Claire Spinner, chief financial officer for Cambridge Public Schools. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

The next school district budget is projected to total $213.7 million, an increase of $11.9 million over the current $201.8 million, for a 5.9 percent increase, School Committee members learned Jan. 28.

The increase covers what’s often called a “maintenance budget” for existing services and has at least $300,000 for new initiatives. Claire Spinner, chief financial officer for Cambridge Public Schools, said the budget now accounts for cost-of-living increases of staff salary and benefits ($6.3 million to $6.7 million) and changes in student enrollment ($1.9 million to $2.6 million), facilities and technology costs (between $300,000 and $500,000) and transportation costs ($1.6 million to $1.8 million).

But “our budget is still very much in the development phase” as officials align resources with goals, Spinner said. “We are not likely to end up at the high end of the range in every, or even most, categories. This means we fully expect to fund additional initiatives within the city manager’s allocation of $213.7 million.”

In the current budget, the district was able to fund almost $1.9 million in initiatives without substantial budget cuts because the city provided funds in excess of the maintenance budget; at the low end of Spinner’s ranges, there could be nearly as much available: up to $1.8 million. “Each year there are changes made in an effort to better utilize resources … the district has not had a reduction in force or other major program reductions in order to balance the budget in many years, nor have ‘cuts’ been required to fund the district plan initiatives in prior years,” Spinner said.

Little impact from state

Additional budgets funds can come from increased Cambridge property tax revenue ($10.5 million) and Chapter 70 education aid ($1.4 million), provided to local school districts by the state, Spinner said.

The Student Opportunity Act, an education funding bill passed by the state Legislature in November, provides a significant increase in funding to K-12 public schools though Chapter 70 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which determines the amount of local aid provided by the state.

But Chapter 70 changes will have little impact on district funding because it accounts for only 8 percent of the total CPS budget.

“Many communities depend on Chapter 70 revenue, but Cambridge works with the city manager and starts with the bottom line,” Spinner said. “The city manager has the authority to decide what resources will get CPS where it needs to be.”

Charter schools and busing

The largest assessment is charter school tuition. In the current fiscal year, the city paid $15.1 million for the 545 Cambridge students attending charter schools.

The state, which absorbs a limited amount of charter school tuition, is changing its formula for tuition reimbursements, Spinner said. Now it pays for charter school students at a rate of 100 percent for their first year, 25 percent for the following five years and no contributions for subsequent school years.

It is expected that the state will pay in full for a student’s first year; 60 percent of the costs for the second year, and 40 percent for the third year and final year of state reimbursements.

Committee member Fred Fantini, who serves as one of the budget co-chairs, asked about the increase in transportation costs, which Spinner said was uncertain. There is one bid from the district’s current busing provider, but because of technical issues it will be resubmitted by the provider. 

Next steps

Tuesday’s discussion of the budget for the school year 2020-2021 was held as a retreat; there was no public comment, it was not televised or recorded, and a handful of people attended. 

Acknowledging calls from the community to televise budget meetings, Fred Fantini, budget co-chair, put forth a motion at Tuesday’s committee meeting, stating that all budget meetings and hearings held in the Dr. Henrietta S. Attles meeting room will be televised. The committee adopted the motion unanimously.

Superintendent Kenneth Salim said the district is working to make the budget process more accessible to the community through flexible meeting formats and scheduling. Public comments on the budget, gathered at the community roundtable meetings held Jan. 21 (with educators and staff) and Jan. 25 (with families and community members) are available on the district’s finance information web page.  The City Council and School Committee will hold a joint roundtable to discuss the budget at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The committee meets in the Dr. Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 459 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge, and will be televised since the committee passed a motion to do so. (Meetings classified as roundtables are not required to be recorded or televised.)


This post was updated Feb. 9, 2020, after further communication from district chief finance officer Claire Spinner to correct the sense that the district was looking at a “maintenance budget” and would likely pay for initiatives with cuts elsewhere.