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The long-range path of Cambridge’s public schools is to be set by mid-February on three massive, overlapping topics — a districtwide K-8 educational plan; a facilities revamp that includes construction throughout the district, and therefore the large-scale moving of students; and a review of the controlled choice system that determines which students go to which schools.
Where the communitywide planning process is headed and how exactly it gets done concerns even some participants.
“Boy, does it feel like we bit off a lot and will be chewing hard over the next few months,” said School Committee member Alice Turkel at last week’s committee meeting, where the three sets of teams gave first progress reports and listed the parents, district staff and outside experts signed up to work with each.
Turkel leads the upgrade of districtwide education with the committee’s vice chairman, Marc McGovern.
The controlled-choice team is led by committee members Richard Harding and Patty Nolan.
The facilities team is led by Nancy Tauber and Fred Fantini.
Each will work through the fall and submit ideas to Superintendent Jeffrey Young in mid-December. He is to review the work and submit formal recommendations back to the committee in mid-January, according to the schedule announced Oct. 1 by Young and Mayor David Maher, who leads the committee. There will be two “Town Hall” meetings in late January and a public hearing in February, and the committee will vote on the superintendent’s final recommendations in mid-February.
First comes a “world café” late this month at which team members and members of the public will address the issues in rapid succession, moving tables with each question so they’re always exchanging reactions and ideas with new people.
Much of the talk Oct. 5 was of members discovering where their teams overlapped and wondering how to resolve the inherent conflicts.
“I don’t know where the boundaries of the committees are,” Fantini said. “In hearing everybody’s reports, I’m still can’t quite figure out how we all get together and get on board with the final product.”
The short answer, as suggested by Tauber and sketched out — literally — by Young and Maher in a question-and-answer session before the meeting, is that the three teams are overseen by a coordinating committee that includes Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk and the district’s chief operating officer, James Maloney, and will ensure the teams’ proposals cohere rather than conflict on the way to community presentations and a final vote.
“They are a part of pretty much every group,” Tauber noted of Turk and Maloney.
The overlap is “exactly why we decided to this together, let’s remind ourselves,” Nolan said, “that these issues can’t be completely separated. You talk about educational programs and the choices involved, and [you’re also talking about] the facilities that combine or expand the options available.”
What’s at stake is huge.
The facilities team must look at 11 elementary school buildings (one holds two schools) and a handful of sites that once held schools. Renovations or a tear-down for a handful would be a so-far incalculable expense that would come fast on the heels of the millions spent in the past few years on construction or renovation of a police station, libraries, war memorial, West Cambridge Youth Center and the high school — itself $100 million — expenses that prompted City Manager Robert W. Healy to declare other such capital projects off the table until after 2012.
In the meantime, the City Council asked Healy for a long-term plan for the elementary schools, Maher said. Four have been rebuilt in the past two decades, but that leaves seven basically untouched since construction — although the older ones, up to six decades old, doing better than those built in the 1970s.
“The King and the Tobin are in tough shape,” Maher said, and thanks to standard architectural practices at the time are unsuitable for much but total rebuilds that would add greater energy efficiency. Meanwhile, “not the oldest, but the one that has probably gone the longest without renovations, is the Graham & Parks School, which is just a good building that is suffering from age.”
Young credited the maintenance staff with keeping the buildings running so well, but both said districtwide reconstruction was inevitable, starting with $200,000 councillors put into the current fiscal year’s budget for planning.
“If we wound up identifying multiple buildings to be renovated, it could take 10-plus years to do that. That’s why we feel it’s imperative for us to go forward, so we can be prepared to put all of this on the table,” Maher said. “The City Council has the confidence in Bob Healy that we want him to do this before he retires. Bob has been so instrumental with these city capital initiatives that we want to have this plan developed while Bob is still here.”
With the decline in state funding for such projects, he said, Cambridge “is one of the select few that could even be looking at this.”
As Cambridge’s fiscal manager, Healy gets credit for a bond rating that is consistently among the highest-ranked cities in the country, meaning Cambridge can borrow money at low interest rates because lenders are confident they will be paid back.
Since there are few undeveloped places in Cambridge on which to put new schools, an early step will be working with city zoners for permission to rebuild — permission needed because eight of the nine sites eyed by the facilities team are bigger than current law allows. While the King Open School has plenty of room to grow, the others are short by a combined 165,801 square feet. Graham & Parks is the closest to current zoning law and is still about 25,000 square feet bigger than allowed; the Tobin is the most over — about 58,000 square feet.
The Longfellow will serve as a “swing school,” Fantini said, absorbing students while work is done to — his estimate — as many as four schools over the next dozen years.
Education and choice
Although the facilities team’s work will have the most impact for the city as a whole, it will take its cues from the educational team, Young said, some of whose work began last year with discussion of the creation of a middle school for several hundred of the district’s 1,300 middle school-aged students.
“The educational piece is going to drive the train, and the others will follow along,” Young said. Looking at structures, rather than details, the team leaders should be able to make sense of a district with so many anomalies, including a single school that is K-5 instead of K-8; and others that offer language immersion programs in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese or other specialties.
While the combination of education and facilities will influence how parents select schools for their children, the way controlled choice works now will affect the other teams. This year 83 percent of the parents got their first, second or third choice for schools, but Young is concerned about the remaining 17 percent.
Noland and Harding have still other concerns: “Many folks get their top three choices and after a year they still leave the district at a clip that seems baffling,” Harding said, and it’s worrisome that some people know how to work the system better than others, while yet others get locked out of a school while they see seats held for students who never arrive.