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031815i school budgetA proposed school district budget for next year shows an almost 5 percent increase, to $164 million, with Superintendent Jeffrey Young calling it concentrated “on direct expenditures on students.”

An unprecedented three public hearings on the budget, especially one dominated by school staff, helped administration focus on the message that the community needed “more hearts and hands in the classroom, more boots on the ground,” Young said.

Comments from School Committee members and the public suggested that this month’s discussions will be over whether the expenditures on more professionals in the schools are enough, or are the right mix.

After an annual average increase of 3.3 percent, this year’s 4.8 percent increase was welcomed by Young, who singled out City Manager Richard C. Rossi as “a terrific friend of education” for adding $7.3 million to the school budget.

In approving the budget increase, Young said, Rossi responded to the message that “it was very important for us this year to focus on direct services for students.”

The school department is also increasing school discretionary budgets by a total of $190,000, or 5 percent. Included in this increase are additional school improvement funds, which will rise an average of 11 percent per school, although per-school percentages will vary.

In addition to these expansions and new initiatives, enrollment increases in the high school and in the early elementary school years triggered $718,000 in additional staff hires, including seven bilingual education teachers and aides, 2.2 full-time equivalent high school teachers, one new art/music/gym position and funds held for two “reserve” teacher positions to accommodate any midyear increases in school population. The budget calls for more interventionists and social counselors in the schools, although some are at a two- or three-school pilot level.

The budget also calls for $100,000 in materials for curriculum review; $80,000 in increased funding for longtime community partners such as Breakthrough and CitySprouts; two additional custodians to accommodate building space added to the district; and $35,000 for the science, technology, engineering, arts and math collaboration with the City Council (in addition to a $15,000 grant from Harvard University) to match the city’s $50,000 contribution.

Money for an expansion of the Kodaly music program was added with the goal of improving third-grade reading levels, but a parent request to fund a Baldwin School world language program got passed over.

The additional expenditures are in part offset by projected savings on out-of-district costs for special education students (a recent trend in Cambridge as the district improves its ability to serve some special education students in-district); and the abandonment of a plan launched last year to partner with Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers, intended to improve diversity among the staff, about which Young said, “I’m sorry to tell you that this just didn’t work out the way that we wanted it to.”

Where are the family liaisons?

In public comment, Dawn Baxter and Melissa Burns, each parents of upper school and high school students, asked for reconsideration of the upper school community liaison position, which Baxter said “was a priority of the heads of the upper schools.” Stressing the emphasis on increasing family participation and connecting families to outside services and opportunities, the women called the family liaisons critical positions.

Young addressed them directly during the budget presentation, saying he respected their request, but ultimately the district wanted to fund positions that worked directly with students.

Later, committee member Fred Fantini said he wanted to push the administration on understanding why it chose certain positions – in one example, math interventionists rather than English language arts interventionists. Member Fran Cronin also mentioned the family liaisons.

Member Kathleen Kelly wanted to know more about how the schools getting social workers would be chosen, and what the desired outcomes were.

Committee member Patty Nolan asked, “do we need more funding?” and wondered how this budget fit into a longer-term strategic plan for the district in terms of staffing.

In response, the school department’s chief planning officer, Lori Likis, said that in a recent joint administration/committee planning session it was decided to focus on a shorter-term strategic plan of 15 months – the time leading up to the start day for a new, yet-to-be-selected superintendent.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, with a regular meeting to follow with committee members continuing their own discussion.

Upper School construction

The King Open School at 850 Cambridge St.

The King Open School at 850 Cambridge St. will be the second school redesigned to include a JK-5 Program, upper school, community and after-school programs, the city says. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

The budget discussion was interrupted to allow Rossi and his team to give an update on the building redevelopment plans for the Cambridge street school building. Nolan had a motion on the agenda asking information from the team about why the renovation would take four years and whether it could be accelerated.

“We are building a school that is different than what you’re going to find in any other community,” Rossi said. “These are not cookie-cutter schools.” The project needs to be quite large, and will accommodate two gyms, some parking, the Valente public library branch, a public swimming pool and possibly school department administrative offices, and must work within close quarters in a neighborhood. It is also going to be built as close to zero emission standards as possible, Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson said.

The full four years would be needed because of the complication of the building, but also because in deference to its neighbors, officials don’t want to schedule 16-hour workdays. In addition, project manager Michael Black said, experience with the Putnam Avenue King School building suggests demolition and abatement of potential health risks on the site will likely take several months.

The building is to be emptied at the end of the summer and King Open will re-open in the Longfellow Building swing space, while the Cambridge Street Upper School will go temporarily to the Kennedy Longfellow School. Building design is slated to continue all of the next school year, and several parents have written letters asking if students could stay in the current building that first year to shorten time in swing space to three years. They cited concern that the swing space, reportedly very tight for the current King School occupants, will be worse for their larger population.

Rossi’s team made clear that demolition would start the first year, concurrent with design, and they do not want students in any part of the building then.

Costs for two schools

As part of the 2012 Innovation Agenda converting 11 K-8 grade schools to 11 K-5 schools and four middle schools, the school administration proposed the renovation of three of the buildings housing a combined elementary and upper school. At the time, the buildings were estimated to cost $30 million each, to be built in overlapping three-year timeframes. The King School/Putnam Avenue Upper School building was the first project. The start was delayed, but students are due back in the building this fall after three years in the swing spaces.

The Putnam Avenue building is now estimated to cost $96 million, with a total cost to the city of $127 million because it was funded through city bonds, said Louis Depasquale, assistant city manager for fiscal affairs. The King Open/Cambridge Street Upper School is projected at $131 million, or $175 million with financing, he said. So for the next three years the city will be floating $216 million of tax-supported debt for the two buildings.

The Tobin School/Vassal Lane building is the next project. In a 2011 facilities review, Graham & Parks and the Kennedy Longfellow schools were listed as needing major capital work, and the Cambridgeport School as needing moderate renovation. Since that memo was written, the Amigos School was moved into a previously shuttered building on Upton Street and the staff and families there have complained that the building is substandard.

“The types of [new] buildings in this community are of the highest quality,” Rossi said. “This city is trying to do something that is creating a learning experience and is also a school and building that really responds well to all the environmental issues that we face today.”

Other business

School representative Liz Kubicek reported that at one of the final basketball games at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school, students from the competing school, Andover High, began chanting “We pass MCAS” at the basketball team. Kubrick said an after-school workshop may be planned and that high school Principal Damon Smith is contacting the Andover school principal to discuss having a community meeting.

In public comment, new executive director of Cambridge Community Services Ben Clark made a late request for additional funding to allow the City Links program to be fully funded. Clark brought three CRLS students, all of whom arrived in the country within the past four years, to advocate for the program, which provides guidance and mentorship to low-income, international students. The students each read moving statements about their struggles and how optimistic they are about their futures after being part of the program.

The committee put on file a June 2013 motion to get a report on the high school advanced placement courses after recently getting an emailed update from the administration.

Passed unanimously were recommendations for a revised policy on head injuries and concussions, $33,000 contract for out-of-district tuition and acceptance of $24,000 in grant awards in miscellaneous gifts.

Also passed unanimously were a motion by Fantini to ask the school department to encourage students 12 years and older to participate in the city’s participatory budgeting process, which can be done online; and a motion by Nolan and Kelly that all students be encouraged to take part in the upper school Accelerated Math Pathway summer program regardless of test scores.