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Worcester School Committee’s “Keep Failing” Caucus

By Tom Marino | June 28, 2024
Last Updated: June 28, 2024

WORCESTER – A Worcester School Committee meeting on Thursday, June 20, that ran nearly six hours, ended with the committee approving a $485 million budget for the 2025 fiscal year. School committee members approved the budget by a 6-3 vote. The fiscal year starts on July 1, 2024, and ends June 30, 2025.

The three votes against approving the budget came from Maureen Binienda, Dianna Biancheria, and Kathleen Roy.

Binienda served as superintendent of Worcester Public Schools from 2016 to 2022, when the school committee chose not to extend her contract. After a nationwide search, the school committee hired Dr. Rachel Monárrez as the current superintendent. Her first day of work was July 1, 2022.

In municipal elections in November 2023, Binienda, Roy, and Biancheria won seats on the school committee. Binienda and Roy are serving in their first term. Biancheria served five terms until defeated in 2021, but was re-elected in 2023.

The three voted as a block several times during the final budget meeting on June 20, before voting against the budget.

$22 Million Budget Deficit

Worcester Public Schools (WPS) faced a $22 million budget shortfall heading into this budget season. The school committee needed to cut that amount to fund Worcester’s schools for fiscal year 2025.

The cause of that deficit is primarily the Massachusetts 2019 Student Opportunity Act (SOA), a state law that adds a projected $4.47 billion to education funding in Massachusetts through 2027.

State legislators passed SOA without an inflation adjustment mechanism. According to an analysis by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), if SOA adjusted for inflation, Worcester would receive over $25 million in additional funding for schools, more than the budget deficit the WPS faced this year.

Layoffs were inevitable to close the deficit. The positions eliminated include 86 teaching, 70 student support, five psychologists and 22 administrative positions. According to WPS, 31 teachers resigned and 12 filed to retire, cutting the number of involuntary layoffs.

Layoffs did not affect any teachers with over three years of experience. Class sizes will increase to an average of 21 students per classroom.

A Former Mayor Agrees

Former Worcester Mayor and current opinion column writer for Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Ray Mariano, served as a member of the Worcester School Committee from 1977 to 1981. He also served as a Worcester City Councilor from 1981 to 2002, including serving as mayor from 1992 to 2002. The Mayor is also chair of the school committee in Worcester’s system of government.

The Telegram published a column by Mariano on July 30, 2021 (paywall), titled “Worcester mayor, School Committee try to dump Superintendent Binienda.” In it, Mariano claimed school committee members were telling then Superintendent Binienda to “just leave quietly” when her contract ended after the 2021 – 2022 school year.

The framing suggests something wrong was occurring. A more likely scenario: Members informed Binienda there weren’t enough votes to support extending her contract. If she sought an extension, that would play out publicly.

That’s exactly what happened. The only school committee member to support extending Binienda’s contract beyond 2022 was John Monfredo, who Mariano and Binienda have long supported.

Mariano published a piece less than three months after the start of Monárrez’s first school year, on Nov. 18, 2022 (paywall), titled “Violence up in Worcester schools, police report says.”

The report was actually an email circulated internally inside the police department, which Mariano said someone made available to him. It claimed the Worcester Police Department responded to WPS schools 385 times since the start of the school year.

As This Week in Worcester reported in January 2023, the information cited by Mariano was wildly inaccurate. According to an actual report by the Worcester Police Department, between Aug. 29, 2022 and Dec. 26, 2022, more than a month after Mariano’s claims, there had been 185 police responses. Of those, 50 were for medical reasons.

Mariano attributed the increase in violence he claimed occurred to the removal of police officers from schools. Biancheria has long supported police in schools, despite then-Worcester Chief of Police Steven Sargent supporting the move to the current system of liaison officers who patrol routes that include assigned schools.

Mariano has also written about what he alleges is a spending spree by Monárrez on administrative positions. Both Binienda and Biancheria have also advanced various forms of this argument.

A future piece will examine this allegation of an explosion of administrative spending. Spoiler alert: It too is untrue.

How it Was in the Past

Binienda referenced practices of the past frequently throughout the meeting, once saying, “when I was superintendent…”

The consistent references by Binienda to how she did things might suggest her tenure is a success story. Let’s look at the facts.

According to data from Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), of the 17 different MCAS measurements tracked, an average of 16.8 percent fewer Worcester students exceeded or met expectations compared to the statewide rate in 2022, Binienda’s last year as superintendent. All 17 are below the state average.

In 2017, Binienda’s first year as superintendent, DESE data shows 19 different MCAS measurements. The average difference across those areas between the percentage of Worcester students meeting or exceeding expectations and the statewide average was 17.2 percent.

A report on dropout rates by DESE tracks 309 school districts across the state.

Binienda’s first year as superintendent was FY 2017. Here are the dropout rates and rankings during her tenure:

  • FY 2017: 2.2% (242th)
  • FY 2018: 2.3% (248th)
  • FY 2019: 2.6% (260th)
  • FY 2020: 1.7% (235th)
  • FY 2021: 1.1% (190th)
  • FY 2022: 2.1% (220th)

The pandemic significantly affected the FY 2020 and 2021 school years.

Using the enrollment figures reported by DESE for Worcester high schools of 7,252 in FY 2022, the difference between Binienda’s first year and last year would be about seven students.

Niche, a website that seeks to connect families and students with the school that best fits their needs, ranks and grades Massachusetts school system in its “2024 Best School District in Massachusetts” study.

Newton Public Schools ranks the highest among public school systems in Massachusetts. According to Niche, it has 22 schools with 11,980 students. It grades Newton Public Schools as the fifth best in the state with a grade of A+ overall, with an A+ in academics.

Niche ranks Boston Public Schools at 133 of the best schools in the state, with a B overall and a C+ for academics. According to Niche, the Boston system has 109 school with over 46,000 students.

Niche only ranked the top 138 schools in Massachusetts. Worcester did not receive a numerical ranking. It says Worcester has 46 schools and 24,707 students. Worcester received a grade of B- overall and a C+ in academics.

That’s how Worcester did things in the past. Now, a former superintendent, a six-term school committee member, and a former five-term mayor say they know the solution: more of the same.


Image Courtesy of the City of Worcester

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