Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 10, 2013

FY2014 School Department Budget Stalled by City Council

Filed under: City Council,School Committee,schools — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 9:14 am

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

Reference: Cambridge Chronicle story


  1. As I recall, giving the City Council overall control of the budget is a result of a while-ago state legislation that removed School Committee’s full power for establishing its budget which would affect the tax rate. I think this was a reasonable approach to have one body control the overall budget and thus the property tax rate.

    Did the Councillors who voted No or Present state specifically what they think is wrong with the budget? Too much, too little in specific areas with justification.

    Comment by John Gintell — May 10, 2013 @ 10:59 am

  2. I was teaching my Harvard class last night so I couldn’t attend the School Department Budget Hearing. [Actually, I think this is the first time in many years that I did not attend a single Budget Hearing.] I’m interested to hear what the specific objections were to this budget. I’m a little concerned that city councillors may be overstepping their role. Perhaps one or more of them should run for School Committee instead of City Council.

    Comment by Robert Winters — May 10, 2013 @ 11:07 am

  3. On the school community (not Committee) side of things, I’ll note that Emily Dexter has been agitating for more spending, e.g. in a Chronicle opinion piece.
    She observes that the rise in school budgets has lagged other city departments and the city overall.
    She has advocated for a couple of specific program areas to be reinforced or newly developed (e.g. World Language in all grades).
    One may accuse the School Committee (or the City Council) of lacking discipline but the observation about the overall relative trends is interesting. (Plenty of dissent from Pete Wilson’s follow-up opinion piece.)

    Comment by Tony Tauber — May 10, 2013 @ 11:26 am

  4. At the time of the vote the Councilors offered no explanation. Since that time some have brought up concerns about how many students attend charter schools, building renovations and controlled choice. Although all of these issues can be loosely tied to the budget (everything comes down to money), they are really programmatic/policy issues and, in my opinion, should not have resulted in this action. As one of the budget co-chairs, we spent 8 months, dozens of public meetings, not to mention the meetings that went on at the district level, developing a budget that is educationally sound and within the budget number given to us by the city. None of the councilors who voted this down ever contacted either of the budget co-chairs or anyone else prior to the meeting to raise these concerns. Although these concerns may be valid for conversation, holding the budget, contract negotiations and the direction of our district hostage was disgraceful.

    Comment by Marc McGovern — May 10, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

  5. This was not about adding more money. In fact, Minka stated in the Chronicle that we don’t control our budget enough, I guess she wants to spend less on public education.

    Comment by Marc McGovern — May 10, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  6. I have to agree with Marc’s assessment. If individual councillors had concerns about the School Department budget, they had ample opportunity to express themselves to the City Manager (as far as the overall budget target) and the School Committee at any of their hearings on this subject. Even if we give them a pass for not speaking up prior to the City Council Budget Hearing, they certainly should have made clear at that hearing what their objections were prior to voting down the budget.

    Comment by Robert Winters — May 10, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

  7. Right, my point was that they may have been responding to agitation by Emily and others as well as something called “Election Year”.

    Comment by Tony Tauber — May 10, 2013 @ 11:36 pm

  8. I certainly do not see this as a response to anything Emily Dexter might have said about spending more money, but more on your second point about this being an election year. Personally, I will admit that I am glad to see the City Council taking an interest in the School Committee and looking at ways to try to reign in spending while trying to figure out this “innovative” mess – but I can see why this would ruffle some feathers.

    That said: I do agree with Marc that if any Councilor had a specific issue with something in the proposed budget, then they should have taken that up with the SC

    Hopefully we can get a clear picture of why this happened soon.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 11, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

  9. Let’s be really clear, this move by these 5 councilors had nothing to do with trying to fix these issues.
    Regarding Minka’s concern about the school department controlling its spending, according Mr. Winters chart, city spending has increased 55.5% over the past 9 years while the school department budget has increased 23.7% over that time. What is that saying about glass houses?

    Comment by Marc McGovern — May 12, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

  10. Last Thursday, I left the City Council’s School Budget Hearing confident that the School Department’s Budget request would move along to the final vote in a few weeks. It did not. I was surprised, but did not think it was a “blindside” or a result of “personality conflicts” or “lack of leadership”,”irresponsible”, “obstructionist”, “ignorant”, “insulting”, or “disrespectful”. One characterization I do agree with is that it was “political”. And in the best sense of the word, that is exactly as it should be.

    The dollar spent on a couple of minute’s worth of teaching takes a complicated path from taxpayer to child. The Budget Hearing is an essential part of that pathway and assures that public debate, when needed, occurs.

    The fact that public debate rarely occurs is no excuse to avoid it when it happens. And if you’re having the debate, make your questions clear, and your answers helpful.

    I have been involved with the Cambridge Public Schools since I moved back to the City over 13 years ago. We have always spent a considerable amount more per pupil than the majority of other cities and towns. It’s fair to ask for goals, how the money is being spent and measurable results.

    I understand the frustration when questions been asked and answered before, but you need to take a sabbatical if you’re tired of giving the answers. Any teacher will tell you that.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — May 13, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  11. Tom,
    You are completely missing the point. No one said that we didn’t want to answer questions or that there shouldn’t be public debate. No one said that the Council didn’t have a right to ask questions about how the budget was being spent. The point was that those weren’t the types of questions they asked. No one said, “I’m voting against the budget because I think we spend too much money per pupil” or “I’m voting against the budget because we need to spend more on special education.” That would be understandable.

    The Supt and his team answered every question that was asked. What couldn’t be answered was promised to be followed up on. So this isn’t about limiting public debate, Lord knows, we had months of public debate at the SC. So don’t try to wrap this into your political campaign of “non-transparency”. There was plenty of opportunity for the Council or anyone else to contribute to this process.

    And I’m not sue how you can say it wasn’t a blindside? According to the dictionary to be “blindsided” means: “To catch or take unawares, especially with harmful or detrimental results”. None of these Councilors expressed any concerns prior to the meeting, not only during the months leading up to the budget being voted on by the SC but in the several weeks since its passing. Not one of these Councilors made a phone call, wrote an email or pulled any one of us aside to say that they had concerns. It was the definition of a “blindside”.

    Comment by Marc McGovern — May 13, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

  12. Anyone have any idea when the next round of meetings will be now?

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 13, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

  13. I was going to ask the same question regarding meetings and next steps. The City Council’s Finance Committee has a meeting scheduled “if necessary” for this Thursday, May 16, at 9:00am. If people were serious about resolving this impasse, that would be the perfect time for everyone to put their cards on the table and state clearly what they would like to see happen next. Councillor Decker is the Chair of the Finance Committee, so if she wants this resolved she should hold that meeting.

    Otherwise, I suppose the School Committee could come up with some kind of response at its regular meeting next Tuesday, May 21 at 6:00pm. That won’t be pretty. Then the City Council would have to schedule another Finance Committee meeting or take it up at a regular City Council meeting.

    One thing is for sure – until there’s a follow-up meeting this is going to be nothing but finger-pointing and posturing for the Fall election.

    Personally, even if there is merit in the objections of some city councillors, they picked a pretty lame way to act on it.

    Comment by Robert Winters — May 13, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

  14. So it sounds like the meeting Thursday morning will focus on the SC budget, according to Denise Simmons’ Facebook post:

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 14, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  15. We just received word that the tentative meeting for Thursday has been canceled.

    Comment by Marc McGovern — May 14, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  16. City website confirms the cancellation.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 14, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

  17. Robert,

    There’s an important difference between voting down the Budget and voting against referring it to the Council for a final vote. The latter is necessary to continue the public debate in committee and is a perfectly normal way for a legislator to express the desire to do so. The former ends debate on the Budget.

    Too bad the Thursday meetings had to be cancelled.

    Comment by Tom Stohlman — May 15, 2013 @ 7:48 am

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