In today’s Daily News, the Mayoral Candidates discuss their priorities for the schools, and education in general. It might be helpful to consider what each candidate is offering as priorities. It might also be helpful to read between the lines to see what they aren’t saying. I’ll try to do both. You can read their responses here.
When you have finished this series of posts, I'd encourage you to head over to the website for each candidate, and explore their thoughts on schools and education. The format for the Daily News article was very confining; each candidate may have more information available at their sites. You can reach Donna Holaday here, and James Shanley is here.
A critical annual priority for the School Committee is creating and submitting a budget that addresses the educational needs of all students. That does so in an efficient and comprehensive way. That allows for both the implementation of the Strategic Plan and the level of continuous improvement required under No Child Left Behind and the 1993 Education Reform Act, among other funding needs.
That process traditionally engages the community well before the actual numbers are offered. Each School Council, a body comprised of teachers, parents and community members, works with each principal to develop a School Improvement Plan. These plans are submitted to the School Committee for review. They become part of the blueprint for the formulation of a budget. Other factors are costs generated by regulation compliance, ongoing changes and improvements to curriculum and teaching, the changing costs of energy, and compliance with employee contracts.
The Administration submits a budget to the School Committee, which holds public hearings that have often resulted in changes to the budget to reflect community concerns. Once we have the final budget, we vote it, and the Mayor presents it to the City Council.
Several times over the past few years, the School Committee has voted a budget out that does not balance. This has been a reflection of downward changes in state support over those years. Most times, if the Mayor is convinced that the “overage” represents a critical element in the education of students, he or she has advocated for additional money. On one occasion, that did not happen; the budget was returned to the School Committee to make cuts, and we did.
A budget is important, and I was glad to see it on the list. Actually funding that budget is also critical, and what the priorities of these candidates would be if our reach exceeds our grasp was not part of either candidate’s offering. There’s that gnarly word again, funding.
With regard to role of the Mayor and contract negotiations, in my nine years on the SC, I have been at the table four times with the teacher’s union. None of the four mayors I worked with made more than a token appearance to explain a city budget issue. The general thinking has been that having the Mayor tied up doing the negotiations isn’t a great use of their time, especially since the negotiating team created by the School Committee negotiates terms based on what the Committee has agreed upon in Executive Session; the Mayor, as Chair of the Committee is intimately involved in setting those parameters. The negotiating team brings anything outside those parameters back to the entire School Committee for approval before agreeing to it.
I will also say, as a veteran of these negotiations, that the tone and nature of the negotiations, the willingness to discuss difficult issues and reach satisfactory conclusions has dramatically improved over the years; both sides have become more thoughtful, pragmatic, cooperative and creative. Contracts negotiated have been consistent with those negotiated by other city unions; and reflect the budget crisis of the city.
Implementing and Funding the Strategic Plan
The City engaged in an extraordinarily open and pragmatic strategic planning process, requiring substantive community input. The plan is a strong vision; the last several school budgets were aligned with meeting the targets set by the plan. The plan has also been modified to reflect new and emerging priorities, such as the enhanced math curriculum.
It is amazing that Kevin and Deidre have been able to make progress each year on the plan, despite the ravages of funding loss.
Future progress on the plan will depend significantly on funding, but not completely. Knowledge of and commitment to the plan is terrific. Greater specificity about how we will fund the needed improvements when we have resolved those that don’t take new money is needed.
Improving School Facilities
This is another important priority, given the current state of our schools below the high school level. There have been a number of facility reviews over the past several years as we have been submitting proposals to the state for funding; another review as suggested by one of the candidates might shed new light on how much our schools have deteriorated; it might be more useful to express ideas about how the schools and the rest of city infrastructure that is need of repair will get funded. Deidre Farrell and Steve Bergholm, Budget and Facilities expertise respectively, have done an extraordinary job trying to keep up with maintenance; each year for the past several, the City Council has allocated short money to fund these efforts. We have managed to stem the worst of it, but we have some very significant issues at all three of our schools below the high school.
Also, the School Committee and had a standing Sub-Committee on Facilities for many years.
As for good relationships with the state funding agency, I would encourage that strongly and am happy to see it listed. If those new and productive relationships can alter the way state compares our “compelling needs” with those of the schools it is choosing to fund, we should do better than we have. I’m not sure the problem with getting school building work funded hinges on relationships; it depends more on presenting a compelling need and the state having the money to fund the construction.
Cooperation Between City Agencies
This is a good priority. In particular, I am encouraged that the principal of collaborative and complementary services between city agencies would be a priority.
It is worth noting that past practice, going back a number of years, was for the two elected bodies, the City Council and the School Committee, to convene a meeting at the beginning of the budget process. The meeting had several purposes- it was designed to be a general discussion between the two bodies about the underlying “principles” that the budget was responding to. Why were certain programs funded, others not? Which funding was being recommended to help address regulatory issues? The meeting was not intended to take the place of public budget hearings, or the workshops sponsored by the City Council as part of their budget review process.
In addition to getting everyone on approximately the same page with regards to the “why” of the budget, the community had the opportunity to see both elected bodies engaged in the only discussion (outside of appointing a new school committee member to a vacancy) that they were likely to have. There was, in the eyes of a number of people, a symbolic value to that.
In recent years, this practice was abandoned. Would restoring such a meeting come under the rubric of cooperation between agencies?
Between the Lines
Given the constraints of the Daily News article, both candidates have provided us with a basic set of premises about what their priorities would be. Space limitations make it very hard to be specific about potential solutions; that and a tendency for candidates to squirm when they are asked to be more specific about the “how,” once they’ve suggested the what.
I’d encourage both candidates to make use of their blogs and the upcoming debates to be more specific.
Clearly, the elephant in the room is funding. Here are some questions that occur to me.
In the likelihood that we will see mid-year budget cuts from the state, a very likely scenario based on the email traffic I have seen, what would the priorities of the candidate be for making those cuts? Class size changes? Loss of electives? Further cuts in music, art, theater? New user fees for school service to students? Reduction in access to school buses for non-mandated students?
What would constitute a set of criteria for each candidate that would compel them to introduce and support a tax question, override or debt exclusion, to stabilize, restore, an/or continue to improve the schools? What would they need to see? Or, do they feel that there are no criteria that would allow them to support going back to the community for additional funding?
Where do the schools fit, as a priority, compared to the other needs to be funded- sidewalks, senior and youth services, water and sewer infrastructure, etc.?
What other strategies, beyond ballot questions, would they consider to generate additional revenues for the city?
What will they do as Mayor to promote the idea that schools are a resource and an obligation for the entire community, not just parents of student and students?
What community-based partnerships need to be improved?
Can you share with the community what your involvement with the schools has been over your time in public service, or before that?
Over the next month, I’ll continue to offer other questions that may help to distinguish the two candidates, and their visions for the school.
Oh, yeah. I’d encourage you to head over to the website for each candidate, and check out for yourself their ideas about the schools, and the role schools play in the community.
I’m not a one-issue voter, by inclination. But when that one issue obligates 45% of the city budget, I am less inclined to accept vague sound bites as a substitute for thoughtful consideration of the issues facing the community. The city deserves more than that, as it chooses between two competent candidates for Mayor.