Saturday, July 20, 2024

Fletcher Maynard Academy is losing a state grant for its extended hours. (Photo: Marc Levy)

This year’s Cambridge Public Schools budget process is a roller coaster ride, with intense community interest, deep dives by committee members into how funds are allocated and programs evaluated, and the district responding rapidly with new information and budget changes.

For starters, Thursday’s budget workshop is now a special meeting, which means the public can comment on proposed items. Several members expressed support for postponing the committee’s Tuesday vote on the budget to allow for additional community input. Three parent-led groups – the North Cambridge Courageous Conversation, Cambridge Families of Asian Descent and Cambridge Families of Color Coalition – are leading an effort to reschedule the vote to allow more input from CPS families. (Update on March 30, 2023: The 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting has been changed to be a regular meeting with public comment; the vote will be held at a new special meeting at 5 p.m. April 11. Public comment will also be accepted April 11.)

The groups are encouraging families to email the committee to delay the budget vote. The groups encourage the community to register to attend its virtual community forums on Saturday and Monday to provide more feedback to the district.

“The budget is 228 pages and the community got it last Monday,” member Caroline Hunter said. “That’s hardly a time to process it and come up with the proper questions and answers.”

The district has responded to committee and community information requests by posting Frequently Asked Questions to clarify items in the superintendent’s proposed fiscal year 2023-2024 udget. An additional FAQ is pending, according to Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communications.

To expand access to budget information, the district posted the budget’s executive summary on its website, enabling the community to translate the text at the push of a button, at the suggestion of budget co-chairs José Luis Rojas and Rachel Weinstein.

The tight timeline and member schedules make moving the committee’s vote difficult, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui noted. She expressed hope that the meeting Thursday would be enough.

“I feel confident that we’ll be able to vote on this budget by next week,” Rojas said. “I just want to put things in perspective … given the size and the magnitude of the of the budget overall, I think we’re very close.”

Extended-learning hours cut

Superintendent Victoria Greer said the district has reworked the budget based on committee feedback and a surprise decision from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

DESE told the district on Friday that it will no longer allocate $700,000 in Extended Learning Grants at the Fletcher Maynard Academy and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools. The grants have provided additional instruction time to students for more than eight years.

The district will make up for the disappearing funds in part by using $450,000 that it had budgeted to pay for the universal free lunch program in case the state ended support for it.

Funding for the meals program is included in the governor’s supplemental budget, Greer said, and the district is hopeful that legislation to make it permanent will be approved by the House and Senate. 

A Design Lab coach position will not be cut, based on strong committee and educator feedback at Tuesday’s meeting, officials said. The $85,000 salary will be funded by reducing temporary salaries in the curriculum and instruction budget.

The third year of Summer Program scholarships will continue after strong committee support. The roughly $182,000 will be funded with federal Covid-relief grant funds known as Esser, which have unspent balances due to either vacancies or unused summer scholarship funds.

Teachers or administrators

Several committee members questioned the hiring of administrators, from specialists to directors, while reducing the number of classroom educators.

That wealthy Cambridge is eliminating educator positions while hiring expensive administrators is a “a hard pill to swallow for people,” member Fred Fantini said. “With our federal dollars being reduced, and interventionists and paraprofessionals being reduced, it’s hard for me to justify bringing in $600,000 worth of new positions.”

It was a position echoed by several other members, who asked the district to consider changing job titles or delaying hiring positions until next year to save funds. 

But many teaching positions being cut were one-year educator contracts to help mitigate Covid learning loss that got extended into a second year, Greer said.

“I want to be very clear that when people took these employment opportunities, they took them knowing that they were not permanent, they were temporary,” Greer said. ”There was never an expectation that the positions would be extended beyond the two years.”

Temporary licenses

Another reason for reductions in educator staff is due to a state decision to stop approving emergency licenses for educators, Greer said. It is uncertain how many educators plan to apply for provisional licenses. The district’s human resources department is collaborating with the Cambridge Education Association to organize a teacher fair to help educators who want to remain in the district find positions.

They “will be able to assume some of those positions,” Greer said. 

The district is countering the reduction in educators by funding a “targeted strategic high-dosage tutoring model” to support student academic and social needs, Greer said. Recent studies have shown it is the “better approach to supporting and helping students who are struggling learners.”

Fantini said he may ask that the budget vote be split so six new administrative positions be voted on individually. “I’m going to just keep my options open,” he said.

School funding

Fantini expressed concerns about school funding levels, particularly for the Kennedy-Longfellow school, which is affected by declining enrollment and a large number of high-needs students.

Member David Weinstein (no relation to co-chair Rachel Weinstein) asked how the district allocates funding for classrooms, noting that it is difficult for parents to see skilled and committed educators reduced, and there is confusion when it appears that one school has more higher-need students but may have lower funding.

All classrooms are assigned support educators, with additional staff in classrooms with high numbers of students with disabilities, English-language learners and economically disadvantaged students, said Claire Spinner, the district’s chief financial officer.

“It’s a very complex thing, not just a formula based straight on enrollment,” but the district manages enrollment and maintains flexibility to accommodate classroom needs, Spinner said.