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.