Budget Gap Vexes School Committee

In tonight's voting by the Cambridge School Committee on next year's budget, officials will be trying to answer the question on everyone's minds--can you create nearly a half million dollars out of thin air?

After initial estimates placed the costs for restructuring Cambridge and Latin School (CRLS) at $700,000 in Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D'Alessandro's budget last week , CRLS officials are now pushing for $450,000 in additional funding. And while they say the additional funding is crucial, they have yet to pinpoint where the money will come from.

D'Alessandro has given assurances she can initiate "creative" ways to increase funding, but many school committee members have expressed public concern about the proposed funding--and why there were not told earlier about it.

Two months after the committee unanimously passed a major reform to CRLS to even out the current system of "houses," which vary in size and use different teaching styles by creating five "schools" of uniform size starting this fall, fallout over details of the agreement has caused tension between the superintendent and school committee members.

Who Wants To Be a Half Millionaire?

CRLS officials say the increased funding will be crucial to ensure the high school will open on schedule this fall.

"These are one-time resources so that when the school opens in September, we'll be ready for it," said David Hannon, a CRLS parent and co-chair of the school's budget committee.

The CRLS budget committee sent the request for additional funding to D'Alessandro more than three weeks ago.

But committee members said they were surprised by the requests, which they first learned of at Monday's budget hearings. And neither school committee members nor district administrators have come up with a plan for dealing with the discrepancy.

"I think if we need $450,000, we need to come up with that money," said school committee member Alfred B. Fantini. "We can't dance around it. [The restructuring] has to be successful."

D'Alessandro's proposed $700,000 restructuring funds are currently allocated for capital improvements to the building and teacher training and other items.

But CRLS officials are requesting more. CRLS Principal Paula Evans distributed copies of the additional CRLS requests to school committee members, showing her support for the additional expenditures.

The requests include $130,000 more for training, $100,000 more for renovating and rearranging the physical plant, as well as $66,000 for contingency funds, $50,000 for teachers' voice mail, $27,500 for public outreach efforts and $25,000 for the school opening.

But committee members at Monday's budget hearing said they were surprised to learn of the additional requests. They pressed D'Alessandro at another hearing on Tuesday on the large discrepancy.

D'Alessandro said she knew about the additional request from CRLS. But she said decided to fund only part of the request because of other budget demands in the district.

"We know that they brought forth these requests. They consider them needed," she said.

"It would mean significant and drastic cuts in our elementary schools and major programs or going to the city manager," she said. "And I was uncomfortable with both of those."

D'Alessandro said she is finding "creative" ways to deal with the funding issue by seeking donated services from local businesses and using district personnel to oversee the rearranging of the school over the summer, rather than using outside contractors.

Too Many People, Too Few Dollars

While a $450,000 shortfall may seem inconsequential in the large picture of the $106 million budget, it would represents a third of the new spending for the entire school district.

Though this year's budget is larger than last year's by nearly $4 million--a 3.7 percent increase--D'Alessandro's proposal adds just $1.1 million in new programs, including the $274,000 already allocated for teacher training at the high school.

Instead, most of the $4 million in D'Alessandro's school budget will be spent on higher salaries to maintain existing programs at their current level Nearly three-quarters of the entire budget will pay teacher and administrator salaries.

One of the biggest funding increases is in special needs programs, where more than $250,000 will be added, mostly to pay for aides to help elementary school teachers include special needs students in their regular classrooms.

However, D'Alessandro's plan also reduces a full-time learning disabilities administrator to a part-time position.

Several committee members have already objected to the proposed cut, which comes as the district is developing a broad, much-anticipated strategic plan for dealing with special education. Special education already accounts for 18 percent of the district's budget.

"I was expecting a breakthrough," said committee member Susana M. Segat. "To see cuts is surprising. I can't vote for cuts."

Cutting Pet Projects?

High school money will also compete against a myriad of small, school-specific programs.

During public comment at Monday's budget hearing, committee members heard from parents who want support for a world music class at the Peabody School and from a teacher who runs a video production program at the Agassiz School.

"Schools have little things that make their schools special," Segat said. "If we can find little amounts of money to fund these programs, that would be really worthwhile."

Committee member Alice L. Turkel said she sees broad benefits to spending money on small programs at individual schools.

"I support the move to more money in the schools, more money visible to the public, that will help restore public confidence in the schools" she said.

At Monday's hearing, committee members brought up these small programs again and again. Fantini criticized a proposed cut that would eliminate one of the district's four science curriculum coordinators, saying the program has improved science instruction across the district.

"The quicker you reverse these cuts, the faster the morale will go up in that department," he told the superintendent.

"It is very difficult to cut a program I see flourishing," D'Alessandro replied. "Are we going to fund a few things well or many things mediocrely?"

D'Alessandro said literacy is her top priority--a priority committee members have said they agree with. The $1.1 million in new programs includes about $125,000 for a new elementary school writing initiative and expanded elementary reading program.

Discussions like these have been

ongoing for months about whether the district should focus more on system-wide curricula and programs.

Traditionally, Cambridge elementary schools have been given broad latitude in developing their own teaching styles. The budget season has brought this question to a head.

"The school committee is struggling with the budget," said committee member Joseph G. Grassi. "The school committee is going to have to sort out where we're going with the budget."

In her budget, formally unveiled last Tuesday, D'Alessandro has outlined a plan that goes in a direction that Grassi says he likes--focusing on district-wide initiatives.

"I want to move to be a school system, not a system of schools," he said.

The Power of the Purse

At 10:55 p.m. Tuesday, the time limit on the budget hearing was about to expire for the second time, just as Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio took his turn to question district officials about the 350-page budget document.

"You don't want the one man in this room with his hands on the purse to get cut off," said Galluccio, laughing. In all, members extended the hearing four times so it went two hours beyond its original 10 p.m. end time.

So far, Galluccio has been publicly quiet in the budget process, which is his first as school committee chair.

Taking 10 minutes when most members spoke for more than 20 minutes, Galluccio asked district officials to clarify the size of the additional CRLS budget request and reiterated his support for vocational education.

And he called the district's two cable channels, which air student-produced programming and broadcast school committee meetings live, the "best way to sell our schools."

For the most part, he said he wanted to respect the decisions of D'Alessandro and her top deputies, who have been putting the budget together since December.

As mayor, Galluccio is the committee's closest connection to City Manager Robert W. Healy, who decides what major school projects will be funded as part of the city's long-term capital budget.

With questions still unanswered about how the district will pay for the merger of the Fletcher and Maynard elementary schools, which the committee approved three weeks ago, this role might be Galluccio's most important one.

Galluccio said he is working with Healy to secure money from the city to renovate one of the existing buildings or build a new facility that would permanently house the merged school.

But he cautioned about using the $14 million dollar figure that D'Alessandro is currently counting on in her budget.

"We're not anywhere near numbers," he said.