*** What will the School Committee Do?

By Emily Dexter

Given that it is an election year, it will be interesting to see how the School Committee and Mayor Maher respond to the budget testimony offered by teachers at the recent hearing. The teachers made it clear that our current staffing across schools and grade levels is inadequate. As compared with in the past, we have more students with severe emotional difficulties, who are far below grade level, had interrupted schooling before coming to the U.S., have very difficult personal or family situations, and/or who are not proficient in English. There is also more awareness of advanced learning needs. (Among other things, teachers stated the need for smaller class sizes, more trained adults in the classrooms, more academic and behavioral intervention specialists, social workers, instructional coaches in the high school, and full-time art, music, and technology teachers in the elementary schools.)

The teacher testimony matches educational research findings and numerical data on CPS staffing. Our student-to-teacher ratio, at least for general education teachers, is not much better than in other districts, including those with more homogeneous middle class populations. Nor have we tried interventions that educational studies have shown to have positive effects: 1) Reducing early grade class sizes to 15-18 students; 2) providing wraparound services coordinated by a school social worker, and 3) providing consistent, one-to-one tutoring and intervention teaching. (Small class sizes probably contributed to improved outcomes at the Fletcher-Maynard Academy, but CPS has not implemented smaller K-2 classes across the district.)

To provide adequate staffing would probably require adding 75-125 new positions to the FY16 budget at a cost of $4-6 million dollars. With a city payroll of almost 3,000 employees and a city budget of almost half a billion dollars, that would be only a 4% increase in municipal staffing and a 1% increase in the municipal budget.

The teachers’ budget testimony leads to two questions:  1) Will the School Committee acknowledge teacher claims of understaffing and the numerical evidence and research that supports their claims, or will they refute them?  And, 2)  If they acknowledge the need for more staffing, will they ask the new City Manager, Richard Rossi, for a larger school budget, or will they assert, as they have in the past, that Cambridge already spends enough on its schools and can’t afford to spend more?  

The School Committee has certainly asked  for more school-level staffing in the past, such as for social workers, more intervention teachers, and full-time art and music teachers. They haven’t insisted on those additions, however, and as a result haven’t gotten them. They have also not complained about the gradually increasing class sizes.  (Except for last year, when some high school classes had 30 students.)  I.e. they have approved budgets, year after year, in which class sizes have increased, school improvement funds have decreased, and the number of academic and socioemotional support staff for students not on IEPs has remained flat or actually decreased on a per-student basis.  Through most of the 2000s, they accepted annual budget increases of 1-3%, while city revenues and the rest of the city budget increased by more.  Will they do anything differently this year, particularly given that it is an election year?  (The next School Committee and City Council election is November, 2015.)

A positive scenario is one in which the School Committee, the Mayor, and the City Manager give the school department the additional $4-6 million required to increase staffing to levels that will have a real impact on student outcomes–test scores, attendance, discipline rates, and graduation rates. (There would be grumbling from some taxpayers, but not enough to threaten anyone’s reelection.) This should be an affordable scenario, since Mr. Rossi promised several years ago to provide $4 million to increase achievement via a longer school day. Under this scenario, the School Committee members and the Mayor could take credit during campaign season for soliciting teacher input and persuading the City Manager to increase the school budget.

A negative scenario is one in which the City Manager only gives the schools the standard maintenance budget.  This scenario, however, would put School Committee members in a vulnerable position in an election year.  To voters they will either have to contradict the teachers and the achievement research and claim that additional staffing isn’t needed, or admit that they have no influence with the City Manager and can really only re-arrange deck chairs.  They could, in order to gain the support of voters, publicly criticize the City Manager, but that is a dangerous strategy in a small-town city like Cambridge.  When Bob Healy was City Manager (before Richard Rossi), I actually had a School Committee member tell me, “We don’t want to make the City Manager angry by asking for more money.”  Fortunately, I don’t think that atmosphere of trepidation still exists with the new City Manager.

There is also the intermediate scenario: The City Manager grants an additional $1-3 million for some additional staffing but not enough. This would allow School Committee members to claim credit for getting some increase, but carries a risk: If there is little discernible improvement in outcomes, the City Manager is unlikely to increase the budget again in following years. That’s why the School Committee should ask for all of what is needed: $4-6 million to fund 75-125 new school-based positions to meet the needs of our rapidly changing student population.  It is also a much-needed opportunity to diversify the CPS staff through an aggressive national recruitment process.

During the hearing, the School Committee members seemed genuinely interested in what teachers had to say. Their response, however, was noncommittal:  “I can promise that we will take into consideration all that you have said.”  “We will talk about these things.” “Maybe there are some things we can do.”  It will be interesting to see what they say and do moving forward.

Comments welcome.  Feel free to share via email, Facebook, etc.  For more information on the hearings, see the transcript posted at https://publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/transcript-of-cps-teacher-budget-requests-and-priorities-at-cps-budget-hearing/.

Also see Jean Cummings’ excellent article in Cambridge Day: http://www.cambridgeday.com/2014/12/11/teachers-call-for-help-hands-and-hearts-in-classrooms-after-relentless-initiatives/.

Coming soon:

  • A thumbnail history of recent CPS budget conflicts and kerfuffles, 2011-2014.
  • Some analyses of the 2013 local election results and what they tell us about voter preferences and the coming municipal election.
  • Why asking for 75-125 new CPS positions won’t burden the city with too many employees.
  • Why a member of the administration testified in favor of the Kodaly music program at the budget hearing and what that means for K-5 World Language instruction.
  • How Cambridge’s municipal and governmental structure restricts school improvement.
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