Town Council Budget Hearing June 3, 2014
Good evening. I want to recognize our educational professionals for the extraordinary effort each of them has put into creating the School Department budget document. Their combination of thoughtfulness and expertise has helped develop a budget that is very specific about what it costs to serve our students’ needs, both legally, and properly. It is these professionals who make teaching and learning a reality for every child, in every classroom, every day. We talk the talk—they walk the walk.
Because we have had so many public discussions about the School budget, I think most of those here tonight have heard many times over the themes of the crippling budget constraints under which our School Department, like many other municipalities’ School Departments, has labored during the past five recessionary years. There are certainly many statistics and excel spreadsheets available on line for those who are interested. If you want more than numbers, visit the schools, speak to the teachers and the parents, and make up your own minds about whether the schools currently represent the best our town can do.
I have looked at a copy of the Comprehensive Development Plan commissioned by the Town of Watertown, and I have read all 220 pages. Most of it does not directly touch on the schools. There is a lot of information and numerous recommendations about traffic flow and historic preservation and zoning.
However, in the section titled Economic Development, a mention of the schools appears in Goal 4. Economic Development Goal 4 is: Align education and training opportunities with careers in the region’s growth industries. And number A. underneath, elaborates: Ensure children and young adults are prepared to participate in the Town’s employment base.
In another section, that employment base is highlighted as heavily weighted toward many of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). That is the employment base the Watertown schools are exhorted to prepare its students to enter.
We are not doing that. We cannot do that. We do not have the resources to do that.
Why? First, STEM preparedness is cumulative. Each step builds on a knowledge and skill base acquired previously. At the simplest level, if you can’t add and subtract, you can’t move on to multiplication and division. With teachers spread thinly, working with large class sizes of extremely diverse learners, they are prohibited from addressing each particular child’s issue on a timely one-on-one basis. That student’s difficulties grow and hamper future learning. The child begins to associate that subject of study with personal failure. The STEM curriculums, which build year to year on each previous foundational step, become less and less attainable for that student. Without a sound, doors close for that student’s future. Like tooth decay or a leaking roof, this is not a problem that resolves by itself.
Second, STEM teachers are expensive. One way the school district has addressed financial constraints is by hiring good new teachers who happen to be at the bottom of the salary scale, because they are just beginning their careers. However, in certain disciplines, which include the STEM fields, teachers are hard to find, and when you find them, they are not necessarily beginning their careers. Physics and math, for example, are highly sought teacher specialties, and these teachers are expensive.
Third, in addition to specialized staff, STEM curriculum requires specialized equipment, consumable supplies, and uniquely configured workspaces. These are expensive curriculums, often requiring frequent professional development and annual goods and materials replacement to continue to remain up-to-date. If you don’t have the funds to provide the qualified staff or the equipment or the lab to offer an engineering curriculum, then you try, as we do, to offer the after school Robotics team as a limited hint of what engineering might be, for a small group of hardworking students which raises most of its own funding. At last night’s School Committee meeting, we heard a presentation about the Continental Math League success achieved by fifth graders at the Lowell School. The group placed first in the nation. Four students made perfect scores. The Continental Math League team is funded by the Lowell PTO, not by the School budget. I wish more students in the elementary schools could have access to this kind of program.
I would love to offer computer science and engineering courses in the curriculum. Many new STEM companies are coming to Watertown. The Town Comprehensive Plan is very clear on that. Why shouldn’t our own Watertown students have a fighting chance to qualify competitively for employment and careers in these areas of Town growth?
The Town Comprehensive Plan clearly and correctly views the Town as one whole, with its many parts functioning together to contribute to the vision of a prosperous future. The Schools want to play their part in that future. There is a mutual interdependence between the health of the Schools and the economics of a successful town. Our students’ families, our School District employees, our School Committee, are your neighbors, your friends and relatives, your customers, your co-workers and your citizens. We want what you want. We are you.
Mr. Sideris and I are continuing our dialogue with each other, with our respective Council and Committee, and with our administrators. We all recognize that the budget document you have before you tonight is a step, but not the final step, toward the goal of charting the wisest course to address our Town’s pressing school funding issues on a sustainable basis. While I was preparing these remarks, I took a look at my horoscope in the Boston Globe on Saturday. It read: Don’t expect everyone to agree with you when it comes to financial, legal or medical issues that you are facing. You may have to compromise in order to keep the peace and find a workable solution. After nineteen years on the School Committee, I accept that to be true. Understanding another person’s point of view is an essential part of working together.
We all want excellent schools. The School Committee’s mandate is to tell the Town Council accurately and frankly what financial support our professional staff needs to provide a good education for our children. The Town Council’s mandate is to tell the School Committee what funds the Town is able to allocate for that purpose. The separation of these two spheres is specifically set forth by law, and allows each body to exercise control over the issues in and for which they have the most expertise and responsibility. Both Council and Committee can be speaking their own truth, and not agree on a final number. That is not anyone’s fault. That tension is what makes this issue so challenging. We both wish the Schools needed less money. We both wish the Town had more money to allocate to the Schools
The School Committee will be meeting on Thursday, June 5, at 6 PM, in the High School Small Lecture Hall, to consider a budget revision the Superintendent and her staff are preparing which is sensitive to the constraints on the Town’s bottom line, while remaining responsible for fulfilling the educational mission of the Schools.
I am grateful for the vast number of hours the Town Hall and the Town Council have given to the FY15 School budget. Thank you to those who were able to attend some of our meetings. Thank you for engaging in many, many discussions in person, on the phone and by email. In particular, thank you Mr. Sideris, who as Town Council President and School Committee member is laboring mightily to integrate the needs of two worlds fairly and creatively. That effort is ongoing even now. When the FY15 budget process has concluded, we hope these numerous conversations will continue as we consider future budgets, as a normal and collegial part of doing the business we all promised the voters we would do when we last asked them for their votes.
In successful municipalities, the schools and the town are partners working toward a shared vision. We have every element we need to reach that goal of partnership. Above all, here in Watertown, we are lucky enough to possess an extraordinarily precious asset, which we must not squander. We are the beneficiaries of an engaged and passionate citizenry. How fortunate we are to live here and serve them.
Chair, Watertown School Committee