For several candidates in the Cambridge School Committee race, the district's budget is the $64,000 question.
Or rather the $84 million question.
Candidates Jon R. Maddox and Tony J. Knopp have both adopted budget reform as the primary plank in their platforms, arguing that the district's $84 million budget is unjustified.
The two candidates, though, have very different reasoning. Maddox said he feels spending per pupil is far too high, while Knopp said his main complaint is lack of accountability in the budget making process.
According to Maddox, the roughly $10,000 per student the district spends every year is "way out of hand" due to massive over-staffing.
"We have an $85 million budget, 8,000 students, 800 teachers and 750 other staff members. We have a situation where there is about one staff member for every five students. It's just unbelievable," Maddox said.
Cambridge has more than three times the state average number of administrators per student, Maddox said. In addition, about 40 of the district's teachers are on "administrative assignment," Maddox said, which means they have been taken out of the classroom.
Maddox's solution is to cut approximately $13 million, or 15 percent of the budget.
"That would mean getting rid of the teachers on administrative assignment, which means taking on the teachers' union and firing some people," Maddox said. "The current school committee is unwilling to take on the teachers' union. I'm willing to do that."
Knopp, on the other hand, said he feels education is the best place to spend money. However, he said the district needs to change the way the budget is presented to taxpayers so they can have a larger role in the budgeting process.
One of his main complaints is that the budget is written in a way that is nearly impossible to read and understand.
"Reality is obfuscated," Knopp said. "It is not clear at all, and that makes it impossible for us as parents, educators and taxpayers to have any input in it."
Knopp calls for early release of drafts of the budget with clear justifications of expenditures and increased opportunities for parents and taxpayers to give their input.
But Knopp also said that he has not seen the results he would expect from the high level of spending the district maintains.
"My daughter [a fourth-grader] has 21 kids in her class. At $10,000 per student, that's almost a quarter of a million in resources in her class alone," Knopp said. "It seems that when her teacher has to hold a raffle to get funds for art supplies in class, there's something wrong."
James R. Ball, public information director for Cambridge schools, said Cambridge's budget is so high because it offers services, including bilingual and special education, which other districts are unable to provide.
The district has already made steps in the last four years to cut its administration, but more cuts would decrease its ability to educate students, Ball said.
"[More cuts] would affect kids in the classroom," Ball said. "The largest part of the budget is salaries and benefits. Cuts would mean teachers."
Knopp said he was not convinced that the way the district spends its money provides the best education it can.
"We see test scores that don't go up, dilapidated furniture in the classrooms, an utter lack of technology, outmoded library methods and nonexistent science labs," Knopp said. "I give the district two of my most precious resources every day, my fourth grade daughter and my kindergarten son. I'm not sure the district does the same for me."