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022515i School Committee budget guidelinesThe School Committee passed budget guidelines for the superintendent and discussed summer learning programs while clearing backed-up business in its first meeting in five weeks.

Only two motions – one about a summer learning program and another asking for a roundtable discussion on affirmative-action recruiting – and resolutions for letters of congratulations for two staff members were added to the original Feb. 3 agenda, the first of two regular meetings canceled due to record-setting snowfall. An update from Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga on the math program scheduled for that day has been moved to March 3, Superintendent Jeffrey Young said.

Budget guidelines

The committee’s budget guidelines were passed unanimously with little comment.

Fuller conversation before seeing a proposed budget “will be nearly impossible to have in a time that works for everyone,” budget subcommittee co-chairman Richard Harding said, proposing that staff and committee members defer a discussion about budget implications of the guidelines until after the superintendent presents his proposed budget March 17. A public hearing and committee discussion follows March 24.

Because of the snow, said member Patty Nolan, “this body hasn’t been able to sit down and understand where we sit” on what they’ve heard, including absorbing a significant amount of feedback from school staff and family members since October in public meetings and via email. “How is it, given these guidelines, we can provide in a very timely manner ideas for ensuring these guidelines are met?” she asked.

Young reminded members that, although the guidelines were not passed officially until that night, “we’ve had 90 percent of these guidelines for a couple of months.” He praised budget subcommittee co-chairmen Harding and Mervan Osborne for their “superior job in trying to gain public input” – especially through their invitation for staff members to comment, “a particularly instructive and illuminating time for us.”

Noting that the snow cancellations prohibited the committee and the administration from a “back and forth” on specific budget issues before the presentation of the proposed budget, as happened last year, Young said that “we anticipate that there will be a lively and robust response from the committee to the proposed budget, and we look forward to those conversations.”

He also repeated statements that the administration will be focusing on a “relatively small” number of areas – including reading proficiency in the early grades; social and emotional learning; and the upper schools.

“You are going to hear a budget that strives to build on what we’ve been doing,” Young said.

Nolan replied, though, that “we should not be building on some of what we have, because it has not been working. Particularly in the upper schools.”

She said she hoped to see something different – suggesting as examples intensive tutoring, or a “midcourse correction” on the teacher coaching program, which a recent report suggested was not succeeding. Although she asked to hear what issues her colleagues had, the discussion ended there with Mayor David Maher’s call for a vote. The committee passed the guidelines with Harding’s charge that the most expedient way to address this before the completion of the proposed budget is through emails to the administration.

Summer program pilot

Members Fred Fantini and Fran Cronin asked that the school department explore providing space for a Freedom School summer pilot program in Cambridge, provoking considerable comment.

Their motion said this nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund-affiliated program has $50,000 to provide a free literacy-focused program for 30 Cambridge public school students this summer, but is looking for three classrooms in which to work. The program served more than 12,700 students in 28 states last summer, according to its website.

Justin Hildebrandt is directing the Somerville Freedom School, which he said is the only one in New England. The Somerville school is affiliated with the Connexion Methodist Church, although Hildebrandt says the school is separate and nondenominational. He is adding another Massachusetts program, preferably in Cambridge, he said.

Children’s Defense Fund's Freedom School program

A Freedom School summer pilot program, part of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, is proposed for Cambridge. This one ran in Texas last year. (Photo: Children’s Defense Fund)

The school model has proven results in summer learning retention, he said.

Cambridge Street Upper School teacher Tracey Pratt, who said she is lined up to direct the programs this summer, joined him at public comment and agreed the program teaches literacy in “a way that is of high interest to the students.” It would include activities allowing students from kindergarten through fifth grade to learn about community and civic engagement “and have fun,” she said. There would be five to six teachers for the 30 children.

Though committee members all seemed supportive of the concept, several said they would like more information. Specifically, some wondered how the program fit into the overall summer program offerings, with Kathleen Kelly in particular reiterating what she called her “drum beat” theme of wanting long-term strategic planning for summer learning.

Nolan asked whether Cambridge had space.

“I don’t feel comfortable as a manager of real estate being the decider of which program is the best,” district Chief Operating Officer James Maloney said. Noting that this is somewhat late for applications for summer space, he said that he had a “few others in a pile of papers in my office.” The education team should identify the best service providers, “and the space becomes a secondary issue.”

The motion to refer the issue to the superintendent was passed unanimously. Afterward, Fantini said he was somewhat surprised to hear the committee’s response, because K-5 summer opportunities were scant and the proposal “met a real need.” Noting that it was a pilot and came fully funded for free tuition, he added, “We can’t find three classrooms? Come on.”

Other business

Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Turk said the city has reached agreement with the state to adjust MCAS standardized-test dates because of several days of canceled school. The schedule, which will be posted by the administration soon, essentially extends the window for administering the tests by seven days.

In public comment, Cambridge Street Upper School teacher Betsy Preval and parents Tiffany Robinson and Ann Cason-Snow addressed the budget by asking for more paraprofessionals in upper-school classrooms. Citing a broad range of needs, they argued that a constant presence would contribute to classroom stability and allow increased differentiated instruction. Cason-Snow also pleaded for upper-school family liaisons, saying her experience with middle school bilingual and trilingual family liaisons showed huge impact on family and student engagement.

The committee passed motions requesting reports on the status of hiring a district math coordinator; a review of the current Controlled Choice lottery policy related to some changes made to last year’s policy; a request to the superintendent for a roundtable discussion on the January report on affirmative action for teacher hiring; and a change in September meeting dates to avoid conflicting with two Jewish holidays.

Passed unanimously were approval of next year’s school calendar, contract approvals for $108,000 for out-of-district day program tuition and $49,000 for home-based autism-related student services; a $150,000 contract for out-of-district student transportation; and acceptance of technical gifts worth $1,000 and $52,000 in grants.

Passed with only Fantini voting “no” were four recommendations regarding staff grievances, the details of which are not made available publicly.