if there is a lesson to learn here, we need to figure out how to roll out these reorganizations with people in mind,” he said, joined by members Harding and Kathleen Kelly in appealing for increased attention to “the human side” of job changes in the future. Kelly said she has seen a district pattern of this failing over time.

Upper school technology specialists

The proposed elimination of half-time upper school instructional technology specialists – putting tech responsibilities onto librarians – brought a petition signed by 73 high school teachers asking that the positions not be cut. It was presented by Kris Newton, a CRLS science teacher, who said instructors Ingrid Gustafson and Mark Whipple, who together teach all the upper school students, had sparked dramatically improved technical skills in freshmen. The skills gave students better access to the curriculum and have boosted confidence, she argued.

“The digital divide has been a major obstacle. Their work has leveled the playing field,” Newton said.

A glimpse of the specialists’ contributions can be seen in the video, in which students thank Gustafson by name at the end:

Fantini was clearly sold on keeping the positions, adding that “we undermine the librarians’ efforts by saying they also have to provide the technical support.” He tried to assert that he was “speaking for the entire committee” on this point, but he clearly was not. Mayor David Maher asked that he “hear more from” the superintendent on this issue next week, and member Fran Cronin, while clearly supportive of improving technical and computer capacity in students, steered clear from endorsing keeping the positions. Other members were silent on the subject.

High school clerks

The proposed elimination of some clerk positions in the high school also was revisited, but the committee was fairly quiet on this issue too. In public testimony, Terry Gist, secretary of the high school’s Learning Community S and vice president of the Cambridge Education Association union, explained dramatically that at the stabbing incident at the high school that morning, it was two clerks who arrived first at the scene and controlled the situation. The deans, she explained, were in other parts of the school, and the teachers in and next to the classroom in question were substitutes.

Still, during discussion, only committee member Patty Nolan raised the issue, asking that these “front-line” clerks be allowed to stay. She suggested instead cutting clerk positions from administrative staff not interacting directly with students and families would “send a good signal.” This suggestion was also given by parent Emily Dexter in public comment, who noted that the school department offices at Thorndike Street have 29 full-time equivalent clerks positions, compared with 12 at the high school.

Kennedy-Longfellow third-grade teacher

There was also again strong support from Kennedy-Longfellow staff and parents for saving a third-grade teacher from cuts. The proposal is to merge two second-grade classrooms into one group of third-graders in their next year, based on a current projection there will be 23 third-graders next year. KLo community members argued that the junior teacher who would lose her classroom is beloved and skilled, and the continued small class size benefits the children, especially given that they are in a Level 3 school, which are deemed underperforming based on MCAS scores. The projected average class size for third-graders districtwide next year is 18, the same as this year, and the district’s other Level 3 school, King Open, is projected to have an average size of 18.5 students in its combined third-/fourth-grade classrooms.

Fantini, Kelly and Cronin advocated keeping the extra classroom. Nolan, Harding and Maher, each in different manners, stepped back. Nolan cited equity concerns, saying the city fairly regularly has had to make similar decisions based on enrollment, and pointed to the Fletcher Maynard Academy, which at the time was slated to lose a fourth-grade classroom (two current third-grade classrooms were to be combined for a projected fourth-grade enrollment of 21 students) but by Thursday had gained it back when enrollment projections rose to 28. Still, during the meeting Harding and Maher called for stepping back to look at the larger picture when it comes to making sure both Level 3 schools “are getting the tools that they need to continue to attract and maintain families as they move through this process” of pushing for improvement.

Harding reiterated his desire to see more “support in a more direct, intentional way” for KLo and King Open and got strong signals from Superintendent Jeffrey Young that they will be revisiting whether they are making a “significant enough intervention” in the budget.

The net result of these meetings, though, is that with the exception of some pushback from a few members on a couple of issues, the committee seems to be accepting the proposed budget without any requests for changes. They are likely to see increased support for the Level 3 schools, as they requested, which may or may not include keeping a third-grade KLo teacher. And they may “hear a bit more of an explanation” of the decisions around clerk and technology staffing, as some of the members put it, but only one or two members took a strong stand on those cuts.

Acquiesced

They all seem to have acquiesced to the other elements of the budget. They appear satisfied by the administration’s reassurances that the special education staff changes will indeed provide the same or better support to students and staff. They are all resigned to putting K-5 world language instruction to the side for now, despite their committee’s annual requests that the administration present an implementation plan.

032614i SC quote 2“I guarantee you that this will not go away,” committee member Mervan Osborne said. “But I don’t want people to have false hope about world language in the next budget cycle. The writing is on the wall.”

Maher expressed satisfaction with the current explanation that new scheduling will fix the high school problem of oversized classes, but warned that he wants to hear right away if it’s not working, because he does not want to see this issue back at the committee next year. Committee members have barely touched on the bigger-ticket budget items of professional development, and only Nolan has raised questions about the decision to change K-8 math curriculum. Committee members did ask about getting more information and assurances about the out-of-school support plans for the new seventh- and eighth-grade math program, as they did in the previous two meetings, but the appropriate staff person was not at the meeting last night, the superintendent said.

Maher seemed to hint at one budget change he is hoping to implement: increasing payments to some of the city’s out-of-school partners. Many committee members have praised the city’s out-of-school partners that provide support to students, including Tutoring Plus, whose executive director Ellen McLaughlin appealed for an increase over their longtime $6,000 annual reimbursement in public comment last night. Maher announced that he had been in talks with the city manager and is “hoping that we can come back to the committee next week with something that can address those issues [because] we really have not kept up with our end of the financial partnership.”

The next committee meeting is Tuesday, when the superintendent is scheduled to present his revised budget and the committee is scheduled to vote on it.

Next story: School budget passes; officials included compromises on some controversial cuts
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This story was updated March 27, 2014, with updated enrollment figures affecting at the Kennedy-Longfellow School and Fletcher Maynard Academy.