Monday, May 27, 2024

A $163.9 million budget for the next school year was approved unanimously by School Committee vote Tuesday.

It’s about $7.3 million more than the current budget, with $1.2 million for new initiatives. The rest of the increase comes from the higher cost of keeping current levels of staff, transportation and electricity – accounting for about $5.4 million – and another $700,000 from changes in staffing based on next year’s enrollment and new state requirements for supporting English learners.

Since Superintendent Jeffrey Young proposed his budget March 17, two committee meetings drew teachers and parents asking for more help through higher staffing – including interventionists, upper school family liaisons and instructional coaches – as well as more support in managing “social emotional” and behavioral issues. Several committee members joined this testimony in expressing frustration in not seeing more classroom support in the proposed budget, with member Fran Cronin saying of student behavioral needs in particular, “What we have now is not working.”

At the brisk meeting Tuesday, budget co-chairman Mervan Osborne expressed satisfaction in the committee’s work. “There’s something in the air that makes me feel personally this is a pretty important cycle for us. [The budget] has changed quite a bit. I thank the members of the public and the staff that forced us to look harder.”

Yet the budget passed this week had only one change from Young’s proposal in March: As a response to requests to better help schools designated by the state as underperforming at “Level 3,” a literacy interventionist originally proposed for an undetermined elementary school is instead going to the Putnam Avenue Upper School, which is Level 3 with the King Open and Kennedy Longfellow elementary schools.

Of the areas Young identified at last week’s meeting as ones he and his staff would revisit – student social emotional supports, supporting Level 3 schools and high school instructional coaching – only the Level 3 school support was tweaked. Instead, the administration released an “additional budget information” document with a few new details.

High school principal Damon Smith spoke to reiterate Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk’s explanation last week for why instructional coaching in his school was ended this year: There had been “no impact” on student achievement, he said, and he did not want to continue diverting teachers’ time from students in favor of coaching teachers who voluntarily sought assistance; he wanted to expand capacity to accommodate larger student enrollment; and he preferred to align coaching to districtwide standards, which are under review.

Though there was much discussion in the past two meetings about providing third-party vendor support for student social-emotional issues, it did not show up in the revised budget. The projected cost quoted for one such program – City Connects – is $400,000 for a one-year test in four schools, and Mayor David Maher suggested at the March 25 meeting that the cost could be shared across other city budgets. Young and Maher have indicated that conversations are ongoing with City Connects, and a presentation to upper school principals is being scheduled.

Some reluctant voting

Member Kathleen Kelly prefaced her vote by saying, “I feel there’s a point in the budget process for myself where I just need to let go. I will vote yes. It’s not perfect, there’s a lot I would like to see in it, but the staff has done a terrific job in answering questions and I am feeling very comfortable at this point.”

Member Fran Cronin included several caveats in her vote to pass the budget, including lack of family liaisons in the upper schools, dissatisfaction with part-time positions such as the social workers proposed for some elementary schools, the loss of a Kennedy Longfellow teacher because of current enrollment levels and uncertainty over aspects of a phonics program for the early grades.

But her major concern remains the proposed framework for addressing social-emotional needs, she said, again advocating for using an outside vendor such as City Connects to provide support in the schools “to give us the space and time that we need to evaluate and assess the levels of need.”

Budget subcommittee co-chairman Richard Harding said he’s “not in love” with parts of the budget, but “school reform happens slowly. This budget sets us up to have a better school district.”

Member Patty Nolan said after the meeting she voted reluctantly because her biggest concerns ultimately lie outside of the budget – that is, what she sees as program mismanagement.

Maher repeated Kelly’s words – “that sometimes you just need to let go” – in his vote to pass the budget. But he, like Osborne, expressed a sense it had been a more productive process than some. “I hope that people realize that we do listen to people here. We heard a call that ‘we need help.’ The district is in the process of trying to figure out how to help.”

Outpouring at December budget hearing

Although Osborne referred explicitly to the recent testimony of an upper school teacher as focusing committee members and the administration on the students and “getting us all sitting up straight,” it may have been the Dec. 9 public hearing of mostly staff members that committee members remember when they talk about this budget as responsive to calls for help.

It was after that hearing that Young began to signal that the budget would not have a lot of “big, new” initiatives and would focus on the upper schools, early reading proficiency and social-emotional learning. Young has repeatedly praised budget 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, which was the first time staff was so intentionally and publicly involved. “That was a particularly instructive and illuminating time for us,” Young said in thanking them at the committee’s Feb. 24 meeting.

The budget now goes to the City Council, which needs to approve it. The council has the right to cut the budget allocation to the school department, but it cannot raise the allocation or change any elements of the budget. The vote is generally seen as a formality, but two years ago the council created a hiccup in the process by dramatically failing to approve the budget – that is, members did not reject the budget, but delayed its passage with a 3-4 vote, with one member voting “present” and another absent. This was one year into the Innovation Agenda reorganizing the K-8 schools into elementary and middle schools, and there was concern among some council members that the initiative was not adequately funded. They ultimately passed the budget 11 days later, 7-2.

The council’s finance committee has scheduled a public hearing on the budget for 6 p.m. May 13.