Thursday, May 25, 2017

Comments before the Worcester Finance and Operations on FY18 budget

I spoke from notes on Tuesday night, so this isn't word for word; some of what I said made it into the T&G. Again, the presentation from Tuesday is here. 

Please note that I speak tonight only as a parent with three children in the Worcester Public Schools, 'though my perspective is informed by my work at the state level.
I think it's important first to note that Worcester is an outlier this year in having a budget that is growing as it is. While other districts are seeing staff cuts of double and triple digits, Worcester is adding double digits of teachers. The growth in the budget largely due to increased enrollment, which is also unusual. Most districts in Massachusetts have declining enrollment. We should celebrate that, but it also should make us even more active as a district in our advocacy for a revision in the state formula.

I can't help but notice that this is the second year in a row in which the central administration is growing, after several years in which it declined. I don't begrudge the growth--as the budget cites on page 396, Worcester's administration is smaller than most, and, by my calculation, in FY16 was funded at 62% of foundation--but I am concerned about the choice made in where those additions come. Early planning stages of the state's Every Student Succeeds Act planning emphasized social-emotional learning heavily, and thus many districts shifted resources in response. The final plan, however, de-emphasizes this as part of the accountability standards. This is not to suggest that social-emotional learning isn't important, but I question if a cabinet-level administrative position is the best way to do that. A budget that adds, as far as I can tell, no (or few) guidance counselors, adjustment counselors, or psychologists is not most effectively meeting the needs of students. Additions are desperately needed.

As a parent of two secondary students, I find the significant additions of secondary teachers reassuring. Additions not only in core subjects but also in the arts are heartening. I note, however, that the only addition to the Burncoat Magnet program is a single dance teacher 7-12. With the addition of the Hanover Academy to Burncoat, there already is concern in the arts magnet that they will be negatively impacted; no one has reassured them otherwise. A successful program of three decades deserves better treatment than this. Likewise, though the dual language program moves to seventh grade this year, Burncoat Middle has no additional ELL or language teachers. Those parents--and I stress, only the sixth grade parents, as no one has spoken with parents in any other grade; communication on this has been non-existent--were told that the school could only schedule those students to move as a pack. This means those students would see no differentiation of levels, thus leaving those who might otherwise head to AP or Calculus classes unable to do so. Having worked in a secondary school, I know that this is a  matter of wanting to rather than being able to. I would urge the committee to take an interest in this matter and add the sections that might be necessary to give these kids access to all they are able to do.

I note that both the instructional materials account and the building maintenance account are flat funded. Likewise, though the capital repairs list is interesting, and I appreciate the City Manager's reported interest, the capital fund thus far is flat funded. While it is gratifying and important that the city continues to make investments in new buildings and windows, if we don't spend money on regular repairs to the existing buildings, we will need those new buildings that much more often. I would urge the School Committee to be outspoken in their advocacy for additional capital funding to better meet the needs of the district.

Finally, though it is found in two locations in the budget, between the schools budget and the municipal contribution, the spending on police continues to rise. This year, the district will come close to spending a million dollars on policing in our schools. I think it is important to note that, and to question the wisdom of this as a priority in funding.

Likewise, I see that the safety account is budgeted at a hundred thousand dollars this year. Having been in a number of presentations on school safety, most recently last week in one by Sandy Hook Elementary, allow me to point out: you can spend as much money as you like on cameras and buzzers and equipment. If, every time I show up outside a school and push the buzzer, I am buzzed in without any question or look, the schools are no safer than if you'd spent nothing.

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