Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A student climbs Sept. 9, 2021, on a Haggerty School playground. (Photo: Marc Levy)

It’s almost a handful of loose change in light of the district’s multimillion-dollar annual budget: $1.5 million in school improvement plan funding that may be spent on a broad range of initiatives, ranging from support staff to professional development, math programs to event catering, or consultants to books for summer reading. 

The funding is allocated by the district to 19 schools and programs based on enrollment and student need and theoretically governed by each school’s council, which determines how to spend in support of district goals. The council may advise, but not direct, principals on funding priorities, and principals send SIP budget requests to their supervising assistant superintendent over the course of the year, adjusting requests if priorities change.

While the spending goes on, current plans are incomplete, key public information is lacking and many schools fail to post school council meeting notices, agendas or minutes that would make the process transparent. 

A factor in this decision-making process – school council handbooks – is being voted Tuesday by the School Committee.

Each school’s funds are tied to its plan, which should be reviewed each year by its council. But the most recent SIPs published go up only to 2020. The district did not create plans during the pandemic, director of communications Sujata Wycoff said in December, but is developing 2022-2024 plans “in alignment with the new district plan and consistently across schools.”

With no plans in place, and without review by the majority of school councils, how are the funds being spent? It appears most principals are just making requests without the usual community engagement.

How the dollars break down

SIP funding requests provide some insight into the dollars. 

Those through mid-December were provided by the city in response to a public records filing. At that time, 82 percent of funds had been requested or reserved. A public records filing for updated plan budget request information was made April 12; a response was received Tuesday, but did not include data for all schools.

Examining the data gives a look into the priorities and choices of school principals, but specific insight is elusive: for many requests, the account number is a placeholder, or a request is too vague to understand immediately what is being funded.

For instance, SIP funds are allocated into two placeholder account codes at the beginning of the year: “Temp Salaries – Professional” and “Workshop Stipends,” Wycoff said. 

The largest amount of funding, approximately $426,000 spread over almost 60 requests, or roughly 34 percent of the $1.2 million that has been spent, falls under “Temp Salaries – Professional.” The majority pays educators who participate on leadership teams that plan academic, equity and social-emotional learning initiatives; summer and after-school programs; and other administrative projects. Three “Permanent Salary” categories, for aides, paraprofessionals and teachers, add roughly $120,000 to annual SIP spending on staff salaries.

“Instruction services” is next at roughly $192,000, with almost $150,000 of that amount, or 77 percent, applied to three programs at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School: Bunker Hill Dual Enrollment ($39,200); uAspire, which provides financial aid counseling ($50,000); and the Calculus Project ($60,000), which provides support for underrepresented students to excel in advanced math coursework. 

More nitty-gritty

The Putnam Avenue Upper School spends $28,000 (44 percent of its SIP budget) in this category on “a variety of learning opportunities” outside of the “required school curriculum” and for after-school activities.

“Instruction materials” takes third place at roughly $140,000 and runs the gamut from funding PSAT exams for high school sophomores ($16,362), to maker-space supplies at Amigos School ($8,000) to many schools funding books for staff training and students’ summer reading ($63,000).

More than $125,000 was requested for “professional development contracts,” ranging from equity consultants at Amigos ($15,000) and the Graham & Parks School ($24,600), restorative justice training at the King Open School ($9,600), educator training at the Peabody School ($31,413) and phonics training at Amigos ($13,200) and a Playworks program at the Fletcher Maynard Academy ($14,000).

Roughly $85,000 of the funds requested were not assigned an account number.

The remaining categories use far fewer funds and include a High School Extension field trip ($3,000); printing of the CRLS Experience, a guide to curricula and extracurricular activities ($5,000); and food and refreshments at family events at several schools ($21,500).

School council handbook

Whether school councils – and the communities they represent – are given insight into how SIPs select and fund their priorities is partially dependent on the School Council Handbook, a policy document that provides rules the district must follow once adopted by the School Committee.

The handbook, developed by a working group of caregivers and educators led by Robin Harris, former FMA principal and the district’s director of family engagement, was published in June, followed by a version heavily revised by district staff in October. 

Community members pushed back against some revisions, which reduced or removed the role of school councils – and the school communities they represent – at two subcommittee meetings. The current working draft, the “April” handbook, contains few revisions that reflect this community input.

The School Committee voted to adopt the revised Handbook on April 11 without saying it was the first of two votes – also called “readings” – required to adopt a policy document.

The second vote, or reading, will be held at Tuesday’s committee meeting.