Wednesday, May 22, 2024

School Committee offices in Mid-Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

School district spending proposals are drawing more questions from School Committee members than in past years, but their publicly made requests for information about the fiscal year 2024 budget are unlikely to reach the public in time to influence budget decisions. 

Tonight’s the only night for the public to comment on the Cambridge Public School’s proposed $245 million budget.

The district’s tight two-week timeline gives the committee budget workshops with no public comment on March 23 and again March 28, with a tentative additional workshop March 30. The committee votes on whether to adopt the budget – including $16.8 million in new spending – on April 4. The City Council evaluates the budget and votes May 10. 

Members appeared to be at as much of an informational disadvantage at a March 14 meeting as the families they represent, with members asking for additional information on multiple programs and the reasoning behind district decisions.

Committee members flipped through 228 pages of the proposed budget after a presentation by superintendent Victoria Greer, asking for information on district initiatives – several of which would lead to adding administrative positions in a year that is phasing out teaching positions added during the pandemic. The meeting came more than two months after the district’s last public budget presentation, which took place at a Jan. 30 meeting.

The district has struggled to attract public interest in budget discussions; this year student enrollment stands at more than 6,600 students, but a fraction of students or caregivers participate in budget events: 75 people attended in-person or virtual meetings, according to the district; 519 caregivers, staff, partners and students completed an online survey; and 120 families were reached by phone, slightly higher than prior years. Roughly 50 students attended a session at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school, out of more than 1,800 students enrolled.

 “I’m particularly interested in how we increase the access to our families and our students around all the services and programs,” committee member Caroline Hunter told district staff, adding that even as a committee member she can’t find information. “People throw out program names and I go to look for them. They’re not printed on the website, but students are enrolled in them. Families have no idea what’s going on.”

Hiring and other staff changes

Committee members asked for information on multiple programs and district priorities, including enrollment, costs, hiring decisions and how programs are evaluated.

The district’s practice of hiring of consultants was scrutinized, with committee vice chair Rachel Weinstein observing that unlike consultants, employees can nurture long-term relationships and understand the local landscape. Hunter asked for a report that includes the assignments and costs for all consultants; chief financial officer Claire Spinner said she would provide it. Hunter also wanted past and current equity audits to help inform committee evaluation of program and hiring decisions.

The district is revising some department organization charts and proposing staff changes based on Greer’s Entry Findings project, an evaluation of district resources and projects, and found “inconsistencies in decision-making, lack of clear reporting and primary response.”

Many of these changes involve administrative staff, with members asking for more information on roles and responsibilities for multiple positions.

The district will hire an executive director for the Office of Early Childhood Education to help manage the universal preschool program rollout; an executive director of the Office of College and Career Exploration to align career planning from preschool through 12th grade; and a Rindge School of Technical Arts operations manager.

The district will change mathematics and literacy coach positions to lead teacher positions to help manage the more than 1,200 teaching staff.

Other plans are to reclassify an existing position to a lead teacher for dual-language programs; eliminate the Design Lab Innovation Coach position, add a cyber security specialist to the Information, Communication and Technology Services department; and add or reclassify three positions in human resources. 

Additional hires include a social worker for homeless families, a bilingual liaison and two employees to join the High School Extension reengagement team.

Ending Covid-relief funding

Several members asked for clarification on how the $3.8 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants will be spent, as the 2024 fiscal year is the end of the Covid-relief funding).

“A big part of our planning process this year was around how do we ensure sustainability,” said Greer, noting a gradual and strategic decrease in the number of positions funded by Esser. Any permanent positions will be funded through or using the district’s general fund, or leveraging grants such as Title One, which gives extra funding to schools with high percentages of low-income families, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which funds special education and related services.

“We’re trying to not do what teachers have shared with us has been one of the biggest challenges: we add on and we never shift away,” Greer said. 

Member David Weinstein  (no relation to the vice chair) asked about Covid mitigation supplies such as test kits, their mailing costs and HVAC; Spinner said many costs are already “baked into the ongoing budget” and will not rely on federal funding.

English and math

The district is rolling out English-language arts and math classroom frameworks that includes restructuring departments, adding staff and buying new assessment and curriculum software. 

The new ELA program was discussed at the committee meeting March 7. Member Ayesha Wilson asked for data on student progress, noting a 2019 report saying that 85 percent of fifth-graders on individual education plans were reading below grade level. Greer promised to provide additional data.

The math framework will be presented to the committee later this spring, Greer said.

While Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Hunter supported funding two non-district math programs, they asked for information on the programs’ effectiveness and the number of students served: the Calculus Project, which offers support to under-represented high schoolers to help them succeed in advanced math classes, and the Young People’s Project, which trains high school and college students to teach math to elementary students. It helps hold the Flagway games, which combine math, navigation and teamwork skills to solve math challenges.

Student programs

The budget includes $450,000 to continue free meals program for all students in the event that the state stops funding the program, Greer said in reply to David Weinstein.

Members asked for a status report on the Individualized Student Success Plan initiative, which prepares students for effective transitions and post-graduation success. The status of students who do not complete high school concerned member Fred Fantini, and Greer said she would provide information on the district’s services to support these students.

Greer committed to providing a report on the number of district students and families experiencing homelessness at the request of member Ayesha Wilson. Hunter asked for historical data on the district’s mental health services and resources spending.

David Weinstein asked if the district is adequately funding its commitment to restorative justice in light of recent hate crimes.

Amid all the questions, Rachel Weinstein summed up the committee’s gratitude that so many programs and positions can be funded through district budget. “We are so fortunate to have a city that is able to contribute more than twice the amount that the state requires deems necessary for educating young people,” she said.