Schools See Small Budget Increase

Increase in public schools' cost outpaces budget change

Superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools Thomas Fowler-Finn unveiled a budget for next year that will add a host of new programs but will rise just 1.86 percent, continuing a recent trend of modest increases to the district’s budget.

The budget for next fiscal year, proposed to the Cambridge School Committee yesterday evening, will bring the total budget for Cambridge’s 13 public schools to $127.7 million.

“This is the first time as far as people can remember that we have had a less than two-percent increase in the budget for three years in a row,” Fowler-Finn said in a presentation to the committee.

This year’s budget had increased 1.6 percent, while the preceding year saw a 1.1 percent rise, according to the presentation.

Several expenses, including wages, energy costs, transportation costs, and health insurance, will swell at an even higher rate, Fowler-Finn said.

In a meeting that was extended past its usual end time of 10 p.m., the committee met Fowler-Finn’s budget presentation with a flurry of questions, largely centering on specific programs being implemented in the classroom.

Previous discussions of budgetary matters have attracted more heated debates, such as last month’s meeting, where committee members considered a motion to reallocate approximately $1.5 million of the budget to “school improvement funds” that can be used by principals for unspecified measures.

But last night’s meeting, which committee member Luc Schuster described as “cordial,” was designed for the school committee to digest, rather than debate, the superintendent’s proposal.

A meeting of the budget sub-committee will be held March 13 to present it to the public.

Fowler-Finn’s presentation also highlighted the negative impact of charter schools on the district’s budget. Next year’s budget will suffer a $1.1 million loss due to Cambridge students leaving the district to attend those schools. Charter schools will cost the district $5 million over the next four years, Fowler-Finn projected.

“We should make it known to those that attend charter schools that we are ready to receive them back,” he said.

Fowler-Finn cited the measurable progress made by the Cambridge school system of late, to the delight of committee members. Ninety-eight percent of high school seniors passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and 95 percent graduated last year, compared to an 85 percent pass rate and 80 percent graduation rate in 2005. Ten percent of last year’s graduating class went on to attend Ivy League schools, Fowler-Finn said.

“Continuous improvement is starting to turn into big improvement,” said Cambridge School Committee Vice Chair Alfred B. Fantini.

Other members of the committee lauded the budget’s creativity in creating new programs while growing only two percent. The budget includes 18 new programs in addition to six new district-wide programs, according to committee member Nancy Walser.

“This looks like it’s going to be a very smooth budget and the presentation was incredible,” she said. “It shows a compelling case for progress.”

Fowler-Finn’s presentation, entitled “Building on Progress,” garnered compliments from committee members for its striking visual elements.

“I would just like to say that the presentation was fabulous, the pictures were tremendous,” Schuster said.

The budget was also received favorably by the lone audience member, Richard Freierman, the parent of a current junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, who said he has attended school committee meetings for over 12 years.

“It is easy to get caught up in the flashiness of the presentation but what’s really exciting is the story it tells,” said Freierman. “It shows extraordinary progress in substantive programs. I think that it is good news all around for the schools.”

—Staff writer Jamison A. Hill can be reached at jahill@fas.harvard.edu.