Saturday, July 20, 2024

School Committee member and budget co-chairwoman Emily Dexter was a “no” vote Tuesday.

The School Committee voted to pass a $191.1 million budget for the 2019 fiscal year on Tuesday. Superintendent Kenneth Salim had put forth five additions to the budget proposed March 15 that addressed several, but not all, requests from parents and teachers in hearings and public comment that followed.

The additions total $228,950, but the budget remained at $191.1 million by balancing them with savings of $35,000 on professional development that can be covered by state grant funds; $20,000 of excess budgeted funds for out-of-district vocational education programs; reductions of reserve teacher positions of one teacher and an aide, totaling $98,500; and $75,450 savings from updated salary estimates.

Six committee members voted in favor of the budget. Emily Dexter, co-chairwoman of the budget subcommittee with Fred Fantini, voted against, saying that the partnership between the co-chairs and the superintendent was wanting. “We thought we would work more in close partnership with the administration,” she said, referring to the lack of discussions with Salim on budget issues that have been held in past years. She also reiterated her frustration that despite her “trying to convey in every single way that I could” that she would like to see a rethinking of elementary education structures, it hasn’t happened. “Why do we have same class size for first grade and eighth grade? There is no research that says adding a district coach improves education, but there is research saying adding adults in the room does have an impact.”

The additions were a high school computer science teacher – avoiding having to turn away a reported six classes of students who wanted to sign up, nearly half of whom were expected to be students of color; a guidance counselor; more math teacher time in the middle schools; a fourth-grade aide; and $25,000 in targeted school support.

The $191,069,500 budget now goes to the City Council for up-or-down approval in the overall municipal budget.

Committee reaction

Most committee members embraced the budget warmly.

“As budget subcommittee co-chair,” said Fantini, speaking first, “I would like to frame this discussion. It represents a 10 percent increase over two years. Brockton, Everett and Worcester are looking at significant reductions in their budgets. This is a time to celebrate.”

“This is the first year in a long time that I have worked on budget with a strategic plan,” he said, referring to the District Framework launched this year by Salim that helped guide the budget. “None of us gets all of what we want in a budget,” he said, pointing to expanding the Kodaly music program to all elementary schools as something he would like to continue pursuing, “but this is a special budget with special resources.”

Vice chairwoman Kathleen Kelly was also a strong supporter. “As a co-chair of the budget with another superintendent, I so strongly am in favor of this budget,” she said. “It is clear to me the amount of work and reflection that went into this.” She added that she wants “to see us thinking about more building of the relationship between the School Committee and the district leadership. There needs to be respect on both sides for the role that each play.”

Member Patty Nolan called it “an astonishing budget in terms of resources. There are so many good things that we have been working on for years. The expansion of Level Up; family liaisons in upper schools and expansion in elementary schools; and transportation for field trips.” Level Up provides puts ninth-graders in shared honors English classes, undoing a previous system of putting students on “tracks” that led only some to college.

But Nolan also hoped to see more time between the presentation of a proposed budget and the vote sealing it up. Two workshops, in which administration presented details on a seventh-grade math proposal and family engagement, came after the budget was proposed and cut into committee budget deliberations, she said. She also worried about upper school math, where no evidence was shown on what worked well or poorly, especially given the wide range in MCAS and ninth-grade algebra test performances across the five middle schools. She renewed a plea for more analysis of existing programs, such as the long-running Response to Intervention program and academic coaching for teachers.

Member Manikka Bowman thanked everyone who helped to create the budget and “who came to this room or sent an email. It is a public process. I know there was a lot of intentionality that went into shaping this document.” But she also had concerns: “There is no rubric, there is no process” around who gets concerns reflected in the final budget. “For us to grow as a body,” she said, the committee needs to insert some formal process about making sure their decisions reflect the needs of the entire population. Bowman also made oblique references to Cambridge Public School Department systems being used “inappropriately … to engage the public … or lobby” for a position.

Presumably, she was referring to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School guidance counselors. The entire high school department sent a letter to Principal Damon Smith, the committee, superintendent and Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk asking for an additional teammate, arguing that their caseload had grown within a few years to more than 230 students each from 170, and that they were not able to spend enough time getting to know them. Bowman’s objection – though she was intentionally vague – may have been that at least two of the guidance counselors sent emails to some parents (perhaps through school-based email) asking support.

Nolan responded a few minutes later. “Emails and testimony provide us an insight, a window that we can’t get if we are not in the schools. It’s tricky. If I as a staff member want to do something and I haven’t been able to convince my principal, do I say nothing or do I make the case? I think they got the message,” she said, mentioning guidance counselors, “that they should not have done what they did. I think what we have to do is trust that all of us, like the superintendent and the administration, have to own the budget, that we have a role and responsibility to see if there are ways it can be better.”

“I fundamentally reject what you just put out into this body,” Bowman said. “I didn’t articulate a particular group of people. You just did it … As an elected official it’s my responsibility to make sure that we don’t want our staff to think that they can use private information to advocate … for their position.”

Mayor Marc McGovern also strongly supported the budget, thanking Salim for “listening,” evaluating and making final recommendations that made good educational sense. But he also seemed hesitant about how committee members should take comments into consideration. “I always support public participation,” he said. “But we get into trouble when we receive political pressure … We can’t start adding positions based on how many emails we get … These weren’t emails coming from low-income families. I know because I know those families.”

Laurance Kimbrough made no comments.

Other business

The committee passed a Nolan motion, similar to in previous years, directing the district to “communicate to principals not to pressure students who choose to opt out” of MCAS 2.0 standardized testing. Bowman was alone in voting against. Dexter asked Salim if he could comment on the letter he sent to families saying flatly that all students were required to take the MCAS; Salim said that her question was not pertinent to Nolan’s motion, and did not respond further.

There was a lengthy discussion about the “harm” from not having sufficient MCAS participation for each grade at each school. Student member Juliette Low Fleury confirmed that high school students need to pass the tenth-grade MCAS to graduate (McGovern said that a state-approved portfolio showing proficiency can substitute, but added that it tends to be used for special education students unable to take the tests). If different populations, schools or grades, do not meet a 95 percent participation rate, the schools and therefore the district automatically are dubbed Level 2, out of 4. There is no “punishment” for being Level 2 or Level 3, nor a financial advantage to being Level 1, other than the designation of the level name.

In addition to putting on file several member motions asking for budget additions made moot by Salim’s adjustments, the committee voted to refer to the curriculum and achievement subcommittee a Dexter motion inquiring about the amount of computer and phone screen time students have during school; and a Kelly motion to hold a televised “special meeting” for the public to learn about the district’s approach to building safety and security.

The committee also passed without discussion a recommendation about a union grievance; a $26,000 contract for out-of-district tuition (with McGovern recusing himself because of his professional relationship to the school); a $29,000 contract for a consultant assisting with union and district Nellie Mae grant projects; a $35,000 contract for curriculum materials; $37,000 for math materials and professional development; nearly $3,000 in gift and grant receipts; and more than $1 million of Title I grant award. The committee also passed unanimously a $50,000 contract for the Research for Better Teaching.