The Great Cambridge School Budget Kerfuffle of 2013

It all started with the May 9, 2013 Finance Committee hearing on the FY2014 School Department Budget........

FY2014 School Department Budget Stalled by City Council

May 9 - The Cambridge City Council at its FY2014 Budget Hearing on May 9 failed to approve the School Department Budget of $150,989,445 on a 3-4-1-1 vote [YES - Decker, Maher, Davis; NO - Simmons, Kelley, Cheung, vanBeuzekom; PRESENT - Toomey; ABSENT: Reeves]. The budgeted amount represents a 4.1% increase over the previous year and is in line with the increases of other City departments. This should require at least one more meeting of the Finance Committee to take up the FY2014 Budget and, presumably, another meeting of the School Committee to respond to the rejection of its budget. [Update - The Budget was not rejected, but held in the Finance Committee pending the resolution of a variety of questions. It was subsequently discharged on May 20 without any of these questions being addressed.]

Under the Charter, the City Council may reduce any submitted departmental budgets but they may not increase them. On the other hand, requests can be made through the City Manager to adjust and resubmit budgets. Cambridge being Cambridge, it's likely that the budget rejection is based on a desire to spend MORE money rather than less money. It is the responsibility of the Cambridge School Committee to determine how money is allocated within the School Department budget. The City Council can only vote on the bottom line. If the intention of the City Council is to now involve itself in specific School Department budget items, this represents a radical departure from what is permitted under the Charter and calls into question the role and responsibilities of the School Committee. - RW


Letter from Marc McGovern and Richard Harding
Co-chairs of the Budget Subcommittee of the Cambridge School Committee

As Co-Chairs of the Budget Subcommittee of the School Committee, we are writing to express our complete disappointment in the actions taken by a handful of City Councilors who, on May 9, 2013 voted against next year's school department budget. The school department budget process began over 8 months ago. During that time, numerous public meetings were held to gain community input. Meetings were also held by school councils made up of parents, teachers and administrators who made recommendations to the administration regarding budget priorities. Meetings were held with principals, the teachers' union, the special education parent advisory council and others to gain budget insight. Many difficult and challenging conversations were had over these months culminating in a balanced budget that was voted unanimously by the School Committee.

It should be noted that these councilors did not express their reasons for voting against the budget at the time of the meeting. Some of the councilors asked only a few questions, never indicating that they would take such action. Since the meeting, three of the five councilors have provided information as to their concerns, none of which relate to the budget itself. The two major concerns expressed were controlled choice and charter school enrollment. These are two important issues and we do not question that they are worth discussion. What is confusing to us, however, is how will voting against the budget help better understand either of these issues? The truth is, it won't. Families send their children to charter schools for various reasons. Every public school district in the country is aware of this issue and works to keep students in district, Cambridge is no different. In regard to controlled choice, the School Committee, the administration and the public have been working hard on this issue for the past two years, starting with a working group led by Patty Nolan and Richard Harding, and now a subcommittee of the whole led by Alice Turkel and Fred Fantini. Over 20 meetings have been held and as recently as May 7, 2013 the School Committee held a public meeting to review over a dozen recommendations as to how to improve controlled choice. If this issue was of such concern to these councilors that they took this unprecedented step, why didn't they come to any of these meetings? Why didn't they raise this concern sooner? Why didn't they write an email, make a phone call or sit down for coffee to discuss these concerns? Their lack of communication makes us wonder if these are real concerns or just political posturing.

Let us be very clear, the political maneuvering that was carried out at this meeting will do absolutely nothing to help address these concerns. The councilors have done nothing to help bring us together as city leaders. What they did do, is drive a wedge between the school community and the city community. What they did do was potentially damage contract negotiations. What they did do was show that making a political statement was more important than insulting, disrespecting and undermining several months of work by parents, teachers, principals and school administrators. If that is not bad enough, they did it all without any communication, warning or chance for the superintendent or School Committee to be prepared. This was a complete and utter blindside to all who worked so hard.

What is also confusing is that since the School Committee passed the budget several weeks ago, not one of these councilors contacted us with any concerns or questions. Even prior to the meeting, none of these councilors pulled us aside and asked for explanations or gave any indication that they might vote against the budget.

It is important for the public to know that the City Council does not have the authority, nor is it their role, to vote specific budget allocations up or down. The Council must vote on the budget as a whole. So to make a political point these councilors voted down the entire budget which included funding for an additional autism classroom for our autistic children. They voted down adding additional school psychologists, inclusion specialists, athletic trainers, and additional staffing for our new upper schools. They voted down adding an additional Special Start classroom and funding the Wrap Around Zone at the Fletcher Maynard Academy modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone. They voted down funding for professional development for our teachers, for paying our teachers, and for providing school improvement funds. They voted down funding for additional community outreach, and against our partners: Cambridge School Volunteers, City Sprouts, Science Club for Girls, and Breakthrough.

We stand with our parents, teachers, superintendent and School Committee colleagues who worked so hard on the proposed budget which we believe will help move our district forward.

Hopefully, with some time to catch our collective breath, more rational heads will prevail and these Councilors will see that their actions were more damaging than helpful.

Marc McGovern and Richard Harding
Co-Chairs of the Budget Subcommittee of the Cambridge School Committee


Letter from Councillor Leland Cheung
responding to Co-chairs of the Budget Subcommittee of the Cambridge School Committee

Sometimes fighting for the greater good requires a willingness to say no to good enough.

I ran for the City Council to make the City of Cambridge a better place to live and raise a family - not to be a rubber stamp. During my time in office, I’ve held developers’ feet to the fire to improve community benefits, I’ve pressed city departments via Council Orders to better respond to resident concerns, and I’ve voted no on the Information Technology budget to pressure the City Manager to invest more in digitally connecting residents to their government.

Throughout the City’s budget process, my colleagues and I expect a data-driven, outcomes focused, long-term plan for excellence from the City Manager. I believe that the same standards should also apply to the School Committee’s budget. On Thursday, I heard great questions by my colleagues that were ultimately left unanswered by the Superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, so I voted to hold the budget in committee instead of rubber stamping it and referring it to the regular Council meeting for adoption. This was not a vote against students, the schools, or the programs therein; this was not a ‘gotcha’ vote; this was a procedural vote in response to unanswered questions saying we’re not ready. There is plenty of time to resolve these issues and I fully believe that the budget will eventually pass the City Council, but I wanted to send a message that I believe the City of Cambridge can do more for its kids and that I expect a budgetary plan that is focused on achieving that.

The Council has been raising these questions for years. For almost a decade, Councillor Toomey has been pressing on the systemic inequities in the schools closest to his home. Councillor Kelley has repeatedly called for exit interviews to help us compete with charter schools and other districts. During the School Department budget discussion last year, I asked the administration to tell the Council and the community what it would take for the Cambridge Public School System to become best in class. I asked to see a plan based on considered trade-offs that helped the Council anticipate what the impact on the overall budget would be if we were to implement some of the ideas under discussion, like universal early education, an extended school day, an Office of College Success, increased professional development for teachers, computers for students, broader world language offerings, expanded wrap-around services, and so on.

The Council has committed to a building upgrade program that is expected to cost Cambridge taxpayers upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars and risks exceeding our debt limit guidelines. To make informed financial decisions, the Council needs a better long term budget plan from the school administration. To make sure taxpayer money is being well spent, the Council needs a plan that adequately addresses all the concerns my colleagues raised. At a cost of $151 million for 6,000 students, every graduate of the Cambridge Public Schools should have all the tools they need to succeed, thrive, and prosper in an increasingly competitive world. If that’s not possible in the current budget, we need to see a roadmap for what it would take.

Contrary to statements made by the Finance Chairs of the School Committee, this was not a political maneuver by a handful of Councillors. After I heard so many of my colleagues’ great questions receive unsatisfactory answers, I asked for a named up/down vote because I felt in my heart of hearts that this budget was not ready to pass on its merits. I was surprised by the outcome, but in retrospect the fact that only 3 of 9 Councillors voted to say that the budget was ready to move on to adoption demonstrates a heightened level of frustration and angst amongst the Council. It demonstrates that the Council thinks the school system is failing to achieve the outcomes that we know our community is capable of.

I hope that instead of focusing on feelings of personal insult or anger with the process that the Finance Chairs will interpret the vote as constructive criticism on the presented budget and a signal that the Council is ready to better invest in our students if there is a data-driven, outcomes focused, long-term plan for excellence that holds us all accountable. The single most important responsibility of our society is to invest in the education of the next generation. When it comes to our schools, there is no such thing as good enough.

Leland Cheung
City Councillor


Communication from Councillors Cheung, Kelley, Reeves and Simmons to Mayor Davis (May 16, 2013)

May 16, 2013

Mayor Henrietta Davis
795 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139

Dear Mayor Davis:

With only three of all nine Councillors voting in favor of the Cambridge School Department budget on Thursday, it is clear that there is a heightened level of frustration and angst amongst the Council – one that should not go unnoticed. The principal duty of the Cambridge City Council is to exercise fiduciary control over the City of Cambridge to ensure that it is meeting and exceeding the goals set by the Council each session. As adopted in December of 2011, one of our principal goals is to "strengthen and support human services, public education, and out of school learning in Cambridge for the benefit of residents of all ages". On May 9, the will of the Council showed that questions and concerns remain as to whether the budget makes significant strides towards meeting this integral goal.

Many citizens throughout the City share this concern. In each of the last three Citizen Satisfaction Surveys, the quality of our public schools has been the top ranking concern amongst all Cambridge residents. It is crucial that all elected and appointed officials understand the importance of addressing the concerns that our community has expressed and that many Councillors raised in regard to the budget as it was presented at the May 9 Finance Committee meeting. We recognize that the wealth of concerns that were raised at this point may not be met in the next year, much less be solved during this current budget discussion, but it is important for the District to acknowledge that these concerns are real and that the District, coordinating with Cambridge's elected officials and relevant City staff, will address them and develop a comprehensive, data-driven and outcomes-oriented long term plan to work towards accomplishing them in the years to come.

In particular, we think the District must make a clear and focused effort in these areas:

1. Research has time and time again demonstrated that youngsters who participate in a high-quality preschool program demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement, more socially responsible behavior, and make significantly higher earnings as an adult. We must invest in early childhood education to ensure that each and every child in Cambridge has the opportunity to attend preschool, and the current budget should more clearly explain how CPSD is supporting this notion now and how that support will be continued in the future. If the budget does not address this concern, it is not in line with the Council's goal of strengthening public education.

2. Throughout discussions about CPSD with current, former, and prospective families, classroom management, school climate and teacher training are consistently recurring issues, as is supported by past CPSD parent surveys. We would like to see a budget that sets clear goals for teacher training as it relates to classroom management and school climate, along with associated data about student disciplinary issues. We understand that the CPSD budget cannot include every effort that the District is making, but it is important that the budget reflect the attempts made to address major concerns raised by the families it has been created to serve. A failure to assess these issues in the current budget is not in line with the Council's goal of strengthening public education.

3. Family engagement has been another important issue that the FY2014 School Department budget appears to overlook. The Family Liaisons play critical roles in ensuring that parents have a steady guide through all school-related issues and concerns, and they are tireless advocates for the children they work with, often going above and beyond their job descriptions to ensure that our kids get the very best educational experience possible. Study after study has shown that children do better at school when there is an active partnership with the parents and the families, yet the money devoted to Family Liaisons and the family engagement process is nowhere as robust as it needs to be. A failure to assess this great need in the current budget is not in line with the Council's goal of strengthening public education.

4. Understanding why students and families opt to leave the District, whether it be to attend a charter school, private school, or school in another district, is crucial for schools to improve. At present, the City spends approximately 9-11 million dollars annually, depending on state reimbursement formulas, on charter schools and a significant proportion of school-aged residents opt not to attend Cambridge public schools. Making an aggressive attempt to understand what educational needs that families perceive CPSD as not well-equipped to meet seems like a logical first step in figuring out how to address these concerns. If we do not address the concerns of residents who ultimately decide to send their children to academic institutions outside of CPSD, the Council is not furthering its goal of strengthening public education in the City of Cambridge.

5. The Council has committed to an extensive school building upgrade project that will add a quarter of a billion dollars to our City's debt load, a figure that will bring our total debt load beyond the level at which we have traditionally set the limit. Additionally, we've discussed the potential of extended day, expanded pre-k, eventually expanding the wrap around program, giving computers to kids, broader world language offerings, an office of college success, and other potentially large programmatic expenditures which are not accounted for in the long-term budgetary plan. While we are fully in support of investing in programs and facilities to give our students and staff the facilities they need to grow and thrive, we need a more comprehensive long-term picture to make informed decisions about expenditures that will ultimately be reflected in higher taxes for our residents. We also need to understand the trade-offs and considerations that go in to thinking about how these programs and facilities will increase our return on investment, given that Cambridge already has one of the highest per pupil costs in the state. The failure of the budget to address this concern is not in line with the Council's goal of "[evaluating] City expenditures with a view of maintaining a strong fiscal position and awareness of the impact on taxpayers while providing a high quality array of city services".

6. There is a concern that the population growth may not keep pace with the amount of building renovation called for in the proposed school budget. It would be most unfortunate if, after a decade of renovations, the City has four state-of-the-art school buildings with precious few students to occupy them. This is why it is important that we have at least a five-year projection for the Innovation Agenda. We would be much better served if we have a sense of how much this will cost going forward, if we can anticipate what additional expenses may need to be called for, what additional positions may be created that will need funding, how many students will be expected to be housed in these buildings, and so forth. The failure of the budget to address this concern is not in line with the Council's goal of "[evaluating] City expenditures with a view of maintaining a strong fiscal position and awareness of the impact on taxpayers while providing a high quality array of city services".

7. Why, in a District that is very multi-cultural, do so many events, activities, programs and awards seem to be demographically disparate? The systemic inequities and racial unbalances that continue to exist between student populations strongly impact the ability of all of our children to reach their full potential. Failure to address this concern is not in line with the Council's goal to "value and support the racial, socio-economic, cultural and religious diversity of our city".

Given the scope of the $150,000,000 CPSD budget, along with the roughly 22 million dollars in charter school payments and school construction debt service, it is clear to us that not all of our concerns will be able to be met immediately. We would like a clear commitment from the School Committee and CPSD staff that the next budget year will start with a focused discussion with the City Council and City staff of the above-listed concerns, and that measurable steps will be taken to ensure that additional concerns of families, students, and members of the community are addressed as well. If we can get that clear commitment, we would be willing to support this year's CPSD budget and work with all concerned parties to make sure future budgets better reflect the fiscal and educational concerns of the City.

Several years ago, we initiated the practice of holding City Council-School Committee Roundtables to increase the amount of communication between these two bodies, in the hopes of avoiding the very situation in which we now find ourselves. It would appear that we either need to increase the number of Roundtables we hold each year, or we need to set aside specific Roundtables each year to devote exclusively to discussing drafting the school budget, to ensure that City Councillors are able to publicly provide feedback as a group and air concerns during the budget drafting process.

Please feel free to contact us directly should you have any questions or concerns about this communication.

Councillor Leland Cheung
Councillor Craig Kelley
Councillor Kenneth E. Reeves
Vice Mayor E. Denise Simmons

Cc: Councillor Marjorie Decker, Finance Committee Chair
City Council
School Committee
Superintendent Jeff Young
City Manager Bob Healy
Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi


Merry Month of May - Cambridge City Council May 20, 2013 Agenda Highlights

Amidst the flowering trees and the birds and the bees, springtime also brings the annual City Budget to the peaceful garden of Cambridge. The Big News is that the School Department Budget was not passed by the City Council's Finance Committee amidst suggestions that important questions asked were not being answered. The 3-4-1-1 vote at the May 9 Budget Hearing [YES - Decker, Maher, Davis; NO - Simmons, Kelley, Cheung, vanBeuzekom; PRESENT - Toomey; ABSENT: Reeves] means that on the night when the final vote on the FY2014 Budget was expected to occur, the largest single component of the budget ($151 million) remains in committee. There appears to be trouble in the garden.

This might have been resolved on May 16 when there was a scheduled meeting of the Finance Committee if necessary, but Finance Committee Chair Marjorie Decker canceled that meeting. Instead of an actual meeting, we've been treated to a flurry of letters by city councillors and School Committee members posted here and on the Cambridge Chronicle website. [Mcgovern/Harding (May 13); Davis (May 13); vanBeuzekom (May 14); Cheung (May 14); Decker (May 15); Cheung, Kelley, Reeves, Simmons (May 16 and on this agenda); and Simmons (May 17).] Monday's meeting agenda is interesting in that there are proposed policy orders that are incompatible. One order calls for the School Committee budget to be released from the Finance Committee and the unresolved issues discussed at a joint Roundtable meeting after the Budget is passed. The other order calls for the Finance Committee Chair to schedule a meeting of the committee before June 3 to resolve these matters prior to the Budget being passed by the City Council. The School Committee is not involved in these votes, but the co-chairs of their Budget Committee, Richard Harding and Marc McGovern, have been quite outspoken in characterizing the City Council's actions as "reckless."

Here are the agenda items related to the current impasse:

Order #1. That the School Department budget be discharged from the Finance Committee and be referred to the full City Council for adoption at the City Council meeting of May 20, 2013.   Mayor Davis and Councillor Decker

Order #9. That the City Council schedule a Roundtable Meeting on June 10, 2013 at 5:30pm to meet with the School Committee members, the Superintendent of Schools and the School Department as a follow-up meeting to discuss issues raised in the FY14 School Department Budget hearing held on May 9, 2013.   Mayor Davis

Order #17. That the City Council respectfully urges the Chair of the Finance Committee to convene further budget hearings, to allow for additional discussions, with the hope of resolving any outstanding concerns that individual City Councillors may have regarding the FY2014 School Budget.   Vice Mayor Simmons, Councillor Kelley and Councillor Cheung

Communications & Reports from City Officers #2. A communication was received from Councillors Cheung, Kelley, Reeves and Vice Mayor Simmons transmitting a copy of a letter to Mayor Davis regarding the Cambridge School Department budget. [This communication gives a very detailed list of grievances/concerns.]

Communications & Reports from City Officers #3. A communication was received from Jeffrey M. Young, Superintendent of Schools regarding the Cambridge School Department Budget.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #5. A communication was received from Mayor Henrietta Davis regarding the School Budget.

Communications & Reports from City Officers #6. A communication was received from Mayor Henrietta Davis transmitting a copy of a memorandum from Carolyn L. Turk, Deputy Superintendent of Schools regarding Capital Improvements and Corresponding Educational Planning.

Late Communications & Reports from City Officers #7. A communication from Mayor Henrietta Davis regarding the FY2014 School Budget.

Letter from Massachusetts Association of School Committees (written by Glenn Koocher)

It will be interesting to see how this is resolved if, in fact, it is resolved. There has been a lot of talk around town about how the highly-touted Innovation Agenda may not be as rosy in its implementation as it was in its initial presentation. This may not be entirely apparent in the above communications, but the failure to pass the School Department Budget was most likely preceded by many phone calls and e-mail messages to city councillors from parents of children in the public schools.

May 20 Late City Council Update

The Cambridge City Council, after much heated rhetoric, defeated (on a 4-5 vote) Order #17 that would have required additional Finance Committee hearings on the School Budget (Cheung, Kelley, Simmons, vanBeuzekom voting YES; Decker, Maher, Reeves, Toomey, Davis voting NO). They then discharged the School Budget from the Finance Committee on a 7-2 vote (Cheung, Kelley voting NO). They also approved Order #9 to schedule a joint Roundtable meeting of the City Council and School Committee on June 10 at 5:30pm. All of the anticipated FY2014 Budget votes then proceeded as originally planned. The General Fund Budget ($472,820,685) passed 8-1 (Kelley voting NO); the Water Fund Budget ($14,238,700) and the Public Investment Fund Budget ($92,715,930) both passed unanimously.

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