By Geoffrey Epstein
We just saw a head on collision between the Mayor’s plans and the community’s best interests over the Callahan Senior Center.
The senior community rallied to prevent damage to a great community asset and sent a message to the Mayor that future planning should be much more collaborative, much more transparent and demonstrate much better insight into how the institutions of Framingham work at ground level, not at 10,000 feet.
It is remarkable how the community and the Council, a major reservoir of Framingham history and know how, were kept in the dark all the way to the ‘reveal’.
Unfortunately, we are approaching another collision, this time between the Mayor’s plans for funding the school system and our children’s best interests. And it is unfolding in much the same way Callahan did.
On April 3, after many months of budget planning by the Superintendent and his staff, with the Mayor fully in the loop at every step, and Council input folded in, the School Committee voted to approve a 4.57% budget increase for the next school year, one of the smallest increases in the last 7 years.
The nightmare began when, at that same meeting, the Mayor blindsided everyone with the assertion that the schools would have to make do with a 2% budget increase.
How could the Mayor be so far off base, when all the planning was so transparent and complete?
Here is the story, as the Mayor well knows.
The 4.57% budget increase is designed to support key improvements in the schools.
Two improvements dominate. The first makes sure that every school is on the same page for staffing and other educational resources. The second expands elementary instructional time so elementary school students benefit from the same time on task as middle and high school students.
This change had to be bargained, and is an integral part of the recently approved teachers union contract, which includes 3.5% cost of living increase (COLA) for FY20, built from 1.5% to cover inflation and a 2% increase to cover the added elementary instructional time. When the teacher workday and hours worked are extended, teachers must accrue additional pay.
If the schools are funded at a 4.57% increase in FY20, it is likely that the FY21 increase will be in the range of 3-3.5%, because the FY21 COLA is just 1.75%.
With this new trajectory, the schools would be headed to be the best they have been in years, with the lowest cost increases in years. It is a truly amazing scenario.
View this in the context of the last 7 school budget increases having been: 4.48%, 3.89%, 5.89%, 5.82%, 7.1%, 5.71%, 5.78%.
The Mayor’s budget approach would knock the schools off their improvement trajectory and cause great damage to the schools.
Simply put, the historically low 2% FY20 budget increase for the schools which the Mayor floated would substantially underfund the recently settled union contracts, undercut all the good faith bargaining by the School Committee and destroy critical elements of the Superintendent’s drive to improve the schools. There could be dozens of staff layoffs and the damage to the schools could be extensive.
It is hard to understand how the Mayor could put forth such an unrealistic budget proposal, given the ground truth of what is happening in the Schools.
It is also almost inconceivable that the Mayor could have voted for the union contracts, if she planned not to fund them.
Further, although we have a Superintendent, widely regarded by the School Committee, Council and the community as bringing real, positive change to the schools, the message from the Mayor to the Superintendent is that no matter how well he does his job, he will not be supported.
The reality is that we are immensely fortunate to have Bob Tremblay turning the schools around.
He has put together a comprehensive strategic plan with input from everyone. He made sure he had the right staff in leadership positions. All the top central administration educational and financial leadership
have been replaced by much more capable new staff. Principals who did not buy into critically needed improvements departed and new ones were hired.
There has been an enormous amount of organizational change not only in staff, but in making sure that each school is on the same page academically, and resourced equitably, so every student and teacher gets the right support.
Every school budget has been taken apart and rebuilt, with every staff position justified and defended, and every other resource tuned to actual need. There are many, many educational improvements underway. And they are supported by remarkable financial rigor.
At this point, the whole question of whether the Mayor truly supports education is in play, just as with Callahan, the whole question of whether the Mayor truly supported seniors was in play.
How will this unfold?
The seniors closed ranks and forced the Mayor to shift plan. Will everyone, who wants to see the schools improve and downstream costs decline, close ranks here and force the Mayor to shift plans?
I truly hope so.
We saw an 86% YES vote on the Fuller project, because the community supported investment in school buildings. Now we need to see the same commitment to investment in what goes on in the classroom.
Email the Mayor. Call the Mayor. Write a letter to the Mayor. Submit letters to the editor in local media. Post on Facebook. Tweet on Twitter. And where possible, copy in the School Committee and the Superintendent, so they see your support.
Every individual effort will make a huge difference.
Let’s make sure that the Mayor does not make a very big mistake, financially, educationally and politically.
Geoffrey N. Epstein is the elected Framingham School Committee member for District 6. He is also the chair of the School Committee’s subcommittee on finance and operations.