This past Tuesday night, the School Committee hosted a Public Information Session on the Draft FY16 School Budget. It opened with remarks by Superintendent Taymore. Below please find a close accounting of her comments (and/or watch her deliver her remarks at http://www.mmtv3.org/index.php?categoryid=28).
Prior Finance and Facility Subcommittee Chair Carrie Kourkoumelis and Vice-Chair Jessica Dugan, and current Chair Margaret Driscoll and Vice-Chair Chris Casatelli supported our presentation of a budget that portrays what we feel the district needs to continue to grow, as opposed to fitting our budget backwards into what the city believes they have available. This was a bold move by the School Committee and is much appreciated, but an especially difficult move given recent 9C cuts and the Governor’s House 1 Draft Budget that under funds a number of items. Regardless of those circumstances, we look at this as an opportunity to discuss what the system wants to be, what parents want from us for their children, and what you see as the future of the Melrose Public Schools. With that in mind, in my budget message I put forth the idea of two different budgets. One I called status quo plus and the other I called the growth budget. The status quo budget is what we currently do while adding four positions for growth in student population (including classroom teachers at Lincoln and Winthrop, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, and an Academic Interventionist that would help equitably distribute student support resources across elementary schools). The second budget is the growth budget. It’s built on 2 ½ years of working in Melrose along with partnering with staff to align the curriculum, improve instructional practices, develop common assessments, and use data to inform our decisions. Focusing always on teaching and learning, these are the positions and the resources we believe we need to continue to grow. Some positions come in the form of classroom teachers but many are positions that help teachers. One of the most important things we do is professional development (PD) for our staff. In order to help your children, we have to help our staff so they can do the best job they can, and PD is the means by which we do that. As we've developed PD offerings, the clear message from staff has been appreciation for the training, but they need help in the buildings (e.g. answering questions like “am I doing it right?” or “This isn’t working for me - can I have help implementing it as a practice to help students?”). Many positions we're asking for are those on the front lines that help teachers directly.
We are also asking for resources to do that – more money for PD as well as curriculum materials in general. Two years ago, the city was very generous and bonded $480K for new materials. That was just the tip of iceberg. Curriculum changes rapidly and it’s very expensive. We need to keep up, and we need sufficient funding in the budget to keep up. For example, we do one program review of a content area every year. We've done Social Studies, we're now doing global languages, and we rotate through all subjects. The Social Studies curriculum is 14 years old and we desperately need materials in that area. We need a new K-5 Reading series that is better aligned with the frameworks. We have an obligation to have that in our budget. And then of course we have technology needs. You may have heard the Mayor say he’s looking for the City to take on the burden of the hardware, and that is a fabulous offer and fabulous partnership, but digital licenses and memberships are now approaching a cost of $100K/year. In the budget, we used to have a hardware, software, and license line item totaling $40K/ year. That was obviously inadequate. These are some of the things in the budget we are asking you for.
I want to read something to you that ironically came in to me today. You may or may not be aware that the Commonwealth is undertaking a review of Ch. 70 - the means by which we receive funds – and they've been conducting hearings across the state. The Melrose School Committee submitted testimony (almost everybody I know has submitted testimony) talking about how the formula that was developed in 1993 is no longer adequate. Among the drivers that are making it harder for all of us: health care (despite belonging to GIC), Special Education, the increase in ELL students (also happening across the state and the country), and the negative impact of declining charter school financial offsets. All have a negative impact on the Ch. 70 formula. In testimony submitted today by the Superintendent’s Association, they are supporting a revision of Ch. 70 for more adequate funding. The irony is that when the Reform Act of 1993 and Ch. 70 were created, the formula was designed to provide adequate funding to cities and towns – especially those less fortunate than Melrose. Twenty years later, we are still talking about adequate funding because the funding is no longer adequate. Among the proposals that the Superintendents are making - if Ch. 70 is to be revised - is that additional funding be directed to specific purposes. They outlined eight specific purposes that I’m pleased reflect what I put in my proposal: expand professional development for teachers; hire staff at levels that improve class sizes to support student performance; purchase books, technology, and instructional materials; expand learning time; add subject matter coaches; provide wrap-around services that engage the entire community and families in strengthening the social-emotional support system; provide common planning time for instructional teams; and provide help for ESL/ low-income students. The point is that the things we are asking for are aligned with the needs we’re seeing across the state. There is nothing exhaustive or exclusive in what I am asking for. We’re not just asking for what will put us on a level playing field with some of our colleagues, but what will also position our children to take advantage of their future. The City may or may not be able to do this; that is up to School Committee, the Board of Aldermen, and the Mayor. It is my job to put forward what I think we need. You may or may not agree with me. It is open for discussion. Ultimately the School Committee will set the priorities and make the choices. That is their role.
In the course of all this prep work and many, many conversations, some parents have said to me “what do you want?” I always want what’s best for children, and I know that’s almost cliché, but I happen to have a personal vision for education that has driven me for probably 35 years and I don’t really know if it’s attainable. I used to be a SPED Director, I used to be a general ed teacher, and I used to be an urban educator, so I’ve worked with low income kids, ESL kids, special ed kids, and kids with disabilities. I’ve worked with gifted children, challenged children, children who barely spoke English, and children who were flying through school. The personal vision I have is for the Melrose Public Schools to meet the needs of every child without labeling them; for our staff to have the capacity and resources they need to be flexible, adaptive, and proactive for children, and not to have to say, ”in order to get this child help he has to take a standardized test, or I need to put him in a special class, or I need to make a request.” I would like all of this to happen naturally and organically, and for staff to feel confident that they can make those decisions and they have the resources to do it. Again, I don’t know how realistic that is some days because I live in a world of tremendous regulation. I have a joke that education is now more regulated than gas and oil, and every time I turn around there’s another form, another paper to fill out. I don’t know if you agree with that vision, but what we need to do is hear from you. What do you want us to do? What do you want this system to be? And it has to be a long view. I know as a parent, sometimes you’re very centered on where you are with your child at that stage in life. But the school system in Melrose is Pre-K through 12. Over half of our incoming Kindergarteners are coming from the Early Childhood Center. We’ve done some very good things in this city, and you have to consider: if there’s only so much money, what are the tradeoffs we need to make? What is the cost effectiveness? And what is the impact for students in the long run? That’s why we’re having this discussion tonight.