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Below you will find profiles of the challengers for School Committee and the four incumbents running for reelection. This is a very different race than that of City Council, which also will be settled Nov. 5.
Frustratingly persistent problems remain for the city and its schools, but there’s a fundamental difference that makes it hard to feel a bloodlust for purging the committee of even its longest-serving members.
That fundamental difference is a fundamental difference: The committee voted a couple of years back to introduce the Innovation Agenda, splitting a K-8 system for the first time into one of elementary schools and middle schools. As Fred Fantini said at an Oct. 10 candidates forum – and he is the longest-serving committee member – it means educators no longer have to be equally expert at teaching and socializing 4-year-olds and 12-year-olds. And as Superintendent Jeffrey Young reminded as recently as Tuesday, it means that kids are going to arrive in high school with a newly aligned curriculum, rather than the wildly divergent experiences they got at K-8 schools that had grown, over the decades, into sui generis environments with barely compatible learning structures.
It’s such a radical change, compelling further radical changes to make it work, that it’s hard to look at an enduring district problem – even one so crushing as the nearly 30 percent achievement gap between the district’s richer white and Asian kids and the poorer black (and to a lesser extent Latino) kids – and really feel the solution is to throw the bums out.
There is no verdict on the Innovation Agenda. Tuesday was the first (and overdue) accountability roundtable on the new district structure. Even if you think the Innovation Agenda was a gamble, this is a roulette wheel that’s still spinning.
An earnest crew
Meanwhile, Fantini (and Alice Turkel, who opted not to run again) has taken the hardest, most comprehensive look at perfecting Cambridge’s complicated school assignment system in more than a decade, and Patty Nolan continues her admirable and sometimes lonely crusade for rigorous, data-driven results on a range of issues. While neither Richard Harding nor Mervan Osborne answered a request to sum up their most significant achievements of the term, Harding has always been a refreshingly clarifying thinker, able to cut through the thickets of academic jargon with a well-chosen blunt question, and Osborne is thoughtful and caring – and just coming off his first term. While he needs to step up more (and get his questions out in about a third of the time he spends forming them), he hasn’t stumbled, either.
(Nolan has an analogue on the council in Craig Kelley. Both are irritants to their colleagues, but part of the irritation is that they’re usually right in the stands that they take, and they’re stubborn about standing up for them.)
While the council’s decisions seem far too often to be rushed, unexamined, cynical or personality-driven, the committee is an earnest crew whose slowness on decision-making more often than not results from a nearly maddening cautiousness and the wish to include more people in the conversation. This is not to say the committee is perfect or can’t also be maddening, but that’s as often as not the result of it moving too fast. It’s also disappointing to say that the wish to include more people in the conversation is one of those issues that has lingered as long as the achievement gap: The people that make their voices heard on policy are generally rich or middle-class, and white, which leaves votes robbed of the voices of those most vulnerable to change.
Five good challengers
Unless this election is treated as a referendum on the Innovation Agency – and it hasn’t been – it seems reasonable to hang onto the four committee incumbents.
Especially since, no matter what, the committee will have three new members next year: one to replace Turkel, one to replace Marc McGovern, who is running for City Council, and whoever becomes mayor next year.
There are five good challengers, and at two will get on the committee no matter what. Unfortunately, the needs of the schools community are so obvious that the candidates’ goals for the coming term are tediously similar. Everyone agrees on the need for early education and family engagement, for instance. The need to end the achievement gap and for a more diverse teaching staff is equally obvious, and calls for more involvement from the city’s major universities, accountability on scores and control over spending is by now rote. The incumbents calling for these things will arrive on the committee and understand it’s not so easy to bring them about; and that some of them are already under way. Voters can choose:
Fran Cronin for her knowledge of the arts, community partnerships and special needs.
John Holland for his focus on keeping an eye on school district accounting and management.
Joyce Gerber for her lawyer’s knowledge and role creating Cambridge Citywide School Advisory Group.
Elechi Kadete for his “new energy and spirit” (he’s a CRLS grad who got his Brandeis bachelor’s in business and minor in politics just last year).
Kathleen Kelly for her background as a social worker, pastor and community activist.
So who are the two most valuable to get on the committee? The final forum for committee candidates runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 30 at the main cafeteria at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, 459 Broadway.