NEW BEDFORD — New dance and theater programs at Normandin and Roosevelt middle schools, more AP and new International Baccalaureate courses at the high school, and greater access to mental and behavioral health will be available to students in New Bedford next year.
The new school budget will bring the largest spending increase in more than 25 years, adding an array of new opportunities for students and plugging holes in current offerings.
In total, more than half of the city’s operating expenses — or more than police, sanitation, recreation, and economic development combined — will be devoted to the education system.
“It is the single largest investment our city is making,” said Andrew O’Leary, the finance and operations director for New Bedford Public Schools. Simply put, “it’s a lot of money,” he said.
There are increases to almost every school and department, including to every district-wide department (besides the School Committee) and to 23 of 25 schools (Hathaway and Renaissance Elementary’s funding will remain more-or-less constant).
Two of the most notable departments to receive new funds will be fine arts and special education.
In particular, an arts department that has been more used to cuts will look to build continuity across schools. Students in a dance class at Pulaski Elementary, for example, can’t currently enroll in dance at any New Bedford middle school. But now there are plans for dance at Normandin and for theater at Roosevelt.
“We’re trying to continue the path from kindergarten through New Bedford High,” said Lynn Souza, director of the district’s fine arts program.
In addition, students at all of the 19 elementary schools could have art class about once per week, which, according to Souza, would be a marked improvement from the once every two weeks or longer that was previously normal.
Coupled with the onetime infusion of coronavirus relief funds known as ESSER grants — which are not included in this operating budget but will support capital improvement projects and pre-school expansion — this expanded budget is a singular opportunity to invest in the city’s future, says O’Leary.
High school’s Modern Music Lab looks for boost
The high school’s Modern Music Lab is one program that Souza highlighted when asked about the destination for new funds. Timothy Mason leads that program and also directs the jazz band. He has seen struggling students build a connection to school through their participation in music.
“They come in here and thrive,” he said. “It’s a place where students can come to be found and to find their sense of belonging.”
Mason points to a long history of research showing that fine arts programs are among the most effective ways to encourage student attendance, boost engagement across all classes, and increase overall school performance, such as the National Center of Education Statistics and the Arts Education Partnership
Out of the total budget, arts funding remains modest — not even 1%. But the new budget allots for a nearly 70% increase, a substantial recommitment to the program.
Mason’s classroom has nine computers where students can use software for songwriting, production and digital music making. But with class sizes of 30 students or more, not everyone can participate. Without enough stations, Mason sometimes finds it easier to plan lessons that don’t rely on his scarce computer space.
Instruments are in short supply, too. Mason teaches piano, guitar, bass, and drums; but some of the instruments or equipment (like bass amplifiers) haven’t been updated in a decade or more.
With new funding, Mason hopes to fill out his modern music lab with more support staff and equipment. He said he thinks the lab will engage a lot of students, and he hopes to prepare students for degrees in music and production, like those offered at nearby colleges, including UMass Lowell and Westfield State.
“Students [interested in the music business] were underprepared because of what we have to offer them,” Mason said. “We’re working to change that.”
Special education programs getting nearly $5 million boost
Special education programs will receive one of the largest additions anywhere in the budget, with a proposed increase of nearly $5 million, or about one of every five new dollars.
“The social-emotional needs of students have gone through the roof as a result of everything we’ve been through as a society,” said Matthew Kravitz, executive director of the special education department. Kravitz oversees programming for the almost 3,000 students in New Bedford Public Schools who have a specialized learning need, a number that’s been increasing in recent years.
Significant funding will go toward hiring more special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists. Almost $2.5 million, however, will connect students to specialty services outside the district, including for those who are medically fragile, have multiple diagnoses, or cannot operate safely in a traditional school setting.
“I’m proud to say New Bedford offers more diverse programming than many rural or even urban places,” Kravitz said. “However, there are kids with unique needs, and we cannot be a one-stop shop for everyone.”
The costs of these contracted services are increasing rapidly, Kravitz said. Transportation costs, including fuel, are rising at the same time as tuition prices and medical bills. In addition, state law requires the district to ensure that any student who leaves the district has the least restrictive access to their education.
“We are charged with providing a free and appropriate education for the most at-risk students,” said Kravitz. “It’s a complicated dance between availability of resources, need of students … and systemic concerns at the state level.”
In his 22 years of special education work, Kravitz said he thinks the school community hasn’t seen a bigger challenge to the emotional and behavioral health of students, in part because disruptions to daily life have affected the adults’ well-being, too.
Changes to funding formula explain windfall
In total, the fiscal budget for New Bedford Public Schools will increase by $27.2 million, or 13%, bringing proposed spending to $233.4 million. This budget, which does not include federal relief funds from the coronavirus, already passed the School Committee and is likely to find approval before City Council, said O’Leary.
The influx of dollars is much larger than the typical 3-5% yearly bump to the school budget because of a change in the state funding formula that aims to better capture the needs of students.
O’Leary characterizes the spending as a sound investment in students’ wellness. O’Leary helped to make these expansions possible by successfully advocating for changes to a state formula, called the Student Opportunity Act, or SOA.
Since SOA was passed in 2019, the state measured student need by looking at the number of completed applications for free and reduced-price lunch. That left a lot of room for error, whereas looking at data the state already collected — like enrollment in SNAP food assistance or MassHealth — would be more accurate and regularly updated. So this year, the state agreed to change its formula.
"The ultimate change aligned with what we wanted," O'Leary said. "It was a real victory for the folks who wanted educational finance equity."
Other gateway cities, like Springfield or Brockton, had already seen large increases in their state aid because of the Student Opportunity Act. But New Bedford, because of a quirk in the data, did not.
"It's important to me that New Bedford isn't being forgotten," O'Leary said.
As a result of the budgeting efforts, the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials last month honored New Bedford with an award for exemplary financial operations. O'Leary accepted the award on behalf of his department. Yet he remains pragmatic about the whole process:
"It's not necessarily exciting, but a large investment is being made in service of our students," he said. "It warrants people weighing in on it, because it's a lot of money."
The city council is expected to consider the new school budget in July.
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