Thursday, July 18, 2024

School Committee member Emily Dexter listens to Superintendent Kenneth Salim discuss his proposed school district budget at a Tuesday meeting. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

Although “budget season” started for the School Committee in January with two public hearings on priorities, the real meat of the committee’s involvement seems compressed into the 19 days between the March 15 presentation of the superintendent’s proposed budget and a vote April 3. (This year the budget presentation was delayed two days by snowstorms.) Its role has been diminished even from a year ago under Superintendent Kenneth Salim.

As always, almost all of the budget – pegged at $191.1 million for next year – appears to be set in stone. More than 80 percent is staff and administrative salaries, which include contract-driven cost-of-living and step increases. Any real impact on those costs would mean eliminating positions or firing and rehiring younger, less expensive staff. It’s been years since a superintendent has proposed eliminating more than one or two positions; instead, for example, previous superintendent Jeff Young added a deputy superintendent and two assistant superintendent positions, as well as a few other administrative positions. At the same time, there have been steady calls from teachers and parents for even “more hands and hearts” in classrooms to allow teachers to provide appropriate and effective support for the often 20 or more kids in their classes. Many principals choose to use their discretionary funds to hire more staff, often classroom aides and paraprofessionals. The proposed budget adds 39 positions: 14 for new initiatives, the others to cover enrollment growth.

Special education costs for out-of-district students and busing costs for regular, sports and out-of-district transportation are the next largest expense, at more than $18 million. All of these categories have grown annually, and not just in Cambridge. Research and experts report nationwide significant increases of social-emotional behavioral issues and signs of trauma and depression, and in younger and younger children.

The cost of maintaining and operating 17 school buildings and one administrative building, some in old and deteriorating structures, drives another $5.7 million.

The remaining $10 million go to supplies, instructional materials, technology and the services it takes to run schools, feed children, provide enrichment classes such as art and music, hire partners to provide after-school, summer and weekend resources and tutoring and supply sports team uniforms and equipment – in short, anything you see in schools that the teachers didn’t buy with their own money or was donated. This year, it includes $1.1 million in new expenses aimed at closing the achievement and opportunity gaps and increasing effective, “joyful” learning.

Late School Committee role

Between January and the March draft budget proposal, the committee takes ideas and input publicly from parents, some teachers and Cambridge Education Association head Dan Monahan. Members also collect calls and emails with concerns from others.

In addition to the public hearings, the administration presents updates on projects and initiatives that are likely to have budget implications: This season those included expanding the ninth-grade Level Up structure, which has all students on an honors track in English, to include world history; expanding the giving of free Chromebooks all Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students, from just first-year students; strengthening school supports for students with social-emotional learning issues; and the failings of the seventh- and eighth-math program to provide good results and staff satisfaction. There were also reports on the high school guidance counseling program, which ended up having no budget implications in the draft (instead, there are plans for a long-term review and restructuring); the district’s approach to how to respond to schools with acute trouble spots (again, without budget implications); and, this year, a consultant’s report on the elementary program review, which had two basic recommendations: extend the school day, and/or reorganize existing staff to better help students (without specifics on how to do that).

The administration also makes periodic reports on budget “progress,” which are boilerplate presentations on enrollment projections, property tax projections as a primary funding resource, related impacts on the number of teachers that will be needed in general education and separate special education classrooms and other changes required to keep a “maintenance budget” – how much it will cost to provide this year’s services to next year’s student population.

Although the project updates can hint at budget implications – they might need more teachers for the Level Up expansion, or more money for Chromebooks – the committee and the public do not know what will be included until the draft budget presentation, taking place this year on March 15. Although the proposed document is sent to be printed several days before, no one, including committee members and even the budget co-chairs, got a glimpse of the budget before the release of the meeting agenda.

This year, for the first time in years (if ever), budget subcommittee co-chairs Emily Dexter and Fred Fantini were not able to schedule meetings with the superintendent. In the most recent budget cycle, with Salim as superintendent, budget co-chairs Richard Harding and Kathleen Kelly met with him several times leading up to the presentation of the draft.

Salim responded to an inquiry about the policy for meeting with budget co-chairs by sending a list of five meetings. The first was with the previous co-chairs to plan initial meetings. The second was, according to Dexter, also about schedule logistics. Two more meetings were not with Salim, but with Chief Operating Officer Claire Spinner. The final meeting was the day before the scheduled presentation of the budget, when the co-chairs were told there would be two presentations during the three remaining budget workshops. Dexter said that there were no substantive discussions in any of the meetings.

Meanwhile, attempts during the year by some committee members to raise issues around resources are pushed off for “superintendent review.” Dexter has been trying since her election in 2015 to gain traction on discussing whether recent research supports more staff in elementary classrooms. (Before that, she tried for years as a citizen in public comment.) It may be that no one else is interested in pursuing the issue, but it’s hard to tell since there never has been an actual discussion. Instead, attempts after the budget is proposed (as at the final committee discussion March 27) are deemed too late; attempts at the summer goals meeting and planning meetings for the development of the District Framework were considered off-track. Likewise, a March 20 motion by new member Laurance Kimbrough that the budget “reflect adequate investments in all high school programs” was simply referred to the superintendent.

“Last week one of the members asked about behind-the-scenes discussions,” said Dexter at the opening of the March 27 budget workshop. “There were no discussions about the budget behind the scenes. Fred and I … didn’t know about any of the initiatives ahead of time. Every discussion with the administration has taken place here on the floor.”

Purpose of public hearings and comments

Members are left, like the public, to react to a proposed draft, which tends to drive discussion to specific allocations or positions. The public and educator comments at hearings also drive discussion, while raising conflicts for some members.

“What is our rubric for how resources get added to this budget?” member Manikka Bowman asked. “My concern is that whoever shows up wins. While I appreciate everyone that comes out, and their voice matters, they are actually the minority compared to everybody else in the school district … I’m not sure what message we send to public if whoever shows up gets to influence the budget at the end process.”

(“Part of our job,” member Patty Nolan answered later, “is when somebody comes forward with a need, to decide if it’s appropriate,” adding that members hear from many people throughout the year, not just in public.)

Bowman had just inquired about funding for sports team snacks (she and Mayor Marc McGovern noted that the burden seems to be on families) and commented on the plan to provide half-time social workers to some schools. Bowman worried that “if you put social workers in every school and maybe one school may not have the same level of need, people will find opportunities or ways to leverage that person … and have unintended consequences. We know we have serious inequity issues with kids of color and lower socioeconomic backgrounds.” She’d heard recently from parents who felt their children were “stigmatized for behavior” issues because of their color, she said.

Referring to comments at a March 20 public hearing, McGovern said, “if a principal is not saying that they need something in their school, we are not going to … tell them what they need. If [a program director] is not asking for another computer science teacher, it puts us in a very difficult position to say, ‘Well, we’re going to give you one anyway because we heard from a couple of parents tonight.’” Eight people had pleaded for another computer science hire, with teacher Liz Atwood saying that next year the high school would have to turn away six classes of students who wanted to sign up. Atwood argued that recently nearly half of the students are of color, and that the courses create powerful job skills.

“The administration has insight – that committee members do not – into the picture at each of our 18 schools,” Salim said March 22, about staffing levels. “This is certainly not anything against folks coming out to speak on behalf of their schools, but we try to take into account needs across all of our buildings.”

“Because we don’t have that same level of insight but we are the ones that the public comes to,” McGovern said, “we need to have the information” to respond to our constituents about why certain requests are not granted, and how that issue will be resolved.

Dexter countered that some principals have told parents that “they are under pressure not to ask for more resources,” while teachers and parents are the people who can best recognize what is and is not working, and what they need.

This year, as in previous years, several items raised in public hearings were funded, such as field trip buses and, after several years of requests, family liaisons for upper schools.

Committee member concerns

At this week’s budget workshop, members had a last chance to make their case before the final budget is voted on Tuesday.

bullet-gray-small CRLS computer science. Many members hope for another high school computer science hire, despite Salim’s assurance March 27 that the district is exploring classes run by existing non-computer staff with the appropriate skills. “I don’t see how we can’t add at least one teacher,” Nolan said. “The teachers said they gave up their prep period [to accommodate demand this year] and they are not going to do it again.”

bullet-gray-small CRLS guidance counselors. Several members expressed continued concern about the guidance counselors’ caseload, which despite an additional counselor hired for this year, still tops 220 students each. Kimbrough, who was a guidance counselor himself at the school, returns to this often, with strong support from Dexter and Nolan.

bullet-gray-small Elementary social workers. The proposed approach to provide a half-time social worker to four elementary schools still leaves four of a dozen schools behind. “Why not give it to all schools?” asked Nolan and McGovern, a school social worker in another district.

Nolan also took up an argument from Amigos School parents that that burden of providing social-emotional services to students from kindergarten through eighth grade – Amigos is now the only K-8 school in the district – warrants additional social work time. It contributes to Amigos’ lower-than-average special education population, she argued, by not servicing kids adequately.

“Initially all the principals said they wanted a full-time social worker,” Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Maryann MacDonald said. The final decision that not all schools need one, she said, was made by her, Special Education acting head Jean Spera and social-emotional learning lead teacher Alice Cohen.

bullet-gray-small Upper school math reorganization. Nolan and Bowman expressed concerns that the decision to change from “tracked” seventh- and eighth-grade math back to math classes with all skill levels will not have enough resources. Nolan, who has said she can back a solid plan despite preferring tracked math classes, sought reassurances the change will work for all children. Nolan also continued to ask for meaningful review of current math programs and – with no response – what the district has learned about the significant performance gap between two upper schools that consistently outperform the two other upper schools, for all subgroups, with the tracked model. Nolan also wants more attention to math in elementary schools, where performance gaps begin.

“It’s no secret our district has some trouble meeting the needs around advanced learners,” Bowman said March 20. “How will we meet the needs of students that ‘are extremely gifted’?”

bullet-gray-small Broader resources. At the end of the meeting, Dexter presented, as she has done before, a multipage handout with proposed savings (for example, cutting a middle school district math coach and a new information technology “network manager”; asking the Department of Human Services to contribute more; asking Google for free Chromebooks instead of buying them) and suggested hires (for example, more staff in the first and second grades, more math staff in the upper schools, expanding the Kodaly music program and six new high school hires).

“It is a good list to hold onto,” said Nolan, but worried about starting too many initiatives. “I’m grateful that this budget does do what many people came to us for.” Bowman and Kelly agreed that there were intriguing items on the list, but objected to the process.

“It’s late in the process to be bringing this in,” Kelly said, moving for adjournment with McGovern seconding.