FY16 Budget Notes and Comments

Last week the CPS administration posted the Proposed Budget for next year (FY16), and made a budget presentation at the School Committee meeting.  (Link to video of meeting and related documents below.)  There is a Public Hearing this Wednesday, 3/25, starting at 5:30, at which parents and others can speak for 3 minutes, including to advocate for more staff in the schools. Following Public Comment, the SC will discuss the budget and, on Tuesday, April 7th (I think), the administration will present the revised budget for a vote. If the SC approves it with at least 4 votes, it then goes to the City Council for another Public Hearing in May, discussion amongst the Council, and their vote.

In Cambridge, it is the City Manager, with City Council approval, who decides how much funding the schools receive each year. The School Committee could ask the City Manager and Council for more funds if they had a clear picture of where the staffing and funding gaps are. One of the biggest messages from teachers this year is that they are stressed and overwhelmed with the size and diversity of their classes and need more staff who work directly with students: smaller classes, more paraprofessionals, more intervention teachers, and more social workers and counselors. Behind the scenes, the middle school principals asked for family/community liaisons, which have been a unique feature of Cambridge schools for decades. The Proposed Budget does add 8.5 intervention teachers at the K-8 level (4.0 FTEs at K-5 and 4.5 FTEs for middle school), a guidance counselor to each upper school (and half for Amigos), and one social worker to be split between two elementary schools, which is a  great start. But with few paraprofessionals in the system, many K-12 classes are too large for such diverse students. That’s our biggest Tier 1 problem. At the elementary level, one added social worker can do little given the many distressed children and families in the system. If we truly want to educate the whole child and every child, if we really want equity of outcomes, we need to staff these elementary, middle, and high schools at the levels our extremely diverse population requires. More task forces won’t solve the problem. There are too many students in CPS schools who are spending most of their day with 20 or more other students and often only one adult. Students need more help, attention, and guidance than that, more “adults who know them well.”  Teachers need more trained “hearts, minds, and hands” in their classrooms and in the schools.

Two more FTEs will be added to the Central Office staff this year: one clerk and one district-level social worker who will coordinate social-emotional learning initiatives but not work with students and families. It would be great to have someone with social work training in the administration (preferably the cabinet), but with so many student and family needs unmet at the school level, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about the addition of yet one more Central Office coordinator position.

On a positive note, there seems to be a paradigm shift nationwide. Schools and districts all over the country are realizing that the real action is at the school level, and that schools with more autonomy are having greater success than schools that are hamstrung by mandates from above.  In addition, successful demonstration projects with high-intensity tutoring (interventions rarely make a difference unless they are daily) and school-based social workers are showing the value of having more staff and more varied staff at the school level.

Other details related to the FY16 Proposed Budget include:

1.  Maintenance plus $500,000 (minus undetermined state and federal cuts): The Proposed Budget from the City, called the “General Funds” budget, is for $163.9 million, which is $500,000 more than maintenance level. This is the first time in recent history that CPS has gotten more than maintenance funding, so the City Manager should be commended.  However, if we lose more than $500,000 in federal and state grant funds, which I believe we did last year, we’ll be back to maintenance or less.  (The total CPS budget includes General Funds from the City and grant funds from state, federal, and private sources.) Last year our grants decreased by $1.2 million. (At least from what I can tell from public documents.)  Over the past dozen years, not only have CPS percentage increases from the City not kept pace with other departments, our state and federal grant funds have plummeted by 40%.  In FY06 we received $15 million in federal/state grants, while last year it was down to $9 million, despite increased enrollment. That $6 million, if replaced by the city, could fund reduced class sizes, a social worker in every school, more classroom aides, more art materials, more tutors and intervention teachers, more library books, and so on.  Private schools like Shady Hill and BB&N have figured this out: lots of staff per student, small classes, and lots of books, field trips, and curriculum materials.

With cuts in grants, the CPS total budget has increased by only 20% over the past ten years, versus 45% for the rest of the city budget; i.e. before this year, CPS had an average annual increase of 2.0% vs. 4.5% for the non-school city budget.  When CPS grant funds get cut, grant-funded positions often get moved onto the General Funds budget, which means something else gets squeezed. (These estimates are based on numbers I’ve been able to find on city and CPS documents on the web, so they should be taken as tentative and should be verified by the CPS budget department.)

2.  Elementary class sizes & paraprofessionals:  This is where CPS has the most potential to keep students on grade level.  As we know from the Heckman Curve, this is the age where investments have the most potential to affect life trajectories. That’s why it was distressing to see CPS contribute $50,000 to the city’s early childhood task force this year when its own early grade classes were understaffed. Though the district sets a class size target of 22 students, which is still too high for this age group, more than 200 1st and 2nd graders will be assigned to classes above the target next year. Unlike the kindergartens, these classes do not have full-time paraprofessionals. Astonishingly, SEI classes don’t seem to have smaller class size maximums than other classrooms. SEI teachers practically begged for a cap of 18 students at the hearing in December, but eight out of the ten K-5 SEI classes will have between 19 and 25 students. The administration reported this year that many students are spending more than one year in the SEI program, and it’s no surprise given these class sizes. (SEI is Sheltered English Immersion for students who enter CPS not speaking English. Students in any given SEI class could speak a dozen different languages.)

The history of class sizes in CPS is that the former superintendent, Dr. Fowler-Finn, wanted to reduce 1st-3rd grade class sizes in keeping with the research showing positive effects for low-income students. He and the School Committee set targets of 18 students per class for those grades. He then decreased the number of paraprofessionals because class sizes were smaller. After he left, however, 1st-3rd grade class size targets were increased to 22, but paraprofessionals weren’t added back. The result? Larger class sizes plus fewer classroom aides.

3.  Social-Emotional Learning (SEL):  The mayor, in particular, asked for more focus on social-emotional learning.  According to the budget, the new upper school guidance counselors will have quarterly check-ins with the students. This will have to happen on a group basis.  If each student had a 30-minute one-to-one check-in, it would take a counselor 27 days (5+ weeks) each quarter to meet with all students in a school of 270 students. Putting more adults in the upper school classrooms would do a lot to improve the social-emotional climate of the classrooms, and would give students the help or attention they are usually seeking when they are disruptive or withdrawn.

At the high school, the ratio of guidance counselors to students will be up to roughly 225 students per counselor. Course selection is a fraught issue at CRLS because of the disproportionate number of African American and Latino students in lower level classes, and the observation that many students who have the ability to take higher level courses are choosing not to or are steered downward. With counselors trying to advise 225 students about course selection, it must be hard to get to know each student as an individual.

3.  District task forces, professional development, program evaluations: Though not starting any new initiatives, the administration will be busy coordinating task forces and organizing professional development for the teachers, who indicated that they are exhausted by initiatives and want to focus on their teaching:

  • Upper school task force ($80,000).
  • RTI Leadership team (no cost mentioned)
  • Curriculum review teams in Science, ELA, ESL, World Language, and Social Studies ($100,000)
  • District assessment design and implementation ($50,00)
  • More PD with Jon Saphier’s Research for Better Teaching (cost not specified)
  • Cultural proficiency training for teachers & staff (cost not specified)
  • 2-Day in-district conference (“Educational Excellence Institute”) (Doesn’t mention cost or whether teachers will be paid to attend.  At the institute held last year, if teachers did attend, it was on their own time.)
  • Evaluation task force to review the recent coaching evaluation, the DESE review, and a co-teaching evaluation
  • Early childhood joint task force with city (I believe the city charged CPS $50,000 this year, but no charges are mentioned in the FY16 budget.)
  • STEAM joint project with city ($35,000) (STEAM=STEM + the Arts)

Unlike in the FY15 budget, the administration didn’t specify the fees to be paid to consultants.  Last year there were parent protests on the listserve about some consultants being paid close to $1,000 per hour.  I believe there was a bit of a kerfuffle last month when Governor Patrick was being paid $7,500 per day by the state for his consulting/lobbying related to the Olympics. That came quickly to an end.

Those are the main highlights. Hopefully any cuts in federal or state grants will be small.

Proposed budget: http://www.cpsd.us/UserFiles/Servers/Server_3042785/File/departments/administration/financial/budget/fy2016/FY16_proposed_budget_final.pdf

Transcript of teacher testimony at December budget hearing: https://publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/transcript-of-cps-teacher-budget-requests-and-priorities-at-cps-budget-hearing/

Earlier budget commentary by CPS parent Leslie Brunettahttps://publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/brunetta-budget-comments/

Cambridge Day article on budget presentation, by Jean Cummings: http://www.cambridgeday.com/2015/03/18/schools-budget-steps-up-to-164-million-while-construction-total-hits-216-million/

Video of budget presentation and discussion on March 17th: http://view.earthchannel.com/PlayerController.aspx?&PGD=cambridgema&eID=548

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